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Not for the passive diner

Caramie Schnell
Dominique Taylor/The Vail TrailItalian winemaker Gaia Gaja (right) talks to diner Joe Rance about her family's wines from the Gaja Winery during an intimate winemaker dinner at the Savory Inn Cooking School in West Vail.
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Its a Friday night and 27 faces stare attentively at the dark-haired, attractive woman before them. She is Gaia Gaja, a fifth-generation Italian winemaker from a tiny village in the northwest part of Italys boot. She has traveled to the Savory Inn in West Vail for a winemaker dinner to celebrate her familys wine-soaked heritage. Barbaresco is a village of 600 people and there are 99 wineries, Gaja says in her at-times-thick Italian accent. Describing her familys homeland, she says every door you knock on is a winery and the family lives upstairs. Every family lives with wine.Gajas great-grandfather, Giovanni Gaja, started growing grapes and making wine in 1859. Gajas had a filled wine glass in front of her for every lunch and dinner since she was a child. Age didnt matter, she tells me, a warm smile on her face. It didnt even matter if you didnt drink it. Maybe you just smelled the perfume and set it down. Eventually youd take a sip and try it. Then youd try more and youd grow to love it.By the age of 14, she was having discussions around the family dinner table about the wine, she said. She began working for the family winery three years ago, at the age of 24. Its a family business, so of course it has many good points and some tough points. But shes quick to thank her ancestors for their hard work thats made her job working for the vineyard possible.This dinner, held in the front vestibule of the bed-and-breakfast /cooking school, is just one example of a growing trend present not only in the Vail Valley, but in restaurants across the country: interactive dining. From winemaker dinners, to chefs tables, food-lovers want the behind-the-scenes story: How the flavors were chosen, why this wine was paired with that dish, and whats the history behind the grape responsible for this big, beautiful red? Gone are the days of stopping at the table near the kitchen. Diners are discovering the kitchen is where the action is.

Rumor has it Larkspur has the best chefs table around, though its certainly not a new addition to the seven-year-old restaurant located at the base of Vail Mountain. The restaurant has had the chefs table since day one, said Sue Barham, marketing director for the restaurant.To sit at the prized table for six, you need to call the restaurant 48 hours in advance. For $125 a person (thats just food wine, tax and tip are extra), chefs formulate a six- or seven-course meal that takes into account dietary restrictions as well as guest preferences. Each course is served by a chef who explains how the accompaniments were chosen and the design of the dish. It becomes a conversation, Barham said, where guests have the opportunity to get to know the chef responsible for the feast before them.During peak season, Barham said the table, which guests lay claim to for the entire evening, is booked every night of the week.People love it, if theyve experienced it once, they continue to come back with special guests or clients or for a special occasion because they know theyll have a great meal.The restaurant also hosts about four winemaker dinners a year, Barham said. The next one on tap is the Drink Red, Wear Red event set for November. Last year, 200 people showed up for the charity event; this year they expect 350.Though the layout of Vista Restaurant in Avon doesnt allow for a chefs table per se, owner Janine Glennon said her husband Michael, the head chef, has come out to speak to guests in the past when asked.And he does come out at the end of any winemaker dinner, and if there are questions about how something is made, hell answer that, she said. He doesnt mind sharing his recipes when people ask.Mark Serlo, public relations director for Vails Kelly Liken, attributes the popularity of their winemaker dinners to peoples desire for knowledge.I think people in general are becoming more educated about what they eat and drink so if theyre able to learn more about what pairs well, whatever, they welcome that, he said. Plus, its fun, he added. It provides more personalized service for the guest they feel more a part of something as they enjoy their meal.Come January, Kelly Liken will be hosting a beermaker dinner, where small batch brews will be paired with Kelly Likens customary high-end meals. Brewmasters from two breweries, one from Colorado and one from Belgium, will be present to chat with guests about barleys sweet nectar.

The interactive dining theme has been prevalent in Denver for the past few years, according to the dining critic for the Rocky Mountain News, John Lehndorff.The impetus behind it is offering hospitality not just service and creating community, he said. Besides the many winemaker dinners, there are tastings led by restaurant sommeliers and sometimes classes at The Kitchen in Boulder Chefs tables are available at many Denver bistros and they are popular because they offer contact with the chef and tastes beyond the menu.Denver-based food reviewer Lori Midson agreed, calling winemaker dinners a dime a dozen at both Denver and Boulder restaurants.Oenophiles, I suspect, could go to a different wine dinner every night for an entire year if they wanted to theyre that prevalent, she said. My experiences with winemaker dinners in the mountains (is they) have usually taken place during the annual food and wine festivals (Taste of Vail, Aspens Food & Wine Classic) and during those events, there are more winemaker dinners than anyone has a right to attend.In contrast, Midson said the chefs kitchen table concept seems to be losing its luster.Instead, the trend is chef’s counters voyeuristic views into the culinary kingdoms of some of the citys top toques, sans the hefty price tag that often goes along with booking a private kitchen table. Restaurants like Rioja, Deluxe, and Panzano all have spectacular chef’s counters, and the experience is every bit as interactive as a bona fide chef’s table, because you really are nose-to-nose with the chef. There are a few chefs tables in Denver, she said. Buca di Beppo, an Italian chain is one, as well as a few others she refused to reveal, saying theyre reserved for friends and family and the chefs want to keep them that way. I’m sworn to secrecy!Caramie Schnell can be reached for comment at cschnell@vailtrail.com.


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