Monday, June 11, 2012

FoodTrek: Iron Vintner Challenge 3 - The Vine Strikes Back!

Put on your best Chairman Kaga outfit, it's that time of year again! If you haven't already checked out the annual Iron Vintner Challenge that The Willows Lodge hosts every summer, you're missing out. So many people watch shows like Iron Chef or Chopped, getting swept up in the throes of a cooking battle with secret ingredients, pitted against a cooking competitor as well as the pressure of a ticking clock. It's nerve-wracking, it's stress-inducing and we can't get enough of it. So who wouldn't want to see all this reality drama in actual reality, in a garden patio with the comfort of food straight off the grill and a whole lotta tasty wine? This is not a trick question. You should just be nodding your head and checking your schedule to get tickets to the next Iron Vintner Challenge.

The secret ingredient is... NEMO! - Photo by Wasabi Prime
So what if you don't watch reality TV and all this sounds like crazy moon language? Well here's the breakdown behind Iron Vintner: two culinary-wise winemakers are pitted against one another in the Willows Lodge outdoor grilling arena, they are tasked with preparing an appetizer and entree featuring a secret ingredient that's revealed moments before the clock starts, all under an hour. It sounds simple enough, Ritz Crackers and some beans in a can -- easy, right? No, you fool! The Culinary Grill-Octagon Arena requires more of its vintner warriors, they have to impress a panel of judges, generally a mix of food experts and award winning chefs. And if that's not pressure enough, there's a live audience of boisterous wine-loving attendees that they must impress and entertain while trying not to burn the food or lop off a hand. It's like Gladiator, but minus the tiger.

This is not your typical backyard barbecue - Photos by Wasabi Prime
There are two bracket rounds that narrow the winemaker-chef finalists, and they compete in one last championship round to name the year's Iron Vintner Champion. The month-long event culminates in a Championship Dinner at The Barking Frog, with a four-course meal paired with wine, a live auction and a chance to see all the winemakers, as well as have some of their winning dishes. What it's all really about is raising money for Little Bit Theraputic Riding Center, a local group that uses equine therapy for children and adults with disabilities, a gentle method of healing that has changed the lives of many in the greater Seattle area. Each challenge round has a live auction to build donations and momentum for the Championship Dinner, and I have to say, this is the one auction that puts all those rubber chicken charity dinners to shame -- it's seriously fun. Blame the wine, but people get loopy, enthusiasm hits a fever pitch, and crazy stuff gets auctioned: early tastes of what the winemakers are cooking, random bottles of wine appear from neighboring winemakers which are signed while the bids fly, and items on the original auction list get modified every which way and the people who win the bids often walk away with a lot of extras. Little Bit gets all the proceeds, lucky guests have personalized dinners and tastings -- everyone wins. This makes for a very good day.

Guardian vs Barrage - it sounds like an epic battle, doesn't it? - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Iron Vintner Year 3 kicked off with a bang. This first round had Guardian Cellars versus Barrage Cellars, two local winemakers showing they can make more than a tasty glass of vino, given the delicious challenge of working with the incredible secret ingredient: Copper River King Salmon. That salmon was huge, the color was gorgeous and if the head wasn't already lopped off, you'd think it was fresh enough to jump off the ice and make a break for it. The judges for this round were superstar local chefs and restauranteurs Tom Douglas and Theirry Rautureau, and Maxime Bilet, one of the rockstar chef/authors behind the awe-inspiring Modernist Cuisine collection. Oh sure, cooking for these guys -- no pressure or anything, right??

Celebrity judges, wild ingredients and an auction that will make your head spin - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I was fortunate to be invited to join the Twitter brigade for one of last year's Iron Vintner Challenge rounds, as well as this year's first round. I was lucky to see Chris Gorman's team win last year's championship round, and this year was a great opportunity to see it from the beginning, since I can actually share the post early enough to where you can get tickets to attend either the next two rounds (June 13th and June 20th) or just go for the gusto and get tickets for the Championship Dinner on June 27th at Barking Frog. If you're considering the dinner, just get the tickets -- they sell out fast, even before an Iron Vintner Champion is named. I enjoy the challenge rounds because it's an adventure waiting to unfold -- there's drama at every turn if something doesn't turn out right, a scramble for ingredients, that ever-present ticking clock, and even a bit of pathos -- those knives are sharp and challengers have spilled blood in the name of Iron Vintner! But this year has been thankfully injury-free, so far.

The sound, the fury and the flavor of Iron Vintner Round 1 in action - Photos by Wasabi Prime
All this talk of culinary skills -- what about the food? I have to say, winemakers place as much attention upon what goes on the plate as they do in the glass. Granted not all winemakers are skilled in the kitchen, but the ones chosen for the Iron Vintner Challenge have the heart of a chef, and you realize why they became winemakers. They are gourmands, they appreciate the value of good ingredients and learn to present them in a respectful way, like a refreshing salmon tartare, savory salmon crepes with a buttery wine sauce, or cedar smoked salmon with spaetzle and tomato jam. I kept my hunger at bay with the pulled pork slider and kobe beef slider from the Willows Lodge special event menu, but I was still able to sample the vintner-created dishes and they were a delight. The savory crepe celebrated the fatty richness of the salmon with the equally rich sauce. The salmon grilled on a sheet of cedar, served with the tomato jam was one of my favorites, it was spicy and well-seasoned, and I have a weakness for buttery-rich spaetzle.  

Vintner creations and Willows Lodge bites to feed a hungry crowd - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Of course these dishes charmed the judges as well -- the winner of Iron Vintner Challege Round 1 was Team Guardian Cellars, who really went the extra mile and showed some great handcrafted skills while infusing the fish with extra flavor. It's all friendly competition, of course -- this is the event series where you can hang out with the Cool Wine Kids for a night and do something to support the community. So yes, I'm totally plugging the Iron Vintner Challenge, because it's in the wood-hood of Woodinville, close to where I live, I'm often at Willows Lodge because I dig their Happier Hour, and the local winemakers are super-duper cool for coming together every year to help make this happen. This is what summers in Washington were made for, and I walk away from an event like this wondering why I'd ever want to live anywhere else. And P.S. - I love you iPhone and Instagram yet again, for being such a great on-the-spot camera, since I couldn't operate my big ol' Canon and Tweet at the same time. I still can't believe I got all these photos using my phone!!

Yo Adriaaaaaan!!! Guardian Cellars wins Round 1 and moves into the Championship Round - Photo by Wasabi Prime


  1. Maybe you can get an intern you can dictate tweets to while you operate your Canon?

  2. lol, if I had an intern, that would mean I'm legit and you know I'm far too disorganized for that! :P Thanks for the comment, Vino Guru!!


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