It was a Texas takeover at the 10th annual Woodbridge Winery Chili Cookoff. At least a third of the teams hailed from the Lone Star State, but Californians made a good showing despite the Southern crowd.
Twenty-five teams started cooking at 9 a.m. A crowd trickled onto the property, lured by the smell of simmering meats and tempting spices. They lingered among the entrants in a classic car show, sipping wine and eagerly awaiting the judge’s results. Proceeds from the event benefited the Lodi Public Library Foundation.
The competition was run by the Chili Appreciation Society International’s guidelines.
The rules were simple. No fillers, like beans, and you have to cook everything on site, starting at 9 a.m. Chili was served at noon. Judges made their decisions by 2 p.m.
But the crowds got to have their say, too. The public paid a few dollars for a bowl of chili from each table, and voted in the People’s Choice Catergory.
What makes a good chili? Depends on who you ask. But most of the chefs on Saturday aimed for a hearty, meat heavy concoction with a slow steady heat that hits you in the back of the throat.
Cooks Roger Ferrell and Bob Jamieson had a boat horn on their table they blasted whenever the mood struck. They live in Stockton and Modesto, respectively, and they say they refuse to conform to chili-related expectations.
“We like a strong, chunky chili, with fresh onions and peppers, not powdered,” said Ferrell. “People love it, and we love it.”
The pair stick to chili making because it’s an Americana staple, said Jamieson. Their recipe calls for real beef, not ground hamburger, and they like to simmer the mix over a low heat for four to five hours.
Texas transplant Ron Freeman, of Stockton, flew a massive Texas flag from his booth, and decorated with a set of longhorns off a cow.
Why is his chili great?
“Because I put my heart, my soul and my t-shirt in it!” he said. Freeman entered the competition with his wife, Donnie Freeman. They make a medium spice chili with dry spices and a pronounced aftertaste.
“Some like it hot, some like it sweet, some like it bland. We like it flavorful,” said Donnie Freeman. “It’s a comfort food. At home, we never eat it without cornbread or fried potatoes.”
Around 2:30 p.m., the judges emerged from their conference room and a two rounds of blind tasting and read out the results. The top three California winners and the top three winners overall would go on to the Terlingua, Texas, International Chili Championship in November. All the winners would go home with Woodbridge wine.
Larry Pilmaier, visitors center manager, was the master of ceremonies and announced the winners.
“The worst part of all of this is I don’t get to taste any of the chili,” he said.
First, the Best of Show award went to the entrant with the most pizzaz, Wicked Weasl. Their table was an explosion of pin-up curls and fancy dresses. The team included Joe Singletary, Debra Vignoto, and Michelle Uribe.
“It means a lot to us,” said Uribe. “It warms our heart to know people appreciate our effort.”
Next, the top ten winners were annouced. Eight of these ten were from Texas, eliciting a cheer from those folks.
Third place went to Ricky Milich, of Robinson, Texas.
Second went to Grace Walton, of the same town.
And first went to Larry Walton, husband of Grace Walton. He’s also the reigning international champion, having won first place at Terlingua last year.
It turns out the three are neighbors, and travel around the country competing with their chili recipes. Milich’s wife Pat entered, too, and placed sixth.
“Our recipes are pretty similar, but we’ve never placed so close together before,” said Ricky Milich.
Larry Walton revealed some of his recipe, which calls for mild spices, a mix of several chili powders, and Hungarian paprika over 80 percent lean hamburger.
The People’s Choice Award was announced last. It went to a pot of chili made by nearly a dozen people. Central Valley Rails to Trails won both the People’s Choice and California State Chili Champion award.
The recipe is a meaty blend of tri-tip, linguisa, bacon, smoked sausage, Woodbridge port and hand roaster peppers from on chef’s garden. The group comes from the Herald/Wilton area. They first won People’s Choice in 2004.
Betsy Mahan said the group started out wth 50 pounds of meat to create their chili.
“We started last night cutting up all this meat into tiny pieces,” she said. “I don’t know yet if we’ll go to Texas. I’ve always wanted to get in an RV and take a road trip.”
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.