Chef Sean Baker took on the robust wines of Ridge Vineyards last night and came up with a flawless walk through contemporary, field-fresh, hand-made cuisine. Six courses – including one surprise – and at least as many matching vintages from what many consider the apex of American winemaking.

Gabriella was packed with adventurous wine-lovers enjoying such flavor thrills as:

1) Devils Gulch rabbit confit plumed with fried dulse and surrounded by an outrageous “chutney” of pecan wood-smoked tomato pancetta vinaigrette. Unbelievable.

2) Next came a creation of Yukon gold gnocchi with unctuous beef cheek guazzetto (like a ragu of beef, tomato, wine, and porcinis) loaded with attitude and pecorino romano.

3) A rack of lamb, grilled with borage honey and rosemary, arrived with a velvety pool of sunchoke cippolini parmesan sauce and a not-for-wimps lamb’s tongue hash with rapini garlic oil. Joined by the stupendous 2004 Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernet, it took my palate to a whole new place.

4) The evening’s first salvo involved a pretty creation of kampachi crudo (a buttery Hawaiian sushi-grade fish, rich in omegas), sitting on a celery root risotto cake dusted with quince salt and topped with shaved matsutake mushroom. Here was a full vocabulary of flavor contrasts in two bites, which brilliantly showed off the exotic mineral properties of a rare 2004 Monte Bello Chardonnay. This wine, from a house famed for reds, practically stole the whole show right off the bat.
(The chardonnay had been aged entirely in American oak from a forest in Kentucky — that’s what I think produced its elegant sass.)

5) The surprise course was a crostini with rabbit liver paté and shaved white truffles, paired with a 1992 MonteBello brimming with pink peppercorns.

Ridge’s Montebello director of winemaking, Eric Baugher, provided brisk and informative notes on the growing and finessing of each wine, from pruning techniques, to ripening, to cellaring. A fascinating artform, this mercurial enterprise of winemaking. I keep coming back to the rabbit dish, wildly satisfying with its companion braised gigante beans, curly Bellesque endive and the crunchy, salty dulse. Paired with an elegant, complex 2005 Geyserville Zin — for my money one of Ridge’s most haunting wines — this course showed off everything Baker can do. From conceptual brio to confident execution.

Only an overly sweet, if beautiful, dessert creation of chocolate hazelnut tart with zinfandel syrup and mascarpone cream, fell a bit behind the curve. Probably more due to palate fatigue by that point – four hours, five courses and seven wines later — than anything else.

My table partner, wine broker and raconteur Bob Marsh made the evening as witty as enlightening. Kudos to Gabriella proprietor Paul Cocking — who has put his money where his vision is. Baker’s star is rising fast.