Thursday, October 25, 2012

Santa Barbara’s Best Winemaker Dinner You’ve Never Attended

This is Santa Barbara - wine country - and there are winemakers dinners every week around here. I have attended my share of them as a wine and food writer and have seen every kind imaginable: fancy, rustic, celebrity chef, candlelight in the wine caves, blah, blah, blah. Often these wonderful dinners have the winemaker or winery owner present to talk about his or her juice, a fancy dinner, lots of loud guests and a tab which hits close to $150. Ouch. That’s a lotta bucks, but often these are 5 and 6 course affairs, with those specific wines paired with the food from said terrific kitchen. And yes, they are fun.

But what if there were a winemaker dinner series which had a specific theme (let’s say Oregon Pinot Noir versus California Pinot Noir; Cool-Climate Syrah versus Warm Climate Syrah, for example). And what if the winemaker was present talking and pouring his wine, but each guest also brought a bottle of wine tied in with the theme? (Simple math means that each guest or couple would amount to an additional 25 to 40 bottles of wine specific to the theme depending on how many guests show up). And what if the cost for the dinner wasn’t hovering well over a hundred bucks, but was priced at a stunning $50? Would you go? You bet your sweet dessert wine you’d go!

Well, guess what: 10 times each year the BYOB Wine & Dine dinner held at Max’s on Upper State Street does just this. Started by local wine lover Leslie Thomas, they were designed to showcase the diversity of wines from around Santa Barbara. On my visit on a Sunday night Tantara Winery owner Bill Cates (known for his wonderful Pinot Noirs) was on hand and the theme was Syrah. In addition to the Syrahs Bill brought, there were an additional 30 bottles of Syrah to sample: a tall order, but one I gladly accepted. And that’s the beauty of this format. You can contrast and compare Syrahs form multiple producers (there were lots of Syrahs from Santa Barbara, Paso Robles, Monterey and Washington State and some I never got to because frankly there were so many). To start the evening off there are assorted paired cheeses from C’est Cheese, the single best cheese shop in Santa Barbara. That was followed by three courses that Max’s staff prepared including an Herbed Gnocchi with Green Olives, Cippolini Onions, and Roasted Cherry Tomatoes, followed by a Cassoulet of Braised Lamb with Cannellini Beans, Chard, and Stewed Tomatoes, and finally the night wrapped up with a Wine-Poached Pear with Dark Chocolate-Sesame Seed Bark, which was served with a late harvest wine from Tantara.
The staff at Max's prepares the meal
Yes, it’s a lot of food, a lot of wine and a lot of fun. Some in attendance are well versed with wine, others are relative newbie’s, but the common denominator is a love of wine with out all the stuffy pretentiousness. There is a small educational component, but this is not a formal class-room setting, so if you want to talk with the winemaker or owner, if have access to get more detailed if you want. So if winemaker dinners are new to you, or if you want a casual environment to sample plenty of wine specific to the theme of that evening, then definitely consider the BYOB series at Max’s. These are also great dinners if you are visiting for only a few days, or if you’ve lived here for decades. 

They run from 6 p.m. to about 9 p.m. and I highly recommend it. Check out their website under events for upcoming dinners. Max's restaurant

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