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August 27, 2012

War of the Rosés

The Field Dominic Armato

  DISCLOSURE: While my love for their restaurant predates our friendship, I'm lucky to have spent a good amount of time hanging out and chowing with Pavle, Charleen and much of the FnB crew.  

This past Friday night, I drank a lot of wine. This is notable for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I don't typically drink a lot of wine. It's also notable because for the fellows seated on either side of me, tasting wines numbering into triple digits in the span of just a few hours is another day at the office. But mostly it's because I was the only food nerd on a panel of wine professionals at a highly publicized tasting intended to defend the honor of Arizona's wine scene.

Pavle Milic, you see, is one of Arizona wine's most enthusiastic and visible advocates. So the fact that Wine Spectator's ranking of rosés has netted Arizona's producers nothing higher than an 84 is something he takes a little personally. Here's where I need to insert myself: not to imply that he feels differently, but scores and stars are stupid. I hate that we feel the need to take the totality of wine or of food and cram it all into a continuum so that we can declare a winner. I like to think that every bottle, every place has its charms. And while that certainly doesn't mean I embrace some kind of "everything is equally good" philosophy, it does mean that I'm a whole lot more interested in qualitative than quantitative. Still, it's galling when the numbers say that something you love isn't getting a fair shake. And while Wine Spectator's tasters don't know which specific wine they're tasting, they do know its provenance. So Pavle set out to prove that their prejudices about Arizona as a wine producing region have influenced their impressions of the product. And he needed help to do that.

"Pavle... you know I'm not a wine geek, right?"

It didn't matter, he assured me. Aroma is aroma. Flavor is flavor. Balance is balance. I write about this stuff all the time (um... guilty). He put on the sell. And I was flattered, and terrified, and excited by the prospect, in ascending order of intensity. So I signed on, and next thing I knew I was an official judge, sitting on a six-person panel populated by wine sommeliers, buyers and distributors, surrounded by a cadre of food and wine enthusiasts, gathered at the "little gin joint in the desert" that is FnB, along with more stemware than I think I've ever seen crammed into a location so small. If I was nervous before, the introductions threatened to put me over the edge.

RosyDominic Armato

"Good to meet you! I'm Dominic."
"Who are you with, Dominic?"
"Oh, I'm not in the industry. I'm an enthusiastic hanger-on. I write a food blog called Skillet Doux."
"Well, you're judging, so you must have some knowledge, right?"

Self-deprecation and embracing my role as the wildcard would become my strategy for the evening. And as the panel got to talking shop, the only thing I could think was that this is what every poor soul who has gone out to eat with me and the food nerds has felt like. It's extreme geekery expressed in word -- I know this genre of music! -- but the song was completely unfamiliar to me. Still, incredibly friendly folks all, they tried to put me at ease. When it came time to judge, I was ready.

Eight rosés... four from Arizona, four benchmark wines from regions around the world... and a byzantine scorecard that I would've loved to ditch in favor of simply ranking them. But it was game time, I would perform the duties of my office to the best of my abilities, and diving in I was relieved to discover that it felt like second nature. It's true. Aroma is aroma. Flavor is flavor. Balance is balance. The hardest thing to overcome was figuring out how to position the scoring. Without a broad base of rosé experience, I had little frame of reference other than that which was right in front of me. And since half of the field was ostensibly some of the world's best rosés, it was even harder to find daylight between them. But as I swirled and sniffed and sipped, the unique beauty of the wines started to emerge... a nice, crisp balance of fruit and acidity on number six... a really complex depth on number eight... a lovely, smooth fruitiness from number two... wow, the intoxicating aroma on number five... I scored every aspect, I totaled my results, I went back to taste everything again, ensuring that my composite scores accurately represented my general impressions (they did), and I signed off on the final tally, took a deep breath, and turned them in.

The results? My favorite by the slimmest of margins -- of my two tied top scores, the one to which I'd give the nod if forced to choose -- number five, Arizona's Caduceus Lei Li Rosé, was the winner. Second place? The other one I'd given the same score... number eight, the famed Domaine Tempier, Bandol from France. When it came to sussing out quality wines, I was relieved to have managed to hang with the big boys. And far more importantly, the Arizona wines had managed to do the same. And if the panel's 1-2 and my 1-2 matching up hadn't gone far enough towards ensuring my relief, hearing the other panelists discuss their surprises in the aftermath -- the ones they loved that caught them off-guard, the ones they would have previously called favorites that brought up the rear in their rankings -- and talking about how blind tastings are a humbling experience no matter how much you know about wine... well, it was educational to say the least.

