The San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival turns five this year and continues to draw light from ever-brighter stars in the foodie firmament. This year, the headliner is Ted Allen, who is, among other things, host of the Food Network’s Food Detectives and judge on Iron Chef America (and until this year, Bravo’s Top Chef). Allen will be visiting in his capacity as the food and wine ambassador for Robert Mondavi Private Selection – the winery’s entry-level line. Those are the wines he’ll be pouring when he hosts a class at Macy’s School of Cooking, demonstrating a couple of recipes from his new cookbook, The Food You Want to Eat. (He’ll also host the Festival’s “Reserve and New Release” tasting aboard Hornblower’s Inspiration.)
Robert Mondavi – the company, not the late wine pioneer – hired Allen around four years ago, when he was still serving as the gastronomic advisor on the makeover show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. He already had experience as a food writer – first for Chicago magazine, where he had his personal wine epiphany over sweet white wine paired with chocolate cake, and then for Esquire – but it was television that made him a personality. “Queer Eye was at the height of its popularity then,” he recalls, “and the Bravo network was appealing to an important demographic for Robert Mondavi” – smart, affluent, and often female. “I think Bravo was and is very strong with women, and they are the people who tend to make most of the food and wine purchases. And, hopefully, Robert Mondavi just thought I was a nice guy.”
It was more than that, of course — they’d seen his work. “I’ll never escape Queer Eye,” says Allen. But he says it without bitterness; it’s not as if it’s something that he’s eager to escape. “From the beginning on the show, people thought I was smart – probably just because I wear glasses. I’m willing to perpetuate that myth as long as I need to.” (Say, on Food Detectives, where he looks into questions such as “Does turkey really make you sleepy?”) And his mission was essentially friendly: “to help the guy get the girl.” Put more broadly: to make the hapless and helpless a little less so.
In many ways, his work as ambassador is just a continuation of the role. “The idea on Queer Eye was to expose the guy to one or two techniques or wines or foods, something that might inspire him to go to the next level.” Case in point: Andrew Lane. Says Allen:
“It seems like men in particular have the reputation of not wanting to ask for help, not wanting to stop and ask for directions. Andrew suffered very much from the old, sort of ’50s—’60s belief that the only reason the waiter was there was to upsell you, and if you didn’t act like you knew everything, he was going to look down on you and be snide. It’s an idea which I think is now largely misplaced. People who work in good restaurants now are there because they love it and they believe in it and they want to share it with you. For a good wine steward, it’s like show and tell – ‘Look what I found! Look how cool it is!’ You actually find more and more people in good restaurants who are excited to share a wine with you that’s not expensive. It’s more of an achievement. So it’s a really basic thing, but I was just encouraging the guy to understand that it can pay to ask for help. Point to a dollar figure on a wine list and say, ‘Listen, this is my budget. Here’s what we’re ordering. What do you suggest?’”
Fast-forward four years, to Allen on the road with the Robert Mondavi Discover Wine tour. “In one of the events, each person will get four glasses of wine and a little plate with a piece of plain chicken, a piece of lemon, an olive, and a sun-dried tomato. I ask them to taste a piece of the chicken and then take a sip of the Chardonnay. Then I have them squeeze the lemon on the chicken and taste it again and then decide whether the Chardonnay or the Sauvignon Blanc goes better with the chicken. They’re discovering on their own that the lemon chicken works better with the Sauvignon Blanc because there are citrusy notes, whereas it renders the Chardonnay a little bit leaden. That’s the kind of epiphany I like to see people have. To me, that’s more exciting than talking with a group of guys who have a cellar full of Grand Cru Bordeaux.” The gigs on Iron Chef/Top Chef, together with the occasional article in places like Bon Appetit, help him maintain his cred with the serious foodies, but the biggest thrill comes from working with the uninitiated and the curious.
And when you’re working with a superstar brand like Robert Mondavi, it’s easier to turn the curious head. “When you get into TV,” says Allen, “if people like you a little bit, then you often have the opportunity to align yourself with other companies, have other relationships or endorsements. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to work with a winery. I got approached by several. But what I like so much about working with Robert Mondavi is that it’s a name that everyone respects. Robert Mondavi almost single-handedly created the fine-wine industry in America. Having the opportunity to work with such a beloved company is not only fun, and not only something I can be proud of – because the wines are so great – but also, it reflects really positively on me. More so than if I had gone with another winery that didn’t have that kind of halo.”
The Discover Wine tour has Allen pouring all four levels of the Robert Mondavi portfolio at food festivals around the country – and at art festivals as well. “We tend to be the only game around when we’re there – you see people who are into cooking and wine, even if the festival is not specific to food and wine. Turnout’s been really good.” And it has him answering questions on the tour’s website, starting with things as basic as “Is there really a reason to drink red wine with beef?” (Yes.)