“You should really drink that,” Peter Prager told me last week, standing in his tasting room. The intimate space tucked just around the corner behind the Sutter Home tasting room in Napa is one Sonja and I discovered many years ago. The walls are covered from top to bottom, as is the ceiling, in mostly paper currency, signed by visitors and then stapled up for posterity. Peter calls it “beer money”.
Sonja and I first visited Prager after the person behind the counter at Sutter Home had suggested it, during our second visit to Napa back in 2014. Last week, I went back, and started chatting nostalgically with Peter. I told him that I had a bottle of his white port, named “Aria”, from 2009 or 2010, I couldn’t recall. It was signed by he and both of his brothers, the trio making up the tasting room and winery staff nearly in its entirety. “Not all ports are made to age,” Peter told me. “You should really drink that.”
That was only the first of many, many things I learned about port wines — fortified wines, that afternoon. I suggested to Peter that he come to Nebraska to do a tasting, a dessert tasting I called it, and he in turn suggested that it be a port wine dinner. “Port pairs far more diversely than people often think,” he informed me. “We could do an entire dinner just with port wines.” Peter’s brother Jeff soon joined us, and together they regaled me with thoughts about diverse pairings for various styles of port wine, ranging from smoked meats to soups and all sorts of other options. As I listened, it began to make sense to me in theory. The elegance and complexity of their wines is something that the cheap “over the counter” ports I find are often lacking, and their alcohol content is only slightly higher, 3-5%, than most of the wines we drink and pair with food most nights. Why wouldn’t they pair with something other than mere sweets?
Hearing Peter’s proverbial clock ticking down on my 2009 Aria in the background, Sonja and I decided to open it for dinner a few nights ago, and she set about making a lobster bisque for the first time. All day long, she ran back and forth to the store, constantly checking her phone, dicing up vegetables, and purchasing a new “veggie chop-o-matic” before at last placing on the table one of the very best lobster bisques I have ever had.
Sonja’s bisque was excellent, and we agreed that the white port wine paired brilliantly with it, complimenting the richness of the thick soup with a balanced sweetness that was far better than whatever white wine I previously would have attempted to partner with a bisque. I was truly impressed, and the transition from theory to practice made me want to do a lot more with port wines with our dinners in the future — ideally with port wines made by the talented Prager brothers, whose historic Napa winery founded by their parents in 1979, is making some of the best fortified wines I’ve ever had. You can learn more, and order wine, on their web page, pragerport.com.
I tasted some of the Aria with my steak, but what my red beef really seemed to want was a nice tawny. Fortunately, the Pragers make one. Unfortunately, I didn’t have one, so I settled for my usual Cabernet, which of course wasn’t bad either. Afterwards, we put the Aria back to work, adding it to the cheesecake our guests had brought over. Again, it shined, the sweetness of the fortified white wine equal to the job of being juxtaposed against the sugars of the dessert. The same wine paired brilliantly with the soup course and the cheesecake; I never would have guessed it, but I’m sure glad to have learned.
I remember how rebellious I felt the first time I paired Pinot Noir with salmon years ago, a common pairing for most wine drinkers, but one that nevertheless threw me the first time, my tiny brain struggling to think that fish could pair with red wine. In a nutshell that’s what I love so much about wine: there is always more to learn. Show me someone who says they know a lot about wine, and I’ll show you how utterly meaningless a term like “a lot” really is. There is more to know about wine than a single human mind can comprehend and that, to me, makes it extremely exciting. I’m grateful to the Prager Brothers for teaching me about the diverse uses of port wine, and for making a diverse lineup of wines for me to experiment with and enjoy. Next up: a nice Nebraskan filet with that Prager tawny I was telling you about!
Cheers to diversity, and to learning new things,