It’s lunchtime at The Biltmore, and I’m sitting at a table of esteemed gourmets, including one of Santa Barbara’s best chefs (Alessandro Cartumini), his recently appointed superstar sidekick (Grant MacDonald), and perhaps the West Coast’s most important “fromager,” whose knowledge of cheese, fruit, wine, and such things somehow manages to eclipse the captivating pronunciation of her full Russian name (Zinaida Vladimirovna Miakinkova-Engel), which contains, she notes with pride, more letters than the alphabet itself. And yet, the one holding this court of trained, learned foodies is a demure woman of 70 or so years, with no professional culinary experience to speak of: Elizabeth Reed, who summoned us all to determine what should be on the menu for the next incarnation of her Food & Wine Safari dinners that she’s held at the seaside Four Seasons resort in Montecito for the past four years.
In a region awash in wine-tied meals, Reed — a University of Michigan gal who first moved to Santa Barbara in 1971 to teach the developmentally disabled of Devereux — presides over a truly standout series that combines intriguing wines from both near and far with exquisitely prepared food. At $110 a ticket, it’s on the pricey side of wine dinners, but it’d be impossible to get five courses out of The Biltmore’s Bella Vista kitchen for any less — and this meal comes with copious amounts of fine drink (the one we’re preparing for will include seven different bottlings) and plenty of good conversation, too. Reed believes that it’s the latter that keeps her fans coming back. “When you go to other wine dinners … you don’t get the same consistency of people attending,” she said. “We have what tends to be a core group of people. They’re very happy to come back and see their friends they’ve met before. It gives a warmer feeling than just a generic group of people.”
In front of us sits a list of the evening-to-be’s wine and cheese options — all coming from Miakinkova’s employer, the Paso Robles family that owns Le Vigne Winery and Peacock Cheese importers — so Reed’s challenge for us is incorporating those flavors into a menu that makes sense. She calls the process “reverse pairing,” in which the wine really commands the food decisions, rather than the more typical process of picking which wine should go with a restaurant’s existing — or just slightly altered — dishes. The conversation, in between the nibbles of obscure cheeses, sips of Le Vigne wine, and eventual forkfuls of fresh salad, is brisk and to the point, somewhere between a boardroom strategy session and pregame locker room talk, with Cartumini throwing out ideas, MacDonald countering, Miakinkova offering available alternatives, and the rest of us chiming in when necessary.
The first few dishes are settled quickly enough — you can’t really argue with bleu-cheese-stuffed, serrano-wrapped dates, mac-and-cheese croquettes with lemon puree, walnut-and-pear salad with figs and honeyed cheese, and the Italian chef’s gorgonzola-dosed pecorino polenta — but we stumble on the main. As ideas about quail and tenderloin get tossed out, I finally chime in. “Why not pig?” I ask. “Everyone loves pork these days.”
Cartumini looks at me like I’ve discovered electricity and declares that, yes, “Pork it is,” for it goes very well with fall flavors (this is for last November). As he starts thinking about the roasted apple, parsnip, and brussel sprouts that he’ll add to the Kurobuta pork loin porchetta, Reed also approves of the idea, for the other white meat can be paired with both a red and white wine, and she likes to ask her guests to vote on which they prefer more.
The whole series started as a request from Reed to the kitchen at the adjacent Coral Casino, where she’s been a member since the late 1970s. The club was having free corkage nights, and Reed asked if she could bring some friends and Spanish wine to pair with the chef’s paella. Then came a French night, an Italian night, and, as Reed explained, “There seemed to be such an interest that I started to invite winemakers to come, so they brought their wines, and we started to do reverse pairings with the food.” The event got too big for the Coral Casino, so they eventually moved across the street to the Four Seasons The Biltmore; both are owned by Beanie Baby billionaire Ty Warner, who lives just down the street himself.
But each event still starts with a planning lunch, an experience that got me wondering why, of all the possible partnerships that The Biltmore could arrange themselves, they’ve stuck with Reed and her Food & Wine Safari series. Cartumini credits Reed’s usual selection of lesser-known, smaller, high-quality wineries from the Central Coast as one of the things that makes it special, but also believes that the way they do the pairing is distinctive, as creativity in pairing seems to have dwindled as the format has become commonplace. “Before thinking of what to cook for the dinner, we taste the wine,” said Cartumini. “I know it is kind of a given, but not many other restaurants do this anymore, especially in presence of the winemaker, chef, and the organizer of the dinner.” And he also likes the challenge. “The menu is always a fun way for me to try new dishes with local and seasonal ingredients without forgetting what 50 guests will all really enjoy,” he explained. “I try not to be too extreme, but at the same time not too boring. It is about the wine, but also about showing our guests what we can cook.”
Our dinner was, as you might imagine, pretty exquisite. There were faces both old and younger, some familiar and others I met for the first time, and the food was far better than most winemaker dinners, if not the best pairing I’d ever tried; of course, I was a bit biased due to my pork play. But the real trick was how engaging and informative the evening was, with Le Vigne’s winemaker, Michael Barreto, taking time to visit each of the five tables, answering questions about the wine, and questioning us about which pairing we liked best. Such interactions are Reed’s favorite part.
“It’s important for people to meet the winemaker, to be able to sit down in this warm atmosphere and have the winemaker come to the table and sit and chat during dinner,” she said. “It still surprises me how many people are unfamiliar with what’s going on 30, 40 miles up the road and even as far as Paso. Sometimes it seems like there are more people from L.A. and Orange County visiting our wineries than from Santa Barbara. I’d like more people to know what’s going on in their own backyard.”
The next Food & Wine Safari event at the Four Seasons The Biltmore is on Thursday, February 20, at 6 p.m. and features wines from the new Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara appellation, specifically those of Grassini Family Vineyards (with attendance by Katie Grassini and Paul Azdril), and Westerly Wines (with winemaker Adam Henkel). For info and tickets, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call (805) 698-3426, or visit foodandwinesafari.com.