The Wine Tasting Challenge

The Wine Tasting Challenge

To Via Allegro on Monday for the awards lunch of The Wine Tasting Challenge. It’s an extraordinary competition, created by Via Allegro’s president, Phil Sabatino, in the name of his ever-evolving brainchild, The Renaissance Project (dedicated to “the passionate rebirth of Toronto”), but now administered by the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute at Brock University. The lunch was a splendidly dramatic occasion, complete with monsoon, thunder and powercut, though the storm held off until all present had enjoyed chef Lino Collevecchio’s gorgeous lunch.

For those who like reading about other people’s meals, let me just mention the menu. We began with a crudo di tonno enhanced by papaya, mint, a quail egg, pistachio, meyer lemon aioli and organic micro greens.Then a small slice of terrine of rabbit and foie gras (perfectly textured, melting on the tongue) on a mosaic of farro grains, spring beets, pomegranate seeds and roasted pecan oil.

The fish course was a gathering of small pasta postage stamps filled with mashed salt cod in an east coast clam and octopus chowder.

Our main course featured a delectably moist ballantine of quail stuffed with truffled fava beans alongside an amazingly tender piece of bison tenderloin, dusted with porcini. Also sharing the plate were some fresh ramps and a timbale of roasted jerusalem artichoke that almost stole the show.

Then Afrim Pristine of Cheese Boutique stepped forward and presented some cheeses which Via Allegro’s whisky curator, Joseph Cassidy, paired with some fine single malts. Aged Thunder Oak gouda and 10 Year-old Abelour? Unbelievable. But could anything match the tongue-scorching power of Spanish blue cabrales? A 10 Year-old Ardbeg from Islay that tasted like iodine, China tea, coal tar soap and kelp was the ideal choice.

After that, dessert of strawberry and saba mascarpone torta and chilled red vermouth zabaglione hit the palate with the cool, pale hands of an angel of mercy.

Throughout this feast, the business of the day was conducted—the awarding of prizes to the winners—1st, 2nd and 3rd in the amateur category; 1st place in the CCOVI-VQA award for blind recognition of VQA wines; 1st place in the Spirits award; 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the professional category. The sponsors who have now gathered in support of this competition provide more than $80,000 in prizes, cash, trips, stemware and scholarships, making this the most valuable wine-tasting competition in North America. There is no entry fee and it’s open to anyone who fancies that their oenological acuity is up to the task.

And now… the winners of the professional round. (The amateurs are no less worthy but it’s the pros we may meet in restaurants present and future.) In third place, Alexander Hamilton, sommelier of Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner. In second place, Jakub Lipinski, still a student but also working at Treadwell in Port Dalhousie. The Grand Award winner is Sault Ste. Marie’s own Sara d’Amato, sommelier of Truffles at the Four Seasons, Yorkville. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person. I only hope the hotel gives her enough vacation time to take advantage of the trips to France and Italy, the latter as guest of the Antinori family, a priceless opportunity arranged by Halpern wine agency.

One thing that struck many of us at the lunch was that the winners were all so young! Only one of them (amateur champ, Craig Fleming) is over 30, I would imagine. There’s this whole new generation of gifted wine tasters emerging into our restaurants to take over the reins of the sommelier’s phaeton with grace, modesty, enthusiasm and knowledge. They enhance our enjoyment; they enhance the restaurant’s bottom line because they sell more and better wine; our knowledge increases; so does theirs. Everyone wins.

One question not posed at the Via Allegro luncheon: Why are french fries sweet but rarely crispy at this time of the year?

It’s funny to think they are a seasonal treat, but they are. Staggering towards the deep friers in our cafes and restaurants, cooks across Canada are carrying frites made from the final specimens of last year’s potato crop. Months of storage have turned most of the starch in these potatoes into sugar. Which is dandy if you’re distilling poteen but makes a crispy fry devilishly hard to achieve. The best solution is to use potatoes that were frozen in their prime, but conscientious chefs turn up their noses at such an option. Hence the soggy chips in our art houses and the crispy ones in low chains where untrained teenagers tip sacks of frozen fries into scalding but mirky oil. All will right itself any day now when the year’s first starchy Californian spuds reach Toronto.

The above useful information was told to me by Anne Yarymowich, chef at the Art Gallery of Ontario, over brunch at Bistro Bakery Thuet. It really is the best brunch in town by a country mile—or will be when Mildred Pierce closes in June. That will be a sad day indeed. But Saturday was scarcely more happy as JOV Bistro, on Bayview Avenue, finally danced the mortal coil shuffle. Hats off. We’ve had some good times there.