Autumn Food and Wine Festival brought foodies and fine fare to Northstar-at-Tahoe

The weather was ideal for the crowd of 2,000-plus foodies who gathered this past weekend at Northstar-at-Tahoe near Truckee, and spilled over into the ultra-luxurious Ritz Carlton hotel, a gondola ride above the ski resort.

For the foodies and the two properties alike, the common denominator was the 29th annual Lake Tahoe Autumn Food and Wine Festival, a three-day celebration of top bites and sips. Giving it an educational twist was an array of a la carte seminars, themed dinners, guided wine-, beer- and cheese-tastings, hands-on activities and more. In the midst of it all, dozens of vendors sold everything from plein-air art to jars of honey.

On Sunday, the festival’s premiere event, the Grand Tasting, featured 23 area restaurants teamed with 21 wineries, one distillery and one brewery, in competition for gold, silver and bronze medals — and bragging rights, of course, which are quite marketable.

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 exciting, and who would walk away with the medals?

For the second 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 sou chefs) must cook four “restaurant-quality” courses in an hour, in front of a crowd of hundreds of cheering, whooping fans. The “secret ingredient” this year was organic free-range turkey. Last year it was baby goat, and the year before it was crayfish from Lake Tahoe.

Going head-to-head Saturday were 2013 champ Mark Estee of Campo in Reno, and Wyatt Dufresne of Plumpjack Cafe in Squaw Valley. We five judges sampled the eight tasty, imaginative dishes and tallied the scores. Dufresne dethroned Estee by a narrow margin, and will defend his title next year. Estee, too, will return — as one of the judges.

From our perspective, judging Blazing Plans was far more straightforward than the Grand Tasting judging. For that, we seven judges sat for four hours at tables in a conference room on Sunday, tasting, ranking and discussing 23 dishes matched with 21 wines, a pale ale from the Brewing Lair in Blairsden, and a vodka-based cocktail from the Charbay Distillery in St. Helena. All on deadline.

The panel of judges was made up of some serious heavy-hitters, and I learned a lot. At the table were veteran wine-tasting judge Mike Dunne, former Sacramento Bee restaurant critic and now Sacramento freelance writer, blogger and contributing wine columnist for the Bee. Bill Ryan is a wine-industry expert, retired from Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena. Tim Hanni is a chef who holds an accreditation from the Institute of Masters of Wines, and is author of “Why You Like the Wines You Like.” Douglas Dale is the executive chef-owner of Wolfdale’s fine-dining restaurant in Tahoe City. Kim Caffery is the direct-sales manager for Inmann Family Wines in Santa Rosa. Lara Ritchie is the culinary director of the Nothing To It Culinary Center in Reno.

Behind closed doors, we tasted a cornucopia of dishes that ranged from the mundane to the superb, paired with good to great white and red wines. The emphasis was on “taste” and “sip.”

Some of the best offerings were a grilled portobello mushroom with creamy Marsala sauce; lamb with currant sauce and luscious bread pudding; a shishito pepper with hamachi (Pacific yellowtail tuna) and pineapple salsa; and poached salmon with beet relish and creme fraiche.

Last year, pork belly and short rib were very much present in the tasting, heralding the coming fall season. This year, we sampled three versions of bánh mì, the Vietnamese street sandwich, along with a couple of pulled-pork dishes.

The winners in all the categories 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).

The top three best pairings were:

Gold: Pianeta restaurant (sausage with rosemary-garlic marinara sauce) and Pride Mountain winery (2011 merlot)

Silver: Farm to Belly (rabbit ballotine) and Handley Cellars (2010 pinot noir)

Bronze: Northstar California (peppercorn-crusted venison) and Frog’s Leap (2011 merlot)

For a complete list of winners, including the People’s Choice awards, click here.