Wine, Oh

After several years of attending The Best of the Fest event, I can pretty much guarantee that by the end of the evening, I'll be nodding off, stuffed to the gills with hors d'oeuvres, an ultra-rich five-course dinner, and lots and lots of wine.

Not so in 2002. Dozing? No way. Not when the host winemaker for my table was Tobin "Toby" James, a rowdy, gangster-style winery owner who whetted our palates for his Syrah varietal by explaining, "It's a bad boy. It doesn't care if you like it or not. It wears its hat backward and its shorts falling down."

The Best of the Fest caps the annual Scottsdale Culinary Festival weekend, designed to celebrate what's most noteworthy in fine food and wine. Usually, this means guests are in for a stuffy affair.

Yet at my table, we were lapping up the likes of wines named "Rock 'n' roll" Syrah, "James Gang Reserve" Zinfandel, and "Liquid Love" dessert Zinfandel -- slogan: "Beware! Drink in moderation! We take no responsibility for what happens when the bottle is uncorked!"

James strives to take the snobbery out of wine, and indeed he has, describing its Viagra-like qualities and how he knew he was a success when he saw one of his bottles tossed in a gutter. "I was roadside trash," he exclaimed. "I was so proud!"

Not that funny necessarily makes a good wine. Our first service was wrong, James announced happily, as we wrinkled our noses at a cloying, syrupy 2001 Muscat Canelli "Dream Catcher." But since it was printed on our menus, he served it anyway. "It's a freaky wine," he admitted. "A three-sipper. The first sip you hate, the third, you're okay." Not me -- this liquid snow-cone stuff was rotten, especially with grilled Maine lobster on Boursin mashed potatoes and orange tarragon butter.

And though James notes his wine has won many awards, I wasn't the only one in my group to push away my goblets after a few cursory sips. Only the "Radiance" Chardonnay kept our interest with its bright citrus and pear flavors.

But I dared not say anything. Not after James announced that with any negative comments, "My mom will give you a whoopin'."

Suede Not Smooth: Folks were buzzing about Suede's crass showing at the Culinary Festival's Le Tour Culinaire. The hip nightclub was one of the stops on the black-tie progressive dinner where guests shelled out $175 to ride a trolley to three premier restaurants. Suede apparently didn't get the memo, though, that these guests expect elegant cuisine and service -- not routine scallops slung on paper plates and stuck with plastic forks.


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