"Now we turn to your favorite seminar," Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews announced to a packed house. "It's really where the pedal meets the metal; it's where the rubber meets the road; it's where the wine meets the food."
This year's lineup included longtime chef participants Emeril Lagasse and José Andrés. Porter House chef Michael Lomonaco returned after making his event debut last year and veteran restaurateur Piero Selvaggio joined the panel for the first time, bringing chef Luciano Pellegrini of Valentino at the Venetian in Las Vegas to man the kitchen.
"We have four dishes for you to taste and eight wines," Matthews explained. "Two wines for each dish. One chef makes a dish, he sends us the description, a different chef picks a wine for it, and I pick a wine for it, so three people have skin in the game." The crowd decides which wine pairing works best.
Reminding the chefs that this is Wine Spectator's 40th anniversary, Matthews asked them how the world of dining has changed over their careers. "For me, what has changed is that food has become more democratic," responded Andrés. "Thirty-three years ago … I would walk in front of a restaurant, only looking inside, because I did not have the dress for them to let me in. Now, the walls are down. Bridges are built. Young people can now dream that if they work hard, they can go to a fancy restaurant. … These great American chefs, working with a lot of immigrant chefs—because America is a country of immigrants—has made America the most diverse, exciting country [for dining] today."
The first dish was Andrés' "Beefsteak" Tomato Tartare with Anchovies. "Every time you go to a restaurant, it's meat, meat, meat, meat … I need to give vegetables an opportunity!" said Andrés as he dangled an anchovy in front of the crowd, explaining that it would add just the right amount of salt to the dish.
Selvaggio, whose original Valentino, in Santa Monica, Calif., was one of Wine Spectator's first 13 Grand Award winners in 1981, selected the Planeta Frappato Vittoria 2015, a lightly spicy but fresh and balanced young red from Sicily. Matthews paired the dish with the Cune Rioja Rosado 2015 (85 points, $13), a juicy Spanish rosé with grip.
"Tomato is easy to match," said Selvaggio, "but the anchovy was a nice challenge. Frappato is slang for 'fruity,' and we needed a fruity wine to complement that saltiness of the anchovies and the acidity of the tomatoes." Matthews picked the 100 percent Tempranillo rosé for its fruitiness as well, and to match the dish's inexpensive ingredients, illustrating that great food and wine do not have to be costly.
Andrés, to no one's surprise, opted for the Spanish wine. Lagasse made a case for the Frappato's ability to stand up to the tomatoes’ acidity. Though close, Matthews called the audience vote in favor of the rosé.
"We make something special down in New Orleans called 'boudin,' which is a traditional rice and pork liver sausage … but we decided to put it in a tart form," said Lagasse, introducing his Gulf Shrimp Boudin Tartlet.
Lomonaco chose Far Niente Chardonnay Napa Valley 2014 (89, $67) as "an elegant example of California Chardonnay … It has some citrusy notes to it [but] it's an Old-World style, so it doesn't hammer you with oak. I thought it would marry well with the Cajun notes."
Matthews chose a Chablis, Christian Moreau Père et Fils Les Clos 2014 (95, $111), "because I love Chablis. I think everybody should drink Chablis, and because New Orleans has such a great French tradition."
Lagasse, noting he is a fan of Far Niente, still gave the edge to the Chablis. "They're both great, but Tom, you might have gotten lucky here," he said. Despite Andrés patriotic pitch for the Far Niente, the crowd elected the Chablis champ.
Selvaggio and chef Pellegrini made an ambitious debut: Saddle of Rabbit with Sicilian Dates and Pantelleria Capers. "When I started [in the restaurant industry], we had 'clams casino,' 'shrimp Parmigiana,' 'steak Sinatra' …. You don't even know what those things are!" Selvaggio joked. "We moved on." He called the roasted rabbit a dish of his hometown, with some historical influences: dates and capers from Sicily and a chocolate sauce to finish it.
"A very challenging dish, with powerful flavors," said Matthews, who chose Feudi del Pisciotto Cerasuola di Vittoria Giambattista Valli 2012 (90, $33) from Sicily. "If it grows together, it goes together," he commented.
Lagasse picked Luca Fedrigo's Veronese L'Arco 2011, a powerful red from Italy's Veneto that Matthews described as "basically an Amarone … and chocolate and Amarone is a classic combination." Andrés chimed in: "I have to grab this dish by the neck, so for me I would start with [Lagasse's wine] and finish with the other." The crowd seemed to agree, as Matthews called it a tie.
Finally, the panel moved on to Lomonaco's Venison Terrine with Pork, Chanterelles, Preserved Walnuts and Currant Sauce. The chef detailed even more ingredients: "This has pistachio nuts, a little bit of pork fat … there's cinnamon, there's mace—I think it's a perfect kind of fall dish."
Andrés chose—what else?—a Spanish wine, the Garnacha-based Álvaro Palacios Priorat Les Terrasses Velles Vinyes 2014 (93, $40). "This is a dish of terroir," Andrés said, "and nothing to me in the world tells me more than the terroir of Priorat."
Matthews chose a Syrah from France's Northern Rhône Valley, the M. Chapoutier Hermitage Monier La Sizeranne 2012 (91, $135). The vote again was too close to call, but Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken—the event tiebreaker—sided with the Chapoutier. Capping it all off, Andrés, egging on the crowd, then serenaded him with a rousing 40th anniversary version of "Happy Birthday to You."
Gulf Shrimp Boudin Tartlet with Mirleton Salad and Creole Court Bouillon Vinaigrette
Lomonaco's wine: Far Niente Chardonnay Napa Valley 2014 (89, $67)
Matthews' wine: Christian Moreau Père et Fils Chablis Les Clos 2014 (95, $111)
Saddle of Rabbit with Sicilian Dates and Pantelleria Capers
Lagasse's wine: Luca Fedrigo Veronese L'Arco 2011 (not yet rated)
Matthews' wine: Feudi del Pisciotto Cerasuola di Vittoria Giambattista Valli 2012 (90, $33)
Venison Terrine with Pork, Chanterelles, Preserved Walnuts and Currant Sauce
Andrés' wine: Álvaro Palacios Priorat Les Terrasses Velles Vinyes 2014 (93, $40)
Matthews' wine: M. Chapoutier Hermitage Monier La Sizeranne 2012 (91, $135)