Livermore, CA

Taste Our Terroir takes a tricky turn – at least for this judge

Clay Kallam

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It's not just wine at Taste Our Terroir -- there's plenty of good food too.(Ron Essex)

It didn’t take long to realize I was in way over my head.

But like most things that go pear-shaped, it sounded like a really good idea at the time.

The email popped up from my editor at Diablo Magazine. “Would you be at all interested in being a host judge at Taste Our Terroir? It’s possible I may need to back out as I’ve been feeling a little under the weather.”

Taste Our Terroir is an annual event four-day event in Livermore that celebrates the wine and food in the TriValley area, and it begins with a food-and-wine pairing competition. Maggi and I had been to the public side of that competition once before, which involved walking around a large room, sipping wine and eating small bites of delicious food. So what my editor was asking me to do was be an official judge rather than just one of the folks wandering around.

“Sure,” I said, visions of wine and food tantalizing my taste buds. And I thought to myself, “How hard can this be? I’ve reviewed rock and roll, I’ve reviewed books – and I’m pretty good at eating and drinking.”

“Sure,” I said. “Sign me up.”

Sometimes mistakes are made.

One of the judges was Jessica Yadegaran of the East Bay Times, who I had met once before, and as another journalist, I felt we’d be in roughly the same ballpark when it was time to sip and sample. The third judge I had never heard of, but I was assured he was a nice guy.

And he was – thank the gods of gluttony.

David Glancy, as it turns out, teaches courses in food-and-wine pairing. He is also one of 12 people in the world – yes, on the entire planet – to be both a Master Sommelier and a Certified Wine Educator.

Did I mention I was in way over my head?

The judging worked like this: Tami Kelly of the Livermore Valley Winegrowers’ Association would pour us some wine out of bottles whose labels were hidden. Servers would bring in four plates holding what were supposed to be one bite. We had descriptions of the food in front of us, and then Tami read some additional info supplied by the contestants, who were of course anonymous.

Now, when I’m at a restaurant, I really don’t think too much about what I’m doing. I have some wine, I say something that I think is clever (but most likely isn’t), I gobble some food and have some more wine. And everyone at the table talks among themselves.

But here, sequestered into a private room away from the action, it was different. The other three agreed we should sip, taste, consider – then sip and taste some more. Then we would say something and try to come to a consensus.

Jessica and David immediately did what serious wine drinkers do. They swirled the rosé – the first wine – around in the glass and stuck their noses in the top to savor the aromas. Presumably they, like many other human beings, can sense the raspberries, cherries and churned butter lurking in the wine both by smell and taste.

Me, I’m just afraid if I swirl the wine I’ll manage to spill it all over my shirt. And I couldn’t smell a raspberry in the wine if they dropped one in the glass.

Way. Over. My. Head.

But thanks to the kindness of David and Jessica, my embarrassment level was kept within bounds, and after three or four pairings, I did start to notice that the food and wine did things to each other. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, and sometimes not much at all. David said he thought of it as “One plus one can equal three” if the wine makes the food taste better and vice versa. If there was no change, one plus one would equal two, and conceivably even equal 1.8.

We had to choose winners in three different categories, and aside from feeling that a pairing of sweet vermouth – who knew vermouth was made from grapes? – with shrimp, prosciutto and a fresh nectarine did in fact work well together, I tried my best to just nod at the right times and offer agreement when I could.

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This Sabio on Main dish tasted just as good as it looked.(Ron Essex)

Before getting to the winners, a word about the 12 pairings: They were all really good individually. The cannelloni from the Locanda Wine Bar was heavenly, for example, and the wine it was paired with – a 2017 Estate Barbera from Las Positas Vineyards – was just the kind of strong wine I like. The others agreed, but didn’t think the pairing elevated the two as much as I did.

Instead, in the Best Classic category, they opted for a 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon from Fenestra Winery and a Jack Daniels’ filet mignon with a duck fat potato fondant from Oyo Restaurant.

My favorite – the Occasio Sweet Vermouth from Winder and Bow with the shrimp, prosciutto and nectarine from Sabio on Main – did get the nod as Most Innovative, while the overall winner was a 2019 Viva Cabernet Sauvignon from Wood Family Vineyards with creamy polenta, green onion, short ribs and aioli from the First Street Alehouse.

Note that the folks outside our little room also got to vote, and the People’s Choice for white wine pairing was 2021 Kylie Ryan Rosé from McGrail Vineyards and a pork rillette (extra credit if you know what a “rillette” is) with balsamic glazed strawberries and goat cheese from Bottle Taps. On the red side, the people picked a 2018 L’Autre Cote Cabernet Franc from The Lineage Wine Collection and short ribs with blackberry mole poblano and vegetables from Posada Restaurant.

But Taste Our Terroir isn’t really about competition, and this was just the first of 12 events over a four-day weekend designed to showcase and highlight the food and wine that’s there for the tasting in the TriValley. The goal, of course, is to convince people to kick the reflexive habit of the trip through the traffic to Napa, where wine tastings can run to $50 and beyond, and think about just going to Livermore instead.

So save yourself the stress – of Highway 29 or of being a judge in a food competition – and just head to Livermore and enjoy. And I guarantee you won’t feel like you’re in over your head.

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Clay Kallam is a lifelong East Bay resident who spent several decades in local journalism -- and still writes for Diablo Magazine (among others). Over the years, he has covered just about every aspect of life in the Bay Area, from rock-and-roll to the arts to political coverage to food to sports. On the food front, he does not claim to be a critic, but rather someone who enjoys a good meal, a well-made drink and a nice red wine. As for sports, he has written for national publications (including Sports Illustrated and Slam) and covers girls' basketball across the nation for MaxPreps. He is a high school coach and a serious fan of the local teams -- and savored every minute of the Giants' and Warriors' championships. He graduated from Acalanes, UC Santa Barbara (ancient history) and Cal (philosophy). He lives in Walnut Creek with his wife Maggi, who takes many of the food photos. He appreciates his readers and is always happy to talk about anything he's written. His food experiences can be found at #dishdining on Instagram, and emails can be sent to claykallam@gmail.com.

Walnut Creek, CA
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