And then Charleen cooked us dinner.

Fried Green Tomatoes, Goddess, FetaDominic Armato

Now we're on MY turf, wine geeks. Could there be a more perfect foil, a better philosophical contrast to the mathematical precision and fussy tasting notes of the wine scoring world than the honest, soulful cuisine of Charleen Badman? If blindly tasting and carefully scoring these fabulous wines was a fascinating intellectual exercise, joyfully swigging them while devouring food like this was the emotional counterpoint. I love tasting a good wine. I love tasting it more when it's alongside a piping hot, crisply fried green tomato crusted with cornmeal and bathed in a vibrant, herbal goddess dressing with an abundance of tart feta to finish. The crisp, cool rosés needed something to cut, and Charleen provided them just the rich, lusty menu they needed. In wine terms, Charleen's food isn't for sipping, it's for swigging.

Roasted Squash SaladDominic Armato

Case in point, a salad so anti-fussy in flavor and composition that it's almost comical. As I said to one of the fellows next to me, "You know, sometimes Charleen's food is done with a sneaky amount of precision, looking a little chaotic but actually very, very carefully crafted. And then other times, she just throws big chunks of fabulously delicious things at you." I mean, what qualifies this as a salad, precisely? The arugula? There were huge chunks of roasted squash, cut into all manner of shapes. There were massive wedges of crisp, sweet Asian pear. Full slices of crisp, salty bacon gave the dish some serious gravity, and those intoxicating, sensual fresh figs lurked beneath, sneaking in their complex, almost earthy sweetness from time to time. And the lynchpin? A coy dressing just assertive enough to pull everything together without actually setting foot on the stage.

Spider PigDominic Armato

The evening's official title was "The War of the Rosés and a Hog," in reference to Spider Pig, who was raised and named by Parker Bostock, the son of one of the evening's winemakers, and roasted by Charleen just for the event. With 45 minutes to go before the doors opened, a surprise cancellation spurred Pavle to offer the empty seat on Facebook for free to whomever could name the person who raised Spider Pig. Though no submission was made owing to the last-minute offer, a spirited discussion of whether or not "Homer Simpson" constituted an acceptable answer ensued. My position? If somebody says Homer, you've gotta give it to 'em. Spider Pig arrived, a tangle of rich, succulent meat -- a mix of light and dark -- gently bathed in a salty pork jus that, beyond taking the juiciness over the top, doubled down on the stunning, intense pork flavor. Truly, no beast could hope for more noble an end.

Dominic Armato

And yet, vegetables are Charleen's trademark, and Spider Pig was flanked by a cadre of less meaty accompaniments, including spaghetti squash with a smoky chile puree, sweet and slightly sour peperonata spiked with salty capers, fresh okra with cooling yogurt and toasted hazelnuts, and stunning mesquite-grilled corn slathered in butter and sprinkled with crisply fried "corn nuts" for a fabulous textural finish. I'd promised my dessert to my ladylove, holding down the fort back home, and it was just as well. This was a helluva meal, and just a bite of the yuzu panna cotta with macerated fresh peaches was all I required.

It was a fun and fabulous evening, both delicious and educational. And I look back at my trepidation with regret, first because it was ill-founded. Pavle had more faith in me than I had in myself, and for that, I thank him. Second, because I was that guy. I was the person who drives me nuts... the one who's afraid to talk about food with me for fear of embarrassing himself, who serves up every opinion with an apology, who is lacking the confidence to simply say what he likes and why. That was me. And if I'd realized it sooner, I'm sure it would have made the evening a whole lot more pleasant, not just for myself but for my fellow judges as well (sorry, guys!). Which leads into the most important thing of all: Aroma is aroma. Taste is taste. Balance is balance. And on a gut level, we all know when these things work and when they don't. When you're eating a fabulous dinner and chasing it with amazing wines, none of the bullshit that we geeks geek out about on a daily basis matters. Experiences like this are not for the food and wine elite. They're for everybody. Pavle knew this. My fellow judges knew this. I needed a reminder. We need to never lose sight of that, and I hope that I never cause anybody to feel the trepidation I felt, because there's absolutely no reason for it. This is good food, and this is good wine, and this is for everybody... even when it's coming from Arizona. Believe it.


You really captured the spirit of the evening! I could taste the meal all over again.

This whole event sounds amazing! I was out of town and unable to attend, but your descriptions are making me wish I could travel back in time so I could partake in this awesome pleasure. At least you've enabled me to put myself there in my mind. I don't think anyone does it any better than Pavle and Charlene! They are quite the team. Thanks for letting me live the evening through your post!

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