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Sommeliers on the Farm

April 2009

"Somehow, it just feels more natural, more pleasurable, to drink outside," says Nate Ready, a Master Sommelier who left behind fancy dining rooms so he could be standing here, in a field in Boulder, Colorado, pouring wine. He's working with Meadow Lark Farm Dinners, one of the newest mobile restaurants that stage events with some of their favorite purveyors.

At farm dinners, the stars of the show are the farmers and the food they grew in the field you're sitting in-that's now on your plate. For Jim Denevan, who pretty much kicked off the movement in 1999 with his Outstanding in the Field dinners, local wine was always part of the equation; home base was Santa Cruz, and it wasn't so hard to get Randall Grahm to pour some Bonny Doon wines, or entice John Williams to come down from Frog's Leap in Napa.

Since then, Denevan has expanded far beyond California for his dinners, and others across the country have followed suit, holding farm dinners in locations far away from any vineyards. Even so, wine is often integral to their mission: to get diners to think harder about what's on the table.

At Meadow Lark, Ready wasn't entirely behind the idea of playing outdoor sommelier at first. "Initially, I thought we should just let people bring their own," he says, "but in the end I saw the value of it. People have the impression when they go to dinner on a farm that things are going to be rustic, and that can make them lose sight of just how exquisite some of the food is. Including wine seems to make people pay more attention, and I want them to consider the food as closely as they'd consider the wine."

Serving wine outdoors presents its own challenges. "Some things just disappear into the atmosphere," Ready says. "High-toned aromas just evaporate, for instance. And it doesn't make a lot of sense to serve high-end rarities." Ready looks abroad, to places with wines that resonate with the food. "Colorado is at the same latitude as Sicily, and though the season in which you can feel the similarities is very short here, you can feel it." With tomatoes, peppers and pork on height-of-summer menus, he relies heavily on Mediterranean reds. "You can't be two places at once," he says, "but I try to minimize that disconnect."

No one at our dinner noticed a disconnect. Ready had moved north to the Loire for the chilly autumn evening, and even the non-wine-geeks among us expressed pleasure over how the juniper edges of the cabernet franc picked up the gaminess of the confit we spooned from jam jars, and how it piqued the sweetness of the roasted peppers that came off the grill on large platters. It's as if, between the open sky, the food and the wine, everyone was in a heightened state of awareness as well as in a generous mood.

Dave Swanson launched Braise on the Go in Milwaukee with a simple idea: "I just want to get people cooking again." Bombarded with questions about kohlrabi, celery root and other obscurities that the local farm co-op puts into its members' weekly produce pickup, the chef decided to organize a farm tour followed by a cooking lesson and dinner.

He didn't think too hard about the wine he poured with the dinner at first. "But a lot of the foodie-types wanted to experiment with wine and food pairings, things they might not try on their own," he says. In response, half of his dinners now incorporate carefully thought-out wine pairings, some featuring Illinois wines.

The other half are BYO. "A lot of times, guests will bring a special bottle they've been keeping because they've been afraid they couldn't cook something good enough to match it. They could bring it to a restaurant, but that's not really done out here. But dinner in a field-that doesn't have that stigma attached to it."

Since there aren't many vineyards near New Brunswick, New Jersey, Francis Schott at Stage Left typically uses cocktails filled with local ingredients instead of wine. That's become particularly important to him since he's started a new arrangement with his farmers. "Last January, we met with a farmer friend of ours and decided what we wanted to plant. We planted all these different varieties of tomatoes so that they would come in at different times. But then it came up, what if he gets a bunch of tomatoes during a slow week at the restaurant? So we promised him we'd take everything, regardless," he says. "Now we do that with a lot of our farmers. We want to be part of the discussion on how and what you grow, and so I promise I'll take your stuff at a set price."

The model, though similar to the way top winemakers work with grape growers, takes a different turn for restaurants. "A sommelier's job, and a restaurateur's job, is to contextualize," he says. "You can give someone a tomato and say I this is a good tomato; try it.' I want to be able to say 'here's a Ramapo tomato. It hasn't been produced in 25 years, and tell them the story of how it got on their plate. Then," he says, "let's have a cocktail and eat the damned tomato."

The cocktail offers another chance to showcase the food, and help get conversation rolling. "The first dinner we did at Mike Baker's farm got rained out," he says, "so we moved dinner to the restaurant, but first everyone went to the farm. Mark [Pascal, his partnerl mixed them cocktails with herbs he picked right there. People got a kick out of it-they insisted on a tour in the rain." The experience galvanized the conversation at the restaurant for the rest of the night.

Since Denevan has taken his Outstanding in the Field dinners national, he's branched out beyond wine. At a dinner in Wisconsin, Death's Door Spirits, from Washington Island on Lake Michigan, provided the drinks. This past fall, Stoudt's poured its Scarlet Lady Ale at a dinner in Kutztown, Pennsylvania.

For Denevan, local drinks are an integral part of his mission, "to reconnect diners to the land and the origins of their food, and to honor the local farmers who cultivate it." The added bonus is "the mix of serious winemakers and serious farmers," he says. "They are all paying attention to the work they do in the fields and to the seasons. Generally winemakers are wealthier than farmers, and they travel in different social circles, so it's nice to see them together. And then you have the chefs bouncing off of all of them. New, interesting menus come out of this, and conversation around food and wine."

Denevan's challenge is to tell their stories "Sometimes I can go on too long, with the cheesemakers, fishermen, farmers, but this is the interesting part of the work to me. The participants are generally organic or biodynamic, but I try not to get too obsessed with it; I just want to find interesting people with interesting stories."

And, he adds, laughing, "Esoteric practices go over well in a field lit by moonlight."

Stage Left | 5 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901 | T: 732.828.4444 | F: 732.828.6228
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