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Photograph by Denise Addesso
SCENE OF THE VINE: Hunter Hill Vineyard and Winery's spectacular setting makes its wine dinners that much more appealing.

Bucolic Bounty

Generous pours at Hunter Hill's wine dinners

By Christina Waters

VINES swollen with grapes rose like emerald waves on the slopes above the winery. The lawns and patio were set with chairs, the barbecue was at full blaze and guests had begun mingling by the time we arrived for last month's wine dinner at Hunter Hill. Chef Michael Clark had brought his Michael's on Main team to help serve the 50 or so wine club members, all of them mixing and schmoozing like lifelong friends, to help celebrate midsummer and a suite of wines made by Vann Slatter. With wife Christine as hostess, Vann made the rounds—"We're all about casual here"—and explained the status of ripening syrah and pinot grapes while making sure that glasses never went empty.

Coaxed along by tiny goblets of gazpacho and fat prawns hot from the grill and wrapped in bacon, we sipped a deeply hued rosé of syrah, a delicious Wild West variation on the Rhône's great grape. Leslie and I took our glasses up the green lawn that stretched from linened tables all the way to the first vines, settled into a pair of adirondacks and soaked up the serenity of the site. Given the Mediterranean landscape, we might as well have been in some Tuscan villa watching the sun set on a Renaissance citadel in the distance. Light jazz by the Mark Harvey duo wafted up the hill. The intriguing rosé, made from the winery's celebrated and award-winning syrah grapes, won us immediately and set the tone—distinctive yet casual—for the rest of our meal.

Watermelon and heirloom tomato salad strewn with basil arrived with a citrusy 2009 sauvignon blanc, the brightly colored appetizer making a cool and vibrant start to the dinner. Next came thumbnail buckwheat blini with a variety of faux caviars and a bottle of 2008 cabernet franc. The main course—rare rack of lamb—arrived with a pour of 2008 pinot noir. The pinot's black cherry center formed an instant bond with the rich lamb. Soft white orzo and al dente haricots verts generously filled out our plates, and as promised by winemaker Slatter, the pouring continued utterly without pretension. Refreshingly relaxed, this was not one of those multicourse marathons that unfold over many hours, punctuated by formal discussions about each wine, lengthy waits and then finally the next tiny plate. At Hunter Hill's wine dinner events, the portions are welcoming and the wine bottles placed—and then left—on the tables, so that we could dip back into a sip or two more of a wine that particularly captured our palates.

On ancestral orchard property, the Slatter's vineyards are planted to merlot, pinot noir and syrah, with a new acre of zinfandel recently added. The land was once owned by Christine's grandparents, who grew apples, stone fruit and grapes high above what would become the Forest of Nisene Marks. The current winery's first grapes were planted in 1992, producing a merlot so drinkable that more grapes soon filled the 6-acre spread. The graceful tasting room, housed within a graceful white barn topped with cupolas, still overlooks the stately redwood forest.

Michael Clark's final course of the evening, an opulent German chocolate cake, was served with a shamelessly rich 2008 vintage port. The perfect finish in every sense.

DINNER IN THE VINEYARD AT HUNTER HILL happens Sunday, Aug. 22 (mixed grill) and Sunday, Sept. 19 (wild game) at Hunter Hill Vineyard and Winery, 7099 Glen Haven Road, Soquel. $85. For reservations call 831.465.9294.

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