Tasting The Wine At Acqua Al 2
By David Rottenberg
Have you ever participated at a wine-tasting dinner? If you haven’t, you might consider it. A wine-tasting dinner takes dining to a higher dimension. The focus is on experiencing flavors rather than just eating. One enjoys the scope of wine and its interaction with dishes prepared by the chef, which are often created specifically for the event and not found on the regular menu. Good wine pairings to the food bring out subtleties of taste in each food item and wine individually and in their combination.
One could consider a wine tasting dinner an educational experience as much as a dining event. The program is often created by a wine expert or sommelier who can guide lesser experienced diners through the layers of analyzing the wine before savoring it with the dish to which it is paired.
For some, “knowing” wine is limited to recognizing a label or settling on a price point. But there is a whole universe of complexity to wine — so much so that there are only 179 holders worldwide of the Master Sommelier Diploma at this time. The degree is awarded only after years of study and rigorous exams.
Some wine tasting dinners are lateral. That is, the wines that are served are of the same varietal — say, merlot — but may be from different vintages or vineyards. Judgments and comparisons are made between the wines along these variables. Often, wine “flights” are served along lateral lines. Other dinners are vertical. That is, different wines are served with different food items. Each wine is then judged on its own merits and on its pairing, rather than judging between wines.
Evaluating a wine is often done along five dimensions, the 5 S’s — see (the color), swirl (the wine in the glass for body), sniff (the bouquet of the wine), sip (taste the wine), savor (enjoy the wine and the finish). The chef, sommelier, or wine expert often leads guests through the process, to help each diner get as much out of the experience as he can.
Acqua Al 2, a very popular Italian restaurant in the Gaslamp, near to the Convention Center, holds monthly wine tasting dinners, as do a number of other top downtown eateries. Its owner, Martin Gonzales was an inveterate international traveler who stopped to learn to speak Italian by enrolling in a cooking school in Tuscany. The school, Instituto Culinario in Florence, has a famous chef as professor — Stefano Innocenti, whose restaurant, Acqua Al, was an award winning favorite destination for international celebrities. Gonzales was named “Best Student” at the school and won the opportunity to work with Innocenti. He convinced Innocenti that he should be given the chance to open a similar restaurant in San Diego, in the heart of the Gaslamp. Hence, Acqua Al 2 (“du’e” in Italian, meaning the “second” Acqua Al”).
Since opening, Acqua Al 2 has become a favorite of local celebrities, newscasters, and even many Padre players. On occasion, private dinners are hosted by team members to raise funds for their favorite charities.
The ambiance of the restaurant is one of relaxation and comfort. The interior dining area (there is a bar along one side of the restaurant) is partitioned to create large, private spaces. Live guitar music frequently entertains. Two adjacent outdoor patios allow some guests to experience gorgeous evenings while dining.
Diners can leave their mark on the restaurant in a unique way. They have the opportunity to paint a blank white dish with their own design and messages and to mount the dish on the restaurant’s walls. Many celebrities have already done so.
Acqua Al 2 presents wine tasting dinners every month, as do many of the top restaurants in the Gaslamp. The July wine tasting dinner showcased “warm weather reds” from Northern Italy. The wine expert was my old friend Bruno Cumar, who has represented wineries for more than 15 years. He even once led a tour group through much of Italy, stopping at small wineries to explore the delights of local cuisines and grapes.
Many people are interested in drinking “reds” today because they are reputed to offer healthful anti-oxidant properties such as resveratrol.
The weather in Northern Italy is cold and harsh, leading to heavier, heartier reds, with more bouquet and body. Chef Gonzales menu included a seafood soup, chicken breast with contina cheese, and New York steak with arugula. They were all delicious. Bruno Cumar paired amazing wines from the Piemonte, Veneto and Alto Adige areas of Italy. Each wine had a unique color, weight and bouquet that made it a perfect match to the accompanying dish. Cumar pointed out their wonderful qualities.
The pleasures of a wine tasting go beyond the food. They also involve meeting new people and engaging in conversation about the characteristics of each serving.
Chef Gonzales now wants to expand the wine tasting concept to a new restaurant, Toast Enoteca e Cucina which will open on J Street and 9th downtown. The “wine library” will offer 65 wines by the glass dispensed by enotetic machines that keep the wine fresh. This is perfect for sampling a wide range of wines economically while enjoying the excellent cuisine. Over 400 wines will be available by the bottle.
Chef Gonzales is taking the concept of wine tasting to a new heights as just one other way of helping his guests derive greater pleasure from the dishes he creates.
Acqua Al 2 is located 322 Fifth Ave. in the Gaslamp. Call (619) 230-0382 for reservations and information. z
David Rottenberg is the editor of Dining San Diego Magazine, a guide to many of the city’s favorite restaurants. He is a member of the Southern California Restaurant Writers Association and vice president of the North American Travel Journalists Association. © 2009 David Rottenberg All Rights Reserved.