Just minutes after the doors opened to the 2013 Local Food and Wine Challenge, getting from one table to the next was an effort riddled with, “excuse me, pardon me.” A woman next to me in line said, “No matter where you go. you’re bumping into people but, hey, the more people drink, the less they’ll care!”

The second annual event thrown by the Ventura County Wine Trail crowded the ballroom at the Mandalay Beach Hotel and Resort in Oxnard with hundreds of people, all gathered to enjoy, learn from and judge 12 food and wine pairings crafted by teams of local winemakers and restaurants. Coveted decanters etched with “The People’s Choice” and “The Judge’s Choice” awaited the two teams whose pairings were most appreciated. And any twinge of guilt that might arise from two and a half hours of ponderous face-stuffing was countered by the proceeds of the event going to FOOD Share of Ventura County.

True to both the evening’s wintry weather and the ranching heritage that sculpts so much of Ventura County’s favored flavors, many of the 12 pairings were small offerings of huge, gamey tastes and local vegetables matched with bold red wines. Veal, for instance, was used in two restaurants’ dishes — Tierra Sur’s green peppercorn veal sausage (paired with a dry Herzog Meritage) and Café Zack’s osso bucco (paired with a robust Lodi Barbera from Sunland Vintage Cellars).

Austen’s at the Pierpont Inn also played in this field with slow-roasted pork tenderloin and fruit compote, bringing subtle barbecue rub flavors that were brightened with a tangy dijonnaise sauce and Gone West Cellar’s cola-y Paso Zinfandel. So did Osteria Monte Grappa, with a squab risotto with nettles and mushrooms that shone with an unfussy yumminess alongside Ojai Vineyard’s Syrah.

But the crowning glory of the gamey flavors faction was the rustic wild boar stew served by Bella Victorian Vineyard Tasting Room and Bistro, which included pancetta, root vegetables and winter mushrooms. With deep, nuanced flavors akin to beef bourguignon that its Camarillo Estate Syrah complemented perfectly, this pairing was a favorite that took home the Judge’s Choice Award.


The second annual Local Food and Wine Challenge brought in
hundreds of attendees, with the proceeds benefiting FOOD Share,
Ventura County’s food bank.

Ventura’s notoriety as a seafood region was well-represented by two very different diver scallop preparations. One from Aloha Steakhouse was simple and fresh-tasting, featuring English cucumber topped with pickled beets and a slice of seared scallop, while another from neighboring C-Street Restaurant took on notes of tropical decadence with its whole scallop topped with mango-grapefruit relish and drizzled with chive oil.

Jolly Oyster, of course, also culled from the sea, serving two very interesting oyster hors d’oeuvres that veered wildly from on-the-half-shell approach. An olive-oyster tapenade had a remarkably structured flavor progression, ending with a mild black pepper heat that was well-tempered by Malibu Family Wine’s crisp Saddlerock sparkling brut. The other appetizer also carried striking flavors; oysters were brined in brandy, soy and garlic, smoked, then served on a leaf of endive with tzatziki sauce.

Other restaurants did a great job finding inspiration from beyond our borders. Sugar Beets Restaurant & Bar in Oxnard cobbled together Asian and European influences with its marinated duck breast served on a chili wonton with cherry compote, roasted hazelnuts and chocolate-grenache drizzle. With this sweet-savory dish, Plan B Cellars’ grenache was transformed from round, mouth-flooding juiciness to racy, dark plum skin acidity.

Twenty88’s short ribs had an Asian flair as well — crisp at the edges but moist from a spicy cherry-ginger glaze — and the drying start on Cantara Cellars’ Intrepid blend cut through that boldness and then made a whole bite segue into satisfying red-fruit smoothness, earning this team the People’s Choice Award.

Obviously, this event brings a ton of indulgence value, but peppered between many thoughts along the line of “Oh my God, yum” were many surprising, enlightening experiences. As the night wore on, the event took on an educational quality as I was continually humbled by the realization that there’s so much more going on in the local food and wine scene than I ever knew of.

For instance, I figured local icons like La Dolce Vita and Ojai Vineyard would be there, presenting their popular creations. But I knew nothing about other restaurants, like Twenty88 in Camarillo and Sugar Beets in Oxnard. Same with many wineries, including the new Plan B Cellars in Ventura and Cantara Cellars in Camarillo. Yet all of their offerings were impressive, leading me to realize that going to Santa Barbara on the weekends is foolish when there’s so much worth discovering that is so much closer.

Also, every team brought knowledge and insight with clever pairings. Typically, I’m prejudiced against the sweetness of gewürztraminer but when Magnavino Cellars’ was paired against the mango-grapefruit relish on C-Street Restaurant’s diver scallops, the fruit negated the wine’s sweetness and brought forward a crisp, refreshing element. And Mourvèdre is always a mystery for me, as it’s more often used as a blending grape, but with Rancho Ventavo’s I learned that this varietal’s brooding flavors can pop with a silky fruitiness when served with a rich spiced meat like the cumin pulled pork served by Hollywood Beach Wine Company.

The best analogy for the meaning of a good pairing that I’ve heard came from talking with Raeann Koerner, professor of health and kinesiology at Ventura College and a member of the Ventura College Wine Lovers Group, who said that “the synergy between a great pairing makes it more than the sum of its parts; it’s like two plus two doesn’t equal four, it equals eight.”

Sometimes the wines transformed and elevated the food, sometimes vice-versa, and sometimes the two had the effect of singing in harmony. Getting people to appreciate this dove-tailing is one of the main goals of this challenge, said Lauren Belshe, administrative/sales coordinator for the Ventura County Wine Trail and organizer of the event.

With a dozen combinations involving 24 different businesses and each doing so well, it became dizzying to think about which pairing was best. Then again, the awards made for a fun context but didn’t matter all that much. The value of this event is in the breadth of experience; singling out teams in a competitive format ends up feeling arbitrary. The excitement there was less about any one or two participants than it was about the sense of our county’s growing bounty.

As Belshe put it: “It’s really hard to just pick two winners when really everyone is a winner. It’s just great to get everybody together to show what we can do in Ventura County.”