Reveling in a day of wine and chocolate with Jewish chefs

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Contrary to popular belief, you can eat chocolate and drink wine before 11 a.m. On Jan. 24, I was surrounded by approximately 50 like-minded people who took part in the first of a four-part culinary series at Temple Israel in Alameda.

Now in its third year, the Jewish Chef Series introduces local Jewish restaurateurs, chefs, winemakers, chocolate aficionados and cookbook authors to participants.

And the best part is, the speakers will almost always lead you in a tasting. And stir up jealousy for how they make a living.

Take Sabrina Aller, for example. The Los Angeles native stumbled upon a full-time job with Godiva Chocolatier before she moved to the Bay Area.  

As a sales associate with Godiva, Aller was required to sample truffles, nuts, caramels, and white, milk and dark chocolate treats so she could converse with customers about them, in addition to other tasks. She also dipped strawberries in chocolate — her favorite part.

She’s currently the general manager of Bridge Brands Chocolates’ San Francisco boutique, formerly the San Francisco Chocolate Factory.   

Then there’s Leonard Pitt, who founded the Berkeley Chocolate Club five years ago and claims he and the club’s 17 members are the only ones in the United States voicing their likes and dislikes about chocolate bars. (Who knew it was possible not to like all chocolate?)

While Pitt doesn’t make any money from the club (which boasts 100 people on its waiting list), he subsidizes his passion for chocolate by running the Flying Actor Studio, a conservatory in San Francisco for up-and-coming performers in circus arts, movement and improvisation.

Finally, there’s Michael Dashe, who operates Dashe Cellars with his wife, Anne. Their artisan winery — with a tasting room in Oakland — focuses on crafting small allotments of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petite Syrah wines from grapes harvested in the Dry Creek and Anderson valleys.

I became a member of one, big, impromptu chocolate club as Pitt directed us on how to taste two distinct chunks. He advised us to smell each one, specifically placing the piece under each nostril, as scents tend to permeate differently on either side.

Next, I rubbed the chocolate to release its aromas. And when the taunting wafts became too hard to resist, I took a bite. The first piece — from French chocolate maker Valrhona — was dry and smoky, with 70 percent cacao. The second piece — from Newman’s Own Organics — was significantly sweeter, thanks to its organic evaporated cane juice.

“You taste chocolate and it reminds you of people,” said Pitt, who pays particular attention to the rhythm of chocolate, specifically if the taste comes on fast or slow. “Chocolate has personality.”

That’s especially true when it’s paired with wine.

Before the group tasted Dashe Cellars’ late-harvest Zinfandel, Aller revealed her favorite chocolate and wine pairings.

For instance, a bar with 38 percent cacao goes perfectly with a Chardonnay or Riesling, while a bar with 55 percent cacao is to be paired with a Cabernet. A syrah complements a 61 percent cacao bar nicely, just as a Zinfandel does with chocolate that is 72 percent cacao.

And if wine isn’t your thing, don’t worry. Chocolate also can be paired with coffee and tea.

Dashe, however, firmly believes his cellars’ late-harvest Zinfandel should be sipped with dark chocolate. While it’s not your typical sweet dessert wine, the Zinfandel’s blast of fruit flavors is brought out by the bitterness of the chocolate.

Taking a bite of dark chocolate, then swirling the zin in my mouth changed my perception of dessert wines. Prior to the event, I had yet to find an after-dinner wine that pleased my palate. I should have known I’d gravitate toward the one made specifically to be paired with chocolate.

So Pitt says he’s got the only chocolate club in the country, huh? After that chocolate and wine tasting, he may have given a few people the same idea.

Amanda Pazornik is a staff writer at j. She can be reached at [email protected].