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[Image: Robyn Lee; other photographs: Leslie Kelly]

I saw Anthony Bourdain in Seattle this week, where he was getting the rock star treatment from a sold-out crowd at the Moore Theater, a tour de force performance sponsored by the University Bookstore. The cook-turned-wildly-popular-TV-star was outrageous and funny and sappy sweet when describing his three-year-old daughter slurping raw oysters and chomping on lobster in Paris. Awww.

He dropped tons of famous names, dishing on friends and enemies alike. One star-studded riff really made me sit up in my seat. Tony said he recently was chewing the fat with David Chang, wondering what the next pork belly was going to be. You know, the next uber-cool thing in cooking.

I wanted to raise my hand and shout: I know! I know!!

I've witnessed what could be the beginning of the latest, greatest trend, and it's holding a wine glass. Over the past week I've been to a couple of events that put winemakers in the hot seat as cooks—the results were phenomenal.

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Me and other Iron Vintner judges.

First up, I was a judge for the finals of a cooking contest in the Seattle suburb of Woodinville, a pastoral burg that's quickly becoming one of Washington states' hottest wine tasting regions. There's now something like 60 tasting rooms in and around this area, including the mother of all wineries, Chateau Ste. Michelle. (I saw Steve Martin there doing brilliant things to a banjo in concert this weekend. He was almost as funny as Tony Bourdain. ...Okay, he was much funnier.)

This competition was called Iron Vintner, pitting winemaker against winemaker in a 60-minute cook-off with local lamb from Ninety Farms as the secret ingredient. Barking Frog chef Bobby Moore did an admirable turn as Alton Brown, stirring the standing room only crowd at the lovely Willows Lodge. (The event was a fundraiser for a therapeutic riding program called Little Bit.)

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Winning lamb sliders from Darby English.

Those dueling winemakers—Darby English and Mark McNeilly—were an absolute pleasure to watch cook. Their food was fantastic and, no surprise, the dishes married beautifully with the wines they brought for pairing. They were both winners! But Darby squeaked in with a narrow victory.

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Rich Funk from Saviah Cellars.

Two days later, I was in Walla Walla—another spectacular destination for wine lovers—and half a dozen winemakers were facing off in a grilling competition at Northstar Winery. Again, winemakers created some dazzling bites designed to be enjoyed alongside their incredible wines. Rich Funk from Saviah Cellars took home the trophy for best app, grilled leg of lamb that had been marinated in the winery's Cabernet Sauvignon and then seasoned with dried morel mushroom powder and served on a tomato, olive and fennel tapanade-smeared crostini. Holy smokes, that was good.

Now, I've been to dozens of winemaker dinners, where chefs and vintners collaborate to come up with magical pairings designed to make wine-loving diners swoon. But these events were so much more fun and took that fussy business of matching food and wine to a more raw and real place. I loved it—I would go to any winemaker-turned-cook dinner again anytime.

In fact, I might even help cook at one. Virginie Bourgue, a winemaker I really respect, recently told me she loves to go to people's homes and cook for them as a way to show off her elegant Lullaby wines. I didn't miss a beat before volunteering: "Can I come and help prep some time?"

I would so love to add to my resume: Critic-turned-cook-turned-winemaker-helper.
But before that happens, let me get your input: What's the most inspired wine and food pairing you've ever experienced?

About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Leslie Kelly has been apprenticing in professional kitchens since the newspaper folded in March 2009 and chronicling her culinary journey from pen to pan for Serious Eats. Inspired by Michael Ruhlman, she recently started a new project on her personal blog, exploring "An Egg A Day".

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