Everybody who is anybody in the world of food and wine is invited to the annual California Vintners Barrel Tasting Dinner. Ten years ago it was unclear whether anybody would even show up for the first dinner, held at the Four Seasons. This year the only problem was which one of the 10 people eager to fill each seat would be granted the opportunity to attend the wine industry's hottest event. Demand for tickets has become so intense that to wine aficionados, foodies and even journalists, invitations to the event are a sort of acid test; if you're not invited, you're probably not important.
Started at a time when California wine was little more than a joke on the East Coast and the Four Seasons was not yet considered a great American restaurant, the Barrel Tasting has been instrumental in gaining both respect for California wine and accolades for the restaurant.
Serving 200 people is never easy; serving them 10 courses and 29 wines without a hitch is nearly impossible. The style with which the meal is served, the sheer audacity of the food (a crisp, tiny pastry shell filled with puree of chestnuts and bits of jalapeno as a garnish to venison) and the seriousness of the evening have earned it the respect of the entire food community. Talk and laughter tend to be muted; this is not a bacchanalia. The room is filled with the sound of wine swirling, noses sniffing and pens scratching. And, of course, forks scraping against plates. Diners lick their lips and listen respectfully to speakers comparing the barrel wines (the wines from this year's not-yet-bottled vintage) with the same wines from other vintages.
The latest Barrel Tasting began at 7 p.m. March 25 and ended very early the next day. "It was the best ever," two well-known wine writers said, comparing notes. It was also the last. Or, to be precise, the last in New York. In a surprise move Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai, co-owners of the Four Seasons, announced as the evening ended that the Barrel Tasting is moving on. To California.
"Giving it up isn't easy, " Margittai said. "This is our pride and joy. But the Barrel Tasting needs to go home." Kovi added that the event had simply grown too big for the restaurant. Citing the thousands of requests the restaurant receives from loyal customers, he said that it is "against our personal conviction to turn down customers." (Well, how would you like to have to tell someone who regularly spends $28 for lamb chops at lunch, plus another $14 for vegetables and potatoes, that he can't have a seat at the one dinner he really wants to attend?)
And so next year the event will move on to the Stanford Court in San Francisco, where twice as many people can be accommodated. Will it be the same? Nobody knows for sure. Next week, a complete report on the fine wines, astonishing food and even more astonishing way it was served at the last New York Barrel Tasting.