Mira Honeycutt

PASO Magazine Wine Editor Mira Honeycutt

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 in creativity at the 20th Annual Cookoff presented by Paso Robles Rotary at the Event Center. The themes went global ranging from Peruvian, Spanish and Italian to Greek fare presented by toga-clad servers. All culinary dishes were, of course, paired with local wines and brews.
Inside the judge’s enclave, I was joined by fellow judges Robert Whitley, Brigit Binns, William Bloxsom-Carter and Michael Cervin as we got ready for an onslaught of sliders, tacos, ribs and burgers — a daunting albeit delicious task of savoring some 20 dishes, one small bite at a time.
We were handed two sets of lists with descriptions of the dishes, but not all included the name of the chef or 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, a highlight was chef Jeffry Wiesinger’s pairing with Diablo Paso Winery, a delectable chicken and sausage paella accompanied with albariño-poached shrimp, to which the mustard cream/pesto drizzle added an 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.
Rio Seco Winery’s take on the Mardi Gras was a zinfandel accompanying chefs Brandi Mathews and Jacob Bartunek’s classic Cajun crawfish tail cream sauce layered on pasta and smoked andouille sausage, topped with a cheddar jalapeño hush puppy that titillated my palate with one-two punch and crunch.
The Earth & Fire Brewing Company teamed up with Pappy McGregor’s to whip up mini-burgers made from homegrown lamb fed with spent grain from the brewing process.
Chulos Cafe’s chef Luis Ruiz delivered a spoon-sized creation of Japanese-spiced tuna tartare resting atop lime-scented potato purée — which 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 chipotle sauce-lathered twice-cooked baby back pork ribs by Odyssey World Cafe chefs Jill Cook and Wilbur Saucedo; and CaliPaso’s chef Christopher Krotke added a crunchy twist to the classic Cannoli by stuffing it with smoked oxtail and pork belly paired with CaliPaso’s tempranillo.
Among the amateur category, we sampled chef Jason Joyce’s Calcareous wine-marinated and deliciously caramelized spareribs nestled atop a Greek salad, served 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.
Chef Brenen Bonetti’s offered bite-sized spicy potato chip topped with smoked brisket, queso foam and grilled pineapple served 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 toasty 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 with Gelfand’s Dusi Vineyard zinfandel.
After two hours of judging, my palate reflected mostly hits and few misses, for example, a dish begging for a hint of acid here or tweaking of spice there, but overall the dishes were ambitious and impressive.
In the professional category, we voted Diablo Paso and Jeffry’s Wine Country BBQ as the winner, followed by Derby Wine Estates and Rio Seco in third place, with an honorable mention for Earth & Fire Brewing Company.
Among the amateur chefs, the top prize went to Tooth & Nail, followed by Calcareous and Eberle in third place with an honorable mention for Peachy Canyon Winery’s herb-stuffed savory pork roast.
From my perspective, this year the chefs were creative, “thinking outside the box,” and the portions were manageable. It was a delightful experience to see the time and effort pooled in by chefs, winemakers and the volunteers all for a good cause.
Since its inception in 1999, proceeds from the Cookoff benefit Rotary’s Harlow Ford Scholarship Foundation, a perpetual fund that has enabled the Paso Robles Rotary Club to award scholarships totaling nearly $600,000.