When chef Peter Pastan helps California winemaker Sashi Moorman at harvest, he lugs fruit, hauls barrels and—best of all—cooks an exceptional meal with just-picked grapes and Moorman’s wines.
At most wineries, dinner during harvest is a burrito inhaled on the crush pad while waiting for the next load of grapes. But for Sashi Moorman, co-winemaker and co-owner of Santa Barbara County’s Piedrasassi winery, harvest dinner is more likely to be a luxurious meal of flatiron steak braised in Syrah for almost three hours. Moorman’s secret: One of his investors is Peter Pastan, chef and owner of Washington, DC’s stellar Obelisk restaurant. Every fall, Pastan helps Moorman with the crush—punching down fermenting grapes, hauling barrels, you name it—and acting as unofficial winery chef.
It all started with bread, Moorman explains at a recent harvest dinner. “A few years ago, we were crushing, and Peter tasted one of the berries. Then he just reached down into the bin and hauled out a whole scoop. ‘I’ll be back,’ he said, and an hour-and-a-half later he was, with this amazing warm bread with grapes in it, drizzled with honey.”
Now, every afternoon during harvest, Pastan disappears to hunt for ingredients, making up the evening’s menu as he goes. The winery itself is an important ingredient source, since Pastan uses grapes or wine in most of his recipes (he even raises his bread dough with winemaking yeasts). And every night, a grab bag of Moorman’s friends and co-workers sit down to what’s probably the best harvest supper within 300 miles.
Windswept and drab, the agricultural town of Lompoc (LOM-poke) is definitely not Napa Valley. Roadside scenery here includes an Air Force base and a federal penitentiary. But Santa Barbara County’s Santa Rita Hills AVA—one of California’s top regions for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah—is only 10 miles away, and inside the Lompoc “wine ghetto,” a small warehouse complex on a street with the evocative name of Industrial Way, are some of the best boutique wineries on the Central Coast—including Moorman’s.
In addition to Piedrasassi, which he co-owns with Peter Hunken, Moorman is winemaker for Stolpman Vineyards, a top Syrah producer, and a partner in Holus Bolus, with Hunken and two other friends. He is also the California winemaker for Evening Land Vineyards, a producer that made news when it purchased the famous Occidental Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast, leased Oregon’s equally famous Seven Springs Vineyard and sank a chunk of money into a new Santa Rita Hills vineyard (a project Moorman is overseeing).
Moorman’s wines are both powerful and graceful, a difficult trick to pull off, and despite his precocious success, there isn’t the slightest shadow of arrogance about him. Instead, his conversation is marked by a lively intellectual curiosity. If compelled to, Moorman can certainly talk at length about the number of different anthocyanins in Pinot Noir, but he’s far less a chemistry geek than many other California winemakers. Perhaps this is the result of having a liberal arts degree from Vassar rather than one in enology from UC Davis.
Moorman was still in college when he met Pastan, who hired him to work summers at Obelisk, prepping in the morning and working the line at night. He helped prepare the chef’s sophisticated Italian prix-fixe menus, taking on stimulating tasks like cleaning squid for hours. Later, when Moorman moved to California to be assistant winemaker at the Ojai Vineyard, he kept the Obelisk connection.
“In the beginning at Ojai, there wasn’t enough work for the whole year,” he recalls, “so I’d split my time between making wine and cooking at Obelisk. It was wonderful—I was learning so much about the wine business, and so much about what Peter thinks is great food.”
Obelisk, launched in 1987, was one of DC’s first fine-dining restaurants with a casual atmosphere; white-tablecloth food without the white tablecloth. That approach, now ubiquitous, was prescient at the time, as was Pastan’s love of local ingredients, house-made charcuterie and market-driven menus. Rather than commercial calculation, these choices were driven by Pastan’s passions—or obsessions, as he describes them at the dinner: “I have one or two obsessions…anchovies, vin santo…”
“Salt cod,” adds Melissa Sorongon, Moorman’s wife.
“Thank you. Salt cod. That’s the third,” Pastan agrees.
During dinner, conversation bounces between Pastan’s food (unanimous praise) and the wines Moorman’s guests have brought (much more debate). The guests include Hunken, Chad Melville of Melville Winery and his wife, Mary, and Jim Knight, who, along with Melville, is another partner in Holus Bolus. Knight has contributed a rare 1993 Chave Hermitage Blanc, thrillingly complex and unctuous. Moorman’s lush, nectarine-scented 2006 Stolpman L’Avion is separated from the Chave by thousands of miles and 14 years, but the Roussanne grapes in both give them a family resemblance.
Pastan has braised a whole beef flatiron in Moorman’s spicy 2005 Piedrasassi Syrah until the meat nearly falls apart. With it arrives just-baked bread, crunchy and nutty from the grape seeds in the dough; lush shell bean soup; and baby artichokes stuffed with garlic and anchovies, a riff on an Italian classic that wouldn’t be out of place on Obelisk’s menu.
There’s also cheese. “One’s a Sardinian truffley thing,” Pastan explains with his usual offhand diffidence. “And this is côgnà. It’s a Piedmontese condiment. You take quince and apples and pears—”
“—and lions and tigers and bears—” someone chants.
Finally, Pastan brings out a luscious fig tart and bowls of tangy wine ice cream. Moorman opens a sample of the vin santo he’s making for the chef. It’s deeply sweet and juicy with berry flavors now, but that will change as it ages. That’s always the investment with wine: You hide it away in a barrel and trust something good will happen. In a way, the process is not unlike Pastan’s initial investment in the winery in 2003.
“Hunken and I wanted to make wine, but we needed help,” Moorman says. “So we did what you do, which is send out letters to everyone you know. The people we were sure would invest didn’t. But Peter did.”
The response Moorman got from Pastan wasn’t just a letter, it was an old menu from Obelisk, folded and stained with coffee and what might have been olive oil. On the back was a note: “If I were investing in a restaurant, I would expect this money never to come back to me. I’m hoping the wine business is different.” There was also a check.
“When Peter invested,” Moorman says, “I thought, maybe he’ll contribute a little.” He takes a thoughtful sip of wine. “It was a really big check.”