They were high school classmates in Kansas City. Now, one is an up-and-coming California grape grower and winemaker and the other is the co-owner of two of Kansas City’s most popular restaurants.
On Monday night, former Pembroke Hill Raiders Peter Figge and Kelly Manning joined forces to bring Figge’s artisanal Monterey County wines to the second of Manning’s restaurants, Tavern at Mission Farms.
Figge “was in the class of ’88 and I was in the class of ’89,” Manning said during a conversation at Tavern at Mission Farms. “We played football together. Pembroke is a small school. We had 105 people in our class, so yeah, we knew each other and were friends.”
It’s been quite the ride for Figge and Manning since their Pembroke days. Figge went to Colorado University for his undergraduate degree in forestry and ecology, then out to University of California-Davis for a master’s degree in viticulture, and onto a career amidst the vines.
“Probably the greatest influence on my career was an internship I got at the Beringer Wine Group,” Figge said. “I had a pickup truck and got to go into 5,000 acres of vineyards up and down the Napa Valley. Seeing the cycle of the vineyard and realizing you’ve got one shot to grow the best grapes and make the best wine was a mind-blowing experience.”
For his career, Figge set up shop in Monterey County, his wife’s home turf. He began managing vineyards and worked his craft for 12 years before opening Figge Cellars in 2004. It was the chance to make and sell small-lot, vineyard-designated wines, but more than that, it was the chance to showcase his knowledge of Monterey County’s unique microclimates and what they bring to the grapes and the wines.
Figge is the grape grower, the winemaker, and Monday night in Leawood, the marketing director. He says he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I have complete control of the fruit, so getting good grapes was a no-brainer,” he said. “But, what I really love is not just producing great fruit, or even growing different grape varieties. I love showcasing the different styles of grapes within a grape variety using the exact same winemaking techniques, but focusing on different vineyards.”
For Manning, it was the business route, attending the University of Kansas as a business major, then heading out in the uber-competitive world of corporate restaurants.
“I got my love of restaurants as a teenager working at the Coyote Grill in the Mission Mall,” he said. “After college, I started with Houston’s and then moved onto Morton’s. There, I worked my way up from a server to a regional vice president. After I returned to Kansas City, the location that became our first Tavern restaurant became available in Prairie Village. I knew it was what we wanted. Later, this space opened up. We couldn’t pass it up.”
As for teaming up, Manning said he first reached out to Figge years ago after learning of his wines. He wanted to see if they were available in Kansas. They weren’t. But, the two stayed in touch and started talking about a wine dinner featuring Figge Cellars.
Now, the work of the two classmates, friends and successful businessmen will be on full display during a three-course meal at Tavern at Mission Farms featuring the exclusive wines of Figge Cellars and the cuisine of Tavern executive chefs Mark Royer and Philip Peters.
First course: Chilean sea bass prepared two ways, poached in lemon and white wine, and served over a blood orange and tangerine marmalade. Both versions of the Chilean sea bass will be served with Figge’s 2012 Pelio Chardonnay and 2012 River Road Chardonnay.
Second course: Duck roulade, duck breast rolled and stuffed with wild mushrooms served over an herb risotto. That dish, which I would walk to the restaurant to sample, will be matched with Figge’s 2011 Pelio Pinot Noir and 2011 Paraiso Pinot Noir.
Third course: Charcuterie plate featuring smoked rabbit terrine along with fresh sheep’s milk from Green Dirt Farms in Weston, Mo., and salumi from Kansas City’s Local Pig. The pairing here: a 2009 Sycamore Flat Syrah.
“This is our third wine dinner, and obviously the most personal,” Manning said. “We want to give our guests the chance to try something special from both a food and wine perspective. The dinners also give our chefs the chance to push the envelope a bit.”
For Figge, it’s the chance to bring his passion for the vine and the fruits of efforts to a hometown audience, and the chance to hook up with an old friend he hasn’t seen in 25 years.
“Pembroke Hill is really a wonderful network of friendships and opportunities for Kansas City,” he said. “This is just one example of that.”
Three courses, five wines, and a reunion both Figge and Manning will long remember.
Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons.