Burgundy vintner Dominique Lafon had just poured seven vintages of his rare and famous Meursault Clos de la Barre, finishing with 1985, the year that he took control of Domaine des Comtes Lafon from his retiring father. Lafon's performance at the 13th annual Masters of Food & Wine was sold out, drawing an audience of appreciative consumers and wine professionals.
Though Lafon was happy to share his wines with a roomful of fans, he said that the real reason he had come to the Masters of Food & Wine was simply the convivial atmosphere. "I come here to see what's happening in California, to see old friends and talk to the chefs and restaurateurs who buy my wines," he commented. "It's really fantastic."
Lafon's feelings were shared by many of the 60 winemakers and chefs participating in the drinking and dining extravaganza in Carmel, Calif. Other wineries and distillers that poured vertical tastings included Chateau Latour, with seven vintages dating back to 1982; Laberdolive Armagnac, with eight vintages going back to 1946; Turley, with all vintages of its hard-to-find Zinfandel Hayne Vineyard from 1998 (a barrel sample) to 1993 (the first year it was made); and Weingut Hermann Donnhof in Germany, with a series of late-harvest Rieslings.
It all happened over one glorious week at the end of February, when a select group of winemakers teamed up with renowned chefs to create a wine-and-food-lover's paradise at the picturesque Highlands Inn, tucked into the cliffs overlooking Monterey Bay. About 3,000 consumers attended the various gourmet meals, wine tastings and cooking classes offered during the event.
Chefs like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in Napa Valley shared their cooking secrets in intimate classroom settings. The two also prepared four- to seven-course lunches and dinners for 200 hungry diners, working with 30 other top chefs, including Traci Des Jardins of Jardiniere in San Francisco, Michelle Gayer of Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, Lee Hefter of Spago Beverly Hills, Nobu Matsuhisa of Matsuhisa in Los Angeles, Thierry Rautureau of Rover's in Seattle, Joachim Splichal of Patina in Los Angeles and Alain Passard of Arpege in Paris, France.
"It's a marriage of the best chefs and winemakers in the world," said Laura Stahl, a Carmel resident who found herself opposite Alice Waters one afternoon at lunch. "I love cooking, and sitting here with people like Alice Waters is unbelievable. It's so inspiring."
Participating chefs found it equally inspiring to work with colleagues from far-flung corners of the world. "We're down in the kitchen peeling apples," said Wayne Brachman, pastry chef at Mesa Grill in New York City. "The odds of seeing me or any of these chefs doing that in our own kitchens are small. But I'll do it here.It's not like I'm working; I'm involved with a great, collaborative cooking experience. There are no prep cooks here, no delegating. We're all working for free just for the experience."
Perhaps the only wrinkle in the week's activities was the uncertainty regarding the event's future. Two years ago, Highlands Inn was purchased by Hyatt Hotels, which also bought the Masters of Food & Wine name and concept. The hotel group is planning to convert Highlands Inn to a time-share property next year, though the restaurant, Pacific's Edge, and 25 percent of its rooms will remain open to the public.
There is concern that the hotel chain will not remain committed to the same high standards currently in evidence at the Masters of Food & Wine. Pacific's Edge chef Cal Stamenov -- who also coordinates the kitchen for the Masters of Food & Wine -- has already announced he is resigning after a five-year tenure. He will be moving to a new hotel to be built in the area and financed by Ben Pon, who owns Bernardus Vineyards and Winery in Carmel Valley.
Despite the rumors, Highlands Inn vice president and general manager David Fink said that calls for alarm are premature. "The owners have expressed to me that they want to keep everything the same at the Masters," he commented. An official announcement regarding next year's event should be made within several months.
To read about past Masters of Food & Wine events:
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