The Winemakers’ Cookoff tops the list of my favorite Paso food and wine events. So I was honored to be invited by Gary Eberle, the event’s mastermind and his wife Marcy to join the judging panel for the second time.
There was no lacking creativity at this year’s 20th Annual Cookoff presented by Paso Robles Rotary at the Paso Robles Event Center. The themes went global ranging from Hawaiian, Peruvian, Spanish and Italian to Greek fare presented by toga-clad servers. Such culinary dishes were paired with local wines and brews.
Instead of cruising around the various booths and food stations, I was anchored in the judge’s enclave with fellow judges Robert Whitley, Brigit Binns, William Bloxsom-Carter and Michael Cervin.
Armed with forks and napkins, we were ready for the onslaught of sliders, tacos, ribs and burgers – a daunting albeit a delicious task of savoring some 20 dishes, one small bite at a time.
The food parade began as a team of volunteers served the dishes prepared by professional and amateur local chefs each one representing a winery or brewery.
We were handed two sets of lists with descriptions of the dishes, but not all of them included the name of the chef or the restaurant. There were nine professional chefs and 11 in the amateur category. Each dish accompanied a local wine or beer.
Starting with the professional category, the highlights were chef Jeffry Wiesinger’s pairing with Diablo Paso Winery to bring us a delectable chicken and sausage paella accompanied with albariño-poached shrimp, to which the mustard cream pesto drizzle added that extra kick. Diablo Paso’s 2014 tempranillo crafted from Napa Valley fruit proved to be a perfect match. The sensory experience went up a notch with the accompanying smoked chocolate mousse, a luscious dessert with a lingering smoky finish.
“We were so busy, people were coming for second helpings and Jeffry made close to seven pans of paella,” said Enrique Torres, owner/winemaker of Diablo Paso.
Rio Seco Winery’s take on the Mardi Gras served with zinfandel brought us chefs Brandi Mathews and Jacob Bartunek’s classic Cajun crawfish tail cream sauce layered on pasta and smoked andouille sausage, topped with cheddar jalapeño hush puppy that added the punch and crunch.
The Earth & Fire Brewing Company teamed up with Pappy McGregor’s and whipped burgers of home grown lamb fed with spent grain from the brewing process.
Chef Luis Ruiz of Chulo’s Cafe & Cantina’s spoon-sized creation of Japanese-spiced tuna tartare resting atop lime-scented potato purée impressed us all. The dish was close to perfection savored with Derby Wine Estate’s 2014 albariño and grenache blanc blend.
Penman Springs Vineyard paired its 2014 petite sirah with Odyssey World Cafe chefs Jill Cook and Wilbur Saucedo’s twice cooked baby back ribs that were indeed ‘finger lickin’ good” slathered with a savory chipotle sauce.
CaliPaso’s chef Christopher Krotke added a savory twist to the classic Italian Cannoli by stuffing it with smoked oxtail and pork belly, served with with CaliPaso’s tempranillo.
In the amateur category, we sampled chef Jason Joyce’s Calcareous wine-marinated, deliciously caramelized spareribs nestled atop a Greek salad, and served interestingly with the 2016 Calcareous Lily Blanc, a white Rhône blend.
Gary Eberle’s flame-kissed Paso paella was cooked over oak flames, redolent with fragrant saffron and loaded with chunks of chicken, shrimp, pork and three types of sausage served with Eberle cabernet sauvignon.
There were some small bites such as chef Brenen Bonetti’s smoked brisket served with queso foam and grilled pineapple on a spicy crisp potato chip, paired with Tooth and Nail Winery’s red Rhône style blend.
Gelfand Vineyards had a Blues Brother theme going with chef Dan Meineke’s grilled pastrami on a slice of toasted rosemary sourdough – flavors that were sweet, hot and smoky in one bite. And Glunz Family dished up a taste of Chicago in the form of pizza puffs served with grilled sausage and onions, a take on bar food and paired with their Dusi Vineyard zinfandel.
After two hours of judging, my palate reflected mostly hits and few misses, such as a begging for a hint of acid here or tweaking of spice there, but overall the dishes were ambitious and impressive.
In the professional category, Diablo Paso and Jeffry’s Wine Country BBQ took the top prize, followed by Derby Wine Estates paired with Chulo’s Cafe and Rio Seco in third place, with honorable mention for Earth & Fire Brewing Company.
Among the amateur chefs, the top prize went to Tooth & Nail, followed Calcareous and Eberle in third place with honorable mention for Peachy Canyon Winery’s herb-stuffed savory pork roast.
And there was no shortage of bribery going on for another coveted prize, the People’s Choice award. Attendees were given 6 tickets each to vote for their favorites. For one ticket Eberle offered tastings of its 2001 reserve cabernet sauvignon poured from an impressive 6 liter Imperial bottle: and for four tickets, Diablo Paso enticed attendees with its reserve Napa Valley tempranillo plus their popular illuminated devil horns.
“Our glass bowl was overflowing with tickets, we had to push them down,” said an enthusiastic Torres. Then there were other temptations like an extra helping of food or a special library tasting of wines. But on their own merits, the four People’s Choice winners included Derby, Rio Seco, Diablo Paso and Calcareous.
From a judges’ perspective, this year the chefs were “thinking outside the box” and the portions were manageable. It was a delightful experience to see the creativity of the chefs and the time and effort pooled in by each team – all for a good cause.
Since its inception in 1999, proceeds from the Cookoff have benefitted Rotary’s Harlow Ford Scholarship Foundation, a perpetual fund that has enable the Paso Robles Rotary Club to award scholarships totaling nearly $600,000.