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Modern Caveman

Nick Fisher’s new wine venture offers oenophiles a taste of something new in a decidedly rustic setting.

By Laura Hout

A perfect balance of rustic and modern, The Cave at Ventura Wine Co. Photos by Eric Fisher.

“People always ask me, ‘What wine goes with this dish?’” says Nick Fisher, proprietor of The Cave, Ventura County’s most unique wine-tasting venue. It’s a question that defies a simple answer, but Fisher responded in a big way: he installed a commercial kitchen in his tasting room, located inside the Ventura Wine Co., and invited people to decide for themselves.

A culmination of 25 years in the wine business, Fisher’s newest venture is patterned after the wine caves found at places like Eberle Winery in Paso Robles. Cool and inviting on a hot summer day, the tasting room’s grotto-like walls are carved out of Gunite (the same material used for in-ground swimming pools). Sleek black tables, cozy alcove lighting, and a pair of stainless steel Enomatic wine dispensing machines create an intimate yet high-tech ambience. And all of this is nestled, quite surprisingly, in an industrial area off Telephone Road in Ventura.

The Enomatic machines are state-of-the-art automated wine-service systems that dispense one-, three-, and five-ounce pours at the push of a button. By using a special, chip-embedded card (purchased in the wine store), customers can self-serve their way through an array of wines. The smaller Enomatic machine stores eight chilled white wines; the larger machine stores 16 reds. A digital readout above each wine tells you the cost of the different-sized pours. Descriptions of the wines are posted above each selection and usually list a price per bottle. My first experience at The Cave was a bit like the sushi-bar craze of the eighties—many of the customers were first-time visitors, and conversations sparked casually as we learned to use the machines.

Fisher says he has many regular customers who opt for the larger five-ounce pours, order several small dishes from the kitchen, and settle in for a leisurely nosh. On a recent Saturday evening, a civilized Baby-Boomer crowd filled the room, drinking and chatting, enjoying food and wine in a one-of-a-kind environment. Fisher shuns the loud, bashy Sideways-type groups that have invaded wine tasting rooms of late, choosing instead to focus on a more elegant European model: serving food and wine together, both in moderation.

Italian-made Enomatic wine dispensers at The Cave maintain the taste, aroma, color, and body of wines, and rechargeable chip card technology allows customers to self-serve measured portions for tasting and drinking.

And that is a big part of the fun. You don’t have to order huge, expensive meals to try out new food-and-wine combinations. Fisher’s goal is to help people explore their own tastes when it comes to food and wine. Menu items change weekly, and include dishes such as Duck Confit Eggrolls ($7); Gnocci with Pancetta, Tomatoes, and Kalamata Olives ($7); Pan-Fried Seared Scallops ($8); and mini-pizzas such as Margarita, Portobello Mushroom, and Shrimp and Blue Cheese. I’m happily reminded of Venetian wine bars, where guests sample various cicchetti—local appetizers like crostini, calamari, and antipasto—along with chilled Prosecco. Indeed, the Brochette Crostini with Goat Cheese served at The Cave is every bit as good as any I’ve had in Italy. Yes, Venice is another world. But Fisher has created a genuinely rarified ambience amidst a business park right here in Ventura.

The Cave’s ever-changing menu of small plates and affordable entrees is designed for wine pairing.

Based on my own samplings from The Cave’s gleaming kitchen, the outstanding quality of the food warrants many return visits. Chef Gary Daniel, a graduate of the New York Restaurant School in Manhattan, is a San Fernando Valley native—by way of high-end restaurant stints in New York, North Carolina, and Colorado. Daniel whips up an amazing array of dishes in his open-walled kitchen where patrons are free to chat with the kitchen staff and pick up pointers on wine-and-food pairings.

Fisher freely admits that many food-wine combinations can be a matter of personal taste. Still, there are time-honored food-and-wine pairings that consistently delight. And while conventional wisdom indicates white wine with fish, red wine with beef, The Cave’s menu offers such a variety of items that even the most seasoned gourmand can find new adventure. What, for instance, pairs best with the tantalizing shrimp bisque that was delivered steaming to my table? A crisp Viognier? A soft, smooth Pinot? At The Cave there are no wrong answers—some are simply better than others. My choice for the bisque is a Beckman 2006 Cuvee Le Bec, $1.61 for a one-ounce taste.

“Succulent,” I declare, a private in-joke my husband and I share when the food and wine are so good we simply have to gush. My husband usually rolls his eyes; Chef Gary is pleased. He brings me dessert, a field strawberry smothered in a rich, chocolatey-ganache-and-port sauce. By now I have the hang of the Enomatic machine, so of course I have to try a big, fat Napa Valley red, the Fisher “Unity” 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, $3.25 for a one-ounce taste. I won’t say succulent again, but you get the idea.

07-01-08

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