CJ Wijns events a mix of wine, food and fun
By Tara Nelson
On a recent chilly Saturday night in November, a loosely-knit group of friends, acquaintances and residents from Birch Bay to as far away as Seattle, were seated together to experience what would be not only an interesting pairing of wine and food but also of personalities.
The dinner and accompanying wines ($65) was part of a series of events scheduled for winter at CJ Wijns, Birch Bay’s newest wine and coffee bar in the Grand Bay Resorts condos on Birch Bay Drive. Many of the events feature wines by region, but others include seasonal themes such as the holiday appetizer and champagne pairing scheduled for December 4 ($25).
The name Wijns, pronounced “wines,” is an old Dutch root for the name of the owners, Carolyn and Jim Wynstra.
Event coordinator Carol Bouma said while Saturday’s menu and wine tasting of several Sicilian varieties were carefully planned, she seated guests in a semi-random fashion with place cards and allowed generous time between courses to allow them to enjoy the wines and get to know their neighbors.
The plan worked beautifully. As the wine flowed, conversations came easily. My dinner date, an accountant for a local artisan bakery, and I were surprised how quickly two and a half hours drifted by.
We were seated next to a private contractor from Seattle, a professor of French history at Western Washington University, a Seattle school teacher, a wine enthusiast and a Bellingham psychiatrist.
Topics were engaging and ranged from debating over who produced the best goat cheese on the west coast and vacationing via boat to homelessness, unequal education and systemic causes of poverty in America.
“Wine can kind of loosen social inhibitions,” Bouma said. “It’s a great opportunity to get to know people you might not otherwise meet and kind of get out of your comfort zone.”
Bouma said that often people who enjoy wines also enjoy pairing them with foods as well as sitting down for a well-timed multi-course dinner. The event was also a way to showcase their executive chef David Connors’ talents, she said.
Saturday’s event paired wines of indigenous varieties from the island of Sicily with foods ranging from an incredible and simple salad of roasted sweet bell peppers and feta to prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, and a roasted cremini mushroom and arugula salad with lemon oil and cracked black pepper. Diners also sampled small courses such as the cappellini pasta with garlic shrimp, plum tomato sauce, and shaved parmesan, topped with a crispy fried basil leaf.
“It’s great to explore wines by a region, especially when it comes to these five-course dinners,” Bouma said.
Wine enthusiast Laurent Martel, of Bellingham, was on hand to demystify the process of pairing each wine as well as provide a short geographical and cultural lesson on the grapes’ origins.
One interesting note: acidic or vinegar based dressings and sauce are difficult to pair with wine. Martel said this was overcome by the addition of the roasted mushrooms to the salad, which lent a deep, earthly accent to help balance the acidity of the lemon.
“Anytime you’re using vinegar, that is wine’s worst enemy besides the asparagus,” Martel said. “What ever you’re pairing wine with, it’s not about the dish, it’s what the sauce is.”
The main course was a braised veal shank with toasted pine nut gremolata and rosemary scented fingerling potatoes and broccolini. I admit I’m not a huge fan of red meat in general – I was more impressed by the al dente crispness of the broccolini – but it was clear from the oohing and aahing of my neighbors that the veal was very acceptable. Luckily, my dinner date was of the carnivorous sort and was more than happy to take mine off my plate.
It could have been the wine, but even without the main course, I was feeling very satisfied. By the time we were served dessert – a tiramisu torte with raspberry cream – I was only able to eat a few bites.
It was then when we were treated with a guest appearance by chef David who wanted to make sure everyone had plenty to eat and if anyone had any questions.
As a final touch, Martel passed around a glass of wine that had been ruined by the occasional and inevitable bad cork, aka the dreaded “cork taint.”
Diners were invited to sniff the wine to identify wispy notes of “grandma’s house” or “musty closet” but I admit my ability to detect such nuances had vanished after the third or fourth glass, if it had ever been there to begin with.
Fortunately, Martel offered this last down-to-earth bit of advice for the wine-curious: “The main thing is, don’t listen to anyone,” he said. “If you like it, it works.”
Bringing fun back to the bay
Bouma, who has a background in merchandising and visual presentations, said although she had little experience in event planning, she used her natural passion for entertaining and fun to help create a relaxing atmosphere at CJ Wijns where customers can feel welcome.
“Part of the vision we have for this place is, it’s a gathering place, relaxing, a place for people to come and feel comfortable,” she said. “I also enjoy having a great time and I enjoy entertaining and seeing my friends. It’s a combination of doing all those things at my work that make it fun. It’s a coffee and wine bar, but it’s so much more than that, too.”
Bouma also created the restaurant’s popular Wijning Women event each month. That event includes a glass of wine and a food presentation with discussion by chef David about pairing. That routinely sells out one to two weeks in advance, she said.
“It’s a great place for women to gather together and have conversation and wine and good food,” she said. “It’s also very popular. At our last event we had 65 people sign up, so for a week we were turning down people.”
The group meets on the second Monday of the month from 6 to 8 p.m. The $10 cost includes a glass of wine and appetizers, and tickets can be purchased in advance at CJ Wijns. Bouma said she has had several requests for a “Wijning Men” night and she will be looking into that in January as well as “Wijning” adventures that include kayaking, bicycling, wine tours, hiking and skiing – all followed by lots of wine, of course.
CJ Wijns’ upcoming events
Saturday Sips: Features wine makers and experts from 2 to 5:30 p.m. every Saturday through December beginning with Dakota Creek Winery owner Ken Peck on November 29. Cost is $5.
Wijning Women: Meets from 6 to 8 p.m. the second Monday of each month. Cost is $10 and includes glass of wine, appetizers and food demonstrations.
Champagne pairing: December 4 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Cost is $25 and features champagne pairing with festive holiday appetizers. CJ Wijns is open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily and Friday and Saturday from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. It’s located at 7714 Birch Bay Drive and can be reached at 371-2658 or by visiting www.cjwijns.com.