The phrase ‘variety is the spice of life’ was first seen in 1785, in William Cowper’s poem The Task. “Variety is the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavor”, he said. Neeta Mittal, co-owner of LXV Winery, not only believes that should be the case with wines, but also non-traditional food pairings.
Neeta and Kunal founded LXV Wine, which was taken literally from the 64 arts of living from old Indian scriptures. The guest experience becomes the 65th art and LXV is dedicated to “heightening senses through beautifully crafted wines and spice pairings.” She told me that spice pairings have a way of changing the context of the wines and the joy she finds in matching the two together.
I was invited to the LXV Winery tasting room for a dinner (the first as these are usually held at the winery) as a preview before the Wine Writer’s Conference in Paso Robles. The invitation promised Indian food and wine pairings and I was excited to put all previous knowledge aside and let my senses engage.
We were welcomed with a lovely introduction of how this meal shares in India’s rich heritage and our belief in the devo bhava philosophy which means that the divine visits us in the persona of a guest.
Neeta was raised in Kolhapur, India. Her mother was one of the first people in her village to attend school often walking without shoes to eventually become head of a biotechnology university. She loved cooking and experimenting with flavors and her father was from the spice capital of the world, so blending two places, regions, languages, and food played a big part. Growing up in India, wine was not part this experience – it was about the flavors coming together from all over the world and a genuine curiosity about flavors.
Her mother remained her inspiration to work harder. She took that passion into her education when she attended the College of Engineering in Pune and then came to the United States in 1999 to earn a master’s degree in engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.
This is where she met Kunal, her future husband and current business partner. And the love for travel and wine for was born. Napa was a close option to Berkeley, which then led to international travel to explore various wine countries.
The journey to Paso Robles was coincidental. Kunal, who was working for Sony at the time and was also a licensed pilot, was fogged out at the airport where the journey was originally planned, looked at a map and picked Paso. Conveniently a real estate friend offered to take them to see a vineyard. “It was such a beautiful place that we wanted to be a part of it,” Neeta said. Paso Robles reminded them of Tuscany in terms of terroir, but also elements of what she loved about India. Supportive Winemakers like Ron Denner encouraged them on the path and even helped to guide them to a property on Willow Creek. “The community was extraordinary in terms of supporting us and offering perspective,” she said. “We made choices from that knowledge.”
The Wine Style
While they started with Rhone varietals, today the wines are Bordeaux and Italian sourced from the Willow Creek appellation and vineyards including Denner Vineyards, Jada Vineyard and ONX Wines. There is a new vineyard, Armaa.N, which means “Dreams”, in Willow Creek that is organically farmed and beginning bud break now.
Jeff Strekas serves as the consulting winemaker with a background at Merryvale, ONX, Franciscan, Mollydooker and Round Pound Estate.
Being One of the First
She is one of the first Indian women to own a winery in the US that was also named a Top 10 Tasting Experience in America by USA Today. She takes that “first designation” very seriously in rethinking the art of the wine and food pairing. Because spice and wine pairings weren’t commonplace, it became another distinguishing point.
The location of the tasting room in downtown Paso Robles was also controversial ten years ago. That was the option they had and took on the opportunity to create a unique identity that would highlight the wine and the story – not the location. They also will be starting a new tasting room on their current winery property soon.
It all started with a of goal of inspiring people and moments over food and wine. If you think about what makes Paso’s terroir exceptional, it is the diversity in soils, elevation, and rainfall and how interesting it is to add spice to that tapestry.
Here was our line-up and I’m going to just let you think about the flavor matches. I kept the terminology of our tasting menu from LXV. I’ll tell you after the tasting and probably based off the White Sangiovese alone, I joined the wine club – which I rarely do.
Samosas – a favorite of all households to welcome guests
Potatoes | mustard seeds, curry leaves, ginger, mango powder, *chaat masala
2021 LXV Rose of Cabernet Franc
Saag paneer – If springtime in Punjab were a flavor
Spinach | coriander, cumin, green chili
2021 LXV Sauvignon Blanc
Biryani – From the kitchens of the kings
Chicken | onion, ginger, garlic, whole spices (cardamoms, cloves, mace, saffron)
2019 LXV Reserve Sangiovese
Tikka Masala – Brace yourself for the ruckus
Paneer | tomato, turmeric, tandoori masala, fenugreek leaves
2021 White Sangiovese (barrel sample). (my note: Stars aligned, angels sang, White Sangio!)
Her goal, and mine today, is not to tell you what should match, compliment and contrast with what is brought to life in glass and on the plate. Neeta’s goal is to bring the expression of wine in a way that she understood through a prism of flavors in a medium of food, wine, and flavor that she understands. This is the goal of LXV wine – bringing together wine, food, culture, purpose, flavor, and language one experience at a time.