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A Reverse Wine Pairing Dinner

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Which came first, the roasted asparagus, lardo, cured egg, and Meyer lemon or the two rosés? In the case of the Food & Wine Safari event held recently at the Four Seasons Resort, The Biltmore in Montecito, it was actually the wine. Hosted by Elizabeth Reed and Ken Fitzpatrick, the pair behind the Safari, the event was one of six per year they've held the past four years, a "reverse wine pairing dinner."

"A month prior to the dinner the winemakers come and bring all their wine to the hotel -- I tell them to over-bring," Reed explains. "It gets a little bit confusing as there are usually so many wines. Then the two chefs [executive chef Alessandro Cartumini and executive sous chef Grant Macdonald] join. As the wines are discussed, the chefs consider what possibilities they see to pair that fit the season. I've learned to keep quiet for that." The winemakers -- generally there are two at each event -- pick which wines they want to feature, and then the chefs develop a menu around those choices. Reed admits to only light editing, claiming, "I know the people who attend like to be adventurous ... within a certain range."

Generally, wine pairing dinners mean the food comes first, and then sommeliers and winemakers try to figure vinous things out from there. Reed prefers it the other way around, asserting, "This gives people more of a range of possibilities to try things. I don't feel there's a rule, like you have to have a red with a steak."

That might explain how at the recent dinner featuring wines from Proulx from Paso Robles and Tercero from Santa Barbara, the reception course offered tastes of the 2013 Proulx Grenache Rosé, the 2011 Tercero Grenache Blanc, and the somewhat unusally hearty for this course 2009 Tercero Cuvee Loco (a grenache/syrah blend) with a delightful mix-and-match of bites. Chef Macdonald called the passed appetizers cold, warm, and hot, but failed to mention they were delicious -- a chilled English pea soup with more than a dollop of local stone crab and buttermilk to give it a rounder, deeper flavor; Oxnard strawberries, warmed simply out in the sun all afternoon, glazed in aged balsamic, with the perfect mini-quenelle of cave-ripened goat cheese; and gougeres topped with a jaunty disc of truffle. The three very different wines took each nibble in different directions, from the familiar -- a rosé with strawberries is an excellent amplification, say -- to the more unusual: the grenache blend, far from drowning out the delicate all-of-spring pea soup, underlined bass notes you might not otherwise notice.

Given four courses and eight more wines followed, it's little surprise it ends up quite a social evening of all sorts of people, from couples on a date night to other winemakers to orange growers from Ventura County. Some attendees still come from the initial events Reed held at the Biltmore's Coral Casino when the idea grew out of a no corkage evening when she suggested a group bring Spanish wines for a paella night. A sense of adventure (hence the safari name) is key, for as Reed puts it, "People see wineries they don't know and they don't want to come, but you don't need Robert Parker scores to enjoy good wine."

She does stress keeping it entertaining, though. "Of course you have to have good wine," she says, "but second you have to have an interesting winemaker." Luckily Proulx, led by Kevin Riley, and Tercero, led by Larry Schaffer, talk the talk as well as they make the wine, leading to both jokes about the cleanliness of foot-stomping and then a bit of Santa Barbara vs. Paso Robles one-upmanship. (Editorial confession: it was about nine wines in when I fist-bumped Schaffer after a crack about Paso wines sometimes being a bit over-done. I'm a Santa Barbaran rooter at heart.)

The Food & Wine Safari, of course, is just one such wine dinner club, so you can check event calendars for one near you or pencil in Reed's next, on July 23 with the esteemed Ken Brown. Then starting this fall, she'll also be doing similar dinners at the Santa Ynez Inn, if you want to wine and dine directly in wine country. Or, when in doubt, start a club of your own.

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