Wine is wet food. It’s the private school Starsky to food’s Hutch. The refined Funkel to food’s Gar. As such, the wine industry owns mealtime. Their challenge is happy hour, boat drink status, bipolar boss de-stressor. There’s non-chewing market share to be gained.
Beer, meanwhile, is still trying to disengage the tailgate from its image. No matter how far the craft beer scene has brought suds, it’s hard to undo the centuries-long association with half-cocked monks, half-shirted river people, and bong-toting collegians.
San Diego is the Octomom of craft beer. Every Thursday the mayor administers Pitocin into the municipal abdomen, and the city squats out a new brewery. Milwaukee is jealous of our yeasty scent. Our beards have beards.
“Beer vs. Wine” is a hell of a tradition. Scruffy beer types find a clean shirt that hasn’t been screen-printed with a softball team logo or an ironic slag on Republicans. They then pile into the formal, old-world Spanish dining room at El Biz—one of SD’s oldest temples of haute cuisine, a country club annex that only recently eased its “formal wear-only” dress code.
The concept of BvW simple. El Biz chefs (Gavin Kaysen and Patrick Ponsaty then, Nicolaus Bour now) create a feast worth more than the collected souls of all attendees. Then a wine guru (Steve Frederick of R&R Wine Marketing this year) and a beer guru (Dr. Bill Sysak of Stone) duel to the death by trying to pair the perfect beverage for each dish. Beers with floral notes pick up the sneeze of lavender in a salad. A Pinot’s thrush of black fruit makes a duck taste like a slow-cooked phoenix. Diners sniff, swirl, analyze the harmonious marriage of food and drink in their mouths. Or the awkward first-date moment between the cheeks.
After each course, they write down the winner on a scorecard.
By dessert, everyone in the room is fattened and wobbly and wondering what each other looks like naked. That’s when the winner is announced and a giant brawl breaks out, with wine lovers slapping the koozie-people with tux gloves.
Beer has won a majority of the bouts—no surprise since BvW was started by Stone, and the room is populated by its hoppy herd. The fate of the world hinges on the outcome. If wine wins, there will be six extra months of winter and the Kardashians will copulate in the White House.
The sixth annual event marks a bittersweet moment in SD history. The final major feast for El Biz, which will shut down on Oct. 15 for a massive renovation. The old lady will undergo a $2.5 Million nose job. One of the grand dames of elevated SD cuisine, the faux columns, heavy curtains and ornate Spanish-ry has become an all-too-often lonely sight. Some nights, it’s just two retired locals enjoying the antiquated grandeur while the player piano plays a near-suicidally beautiful tune. Hopefully the architects will strike a balance between preservation and modernity. Expect the dining room to shrink, the walls to open up to the gorgeous grounds, and signs of life to trickle back in for chef Bour.
As a lifelong San Diegan, I’ve had friends work the golf shoe cleaning closet at RBI. I’ve had buddies captaining the waitstaff. I’ve eaten brunch here when someone important in our family didn’t totally fail at some life pursuit. So I had to attend, soak in the history, say g’night to a legend in need of a hip replacement.
As for the dinner itself? Here’s a round-by-round recount of “Beer vs. Wine.”
Chef Bour says these shrimp flew first-class from the Gulf of Mexico, never frozen. And holy god did their un-frostbitten texture shine. They absolutely melt, seared by nature’s slow-cooker—citrus. With the grains in the cracker, you’d think the Witbier would win. It didn’t. At least not at our table. The Albarino (to over-simplify, it’s basically Spain’s Sauv Blanc) provided a thicker mouthful the light shrimp needed. Yet the remainder of the room, they of Kevlar palate, decided it was so.
DISH: “Faux Gras” Chicken Liver Mousse w/ Black Truffles, Local pickled cherries and peaches, plus muscadine jelly
BEER: Liefman’s Goudenband Ale, Flounders Ould Brun
WINE: D’Orleans Vouvray Sec 2010
Foie gras is illegal in California. PETA was able to convince Californians that its production involves water-boarding Donald Duck. So Bour approximates with chicken parts. “Good chefs shouldn’t be dependent on any ingredient,” he says. This is a winner, although my wife, a purveyor of moussey animal parts, says she’s had better. As for the beer, the fatty chicken part needed a saber to cut through it in your mouth, and Dr. Bill’s sour beer does just that. The general population vote? The Vouvray. I cast them a disapproving glance which they do not notice.
DISH: Seared local halibut w/ sea beans, heirloom tomato confit, lobster-stuffed squash blossom and sauce vert
BEER: Lost Abbey Avant Garde, Biere de Garde
WINE: La Rochelle Rosella’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2010
A fine dish that must be eaten right. The halibut needs those sea beans like a toddler needs its nappy little blanket. The halibut is seasoned with restraint to account for the salty aqua-beans; without one in each bite, it tastes like un-taste. The squash blossom is very good. But you could stuff lobster into origami made of rattlesnake skin and I might giggle with pleasure. The Chardonnay is brilliant, a sure sign the varietal’s ersatz oaking phase is a thing of the past (the Rochelle is oaked, just not so much that it tastes like a barn made of lanolin and butter).
Only failed dish of the night from Bour. Only a butter knife was issued, which promises meat softer than Jimmy Carter’s heart. But it was gristle. Needed a serrated edge and buff finger muscles. Eating it felt like your mouth was part of a work-release program. The pear-cabbage, though, was fantastic, cooked to a silky, creamy consistency. The Napa Cab tasted like a punch in the throat—hot, sharp, mean. The smoked porter with the whiff of charred jalapeños is a Mexican lumberjack of a beer. It wins. Oh, wait… no, the crowd foils me again.
The pot de creme was good, spicy. The brittle even better. But my god that sherry. R&R was supposed to pair the Rare Cream Sherry from Lustau. Someone got it mixed up and accidentally brought out the finer East India. A sweet little amber potion for your piehole. Fantastic.
So the official winner of the 6th Annual Beer vs. Wine Dinner is… the tall one. The one with the legs. Wine. Kardashians are lounging on the White House furniture.
G’night, El Biz. May the scalpel treat you well.