The chefs and food at the Cayman Cookout always get top billing, but beverages, including beer, wine and spirits, are also an important part of the five-day festival’s offerings.
This year, as it does ever year, the Cookout attracted some big names in the wine world, and none is bigger than renowned Spanish winemaker Álvaro Palacios. On Jan. 18, he led a tasting called “Álvaro Palacios in Cayman.”
Although Palacios makes wines in three regions of Spain including Rioja and Bierzo, it was his wines in Priorat that garnered the most attention.
Master Sommelier Andy Myers of the ThinkFoodGroup introduced Palacios and talked about the impact the Spanish winemaker had on Priorat wines.
“Prior to the 1980s, no American wine drinkers had even heard of Priorat,” he said. “This is the man who went to Priorat and basically carved a wine region out of it — when he was 25 years old!”
Chef José Andrés, who attended the tasting, spoke about how outrageous the idea of growing wine grapes in Priorat was viewed when Palacios started his winery.
“Everyone thought this guy was crazy,” Andrés said. “They said, ‘You can’t grow grapes in this region.’” One of the reasons people didn’t think high quality wine grapes could be grown in Priorat, which is located a little southwest of Barcelona in Catalonia, was the hot summer climate.
“The vines are north facing, opposite of what is usual,” he said. “The sun is too strong facing the south.”
Palacios bought a northeast-facing vineyard that had been planted with Garnacha — known as Grenache in most other countries — prior to 1940 and, using winemaking techniques he learned in Bordeaux, started making a wine he calls L’Ermita. Now it’s one of the most iconic Spanish wines.
Even the young 2015 vintage sampled in the tasting inspired Palacios.
“This is something you can’t explain in a tasting,” he said after trying it himself. “It makes you feel magical, like a spring morning.”
Another trailblazing winemaker at this year’s Cayman Cookout was Justin Baldwin of JUSTIN Vineyards & Winery. Baldwin, a former investment banker, bought 160 acres of land in Paso Robles California, roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles and about 10 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean.
“When I bought the land, there were only eight wineries in Paso Robles,” he said during a tasting of his wines on Jan. 19.
Baldwin said that when he started the winery and vineyards, the dominant grape plantings in Paso Robles were Zinfandel. However, Baldwin was interesting in creating Bordeaux-style blends using grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, so that’s what he planted.
His gamble turned out well. In 2013, “Wine Enthusiast Magazine” named Paso Robles the “Wine Region of the Year” and two years later, named JUSTIN the “Winery of the Year.”
There are more than 200 wineries in the Pasa Robles region now and the most planted grape variety by far is Cabernet Sauvignon.
JUSTIN carved out a major place in the mid-range Cabernet Sauvignon market in the United States, as well as reaping accolades for its higher-end blend called “Isosceles,” which was sampled at the tasting, along with the rarer “Reserve Isosceles.”
Part of the reason for JUSTIN’s success is the approachability of its wines, and the fact that they’re food friendly.
“All of our wines are made to pair with food,” Baldwin said. “When you think about JUSTIN wines, we want you to think about food and wine.”
To that end, the winery’s restaurant was recently named the “Best Winery Restaurant in California.”
“We’re very serious about the restaurant,” Baldwin said, noting that the restaurant doesn’t serve that many guests because the winery is remotely located about 15 miles from town. “We don’t make any money doing it, but we’re serious about it.”