Tapping top talent: Kluge estate lures the masters

Move over, Napa. Pick up the pace, Finger Lakes. Experts agree that Albemarle County is ripe to become the next gourmet hot spot.

If your vision of bliss includes warm French pastries and hot coffee, or a sumptuous picnic lunch with a glass of fine wine, then you'll soon have more to choose from than the duo of Brix and Jefferson Vineyards.

If Main Street Market, with its up-scale interpretation of one-stop European shopping, was the coup of 2002, then the Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard stands a good chance of becoming an ace in 2003.

Slated for a February 4 opening is the estate's Farm Shop, a combination café and prepared delicacies market, which will also offer catering (box lunches and hors d'oeuvres). To follow a few months later will be Fuel, the newest of Charlottesville's gourmet gas stations and currently undergoing major reconstructive surgery at the corner of Market and Ninth streets.

Is Charlottesville ready for such an abundance of good taste/s? Will we survive this frontal assault on our taste buds (and wallets)? Tom Thornton, former CEO and co-owner of the taste- and trend-setting Dean and DeLuca, and now head consultant and manager for the Kluge project, certainly thinks so. When this Long Island native arrived in Charlottesville four months ago, he made it a point to study his new market thoroughly.

"I went into every single shop, every café, sampled the restaurants," he told Dish. "So many things indicated to me that Charlottesville is a sophisticated town, and that it's definitely ready for the kind of high-quality experience that we are proposing."

He should know, but how did Pat Kluge manage to convince Thornton to leave the quick-paced culture of the Northeast for the sweet hills and slower pace of Virginia?

"I loved the creative concept of producing almost everything ourselves, the high standards and the promise of being able to work with the most extraordinary talent out there."

He couldn't spill the name of the executive chef, but when we heard about the pastry chef– none other than Serge Torres, the internationally acclaimed, award-winning cousin of Jacques Torres– we didn't mind a bit. Who says you can't start with dessert? Life is too just too short.

Torres has over 20 years' experience as a classically trained French pastry chef, chocolatier, and baker (he's known for spectacular wedding cakes). He has worked at top restaurants such as Le Cirque, Castle at Tarrytown, and Le Périgod, apparently wowed the Kluge hiring team during a rigorous, week-long interview.

He had to make or bake just about every confection under the sun, a critical audience standing by all the while. (Rough life for the search committee–spending all day tasting Torres' chocolate truffles, almond croissants, cookies, and jams and preserves made from the fruits of the Kluge orchards.)

"It's not all that glamorous" Thornton corrects us. "For every Torres, there's always a vinegar tasting." Sure, but what's a little vinegar when you can wash it away with some New World Red and a perfect pastry?

Just like Thornton, Torres was ready to leave New York and embark on an exciting new creative project in Charlottesville. What does this well-traveled French chef think of his new home state? "Virginia is a very attractive place to be."

Maxed-out credit cards, decadent desserts, champagne, parties flowing into more parties.... Dish knows as well as anyone that the holidays wouldn't be the holidays without a little (or a surfeit of) excess. We just want to suggest that you save some room for dessert in 2003.