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Connections – Sometimes they are just meant to be!

Knowing my love of olive oils and wines, and all things that revolve around food, a friend connected me with Mark Russo of Mendelbaum Cellars and Oliva Imports LLC. My friend is a people-connecter.
You know the type… she knows everyone, knows what they do, and has an instinct about putting the right people together. It is her gift, and once again this connection was spot-on. Mark and his vivacious wife Chris are importing olive oils and wines from Israel; they also own a wine bar in Fredricksburg. Well who wouldn’t want to meet them? Mark and I conversed a bit by email, shared our respective passions for olive oils, wines and foods, and quickly decided to meet for a tasting of their imports.

In preparation for Mark and Chris’ visit I thought about some appetizer bites that would connect with their high quality olive oils and wines. In the end I decided to prepare savory olive oil cake bites served with roasted red pepper and basil yogurt dip, Meyer lemon marinated grilled zucchini served beside Prosciutto di Parma, and a creamy buttery burrata topped with fresh ground pepper, sea salt and basil. These were all simple clean appetizers that I knew would show off a superior olive oil.

We started the tasting with the wines – always a great start. The first was a 2012 Cabernet Franc named Jacob’s Dream from vineyards in the Judean Hills. Mark described this wine as being elegant and full bodied with a fruity finish. I would agree and add that I also found it to be smooth, mellow and delicious.

Next came the olive oils from the Holy Land. Mark carefully poured four varieties into separate dishes, explaining each variety’s distinctive characteristics as we broke off pieces of French bread and drenched them in the oils. Mark explained the process that went into producing olive oils of this quality and how he and Chris discovered both the oils and the Holy Land wines. It was a wonderful story of honoring the land, the age-old traditions of olive oil production, and connecting that ancient process with innovative technologies. But I found myself losing focus; I was so inspired by the tastes and smells that my mind was spinning with all of the possibilities for potential olive oil and food pairings.

By this time the wine was flowing, as was the delightful conversation. And so we began to “play” with our food. A drizzle of the high quality single varietal Coratina on the savory olive oil cakes gave them a punch of spice without overpowering their delicate flavor, and when we drizzled this same oil over the red pepper yogurt sauce it seemed to deepen its flavor. Some of the fruitiness and pepper flavoring of the Koronieki – Arbequina – Coratina blend contrasted nicely with the salty fatty flavoring of the prosciutto. The buttery, slightly herbal scent of the Koronieki – Arbequina complimented the creamy buttery taste of the burrata cheese. We finished off the appetizers that had been highlighted by the Oliva oils and not surprisingly finished off Jacob’s Dream too.

Next up for the wines was the 2012 Abraham, a complex wine made from 60% Syrah, 25% Cabernet Franc, and 15% Merlot grapes. This wine was aged 18 months in French oak barrels. Mark described it as full bodied with a delightful dominant finish. I was entranced with the deep eggplant color, with the rich bouquet, and with what I felt was a spicy almost herbal finish.

The connections between the wines and the olive oils were fascinating. There were so many parallels in their production, yet each had its own unique flavor profile. Both the wines and the oils were enhanced when left open to breathe. Both were wonderful individually, but when the wines and oils and appetizers were all thoughtfully connected, they all became their best selves.

So I guess that’s how it goes with connections. We are all pretty great on our own but when we are thoughtfully connected with others we are all bettered. I had a delightful evening with Mark and Chris. One that I hope we can repeat. Did I mention that we discovered that Mark’s family and mine both originated from a tiny town in Maine?

That’s the kind of connection that is only discovered when the good wine is flowing, the olive oil is drizzling and when the food is being elevated by both.

-Bobbie Ames

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