In my 30-plus years of restaurant food and wine experiences, some of the most memorable times working with chefs was developing special pairing menus for a visiting winemakers dinner. Along with my dining room manager, 3 or 4 of us would taste through the wineries proposed selection of wines and the chef would offer ideas for a magical pairing that would compliment both the wine and the food served with it. In the end, it would usually boil down to five or six wines and food courses depending on the range of wines offered by the winery and the availability of desired food products that would enhance the menu.
It was always a lot of work but provided a creative and informative opportunity for the chef and the dining room staff.
So I was fascinated by the wine and food pairing process undertaken by the organizers of the upcoming Amador County’s Four Fires celebration on Saturday, May 7. Now in its second year, it is the Sierra foothills’ ultimate food and wine event.
The concept brings together the flavors of three countries — Spain, Italy, and France — along with California in a flavor-filled day in the Sierra Foothills. Featuring upward of 200 Amador County wines, the gathering combines them with regional food pairings, informative seminars, music, and most important, open-flame cookery. Regional chefs demonstrate their exceptional skills preparing spectacular open flame dishes native to these four regions. Think huge pans of simmering paella with Amador Albarino, Grenache or Tempranillo. Picture yourself on the French Mediterranean tasting herb-encrusted lamb on a spit with Syrah or Cinsault. Think Italian while enjoying bistecca fiorenza with a local Sangiovese or Barbera. Or sample succulent birds on a spit or open pit barbecued whole tri-tips with some of the Shenandoah Valley’s prized Zinfandel.
Held at the Amador County Fairgrounds, the event is the brainchild of Deirdre Mueller, who sees it as part of a five-year plan to help make the fairgrounds totally sustainable. Along with Brian Miller, who is helping her organize this year’s activities, she has designed it to show off the unique qualities of Amador County while highlighting the importance of local fairgrounds as a community asset along with the importance of supporting Amador’s farm community. Also billed as a Farm to Fork event, proceeds benefit the Amador County Fair Foundation, a local nonprofit organization that assists the fairgrounds as a self-sustaining year-round event center and evacuation location.
Determining the wines to be served and with which foods was a fascinating and daunting task. At a gathering of wine judges, writers, and sommeliers for two days in early April, they pick the top wine choices in a blind tasting for consideration in matching with the foods. Then the wines were tasted with an array of open-fire roasted culinary selections so they could be paired accordingly.
Once the selections were made, and with over 40 Amador wineries on board, spreading the wines around to the four sites is also an incredible challenge.
“This is truly one of the most unique food-and-wine-pairing events in California, and it takes a lot of manpower and pre-arrangements to showcase so many wine pairings,” Mueller said.
The wineries have to provide multiple wines and pourers at different sites based upon the pairing and type of food matched to their wine. The growing number of different wines produced, not to mention individualized styles, shows the diversity going on in the county.
Amador Zinfandel is a no brainer when it comes to recognition of the region. But the rolling foothills and ideal growing conditions in their county have built a reputation for a number of other grape varieties. Barbera and Sangiovese are two of those success stories. This is evident by the growing number of local producers and the participation by wineries from all over the state in the highly successful Barbera Festival that takes place there in early June.
“Sangiovese and Barbera thrive in the rocky, iron-rich soils of Amador County and develop into lush, well-balanced wines suitable for aging or immediate consumption,” said Chris Leamy of Terra d Oro Winery.
Another highlight of the 2016 event is the lineup of seminars available to the attendees. Two locations on the grounds are set up for the series of lectures and tastings.
Presentations include local farmer Alice Kaiser’s discussion of sustainable vs. organic farming myths, and wine blending techniques with local winemaker Scott Mahon. Wine educator “pooch” Pucilowski’s presentation is on five common wine flaws. Renwood Winery will set up a sensory station with a focus on identifying common aromas, discovering different barrel toasts, and how soil can impact fruit in wine. More than a dozen sessions, along with several chef cooking demos, guarantee an educational break from the possible wine and food overload.
The event takes place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 7. Tickets for this Amador immersion festival are $75 and are just about sold out. Go to their web site soon if you want to attend or need more info. There is also a VIP offering that will get you into some special “meet the winemaker” sessions along with an early sparkling-wine reception, two exclusive VIP seminars, and several other perks at the event.
And it’s an ideal alternative Mother’s Day gift that goes beyond the usual brunch or gathering. Local fairgrounds now need more support than ever with all the budget cuts impacting them. This type of activity creates community spirit and provides a reminder of their importance in time of need such as an evacuation center.
Amador Four Fires will give wine and food enthusiasts a chance to help their local fairground while having a flavorful and informative time. See you there!