How has Firestone Vineyard chosen to kick off its new line of Discoveries Wines? With a delicious anachronism, matching up viral marketing and Facebook with the ancient site of Machu Picchu. Those bottles don’t just hold vino, oh no—they offer arty labels of California beach living, retail for under 10 bucks, and suggest you explore, not just pour.
To launch the wines, Firestone celebrated a Chef Cook Off and Pathfinder event on January 11 that determined which chef of three YouTube-viewed finalists, and what super social-networking consumer (we’re talking finders of virtual paths, here), could go on an April trip to hike the Inca Trail in Perú. At just after 11 a.m. on an unseasonably warm yet typically gorgeous day at the Crossroads Estate in the Santa Ynez Valley, the three teams of chefs-pathfinders had already been busy since 9, working on their dishes that had to match a Firestone Discoveries wine. Much had already been decided, as each chef drew a random bottle to get his wine assignment, the chefs had their $300 limit shopping spree for supplies, and each pathfinder learned she would have to play sous chef—while Facebooking away—to each chef. This wasn’t too surprising for the pathfinders, though, as the eventually triumphant Margie Tosch from Sonoma said, “Food is me,” as she wielded a knife like a pro, chopping away at the peppers everpresent in Peruvian cuisine.
While chefs’ fates were decided by a panel of judges, the pathfinder winner was chosen largely by votes on the event’s Facebook page. Contestant Kim Kulchycki from Carmel also claimed they’re looking to see “if we’re fun at recess, if we play well with others.” Despite not ending up being chosen as the winner, Kulchycki was perhaps the best at working the room, being sure to talk to everyone after the food was served, chatting up the 21 members of the media covering Firestone’s clever buzz-creating event and members of the food-and-wine industry both anonymous (wine reps and the like) and famous (Chef Bradley Ogden of Root 246, who was also one of the judges, and winemakers like Bruno D’Alfonso and Kris Curran). There always seemed to be a camera—or five—about, including the video team chronicling chef Rodelio Aglibot’s day’s adventure for a show for The Learning Channel.
It turned out Aglibot from the Sunda restaurant in Chicago is a natural for the celebrity chef role, though, having made numerous TV appearances and evincing that gregarious personality the camera seems to love. He’s already been nicknamed the “Food Buddha,” so as he prepared his dish of stewed chicken over potatoes with an aji amarillo sauce (the vivid yellow pepper Peruvians prefer), dressed with a bit of avocado sauce and a hard-cooked egg, he entertained those who visited his station with both jokes and shots of pisco, the typical South American potent potable. It’s not much of a surprise he ended up topping the competition, for he seems a star in the making, a perfect person for Firestone to trumpet as another discovery, plus sure to make for great stories along the Inca Trail. Meanwhile, Chef Tim Kirker of Bistrot Zinc in Chicago, despite creating a tasty lamb duo, begged off any press questions to focus on his meal prep, and you need to media-multitask if you want to be a TV star.
At the table where I sat, many preferred the dish prepared by first runner-up Scott Beale, who owns the Grey Gelding Bistro & Bar in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Beale not only came up with a dish that was delish—a sneaky simple surf-and-turfish combo of quinoa-shrimp cake alongside a slice of filet over red quinoa with both that aji amarillo sauce again and also some subtly blended Firestone Discoveries merlot and goat cheese—but even thought about how to cook on an intense hike, popping those quinoa-shrimp cakes out of easy-to-carry and clean lightweight molds. Perhaps working with Chef Beale was a big help in Margie Tosch winning the Pathfinder prize, although a person at our table associated with Zephyr Adventures, Firestone’s travel partner, did say about Tosch: “She literally posted every 10 seconds.” That’s little surprise given Tosch founded the social networking site wineandhospitalitynetwork.com. It seems we’re at a point where if Orson Welles came back to shill Paul Masson, he’d have to intone, “I have drunk no wine until I’ve blogged.”
That’s so true that the third pathfinder contestant, Lotchana Sourivong from San Francisco, is still posting on the Facebook page at the time this article goes to print, despite not winning the competition. No doubt the marketing team at Foley Family Wines that owns Firestone must be overjoyed with sentiments like hers that claim, “Just can’t decide which wine that I want to get a refill.”