Wine festival fun, casual event

— The secret's out: Billy Kidd doesn't take his hat off at the dinner table.

Kidd, in his cowboy hat, along with Jim "Moose" Barrows and Jenny O'Farrell, judged the Steel Chef culinary competition that was the entertainment highlight of the Steamboat Wine Festival's "Wine on the Mountain Grand Tasting" Friday night at the top of the gondola. The winner of the 2004 Steel Chef competition was Kate VanRensselaer and Aaron Thompson from Cafe Diva, taking the honors with kung pao shrimp over a forbidden rice cake, sauteed shrimp with mole verde and seafood crepes.

The chefs learned what their mystery protein would be, then they had 30 minutes to instantaneously create as many meals as they could. For round one, Cafe Diva versus The Cabin, the protein was prime rib. For round two, Mahogany Ridge versus La Montaña, it was ground buffalo. The grand finale pitted preliminary winners Cafe Diva and Mahogany Ridge against each other in a test of their prawn-cooking prowess.

Chefs Chris Wyant and Jeff Wiesinger from The Cabin and Hazie's, David Renfroe and Matt Skov from La Montaña, Jason Salisbury and Alex Smith from Mahogany Ridge, and VanRensselaer and Thompson from Cafe Diva were vying for top honors in a battle of culinary creativity similar to the Food Network's popular "Iron Chefs" television program.

"I have the best job" judge O'Farrell, said grinning after round one piled the judging table with delectables such as beef shitake wontons and mushroom-crusted prime rib. The mouth-watering banana-leaf wrapped, spiced buffalo, and buffalo tartar with grilled asiago bread were yet to come, along with a dozen other gourmet dishes that were presented with unwavering panache.

The Steel Chef competition was surrounded by more than 200 wines to taste, and the evening event was preceded by a day filled with wine seminars.

Judging by the walk-in traffic at the artisan cheese seminar Friday, the workshops have been a hit as well. More than four times the number of early registrants actually showed up for Vidalia Market cheese expert Lisa Lesyshen's hands-on exploration of goat, cow and sheep cheeses and how to pair the mellowest to the most stinky varieties with complementary wines.

The shady, poolside pavilion at the Steamboat Grand Resort Hotel, where Susie Mayer of Mondavi Wines taught a "Wine 101" seminar, was full of curious participants learning about important factors such as oak barrels and tannin that affect the flavor of wine.

And even at prime-time lunch hour, Mike Kirlan's Pinot seminar was packed.

"You can't separate the personalities (of the winemakers) from the wine," Kirlan told his class. "Their passion comes through in the glass."

Throughout the Pinot seminar, Kirlan's own personality kept the mood casual, humorous and packed with information. Kirlan, who owns the wine shop Vino, was assisted by wine distributor Chris Rowe of American Wine and Spirits of Colorado. The two shared their personal stories about visits with the various winemakers, as well as the histories of the six small-production wines that participants tasted. The session was a brief, interactive expose on how Pinot winemakers approach their craft, what wine collectors might want to store away and the exciting prospects of Pinot as a premiere American-made "boutique" wine.

At least half the participants confessed to being "Pinot-heads," and their overwhelming favorite was a barrel sample a winemaker shared with Kirlan for the seminar, which has yet to be bottled and released.

"Pinot noir from the winemaker's perspective, is the Holy Grail," Kirlan said.

Even with pricey wines to taste and seasoned wine experts on hand to guide the lectures, Friday's wine seminars kept a light and casual atmosphere. Participants wore shorts and sandals and seemed to feel comfortable jumping in on a whim with questions.

"Wine is very subjective. It's all about what you like," Mayer said at the start of her talk, which was geared to beginning wine connoisseurs. She had small samples of acidic tannin, served straight up with water, alongside well-aged wines for participants to sample. The group learned about the art of making oak barrels, what makes a bottle "reserve" versus regular and how the aging process brings flavors such as vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon to a plain old grape.

The wine seminars continue today. The festival closes this afternoon with the Toast of Steamboat on the grass next to Torian Plum Plaza. Toast of Steamboat features hundreds of wines to taste, a bocce ball tournament and the flavor of Beaux Arts with the Strada D'Arte, art cars and Beaux Arts on the Mountain.

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