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I'm unsure where my deep and abiding appreciation for food, wine and the culinary arts was born. As a third-generation Italian-American (with a smidgen of German thrown in from dad's side), one would assume that growing up, good food and wine were the staples of our everyday culture, present and accounted for at the family table at every meal. Any prowess I may have demonstrated ala cucina must certainly be attributed to the genetic code of my Italian heritage, passed along from a long line of incredibly domesticated mammas and nonnas, right?
Picture a small girl of 8, perched atop a worn kitchen stool, watching as momma carefully rolls out the pasta dough, her small hands helping to stir the marinara, chop the garlic, and gently form the meatballs into perfect spheres; the love for cooking nurtured carefully over time, under mamma's tender tutelage.
Now erase that Biba Caggiano-esque vision from your thoughts completely. My mother, bless her soul, was as OCD as the day was long. The mere thought of my tinkering in the kitchen brought only visions of disorder and dissaray so terrifying that she'd just as soon set her hair on fire than let me in the kitchen to assist with meal preparation. To make matters worse, mom was no great cook. It was, after all, the 60's; who had time to fuss with an elaborate meal when it took 3 hours to tease your hair into a 2 foot beehive? So mom developed her own time-saving strategies in the kitchen, earning a bit of neighborhood renown for her One Pan Wonders in the process. This was before the advent of Hamburger Helper; flavor was of no consequence; each success was based entirely upon how few dishes would be soiled in the meal's preparation. One of her favorites, what I'll call FreshFrozenCanned, consisted of round steak, Tater-tots, and canned peas, placed side-by-side in the electric skillet, seasoned with her go-to condiment of choice: a packet of dry onion soup mix. Add all to pan, set to medium, and dinner was done when the 3 components turned the same, perfect shade of 'greige' and took on a spongey, fresh-from-the-steamer texture.
And wine? Surpisingly, neither my Italian mother, nor my Italian grandparents would touch the stuff, opting for a 'highball' when an alcoholic beverage was in order. My dad was the real wine-drinker in the family. His nightly, single-glass indulgence from one of California's finest three-gallon, green-glassed screw-top jugs was pretty sophisticated stuff to the palate of a 10 year old; unfortunately (or thankfully), it did nothing to prepare me for the vinous experiences to come in the later years of my life.
These thoughts were with me as I entered into the grand hall of the Grape and Gourmet last night. How is it that my palate has developed the appreciation for the finer tastes in life (goat cheese, notwithstanding) after spending my earliest years in the culinary doldrums? It's a mystery to this day. But I've pondered enough for one evening. My thoughts were now focused on the dazzling sights and heady aromas within the space, leaving me woozy and breathless (with anticipation). Ready, set, go!
In years past, the Grape and Gourmet event had been held in the exhibit halls of Cal Expo. Large crowds at the entrance created traffic jams that impeded even the most insistent progress of my tasting endeavors. Over the years, I've developed a strategy, an MO so to speak, that has worked like a charm in all of my festival-going outings: start at the back, and work your way forward. Last night was no exception, but somewhat unwarranted: the room was so spacious and accommodating, the crowds were non-existent at the entrance. The organizers of the event made a phenomenal choice in the Convention Center. There was soooo much room in between the aisles, the air conditioner blew cool air into the room for the full 3-1/2 hours, and the numbered 'islands' and accompanying 'field guide' made finding those 'Best of' winners all the easier for attendees. For a listing of all the big winners, click here: www.thebestcaliforniawine.com/images/2009/best_of_winners_2009.pdf
My favorites of the evening? Well, let me note here, I'm not a professional taster. Spitting is not a skill I've mastered yet (and really, do I want to?) so instead of spitting, I chose my wines judiciously, starting with all the "Best ofs' that I could find. I then switched to an 'anything goes' mode--what looked interesting, what I've never tried before. Even with that simple rule of thumb, I tasted so many outstanding wines, it's hard to choose just a few favorites, but if I must.....my be personal best list includes the Best of Show in the Red category, the 2007 Runquist Barbera from Amador Cty.; the Best of show White/Best Sparkling wine, the 2005 Gloria Ferrer Brut Rose from Sonoma Cty., Nevada City Winery's Best Barbera of CA, and the Armida '07 Pinot Noir from Sonoma, which won the Best Pinot of CA. The Albarino from Harney Lane winery was fresh, light, fruity and delicious, a fantastic summer and food friendly wine; the '07 Cantara Zinfandel was a smooth sipper, and walked away a silver medal, and the always enjoyable Rapture Cabernet from Michael David (medal stance unknown).
In the foods category, oh my, where should I start? Classique Catering was serving a savory Leek Flan with a mushroom/chicken jus and frizzled leeks. It was a stand-out in so many ways: concept, silken texture and the flavor was sublime--okay, I admit it, I had 2. The foods of Gaylord India were exceptional, their fresh and tender Chicken Tikka and their perfectly spiced lamb sausage big winners as well. Thai Basil, with their inspired Yum-Woonsen salad, was a lovely mixture of rice noodles, seasoned tofu, shredded lettuce and a spicy lime dressing with a nice kick that left the lips burning. I had a few sips of the Nevada City Barbera in my glass, and it went surprisingly well with the salad, the complex spices of the dish really bringing out the fruit of the Barbera.
My dawgs were barkin' and my waistband pinchin' by the time we made it back to the car, which we'd parked on the other side of Capitol Park, but it was a small price to pay for our marvelous epicurean journey. Congratulations to the winners and kudos to the food establishments for your culinary creations. And thank you for dirtying all those pans!