Max Manrique, Christina & Eric Dudley

When you sit at the bar at Dudley’s Wine & Gifts in Murrieta, you often feel as if you’re on the set of Cheers. If you don’t meet the people around you, don’t worry. Eric Dudley will make certain no one leaves as strangers. It’s part of what he hoped to create when he opened the doors to Dudley’s two years ago August. He didn’t want it to be stuffy. Or intimidating. He wanted those who knew nothing about wine to feel just as much at home there as the true wine connoisseur.

When I was invited to join seven other writers for an evening of food and wine at the Dudleys’ home, I jumped at the opportunity. I had met Chef Max Manrique several times at Dudley’s and had heard stories about his prowess in the kitchen that induced spontaneous drooling on my part.

Eric and Christina welcomed us into their home with a glass of Windstream Chardonnay from San Antonio Winery. This Monterey Chardonnay was aged in 100% new French oak and was the perfect beginning to a great evening. Chef Max started us off with a pair of canapés: creamy artichoke with sun-dried tomatoes and shrimp with caviar in a chipotle chile mango  dressing. We devoured them while we moved on  to the first paired wine of the night. Eric chose the Nicholas Feuillatte Brut Réserve Champagne, a yeasty treat that accompanied Max’s canapés to perfection.

If you haven’t met Eric yet, one thing you’ll learn in a hurry is he loves to tell stories. He told us the history of the Champagne and its founder and shared stories of Napoleon. He’s an avid reader who is fascinated with wine history and loves sharing what he has learned.

We shared stories and asked questions before we adjourned to the dining room. Christina had set the table impeccably, using her grandmother’s antique gold edged dinnerware and five wine glasses each. I could tell Eric had as much fun selecting the wines to go with each of Max’s dishes as Max had choosing the menu. First up was a Salade de Betteraves – mixed greens with roasted beets, Comte cheese and walnuts in a walnut oil vinaigrette. Eric chose a 2008 Roc de Châteauvieux Vouvray. This relatively inexpensive primarily Chenin Blanc based wine again was spot on with the salad.

On to the main course, where the food and wine continued with a French flair. Chef Max’s entrée was Chateaubriand with Béarnaise sauce, garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed carrots. The wine Eric selected and carefully decanted was a 2006 Chateau Franc La Rose St.-Émilion Grand Cru. The meat was tender and flavorful, the Béarnaise sauce exceptional and the mashed potatoes nearly orgasmic. The wine hit all the right notes.

The boys weren’t finished with us yet. Max presented a vanilla crême brûlée with strawberry. Eric had been telling us about the Botrytis Semillon all evening and he had saved it for dessert. From Australia, not France, the Semillon came from the Hunter Valley’s Margan Family Winegrowers. Infected with “the noble rot”,  the wine was not cloying. It paired exceptionally well with Max’s dreamy crême brûlée.

Eric and I grabbed a cigar and sat on the patio while we wrapped up the evening with a single Quinta Port: Quinta Do Infantado from Portugal. The $21 bottle was just the right selection and the ideal way to wrap up a wonderful evening. I urge you to visit Dudley’s and get to know Eric. He’s a fascinating man who loves to make new friends and share his passion for wine. If you stop by on the weekend, chances are very good you’ll meet Max, too. I’ve included his Chateaubriand recipe here.

Dudley’s Wine & Gifts, 40675 Murrieta Hot Springs Road, Murrieta, CA (951) 461-2225.