YOUNTVILLE — A host of local restaurants competed on Sunday to create the finest pairings of food and drink, but without a drop of the Napa Valley’s famed wines.
In the land of Cabernets and Chardonnays, the eighth annual Top Drink competition instead gave top billing to the Endless Summer, the Napaloma, even the cheekily named Morning After – cocktails that pitted mixologists from more than a dozen eateries in a test of drink-making creativity, augmented by bite-size samples from top kitchens.
Running through most of the creations were a brightness of flavor, color and even scent redolent of spring – even on an unseasonably rain-drenched afternoon that forced organizers to move into the Lincoln Theater from the courtyard of the Napa Valley Museum, which organizes the contest as an annual fundraiser.
Despite the sloppy conditions outside, the valley’s more common mid-year climate inspired mixologists like Vince Lundeen of the Andaz hotel in downtown Napa.
“We were thinking of the month of May – not a rainy-day May but summertime, light and refreshing,” he quipped while preparing 2-ounce portions of his contest recipe, the Sun-Kissed.
Over a foundation of grapefruit-infused vodka – the mandatory ingredient for all cocktails in Sunday’s showdown – Lundeen was combining vinegar-tinged raspberry shrub with lemon verbena syrup, lemon juice and rhum agricole, a rum distilled from sugarcane juice instead of molasses.
“We want something light and bright, something that makes you feel like you’re in the garden on a summer day,” said Randy Languerand of the Brix restaurant in Yountville beside a punch bowl filled with his Grapefruit Thyme. Indeed, he added, the fruits and seasonings mingled into his elixir had been grown in Brix’s own gardens, down to the habaneros that added heat to the sweetness “to make it a balanced drink.”
However much spectators might take to the sweet heat of the Grapefruit Thyme, though, Languerand’s entry would be judged on more than its own merits. Teaming with the drink were dozens of bites of bay scallop and coconut ceviche, whose recipe Brix’s head chef Cary Delbridge had tweaked as late as Saturday night to ensure it would stand up to the tartness of the grapefruit.
“Grapefruit’s a challenge – I had to come up with something with enough fat that wasn’t just a mouth pucker the whole time,” he said.
After two hours of imbibing and nibbling, Top Drink spectators would weigh in on their “People’s Choice” awards for their three favorite cocktails – but a team of three judges also would have their say, on their preferred drink and the contest’s most effective cocktail-food pairing.
One of the judges, Bob Hurley, strolled from table to table, saying he was juggling in his mind the balance between the acidity, sweetness, bitterness and savory sensations in each sip and bite.
The challenge faced by bartenders and chefs at Top Drink is the very nature of the cocktail compared to the more naturally meal-complementing character of wine, said Hurley, the former chef-owner of Hurley’s Restaurant in Yountville who retired last year.
“To pair food with cocktails is really tough, tougher than wine, because they have more radical flavors – higher in sugar, higher in acid,” he said. “It’s about simplicity – people tend to try too hard (with cocktail ingredients) – and having a balance matching the balance in the food. Keep it simple and recognizable, and don’t go over the top.”
For some in attendance, Sunday’s event was not only about dueling drinks and recipes but also about sampling the breadth of local cuisine in one place – while making acquaintances along the way. The 2018 Top Drink had been one of Bindi Ramirez’s first social events after moving to Napa, and she made sure to share the experience with her husband Mike, rain and all.
“Last year, I made new friends, got to enjoy Napa,” she said. “Oh my gosh, I loved it so much! The minute they announced tickets were on sale, I bought them. It’s great to see all the different restaurants, because later on you can enjoy them.”
The rain did little to discourage ticket buyers, according to the museum’s executive director, Laura Rafaty.
“We sold a lot of tickets in the last 48 hours,” she said. “Rain or shine, I think people were ready to have some fun.”