A Journey Down the Bunghole... Wine! Wine you sillies! You know those stoppered holes in the middle of wine casks? That’s called a bung, And that’s where the wine comes out. So when I was invited to attend this year’s A Celebration of Wine at the Rancho Vista del Rio, I made sure that I put my drinking shoes on and pre-hydrated well before arrival.
First off, what a gorgeous spot for an event! To say that it’s in the land owner’s back yard belies how huge the spot is. There are dozens of vintners and restaurants rubbing shoulder to shoulder. I was there for the full three hours of the event and only had the time to make about a lap and a half through the winding paths of fuzzy delight. And there’s so much to see! From coopers building a wine barrel from scratch right before your eyes, to the appealing art of one Brad Boling and all of the amazing items up for bid at the silent auction. There were magnums of wine, bottle sets, gift baskets and some truly amazing vacations to places as close as the coast and as far away as Belize and Peru.
There may have been some pro wine tasters around, but myself and everyone I saw couldn’t fathom not swallowing these glass bound art pieces. In case you didn’t notice, I rather liked the wine. I can’t say that I had a single bad glass. Certainly there were some that I vastly preferred. And the array of wines available enabled me to seek out the types and flavors that I usually prefer. For me, it was a wonderful day of rieslings and muscats with an occasional cameo by a chardonnay and some wonderful varietals that I had never heard of. Top favorites would have to be the Cupcake Vineyards riesling, the Ramos Torres muscat blend, an incredibly sweet 100% muscat from Quady, a spicy barbera from Two Friends that burned for minutes after a drink, the carbonated pomegranate wine from Twin Poms and of course the honey mead from Los Californios.
All in all, I have to say that all of the vintners showcasing their wares certainly brought out their best for the crowd. I have been to other events where I was astonished that someone would bring out such a poor product and happily serve it with their label evident to any with eyes. But here, it’s 180 degrees from disappointment. After my first 5 samples I finally talked myself out of being pleasantly surprised and caught on to the fact that this was going to be a consistently good experience all day. And boy, it sure was. At first I thought a $70 ticket price might be a little high, but when you break it down to 3 hours of drinking any and every wine you see to your satisfaction and compare it to what your bar tab would be, it’s about half of the price. Plus you get the wonderful ambience of the well manicured yard and tons of lovely people to enjoy it all with. Oh yeah, and there’s FOOD!!
Food, oh my beloved mistress of nutrition. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. 32 different restaurants and/or purveyors of fine comestibles are present. That’ll certainly help you offset any embarrassing moments where your body might decide to do an impromptu impression of a wine fed fire hose. And beyond just soaking up the volatile components of your chosen beverage, this food is put out by some of the finest chefs in town! A short who’s who that we recognized: Chef Karsten of Erna’s, Chef Vatche from Cracked Pepper, Chef Scott Sauer from Max’s and of course, Chef Delaney from our own Valley411.
A brief aside: The VIP tent is CRAZY VIP. I dunno how you can get into this club of awesome (besides having my Jimmy Buffet Ninja skillz) but whatever it is, it’s worth it for the extra hour of celebration and getting to dive into Chef Delaney’s Catering. What a spread! I could wax poetic about his cheese plate for an hour. And there was even a bruschetta bar that had tasty things not involving wretched tomatoes and onions! Brilliant! But there’s so much more. Prosciutto and breadcrumb stuffed mushroom caps, so shroomy I may have hallucinated the rest of the day. Yakitori skewers and kebabs of balsamic marinated onions, peppers and salami. Yes, salami! So far, the oddest of grilled meats that I’ve ever nibbled on a stick. And the green bell peppers had their flavor coaxed out of the usually bitter flavor I’m not fond up and somehow morphed into the taste of a light pickled carrot. Easily the biggest food coup of the day. But what else should one expect in the VIP tent? And it’s not over! There’s still the slider station where you can choose between fresh grilled mini beef patties or an exquisite pulled pork simmering in Chef Delaney’s own BBQ sauce and topped with some of the sexiest sautéed mushrooms I’ve ever seen in my life. These babies were so meaty that a mincing vegetarian would have been overjoyed at their own massive mushroom sliders of non-meathood. Surround all this with fresh chilled fruit to take the edge off a rather warm day and you’ll discover that it’s good to be a VIP.
But fear not! Though the land of deep pockets is a wonderful place, it would be foolish to believe that there isn’t a Wonderland of culinary delights snuggled in between all the viticultural masterpieces. Erna’s Elderberry House is in the…backyard? Well, they were next to the pond, so I suppose we can say they were on the shore. Anyways, normally very far away and not exactly in my affordable range. This was my first shot at finally getting a peek at the reality of Chef Karsten’s rep. In one bite, I’d call it well earned. A dollop of creamy duck liver with chives floating on a crispy thin cruton. I presume at least, I was too busy lowing like a cow in heat and being shuffled away by my horrified companions and was therefore unable to clarify it’s ingredients. As an addition bump to it’s amazingness, a lady companion that we had teased mercilessly about the potential ingredients even had to admit that she thought it was delicious despite the horrors that her imagination was spawning. Though I doubt the chef would smile at his dish being called “The best cat food I’ve ever eaten”, she did indeed happily eat “the cat food” and was so pleased as to give it a rather backhanded compliment. It’s still in the win category for helping to nudge someone a little closer to enjoying new foods and having fun doing. Nice job!
