Wine and Food Genius

Wine and Food Genius

Picking grapes like a proOn this third day of this year’s version of the American Harvest Workshop we woke early and picked Sauvignon Blanc grapes in Carneros.  We again visited several of Napa’s best artisanal purveyors, including Rhue Bruggeman’s Napa Valley College Potter’s Studio (where I threw one really good bowl and walked away content with my triumph, but click here to see Rhue do it much better), and then toured Cakebread’s winery with head winemaker Julianne Laks.  We cupped coffee with the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company’s Charlie Sange, and I somehow even managed to get in a swim back at the hotel on our only rest break.

I also answered my previous question as to whether I could hang as a sous chef to some serious head chef firepower.  Later that afternoon I helped prepare, plate and organize service for about 70 honored guests at the first of two high-end dinners on Cakebread Cellars’ Pecan Patio.  I wasn’t the best or most important helper, but I hung in there and made a difference.

Cakebread’s head winemaker Julianne LaksHowever, none of that mattered nearly as much as what I learned by simply watching these masters ply their trade under some of the most trying circumstances I could possibly envision.  Imagine being in a completely alien kitchen, not even knowing where the knives were kept, at the same time preparing a gourmet meal for more than five dozen hungry wine-and-food aficionados while dealing with at least 30 well-intentioned but equally clueless amateur helpers.  A daunting task, no?

Yet somehow, against all odds, Jonathan Cambra of the Castle Hill Inn & Resort in Newport, Rhode Island (whom I assisted during most of the day’s apprenticeship blitz), Bryan Caswell of Houston, Texas’s Reef Restaurant, Lindsay Gray of the Tokyo American Club in Japan and David Paul Johnson of David Paul’s Island Grill on Maui, Hawaii pulled it off with dignity and aplomb.

Controlled chaos in the Cakebread kitchenDavid’s primary dish was a case in point.  I remember us all sitting around the lunch table the previous day trying to plan the menu.  Some were struggling with the local ingredient requirements and others had trouble focusing on the wine.  Then David piped his intentions like a burst of sunshine, saying he’d like to try “Rabbit Three Ways.”

I could feel my eyebrows rising, and I knew I wasn’t the only one exhibiting such a reflexive twitch.  It was a daunting statement, to my way of thinking almost reckless.  Why would a celebrated chef put himself out on such a lonely island so far from home, where the only choices were smashing success or abject disappointment?

I needn’t have worried.  Rabbit Three Ways was a triumph, a tour-de-force when paired with Cakebread’s juicy, raspberry-tinged Red Hills Zinfandel.  The confit’s fatty goodness mellowed the wine, the stuffed saddle comforted it, and the liver jumped up and made me say wow.

A triumph of a dinnerIn fact, all of the dishes that night were amazing, a true reflection of each chef’s talent, desire to please and dedication to craft.  And so I yet again learned something new.  Art isn’t art without the possibility of failure.  There is no triumph unless bitterness awaits timidity.

I spend a lot of time around very talented chefs, winemakers, viticulturists and winery owners, and I guess the one thing they all have in common is passion in the face of adversity.  Passion cures a lot of ills, maybe all of them, certainly all of the important ones.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn that lesson one more time.

By |2010-09-14T01:14:42+00:00September 14th, 2010|Cakebread Cellars American Harvest Workshop, Uncategorized|4 Comments

About the Author:

The President of Ben Weinberg Consultants is a Senior Consultant with the company, specializing in marketing, sales, and operational support. He has creatively impacted a variety of projects and brands in his 30+ years of consulting while focusing on the particular needs of small- and medium-size businesses.


  1. David Paul Johnson September 16, 2010 at 4:48 pm - Reply

    Thank you for the kind words…. Many things can happen in such adverse and trying conditions, but if ones looks at failure as an option, then success is less likely. I look at what I do as a chance express my artist side, food is a canvas and we can choose to go boldly without fear, or use a sense of caution and do what we are comfortable with. No one can ever accuse me of playing it safe!!! The ingredients we had to work with were at the highest quality, therefore it took little effort to bring out the best in them. I look forward to cooking with you once again and since life is so short, make every bite count… Aloha from Maui. DP

    • Ben Weinberg September 16, 2010 at 8:08 pm - Reply

      Hi Chef:

      Thanks so much for posting. It’s amazing to me how brave professionals can be in the face of uncertainty and even failure. Kudos to you and the other guest chefs, it was an incredible experience to see you so confidently riff on unfamiliar themes.

      I promise to come visit you in Hawaii soon, and I’d sous for you anytime. Ciao bella, my friend.

  2. Jenny Contreras September 20, 2010 at 9:18 am - Reply

    Hello Ben,
    What a pleasure to meet you at Cakebread Cellars’ American Harvest Workshop. Thank you for so directly capturing the spirit of the event, and for so beautifully expressing what I have known if my gut but could not express on my tongue.

    Everyone there–winemaker, chef, purveyor, curious and enthusiastic participant, server–was there because of that passion you spoke of. I thought it sickness and addiction to be driven to fly so high time and time again knowing all too well how hard that ground is when you do hit it! Passion indeed cures a lot of ills, shortens the distance between smashing success and abject disappointment, and every now and then softens those inevitable landings. The next time I think I ought to have my head examined, I’ll choose instead to feel around my heart. Thank you.

    • Ben Weinberg October 19, 2010 at 9:52 am - Reply

      Hi Jenny:

      Thanks so much for your pithy comments. I’m not the only one who captured the mood of the event, apparently 🙂

      Don’t forget you can also check out my work on Thanks again, and please stay in touch.

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