Attendees at the 14th Annual Masters of Food & Wine at the Highlands Inn, a Park Hyatt Hotel, in Carmel, Calif., might at times have felt like they were undergoing trial by foie gras. But the guests who attended the exclusive five-day event seemed quite happy to be overfed.
Perched amid pine trees overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Point Lobos, about 30 miles north of Big Sur, the Highlands Inn provided an intimate setting for a series of meals, wine tastings and cooking demonstrations from some of the biggest names in the culinary world.
Of the 26 chefs who worked the event, four came from the top 20 restaurants in the United States, as ranked by Wine Spectator in the March 31 issue. Participants included Charlie Trotter of Charlie Trotter's in Chicago (rated No. 1), Patrick O'Connell from The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, Julian Serrano from Picasso in the Bellagio in Las Vegas and host chef Philip Baker of Pacific's Edge in the Highlands Inn.
A number of participants, both chefs and sommeliers, represented restaurants holding Wine Spectator's Grand Award, the magazine's highest honor for restaurant wine lists. These restaurants included Pacific's Edge, The Inn at Little Washington, Charlie Trotter's, Rubicon in San Francisco and three other California restaurants: Sierra Mar Restaurant at Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, The Sardine Factory in Monterey and Wine Cask in Santa Barbara.
The Masters has become an annual pilgrimage for a host of food and wine lovers. Jeffrey Bragman, a psychologist from San Carlos, Calif., has attended since 1995. "My work required me to travel three days a week for years, so great restaurants made life much better," he said. "The food and wine here are great, and it's been wonderful getting to know many of the chefs and sommeliers. I also get to see friends that I haven't seen since last year."
The event's success belies its logistical complexity. This year, 26 chefs brought 125 assistants who helped prepare 260 pounds of foie gras. About 18,000 crystal glasses were hand-polished by 45 sommeliers, who poured 3,500 bottles of wine.
The cuisine shared frontline billing with 48 wineries, including Chbteau Mouton-Rothschild of Bordeaux, Etude Wines of Rutherford, Domaine Weinbach in Alsace, Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Lewis Cellars in Napa Valley.
Four vertical tastings focused on wines from France, California and Portugal. Jean-Claude Rouzaud, president of Champagne Louis Roederer, presented eight vintages of Cristal, the house's prestige cuvie. The wines included the heralded 1990 and 1982 vintages, which Rouzaud considers the finest of the last 20 years. But even a lesser year, 1986, was superb and still fresh, with a lacy, floral elegance.
Adrian Bridge, managing director of Portugal's Fonseca Guimaraens, hosted a tasting of 10 Ports from Taylor Fladgate and Fonseca, with standouts showings by the legendary 1927 Fonseca and 1948 Taylor.
Sharing the spotlight at another tasting were three Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends from California: Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon, Joseph Phelps Insignia and Ridge Montebello. Each producer poured four vintages, focusing primarily on the 1990s, with the 1991 Montebello and the 1994 Insignia justifying the decade's lofty reputation.
Chbteau Mouton-Rothschild offered an eight-vintage vertical, including 1975 (also poured from magnum at dinner on Thursday night), 1982 and 1986.