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Thornton Jazz Series is Back!


Thornton Winery's Jazz Series - time to get your groove on! (Photo by Chris Baptiste)

Thornton Winery’s 23rd Annual Champagne Jazz Series launched this past Sunday afternoon with a virtuoso & sterling performance by Rumba/Flamenco guitarist Jesse Cook. Add in superb Thornton wine, a 5-star gourmet meal provided by Executive Chef Steve Pickell of Cafe Champagne, as well as the venue’s Mediterranean-style fountain terrace setting, and it’s easy to understand why Thornton’s Jazz concerts are unparallelled in Southern California. Delicious wine & food, beautiful scenery, and world-class music makes us all happy, doesn’t it?

Ahhh…the Wine! Known for their Methode Champenoise process of making Sparkling Wine/Champagne, Thornton Winery is one of the iconic wineries in the Temecula Valley. But owners John and Sally Thornton (along with their son, President Steve Thornton) have always placed an emphasis on producing great varietal wines – not just award winning champagne. And this is where winemaker David Vergari comes in.

David Vergari, Steve Thornton, Steve Pickell, Jesse Cook, and John Thornton. (Photo by Chris Baptiste)

New to the Temecula wine region – he’s been with Thornton since September of last year – David Vergari honed his skills as a preeminent winemaker in Sonoma County, eventually becoming Head Winemaker at Maddalena Vineyards for 4 years. He has his own label, Vergari Wines, consults, and teaches extension wine courses at UC Irvine. He is also a member of the “school” that believes that great wine making begins in the vineyard, and that emphasis is one of the reasons Thornton hired him to enhance their already well-known and loved brand. Seeing that 2010 was his first harvest as Thornton’s winemaker, Vergari has yet to put his stamp on Thornton’s current wine list. But when asked which varietal wines he’s excited about releasing in the near future, he mentioned his upcoming Barbera, Zinfandel, Tempranillo, Petite Sirah, and a Bourdeux blend. Exciting stuff. David Vergari has arrived in Temecula, my friends – take note.

(Photo by Chris Baptiste)

And the Food! Executive Chef Steve Pickell provides the amazing multi-course meals at each Jazz Series concert. Named Chef of the Year in 2003 by the California Restaurant Writers and also in 2005 by the Southern California Restaurant Writers, Chef Pickell has been expertly developing his own Contemporary Fusion Cuisine for Cafe Champagne since 1993.

His food is definitely one of the reasons to make sure you select the Gourmet Supper Package when ordering your concert tickets. For the Jesse Cook show, Chef Pickell’s menu not only delighted the taste buds, but gave an indication of quality and culinary imagination to expect throughout the Jazz Series. Guests started with the Asparagus, Fava Bean, and Rock Shrimp Salad with a heavenly Sweet Bell Pepper Citronette. The main course was an Oven Roasted Natural Chicken Breast with Saffron Risotto Cake and Sauteed Broccolini. The Roasted Tomato Garden Herb Sauce set this dish off magnificently! And dessert – we can’t forget dessert, now can we? This evening was Chef Pickell’s Lemon Rosemary Tart with Fresh Strawberry Compote. Truly delectable.

Jesse Cook. (courtesy photo)

Rumba, Anyone? Blending the styles of Flamenco, Rumba, Afro-Cuban, and Gypsy – as well as Latin Jazz and Ethnic Fusion – Jesse Cook’s music truly is a “World Blend.” And like the finest wine blends of the world, Jesse’s acoustic guitar playing is at once passionate, bright, sensual, and refined. Without a doubt, he is one of the great guitarists in today’s Jazz universe.

The Koch Records artist (his latest – The Rumba Foundation – is his 8th release) started the festivities with a mesmerizing Middle-Eastern flavored instrumental that showcased his fretboard prowess. His band sauntered onstage and claimed their respective instruments after a few minutes of Jesse’s intro-soloing, and the joyous rhythm they locked into seductively introduced this year’s Jazz Concert Series splendidly.

After the energetic “Bogata By Bus,” Jesse and his violinist/multi-instrumentalist Chris Church slowed things a bit and delved into a duo performance where Jesse’s guitar and Chris’ electric violin “spoke” to each other – a spellbinding instrumental that was delicate, sensual, and atmospheric. A highlight of the evening.

Rumba! (Photo by Chris Baptiste)

Jesse’s uncanny ability to use the body of his guitar as a percussive instrument – picking notes & simultaneously providing his own back beat by tapping/striking his acoustic six-string’s face – is, needless to say – impressive. To put it in a rock music context, this technique is reminiscent of Joe Walsh (from his James Gang/pre-Eagles days) and Pete Townsend of The Who, who both were proficient at playing lead and rhythm guitar at the same time, something both musicians developed as they were the only guitarists in their respective groups. In Jesse’s case, his “rhythm” playing comes from his fingers tapping out the percussion as he also plays his smooth, Rumba-inspired lead lines. We were witnessing a master guitarist this afternoon.

After a couple of inspiring songs after the band’s intermission break, Jesse and his group turned Thornton’s terrace venue into one big dance floor. Jesse exclaiming, “Are you ready for a Rumba Dance Party?!” is all it took for nearly everyone in the audience to leave their seats and begin moving to the persuasive music. Sure, the wine helped with throwing inhibitions aside, but isn’t that what it’s all about? Wine, music, and dancing are made for each other.

As Jesse Cook’s show proved once again, Thornton Winery’s Champagne Jazz Series is the quintessential Temecula Wine Country event – one that pairs award-winning culinary delights with one-of-kind wine and music from world-renowned artists. How fortunate are we that this takes place every year in our own backyard? It simply just doesn’t get any better than this, does it?

For the entire Jazz Series schedule, please click here. This Saturday (May 7th), the Bobby Caldwell R&B Show with saxophonist Mindi Abair will take stage @ 7pm. Other highlights of the season will be Fourplay, Boney James, Dave Koz, George Benson, and Herb Albert, among many, many others. Get your tickets and reserve your seats today – these shows will indeed sell out. 😉

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