Our first pairing at the Berrien Springs Epicurean Tasting Room & Estate at Free Run Cellars in Berrien Springs was a dry Riesling accompanied by tuna sushi topped asparagus topped with sesame seed and Siracha mayonnaise.

The woman sitting next to me said she didn’t like sushi but, deciding to be bold, first sniffed and swirled the wine in her glass (because that’s what they told us to do) and then took a taste of both the Riesling and the delicate piece of rice rolled around pieces of tender — and raw — tuna.

“It’s good,” she said. “And so is the wine.”

That’s what it should all be about says Ryan Thornburg, culinary director for Round Barn Winery, Distillery and Brewery, a job which also includes recipe and menu development at Free Run Cellars in Berrien Springs and the Round Barn Public House in Baroda, both in Southwest Michigan.

As with all wineries, at Free Run Cellars you can choose the wines you’d like to sample and order off the menu written on a sheet of butcher paper hanging on the wall. But Thornburg recommends the tasting experience — a prix fixe combination of four wines (each a two ounce pour) paired with such bites as pineapple and soy sauce marinated chicken wrapped with bacon in a house made teriyaki sauce and crème Brule cheesecake topped with strawberry-rhubarb jam and fresh mint.

Called the Epicurean Wine Tasting Experience, it’s a 45-minute exploration of how foods and wines interact, each, if paired correctly, complementary and bringing out the best in both.

“We have people come in and say I don’t like this kind of wine or that kind and then they leave saying I never thought I’d like a Cabernet Franc,” says Thornburg.

Though Free Run Cellars first opened ten years ago, the sleek elemental interior — stone, brick and wood and large glass windows overlooking the vineyard bringing the outdoors in — is part of a large scale re-design.

“When we first opened this was an old building and people had to walk through the garage to get to the bathrooms,” says Matt Moersch, who is a partner in the family owned business that was started by his parents and with his brother Chris runs FRC and the Public House. Moersch also manages his winemaking and spirits teams in the lab and in the vineyard.

The new look is part of the new concept.

“You can taste wine at any winery,” says Moersch noting that this new concept is part of their ongoing goal of turning Southwest Michigan into a major destination (think Sonoma or Napa Valley) for wine and food lovers. “And that’s great. You can do that here too. But we wanted to go beyond that. Ryan makes that happen.”

Thornburg has long been part of Southwest Michigan’s culinary scene. Growing up in Southwest Michigan, his family always planted large vegetable garden and so he learned how to appreciate fresh and local.

Deciding to pursue a culinary career, Thornburg attended the American Culinary Federation and then worked for five years as a chef a Tosi’s Restaurant in Stevensville. Switching gears, he became a wine representative and then joined the team led by Ali Barker who had moved to St. Joseph from New York to to help open and then work as executive chef at the Bistro on the Boulevard in downtown St. Joe.

When the co-owner/executive chef Gary Manigold left Tosi’s, Thornburg returned there to work as executive chef and then, when Barker moved from the area, returned as executive chef at the Bistro. While working there, he and his wife, Julie, started Thornburg & Company where they sourced local produce to make artisan, single batch preserves, syrups, vinegars and other food stuffs. A few years later, with the success of their food business, they opened Thornburg & Company Café in downtown Bridgman.

Always ready for a new challenge, when the Moersch family called, Thornburg said yes.

“The timing was right,” he says. “We had a customer who was interested in buying the business, we’d been doing Thornburg & Company for five years and we were tired. But we also didn’t want to move, we love the area, our kids go to school here and so this was a great opportunity to continue to work with the wonderful foods, vegetables, wines and fruits of Southwest Michigan.”

Colleen Ryan, owner of Traffic PR & Marketing, Inc., describes Thornburg as the perfect fit for growing the culinary offerings of all the Round Barn businesses.

As for the epicurean experience, Thornburg says it’s common on the west and east coasts to have prix fixe tastings but rare in the Midwest.

Here’s how it works. A tasting consultant is on hand during the tasting to answer questions, describe the wines and how they pair well to bring out the best flavors of the foods. The menu changes every month to take advantage of seasonal and local foods as much as possible. The cost is $20 per person and reservations are suggested.