My worst struggle was that the Cracked Pepper Bistro’s booth was very early in my first turn through the festival. I knew what he was going to bring. He’d be a fool not to. I can picture hundred of raging wine soaked food aficionados setting fire to his booth because Vatche neglected to bring his insanely popular bread pudding. It’s too damn good! And I’ve got a long day of nibbling and sipping ahead of me here! I know that I’ll lose my dignity and just wind up circling back to the end of the line and blowing the whole day gorging myself on it’s fluffy, crispy and sweet glory. I’m sorry Vatche, but I hope my portion got to go to someone who has never gotten to enjoy it before and they got to slither into an early food pre-coma. Seriously, I’d have had two glasses of wine, 20 of those and then taken a nap under a tree. It’s that good.
And there was a lot more for us to meander to and graze upon. The Chef’s Helper had a very nice salami and cheese plate. The lovely ladies of the California Cheese Board had some great wrapped samples of Sonoma jack cheese and some mozzie sticks. The habanero cheese was pretty dang hot. Not dangerously so. But certainly NOT for the kids. Not that there were any. 21 and up. It was like a small serene space of heaven. Speaking of cheese, Fiscalini had 3 incredible cheddar cheeses and tipped the scale with their fresh horseradish and cheddar dip with pretzels for dipping. If they had hockey on a TV, I could have sat there all day. The ladies at the Roe booth had some wonderfully refreshing Cali rolls and a chilled chicken and apple salad in a bite sized wrap. Bella Pasta’s orzo salad and potato salad were really good. Their fusilli though was pretty dry. I assume it was their last platter of the day, so there’s a bit of forgiveness there. Wahoo’s Fish Tacos was already long gone by this point, so I had a sad fishless day.
However, I didn’t even have enough time to work up a tear since North India Bar and Grill were right next door. The smell of their curry was curling my toes! In the good way. They were throwing down fragrant rice with veg, curried garbanzo beans (SO DAMN GOOD! Spicy but not overly so) and hearty hunks of boneless chicken breast. In some eyes the portion size on the chicken might have been too large. But in my humble eyes, I saw folks happy and eager to feed people. And that’s what makes food step up from good to great. The only tragedy, from my gluttonous adventurer position, was that after a few bites I was well and truly full. I had never thought in my life that I would have wished for a Roman style spot to make some room for even more delicious taste delights. For me, that makes North India the belle of the ball. Though they ruined me, it was certainly an extremely high note to end my eatstravaganza on.
Still, some honorable mentions should still be offered to the folks who offered warm showmanship and were kindly informative about their businesses and wares. The gentleman serving for the Daily Grill was extremely friendly and effectively thrust any and all pertinent information about the restaurant into my brain with an almost Matrix like efficiency. Sadie Mae’s pulled pork barbecue smelled and looked divine! I was simple too dang full to muster up for even a small nibble. Such is my shame. The cat from the Grizzly Republic winery was easily the coolest of all the wine slingers (with Twin Poms a close second), we sat and chatting with and around him for easily 15 minutes while he was happily topping our glasses. You sir are the Vroom Vroom Party Starter! And lastly the ladies from Doce Robles winery did a wonderful job educating me on the varietal grapes that I had never heard of in my short wine drinking career. They were really pleasant and patient and even helped me with my god awful pronunciation.
Bringing it all together, I’ve got no idea how I was able to maintain any form of decorum with so much good stuff everywhere. Deep inside I just wanted to be rolled around in a wheelbarrow with a Victorian era Irish coal man shoveling bucket loads of delicious into my yawning maw. But sadly, my wheelbarrow chauffer called in sick that very morning. However that didn’t mar a wonderful event. I simply had to pace myself as we sampled our way through the panoply of delights. And while the event was very popular, I wouldn’t describe it as crowded. No more than a couple minutes of a wait for any one spot and always pleasant people to chat with while you waited. And the grounds provide you with a very pleasant backdrop to sit in some shade and enjoy your mouth-gems. Really, the 2010 Celebration of Wine was most successful, especially in giving me an extraordinary experience and an insanely pleasant punctuation to an amazing weekend. It’s $72 to get into Disneyland. It’s chock full of screaming kids and a bottle of water will run you $5 and it all goes to the Disney shareholders. A pre-ordered ticket to the Celebration of Wine is $70, there are no children allowed and you don’t have to spend a dime once you arrive! Everyone is excited to give you a taste or a sample of their goods. And all of the proceeds go to the viticulture library at Fresno State! So not only are you enjoying fabulous California wines and excellent local foods, but you’re also supporting education and local farming. What a responsible way to be stuffed to the gills and beamingly buzzed! This one is a definite on my calendar for next year for sure.
Doug is a Fresnan born and bred and is oddly ok with that. As the mysterious author behind Eating Out Fresno, he wanders strange streets and talks to strange people as part and parcel of his in-depth research into all things esoteric. Part cook, part writer with a huge splash of the bizarre round out the character of this irrepressible dipsomaniac. A lover of all things Tower District from theater, to music and dining. He exists to put his particular spin on the wonders and experiences that Fresno has to offer and madly scribble out his insanity for the edification of a bemused and horrified public. Strange days lie ahead. E-stalk him on Facebook!