The 21st Annual Paso Robles Rotary Winemakers’ Cookoff had 24 wineries and breweries (yes they let the beer guys in a few years back) competing for bragging rights of delivering the best dish off the grill.
The event is about so much more than winemakers competing for best dish. This is a fundraising event with all net proceeds going to the Harlow Ford Scholarship Foundation benefiting high-school seniors. The event has raised over $500,000 over the years, with last year’s event resulting in a $75,000 donation to the scholarship program. Gary Eberle, one of the master minds behind the event, expects this year’s event to once again raise a sizable donation.
All of the wineries, breweries and professional chefs deserve thanks for their efforts to make the event successful. In addition to pouring beverages and dishing up tasty plates for the 2,000 attendees, many also go out of their way to decorate their booth, come up with a theme and make the event memorable for attendees.
An example of this, and one of my favorite themes, was “Breakfast in Bed” by Pear Valley Vineyards. The booth was decorated with quilts, stuffed animals, pillows featuring staff photos, and the team was wearing PJs (there’s a comfy outfit for a pouring event!). Their dish was French toast casserole with a fruit topping and a side of sausage.
Judges Top Picks
I was excited to be back on the judges panel this year. Each year five professionals from the food and wine industry are selected to taste through all the dishes and determine the winners in both an amateur (no culinary professional help allowed) and a professional category. This year’s judges included Robert Whitley, Michael Cervin, Kathy Marcks Hardesty, Sara Schneider and myself (Lisa Pretty). Each judge individually assigns a score between 1 and 5 to each dish and then the scores are tallied. The dish with the highest score in each category wins. In the case of a tie (we had ties for first place in both categories this year), the judges vote to break the tie.
First place went to Vino Vargas for their “Flying Flamenco Wings with Cuchi Cuchi Sauce”. As an added touch for judging they even put each wing on fresh greens and a pretty plate. The judges don’t actually grant points for presentation; however, since I was photographing each dish I appreciated their extra effort! I also enjoyed the Tempranillo paired with the wing.
Second Place went to Earth and Fire Brewing Company for their “Caja China Pork Arepas”. Lots of flavor in this dish with the slow-roasted pork. Although I am not typically a beer drinker, I was really impressed with the beer pairing.
Third Place went to Ancient Peaks for their “Sliders”. Although they did not have the most creative description, the little slider had what I would say was the best beef at the event and the arugula was the perfect green to complement the onions and cheese.
Honorable Mention went to JUSTIN for their “Smoked Pork Shoulder Tacos”. The pickled cabbage and red onion slaw were delicious. I would also give them credit for having a taco base that held together and was lightly seared.
Several wineries (and breweries) partner with a professional chef to create their dish. Since it isn’t really fair to have them competing at the same level as the amateurs, a second category was added to the competition a few year’s back.
First place in this category went to Rio Seco who partnered with Stein’s Catering to deliver “Swine ‘n Wine …Just Fine”. This little burger had slow roasted pulled pork topped with Canadian Bacon. I think the bacon is what pushed this dish to the top!
Second place (once again it required a judge’s vote to break the tie) went to Robert Hall Winery who partnered with The Patio Kitchen to deliver “Grilled Lamb Canape”. I was extremely impressed with this dish since keeping the puff pastry texture perfect and also having the marinated, grilled lamb with a lovely pink center is not an easy feat when dishing up food for a crowd of this size. The judges also were happy to not only have the wine pairing but also a refreshing Frosé! We were long over due for a nice palate cleanser. (The Frosé was their bribe for people’s choice tickets — the judges can’t be bribed, we just judge the food).
Third place went to Dead Oak Brewing Company who partnered with Colony Market and Deli to deliver “Porchetta Sliders”. This was another slow-roasted pork shoulder dish loaded with herbs. The fennel and rosemary were a really nice addition. All of the judges really appreciated that they took the time to toast the brioche bun (we had a lot of soggy buns throughout the evening).
Honorable mention went to Peachy Canyon for their “Wild Boar Carnitas”. What made this extra special is that they not only cooked the boar, they also shot it themselves. These little tacos were tasty and paired well with the winery’s zinfandel.
People’s Choice Award
The event attendees get to vote for their favorite winery or brewery for another set of awards. The competition for this coveted award is fierce. At most of the booths, a “bribe” will be offered to entice guests to part with their vote tickets. Some will offer a pour of a special wine, others will have a dessert item, a refreshing beverage, or a piece of swag.
This year’s first place went to Lusso Della Terra Cellars. Their bribe…a FREE 3-night CRUISE. That’s impressive and obviously was more than enough to convince people to hand over their vote ticket.
Other winners in the people’s choice awards include: Calcareous, Eberle and JUSTIN. Congratulations to all for making this event so fun!
This year’s spirit award went to Calcareous Vineyard. Their shipwrecked, island theme was really cute.
Back by popular demand: The Rockin’ B’s
The talented Julie Beaver, and her band, have played at this event for several years (as long as I can remember). The Rockin’ B’s are a crowd favorite, and the event would not be the same without them!