How often has it happened? In the moments before you are ushered to your seat in a restaurant, you spot a table covered with luscious desserts: a bowl of snowy-white ovals of meringue, a torte garnished with sliced strawberries, a chocolate cake with dark, bittersweet "fencing" around a swirling crown of white and dark chocolate curls. You decide to save room for dessert . . . definitely.
But dinner provides an assortment of appetizers, a number of courses and a substantial main dish, so by the time the dessert cart is rolled to the table, you look, admire . . . and pass.
Sound familiar? According to a recent survey by the National Restaurant Assn., 57% of the diners polled ordered dessert rarely or never. Of that group, 51% did not order because they were too full.
In 1977, Andrew Quady began his winery in Madera, producing only dessert wine and specializing in California port made mainly from Zinfandel grapes grown in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County. Because of their singular excellence, each of his vintage ports became a conversation piece among wine lovers. Most of these medal-winning wines featured labels with color reproductions of famous paintings; the Quady 1977 Amador County California Vintage Port, bottled in 1979, was distinguished by Edouard Manet's 1868 painting, "Luncheon in the Studio."
Quady still produces outstanding vintage port wines, but he has become even more famous for a dessert wine, to which he gave the proprietary title "Essensia." It is produced from a rare variety of muscat known in France as Fleur d'Oranger and in Italy as Moscato Fior d'Orancio because the aroma is said to be reminiscent of orange blossoms. The grape was never popular in California because of its low yield.
Quady was inspired to make his dessert wine because of that orangish delicacy of aroma. He gave the wine the same traditional fermentation as his ports, arresting the fermentation with brandy, toting up the alcohol percentage to a light 15% by volume and giving it a lyrical sweetness of 15% residual sugar. He made only 374 cases at first, in 1980; by popular demand, he produced 6,000 cases in the 1985 vintage. Restaurants in Manhattan feature Essensia Royale (Essensia with champagne), and at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Laguna Niguel it is offered as an alternative to dessert.
All of which leads us to a charming observation made by Quady upon reading the discouraging dessert statistics already quoted. "In an earlier period, more time was spent at table," he said. "During the Victorian era, the dessert-wine course was an addition, following the regular dessert. Now, because of smaller appetites, we are eliminating the dessert as well. But dining is much more than simply eating. Sometimes it is entertainment. It is a time for conversation, a time to share with family, friend or lover. When dessert is skipped, something else may be lost--a space of time."
Essensia to the rescue. Served in small glasses, it is to be sipped slowly, the fragrance silently appreciated, never consumed in unthinking drafts. Even the label, by Los Angeles artist Ardison Phillips, is intriguing. The price is modest--$6 for 10ths, $11 for a fifth.
Quady now has a ruby-red companion wine to Essensia that he calls Elysium, for its presumed "heavenly" attributes. It is produced from California black muscat grapes, notable for subtle rose aromas and berry and rose-petal tastes. The variety enjoyed considerable notoriety in the 17th and 18th centuries when it was used to make the rare South African wine called Constantia. Not overly sweet, the crimson nectar is refreshingly tart; it should be served--slightly chilled--either before or after dinner.
Nearly all of our many wine competitions honor late-harvest wines that have dessert-wine richness of residual sweetness. Several years back, the Smothers Brothers' initial entry into one of these competitive arenas, the Los Angeles County Fair, won the coveted sweepstakes award for a late-harvest Gewurztraminer. The category continues to garner attention, even though sales of such wines are seldom notable. Freemark Abbey, Chateau St. Jean, Jekel Vineyards, Firestone, Joseph Phelps, Charles Lefranc, Robert Mondavi, Beringer, and Wente Brothers have all made distinguished examples of sugar-rich, late-harvest Riesling wines.