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Grape Expectations 

The season has come for winemaker dinners.

Despite this long and blistering Tucson autumn, surely winter lurks around the corner. The desert doesn't provide us with many transitional seasons that shift with a sense of nuance and gradation. But we do mark the holidays. And whether the thermometer reflects it or not, it is now the tedious time of year when those who want to rampantly spread good cheer start sorting through tinsel and decorations. They dust off cookie cutters and wax rhapsodic about pumpkin pie. People corner me in hallways and ask me where should they go for Thanksgiving dinner. Aren't there any good buffets, they want to know. Isn't there somewhere we can roll the family right through and stuff them like fat little sausages?

Well, obviously they don't know me very well. Even when my eyes glaze over and I pretend I see someone far away across the room I know, even then, they reach out as if some feeble recommendation will make their holiday a bit brighter. Naturally, I lie. I tell them I don't know. I don't know a thing about buffets. I'd rather sit at home and carve a lonely baked potato by myself than stand in line at a buffet on a holiday, any holiday.

At best, buffet food is a half-hearted attempt to pretend that you have somewhere to go. No one cooked this food with a sense of love or pride. Some poor person who'd probably rather be with his or her family has the sorrowful task of making sure that the stuffing tray stays full, that there's enough candied yams, and god forbid there isn't plenty of both turkey and ham. No, there is something inherently evil, disgusting, and unpatriotic about going to a buffet on a holiday. That's right, it's unpatriotic, it's un-American. Bin Laden eats at a buffet. All the Taliban regularly chortle down their rations at a buffet. In hell, every meal will be served at a buffet. With congealed gravy.

Of course you don't want to do that. Of course not. Isn't it nice to know that as an American you have options?

While the holidays do center on feasts and festive repasts, you can exercise some modicum of restraint and save yourself for something worth consuming. Once the holidays set upon us with a vengeance, you can carve out some time and give the gift to yourself or to someone who slaved over that homemade apple pie: Go out to a lovely specially crafted meal. Resist the hordes of people who feel obliged to partake of holiday excess, and save a special evening for just you and a particular beloved to spend the time together and dine in a graceful fashion.

One gift worth giving is a reservation at a winemaker's dinner. Several restaurants in town still honor the tradition of hosting a winemaker and tailoring a meal with select wines. Where there is a story there is a way to understand more, and listening to a winemaker speak about the trials and tribulations, the successes and the failures makes the experience that much more personable. Of course, you'll have the additional pleasure of tasting dishes designed to enhance the wine's characteristics. And you'll have some time to spend either on yourself (the greatest luxury of all) or in the presence of a beloved.

Pastiche will be hosting a winemaker dinner on Thursday, November 29 at 8 p.m. Winemaker Pat Kane will roll out RH Philips' new EXP Tempranillo. Although RH Philips has been experimenting with its Toasted Head Chardonnay and EXP Syrah for several years now, its happy union with Pastiche should result in some inventive Spanish-style foods paired with Spanish-style wines. The five-course meal will begin with crispy wontons stuffed with pork and bleu cheese or mixed seafood skewered with a shallot-lemon-white-wine sauce served with Sauvignon Blanc. Parmesan-crusted capon with pesto oil and a 1999 Toasted Head Chardonnay and the oven-roasted leg of lamb served with both the EXP Syrah and Tempranillo should round out the event.

Additionally, word has it that Pastiche will be planning a Veuve Cliquot champagne social some time in December for those who want to sit and sip and contemplate the holidays from a sparkling vantage point.

In keeping with the spirit of serving the rarest and the finest to his clientele, chef Janos Wilder has brought up special wines from Janos' cellars and designed a menu to complement them. Should you choose, he will happily customize a wine dinner for a private party, or you can delight in his prix fixe menu. The current tasting menu is themed around the products he receives from Native Seeds/SEARCH and Harlekin Gardens. The ambitious sampler offers up such delicacies as roasted beets with duck confit and truffled orange vinaigrette paired with a 1999 Morgadio Albariño, or the exotic mushroom and jingle bell pepper relleno with appaloosa bean salad and rainbow heirloom tomato coulis with a Georg Bruer Riesling. Perhaps roast lobster tail with aji amarillo mole with posole, chili con queso and asparagus in puff pastry paired with a 1999 Calera Chardonnay is more to your liking. Regardless, Wilder's sure touch will lead to an elegant dining event.

The Gold Room features monthly winemaker dinners designed by the talented chef Jason Jonilonis. Equally special is the Gold Room's prix fixe menu, a feature available on a more regular basis. If Dungeness crab cakes with roasted-tomato concasse beurre blank paired with a 1999 Rex Hill Pinot Gris or cream of lobster bisque with chive oil and pear tomato confit paired with a Voss Sauvingnon Blanc set your pulse aflutter, then you should probably make your reservation early. A choice of mesquite-dusted striped sea bass, jumbo shrimp scampi or Sonoran veal piccata completes the menu. Don't forget dessert: an ancho chile chocolate bombe with cinammon chocolate mousse in a hazelnut praline crust. That's something you just won't find at Luby's.

Of course, Fuego offers regular wine tastings and winemaker dinners. In November two such tastings will occur in the Chiopolata Lounge. Friday, November 16 will bring a sampling of Spanish wines matched with Alan Zeman's own Spanish-style hors d'oeuvres. November 30 will be a night devoted to Italian wines and foods. Chef Zeman promises an inventive and informative experience.

And if you just can't bear another holiday locked in the kitchen, Zeman is serving a special Thanksgiving menu. A full traditional roast turkey platter will be available as well as some of the chef's more exotic and exciting fare: "Smokin' Rosemary" lamb shank charbroiled with picante butter sauce, Brazilian lobster tail with velvet red wine sauce, charbroiled salmon filet with polenta and portobellos, scampi and scallop brochette, and even, god bless it, prime rib broiled with Yorkshire pudding and glazed yams with creamed horseradish.

No matter how you choose to spend your holidays, remember the balm to the blister that holiday friction occasionally brings is but a simple reservation away. Make yours early.

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