The best of Wine & Dine Wisconsin 2012

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Chef Sami Fgaier, owner of Le Personal Chef in Madison, was one of 29 chefs to appear on the show’s four presentation stages. He prepared roasted duck breast and celery root puree served with a champagne beurre blanc.

Did you know that duck fat is healthier for you than other animal fats? That 36 percent of the state of Washington is composed of basalt, a mineral base formed from cooling volcanic lava? That mold is a desirable part of salami production?

Those were just a few of the things we learned at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Wine & Dine Wisconsin 2012, the two-day food and libations celebration presented Nov. 10-11 at the Delta Center in downtown Milwaukee. The fourth annual gustatory festival was designed to entertain, educate and satiate foodies, oenophiles and hopheads of all stripes. And there was no shortage of opportunities to eat, drink and learn.

Wine & Dine by the numbers included 7,000 participants over the two days; 200 wines poured from more than 30 wineries; 175 craft beers; and 40 different food vendors, of which 14 were cheesemongers. Here are some of the highlights of our visit.

Why a duck? 

When it comes to fall seasonal foods, few offer more potential than duck, according to chef Sami Fgaier, owner of Le Personal Chef in Madison and opening presenter on the Chef’s Stage. Fgaier, one of 29 chefs to appear on the show’s four presentation stages, prepared roasted duck breast and celery root puree served with a champagne beurre blanc. 

Place your freshly cut meat on a towel before transferring it to the plate in order to absorb excess juices, Fgaier advised. Then grate orange zest into the beurre blanc and champagne mix right before drizzling it over the duck to make your own variation on duck à l’orange. The results were well worth the effort.

Now about that basalt 

Wines from Washington state are making their mark and have become especially popular in Wisconsin, according to Wausau native Cory Braunel, who with his brother-in-law and their wives, all former Badgers, started Dusted Valley Vineyards a decade ago in Walla Walla, Wash. Braunel led a panel of fellow Evergreen State vintners at a separate-fee seminar to introduce participants to their wares. 

Basalt, which comprises 42,000-square miles of the state, adds a distinct minerality to Washington wines, which are lighter in body but with no less sophistication than their California counterparts. Washington produces fruit-forward wines in an Old World style, Braunel said, with wines from the Walla Walla Valley rapidly approaching the production capacity and popularity of those from the Columbia Valley, where the state’s wine movement began.

The best costs more 

At $45 each, Wine & Dine Wisconsin tickets provided attendees with a wine glass, chances to enter numerous raffle drawings, and the opportunity to consume their relative weights in food and drink. But for $19 more, one could enter Critic’s Choice, a curtained-off area that provided an even larger wine glass and samples from Milwaukee’s top restaurants. As you might expect, this is where the chefs’ talent really shone.

Our favorites included the foccacia with Golden Bear pork belly and green garlic jam from Braise; the roasted parsnip soup with wild Portobello mushrooms, white truffles, brown butter, thyme and chives from Sanford; lamb meatballs served with savory orzo salad from Bacchus; the black bean and mushroom burger from Café Manna; and the Amaebi and Nantucket scallops ceviche with pickled Serrano peppers, citrus and radish from Harbor House.

Critic’s Choice had an ample selection of high quality beers, but when we visited wines were in short supply. Missing vendors are something we noticed throughout the show.

The Cheese Islands 

We’re not called Cheeseheads for nothing, and a good cross-section of Wisconsin’s 115 cheesemakers were represented in the Cheese Islands, three circular displays where talented artisans could have their “whey” with the state’s favorite milk by-product. It takes 10 pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese, we learned, and many of the selections proved to be cow juice well spent.

Once again, we had our favorites: The Moody Blue is a small-batch cheese smoked over fruit wood fires. Vintage Van Gogh, an aged Gouda, showed that Roth Kase USA is one of the state’s – if not the country’s – best cheesemakers. Fourth-generation, family-owned Sartori from Plymouth included its award-winning SarVecchio Parmesan among the many finely aged cheeses it presented.

Sugar Brook Farms from Verona offered two spreads – cranberry almond and pumpkin spice – that will raise the level of any holiday celebration. Clock Shadow Creamery, Milwaukee’s only cheesemaker (located in Walker’s Point in the “shadow” of the Allen Bradley clock tower), offered fresh, succulent cheese curds. And Renard’s Cheese from Algoma served one of the show’s most compelling choices, a mild cheddar that snapped with the spicy flavor of cracked black pepper. 

Cousins in fermentation 

Despite rumors to the contrary, beer is a better match to cheese than wine. The same holds true for cured meats.  All three draw on different strains of yeast to achieve perfection, something we leaned in “Three’s a Pair,” the best of the extra-fee seminars and one of the show’s highlights.

Representatives from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and beer distributor Great Brewers joined Scott Buer, owner of Milwaukee-based Bolzano Meats, to pair some of the world’s best beers and the state’s best cheeses with Bolzano’s artisan salami. The results, in many cases, were remarkable.

Of the six trios two stood out: New Holland Imperial Hatter IPA, a hoppy Michigan beer, paired with Roelli Dunbarton Blue, a Stilton style produced in Shullsburg, Wis. These were offered with Bolzano Pamplona Runner, a Spanish-style salami noted for its “bloom” of mold during the production process. All three demonstrated strong, piquant characteristics that performed collaboratively rather than confrontationally on the palate.

The other exceptional trio included North Coast Old Rasputin Imperial Stout from California, the Sartori Espresso Bellavitiano and Bolzano Figgy Pudding, a salami containing bits of dried figs. The coffee notes in the cheese and beer provided a strong undercurrent for the sweet-and-salty salami.

Our favorite individual components from other pairings included Timmerman’s Strawberry Lambic, one of the few true Belgian fruit beers fermented with wild yeast and boasting flavors both sweet and tart, and North Coast Brother Thelonious, a strong abbey-style ale redolent of figs and raisins. Among the cheeses we favored Marieke aged Gouda from Holland Family Farms in Thorp. 

We liked all of the Balzano salamis, but were partial to Pig Red, a spice-free salami made from the rare Red Wattle heirloom breed, known for its pure flavor.  And we especially liked the RaunchZweibel, made from the Hereford pig, another heirloom breed, and cured with smoked sea salt.

Lessons learned 

We learned survival skills for next year:

• Sunday’s crowd was smaller and better behaved than Saturday’s. But there also was a drop-off among vendors.

• Plan your visit in advance. There is much to see and do, taste and sip. 

• You can accumulate an ample supply of glassware. We accumulated a set of 12 mixed varieties, and that was without trying to slip any glasses past the guards at the Stella Artois “Best of Belgium Café.