“It’s a way to elevate the wine experience,” says Thornburg.

The following recipes are courtesy of Free Run Cellars and have been on part of their Wine Tasting Experience.

Smoked Whitefish Spread and Tart Cherry Jam

Whitefish Spread:

1 pound smoked whitefish, skinned, deboned, and flaked

½ cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoons lemon juice

1 celery stalk, minced

1 scallion, Sliced thinly on bias

Salt and pepper to taste

Tart cherry jam (recipe follows)

In a medium mixing bowl, combine mayonnaise, lemon juice, celery, scallion, and salt & pepper. Mix well and gently fold in smoked whitefish to combine. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Tart Cherry Jam:

1 pound pitted tart cherries, fresh or frozen

½ pound sugar

In a large stainless steel saucepan, add the cherries and sugar. Stir to combine well. Place saucepan over medium low heat and watch until mixture starts to release its juices and sugar is dissolved. Raise heat to medium high and cook, watching closely and stirring with a heatproof spatula. The cherries will tend to foam high in the pan so be careful of boiling over. If this happens, turn the heat down slightly to avoid. Maintain a steady boil until jam is slightly thickened, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from heat to cool and refrigerate until ready to use.

Note: This is a no pectin jam so it needs to reduce by half to thicken properly. Towards the end you will have to stir frequently to avoid scorching. Can be made ahead and kept in the refrigerator for up to a month.

Bacon wrapped chicken & pineapple skewers

7 cups cold water

1 ½ cups soy sauce

¼ cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons kosher salt

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 pound bacon, thinly sliced and halved

1 large pineapple, peeled, cored, and cut into 1 inch cubes

1 cup teriyaki sauce

Wooden skewers, soaked in water for 30 minutes

Whisk together water, soy sauce, sugar, and salt in a large bowl until sugar is dissolved. Place the chicken breasts in the brine and refrigerate for 1 hour. Remove the chicken from the brine and pat dry. Discard brine.

Cut the chicken into 1 inch cubes. Wrap each piece of chicken with half a slice of bacon. Thread bacon wrapped chicken on skewers, alternating with pineapple cubes.

Lightly oil the grates of a gas grill. Grill skewers over medium high heat until bacon is browned and chicken has cooked through, about 5 minutes per side. In the last minute of cooking, brush each skewer with teriyaki sauce. Remove from the grill and serve with additional teriyaki sauce.

Ripe summer peaches are perfect for lightly roasting and a great pairing for salty blue cheese. Serve with a chilled bottle of Moscato for unique summer appetizer.

Roasted Michigan Peach and Blue Cheese Toasts

2 large peaches, slightly ripe

Sea salt

Fresh black pepper

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons local honey

4 ounces wedge of blue cheese, room temperature

16 pieces of pumpernickel toasts, 2-inch squares

Baby arugula, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cut peaches in half and remove the pit. Slice each half into 4 wedges for a total of 16. In a bowl, gently toss peaches with salt, pepper, and 2 tbs. of extra virgin olive oil. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add peaches in a single layer. Sauté for 1 minute until caramelized on one side. Turn peaches over and place in the oven for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.

Place pumpernickel on a sheet pan and brush with the remaining 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Bake in the oven until lightly toasted, about 5 minutes.

To assemble, spread blue cheese evenly on pumpernickel toast. Top each with 1a warm peach wedge and drizzle with honey. Place a few pieces of baby arugula on top and serve.

Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta

1-quart heavy cream

½ cup sugar

½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped

2 ¼ tsp. unflavored powdered gelatin

3 tbs. cold water

In a medium saucepan, combine the cream, sugar, vanilla bean and seeds. Bring the mixture just to a simmer over moderate heat. Remove from the heat, cover and let steep for 15 minutes.

In a small bowl, sprinkle gelatin over the water and let stand until evenly moistened, about 5 minutes.

Uncover the cream mixture and discard the vanilla bean. Bring the cream mixture back to a simmer over moderate heat. Remove from the heat, add the gelatin and stir until dissolved. Pour the panna cotta mixture into eight 4-ounce ramekins and let cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the panna cotta is set, at least 4 hours. Serve in the ramekins with fresh berries and a drizzle of local wildflower honey.

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