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Savoring the Sierras

by Elaine Sosa

Paying a visit to Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel during the winter season may not make sense to many, but it will to gourmets and lovers of fine wine. This is the time of year when things slow down, and a sense of calm returns to the valley which John Muir and Ansel Adams called home. It's also the time to reap the bounty of the summer season, which is why the Ahwahnee plays host to Vintners' and Chefs' Holidays, two food festivals designed to please the palate while expanding the repertoire of even the most experienced chef.

Vintners' Holidays kick off in mid-November and run through early December. The two or three-day events include seminars by California's leading wine makers, tastings of selected vintages and varietals and a banquet to cap things off. Showcasing the event's featured wines, the five-course Vintners' Banquet is held in the majestic Ahwahnee Dining Room, a setting worthy of the fabled grape and of the cooking of Executive Chef Robert Anderson (Former Executive Chef; current Executive Chef in 2002 is James Anile). Most of the events are held mid-week and package rates are available for a two, three or five-night stay.

For those who think that January is a time to lighten up after year-end feasting, it's time to think again. The Ahwahnee is home to Chefs' Holidays from mid-January to early February, so it's back to the table for some delectable lessons. The West's most talented and creative chefs gather round to present food demonstrations and share secrets of the trade. Chef Anderson also takes participants on a tour of the Ahwahnee's kitchen, one of the largest anywhere, and the event is again capped off by a five-course banquet. This time, however, it's the visiting chefs who prepare the meal, an epicurean ballet performed with precision and grace. Package rates are also available for these mid-week events.

Among the contributors to this year's Vintners' Holidays are Tom Rinaldi of Duckhorn Vineyards, Joel Peterson of Ravenswood, Peter Luthi of Trefethen, Michaela Rodeno of St. Supery and John Williams of Frog's Leap Winery. Chefs who will be sharpening their knives at the Ahwahnee this winter include Gerald Hirigoyen of Fringale, Annie Sommerville of Greens, Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys, Roland Passot of La Folie and Nancy Oaks of Boulevard, all in San Francisco.

Why the Ahwahnee as a destination for foodies? Surprisingly enough, this Sierra retreat has always placed great emphasis on the care and feeding of its guests. "Good food is the attitude here," says Chef Anderson, and that means an emphasis on local ingredients first and foremost. Most of the Ahwahnee's products come from within a two-hour radius of the property, and nearly everything served in the dining room is made fresh on the premises.

The banquets held in conjunction with Vintners' and Chefs' Holidays give Chef Anderson an opportunity to shine - and to have a little fun, too. "We start with discussions among the chefs," says Anderson, "and then pull all the ideas together. We try not to be super-specific with what goes into each dish so as to have some seasonal flexibility and to work with what's freshest. And I feel lucky to be collaborating with some great chefs - Hubert Keller gets more offers than he can handle, but he always comes here!"

On a recent visit to the Ahwahnee Dining Room, it was clear that Chef Anderson is maximizing his ingredients with both flavor and flair. It's important to note, though, that in a setting as magical as this, a few errors on the plate might be overlooked. That said, we were charmed by our dining experience.

The Ahwahnee Dining Room carries its Native American theme off tastefully and with subdued elegance. Tall candles are set on each pink-napped table, with the flickering flames playing off the iron chandeliers high above. The stone walls and rough-hewn beams which surround the room add a sense of warmth to this cavernous space, which manages to feel almost cozy.

We started our meal with the day boat scallops as an appetizer, drizzled in a lemony sauce and topped with a dollop of caviar. On this night, Chef Anderson's special appetizer was a pork egg roll teeming with chunks of meat and vegetable and paired with a kicky hoisin sauce. If we were in the mountains, it was hard to tell by our plates! The organic field greens proved to be a refreshing next course. While I chose the filet mignon as my entree since it came with a shallot-red wine reduction, I spent more time on my sweetheart's plate, Chef Anderson's signature rabbit. This rabbit was more tender than the best Thanksgiving turkey - such a revelation! Lightly glazed, it was paired with morels and beets and served alongside creamy polenta. Desserts followed, and for good reason. The chocolate espresso torte was sheer decadence, while the boysenberry pie was as good as Grandma's.

Savoring a meal at the Ahwahnee is a feast for all the senses. Yosemite in the wintertime? Thanks to Vintners' and Chefs' Holidays, it makes all the sense in the world!

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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