Skies were gray with smoke from Northern California’s many wildfires, but that didn’t deter a crowd of 800 foodies from gathering this past weekend at Northstar California. The common denominator was the 30th annual Lake Tahoe Autumn Food and Wine Festival, a three-day celebration of bites and sips. Giving it an educational twist was an array of a la carte seminars, themed dinners, guided wine-, beer- and food-tastings and hands-on activities. Catering to the attendees were dozens of vendors selling a variety of wares, from eucalyptus-scented soap and fine German cutlery, to hand-crafted chocolates and Italian olive oils.
On Sunday, the festival’s premiere event, the Grand Tasting, featured 19 area restaurants teamed with 17 wineries, one distillery and one brewery, in competition for gold, silver and bronze medals – and highly marketable “braggin’ rights.”
As attendees tasted fine wines and sampled delectable small-plate dishes at tents and kiosks set up on and above the Northstar ice-skating rink, the question was: Which food-and-wine pairings would be the most compatible, and who would win medals?
For the third time, I was among the judges for the Grand Tasting and for Saturday’s Blazing Pans Mountain Chef Cook-Off. In that “Iron Chef”-like competition, two top chefs (and their sous chefs) had to cook three “restaurant-quality” courses in 90 minutes, in front of a crowd of hundreds. The “secret ingredient” this year was craft beer. In past competitions, it has been organic free-range turkey, crayfish from Lake Tahoe, and baby goat.
Going head-to-head Saturday were chef Jason Friendy from the Resort at Squaw Creek/Six Peaks Grille, and chef Robb Wyss of Sunnyside Restaurant & Lodge. Friendy narrowly won.
For the Grand Tasting judging, seven of us conferred for three hours in a conference room as dish after dish was brought out, 17 of them teamed with white or red wines, one with beer and one with a Manhattan cocktail, straight up. Many of the dishes were based on duck breast, seafood or pork belly. One of our favorites was seared cobia, a gamefish found in warm Atlantic waters. That luscious dish will appear on the fall/winter menu at Tavern 6330 at Northstar.
The winners were announced to the lively crowd sipping and tasting outside, who applauded and hooted and made quick dashes to the winners’ tents for seconds (or thirds).
Best Pairing of Food and Beverage
Gold: Northstar California (Tavern 6330) and Benziger Family Wines
Silver: Six Peaks Grille/Resort at Squaw Creek and Alaskan Amber Co.
Bronze: Granlibakken and Emeritus
Gold: Wolfdale’s Cuisine Unique
Silver: Smokey Bones Bar & Grill
Bronze: Moody’s Bistro Bar & Beats
Best Red Wine
Best White Wine
Gold: Gruet Champagne
Best Beverage Other than Wine
Gold: Charbay Distillery & Winery
Best Beer: Goose Island Seasonal Oktoberfest
Best Other Than Wine: Charbay Distillery & Winery
Best White: ZD
Best Red: Orin Swift
Best Table Presentation: Northstar California
Best Food: Campo
Best Pairing: Northstar California and Benziger