Thursday July 12, 2012

DALTON - You'll have to trust me when I tell you about what I think is the hottest ticket in town, because thus far there's been no promotion and seats have still sold out in a matter of days.

I'm referring to an extravagant yet affordable series of food and wine tasting bus tours recently organized by Kelly's Package Store

There have been two tours so far, one on June 6 that chauffeured 24 attendees and their two hosts from the Dalton liquor store due south, where four different restaurants in Pittsfield, Lee, Stockbridge, and Great Barr ing ton has special food and wine pairings waiting.

This was an experiment, said Jason Dennis who, along with fellow Kelly's employee and certified specialist of wine Kolin Kozlowski, came up with this novel idea.

"You hear of bar crawls." said Dennis. "So we called restaurants and set up a Berkshire wine bar crawl. We told two friends, they spread the word, and in two days we were sold out."

It was a success by all accounts, illustrated by the large number of return customers who joined the tour I attended on June 20. "Repeat offenders," Dennis affectingly calls them.

The only way I knew about this event, dubbed the ‘Kelly's Bus Wreck Tour; NoCo Invasion!' and managed to score a seat was through a savvy friend. Now that I'm letting the cat out of the bag I expect space on coming tours to be hotly contested.

Two factors made this a wonderful experience: the top-notch food, wine, and hospitality that we received at each stop, and the welcoming, jovial atmosphere aboard the bus that Dennis and Koz lowski cultivated with informative speeches that boarded on stand-up comedy and endlessly flowing bottles of wine (a Santa Marina pinot grigio and a Zonin Monte pulciano) that transformed the various pairs of couples, small groups of friends, and solo participants (The average age hovered around 45) into a giggling posse.

The five-hour tour took us from Kelly's parking lot in Dalton to North Adams's Red Sauce and Williamstown's Hops & Vines, Coyote Flaco, and The ‘6 House Pub.

Each restaurant knew when to expect us and had an entire section set aside for the tour. The management decided which dishes to prepare and wines to pair.

The year-old Hops & Vines Beer Garden and Brasserie went so far above and beyond, serving us meal-sized portions of dazzling dishes accompanied by lectures on culinary philosophy from both the chef and manager, that I'm tempted to write about nothing else.

The restaurant has an earth-toned beer hall (the Hops) with long communal tables and bright Mediter ranean atmosphere due largely to skylights, as well as a separate dining room with an elegant Art Nouveau décor suited for low-lit fine dining (the Vines).

The menu similarly unites hearty beer hall food with gourmet Mediterranean cuisine. The bratwurst was some of the best I've ever tasted and came with explosively tasty house-made sauerkraut. The tender ribs and spicy Ahi tuna tartar also elicited raised eyebrows from my dining companions who erupted into applause when the chef came out to say hello.

"I think you just got your $65 worth," Kozlowski joked as we meandered toward the bus. His joke wasn't far from the truth.

Our next stop, Coyote Flaco, took an entirely different and equally successful approach. Here we had an entire room to ourselves and were offered a steaming buffet of authentic Mexican dishes paired with three sweet, hearty Mexican wines, all from Baja California, poured by our very own bar tender.

I consider Mexican food to be an echelon above all other traditions and approach it with the cautious enticement of someone whose heart has been broken too many times by bland East Coast preparations masquerading as authentically Mexican. But that heartbreak was mended the moment I cut into one of the hulking chiles rellenos, oozing with cheese and tender ground pork. Its spicy and engaging mélange of flavor reminded me of a succulent choriza sausage, but its texture was incomparable.

The flautas con pollo balanced the meal (yet again we'd been served a full meal rather than a small tasting plate as was the expectation) with a crispy, firm, moist mouthfeel. Owner and chef Gallo Lopez told us about the food as well as the bar's 85 tequilas, each available as a silver, añejo, and reposado.

By now, with a pitcher of tequilas fresh in our stomachs, the scene on the bus had turned into a full-blown party. Multiple flat screen TVs, cushioned seating, a restroom, and a wet bar accommodated us as if we were rock stars. Conversation had melted into tearful laughter and Dennis kept counting heads to make sure we hadn't lost anybody. We still had hours to go.

There's so much more to say about this tour, but instead I suggest that you throw your hat in the ring when tickets for the next such event become available. Given the combination of food, wine, education, and pure entertainment that characterized this experience it's a surprise that seats cost a mere $65.

There was no pressure to buy anything from our hosts or from the liquor store.

Prices may differ in the future, but Dennis assures that they will be kept affordable the opportunity to experience an array of fine Berkshire restaurants and international wines is available to as many people as possible. 21 and older, of course.

The next tour hasn't been announced yet, but Kelly's is teaming up with Dottie's Coffee Lounge in Pittsfield for a wine dinner on Friday and is hosting a Wiffle Ball tournament and Oktoberfest celebration in the coming month. Judging by the performance of the Bus Wreck Tour, you should add these events to your calendar without hesitation. And check the website regularly for a chance to get on the bus when the next tour comes around.