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March 7-14, 2007

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Masters of the universe: Many secrets of life (most of them involving wine) were revealed during this year's event.

Mastering the Masters

Wine-drenched highlights from the biggest food fair this side of the Rockies

By Selene Latigo

There are certain defining events in one's life that create momentum, times when an energetic shift or pull is almost palpable, allowing inspiration to percolate more directly than any other moment before. One such date of gravity for me was the day I was notified of my ticket to the opening night of the Masters of Food and Wine. If this sounds dramatic, let me just preface my humble efforts at describing this event by noting my near obsession with food. Awake, asleep, at work, in yoga class, I would guess that a food-related thought seeps into my consciousness every five to 10 minutes or so. If I find a willing participant, I can engage in food conversation for hours at a time, and luckily I have a partner tolerant and even comparably passionate enough to put up with my constant food mutterings and musings.

Giddy with as much neurotic research and Masters navigational advice as I could cultivate, we wound our way up the steep, limo-stacked drive of the Highlands Inn of Carmel in the pouring rain to arrive at what will be, I'm sure, a night I will recollect for a long time to come, despite the copious amounts of wine consumed.

Like fish, we were sucked into the current of fellow imbibers, food fanatics and restaurateurs, flowing up, down and through the multilevel rooms that were set up like the ultimate food fair with over 50 wineries and at least a baker's dozen of chefs and producers offering their wares. Of course, I will not attempt to reiterate the hundreds of flavors, textures and techniques we encountered that had us near tears, as my now distanced and wine-fogged brain could never do it justice. I will, however, try to describe some of the brilliant highlights.

Strategy is a moot point here and learning the lesson of letting go finally allowed some freedom to wander, snagging the stunningly plated bites and sips from wherever Fate directed. Our very first taste of wine was an Etude Rose, a cheerful and bright beginning. Next we sampled Richard Reddington's pork belly with apple purée and burdock root matchsticks along with an amazing rabbit mole on soft, creamy polenta. Bergstrom Winery poured a 2005 pinot noir that was mossy, herbal and peppery, an exciting reminder of the terroir in Willamette, Ore.

Our host's table, Mark Ayers from Highlands Inn, served some remarkable fried abalone on cauliflower purČe with a drizzle of lobster butter, perhaps heading up the seasonal shellfish theme throughout this event. Stopping off at Kunin provided a bright taste of their tropical 2005 Viognier, as did our extended visit to Moët Hennessey for a wonderful sparkling respite.

Some of the most memorable food samples for us were the dishes at Herve Fucho from the Four Seasons in Purita, Mexico. The lobster ceviche with caviar and crĖme fraÓche and the duck foie gras with caramelized pistachios and marinated watermelon on a sliver of dark rye bread were beautiful in every way.

Dave nearly passed out in overwhelming bliss from the foie gras flan at Michael Ginor's table, sourced from Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Great Neck, N.Y. The luxurious, silky 2002 Valpolicella, Dal Forno Romano provided a heartwarming glimpse of Italy before heading over to the exciting flight of Spanish wines provided by Jorge Ordonez. These, along with the three outstanding German producers, Dr. Loosen, Brundlmayer and Josef Leitz (all especially thrilling for us on our current riesling kick), were a welcome Old World influence that was much appreciated.

By the time we reached scientific culinary genius Wylie Dufresne's table, the much talked about shrimp foam was all gone. However, we were fortunate enough to grab the last two shells of green oyster pearls with pickled cucumber and borage leaves, an experience that has no words. WD-50 also blew us away with three Japanese-influenced desserts downstairs; a chocolate cream disk with puckery Umeboshi and beet foam, a cube of black currant cake with black sesame and shizo, and Yuzo curd with pistachios and spruce yogurt.

Perhaps the female energy at Susan Spicer of Herbsaint and Bayona in New Orleans caused me to sit down for the one and only time during the night, savoring the perfect curried cream cheese and crawfish turnover and the cornmeal-fried oyster with pimento aioli and sweet onion relish. Another magnificent woman, Gina DePalma of Babbo, concocted gorgeously simple desserts; a shot glass of limonchello, lemon gelato and Prosecco, and a rich brioche bun encasing the best pistachio gelato I've ever had.

Enhancing this evening even more was our occasional tour guide, Michael Burke, who not only is a home winemaker and veritable veteran of the Masters, but also pioneered Carmel's Cheese Shop with his sister back in 1973. The cheeses in the terraced display being sampled were too numerous to count, much less to try to do justice to here. Let's just say for every fine wine we tasted, its perfect match could be found, for instance, the wild antics of Gary Pisoni and his stellar new release, Gary's Vineyard 2005 Pinot Noir, right next door to the cheese paired seamlessly with their cave-aged Gruyère and Epoisse.

Again, these are just the highlights. There were multitudes of other inspired bits and pieces that either won't fit into this word count or fell victim to the mesmerizing whirlwind of a night filled with a lot of wine and a glimpse of how the Masters do it.

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