The lure of wine festivals

As a wine and spirits writer in the New York metro market, I get some wonderful opportunities, with wine and spirits seminars, wine luncheons and dinners happening year-round.

There I meet winery owners, winemakers or import representatives in a personal setting that allows me to taste through a series of wines, hear the rap from the producer and ask questions. I love this experience of quiet time with the source to hear the story of how this particular wine came to be — the season, the growth, the harvest, the crush and the evolution from grape to bottle.  And, a few times a year, I get an invite for a media trip, to go to a wine region and see for myself what makes this area unique and to meet the winemaker and taste through the wines and the vintages. 

Many restaurants now feature wine-tasting dinners offering a specifically chosen menu to introduce and promote a guest winery and to accent their wines. These dinners tend to be intimate, well-run and attended by people with more than a passing interest in wine. This gives the consumer a contact person at the winery for future questions on food and wine pairings or even for advice planning a trip to the area. It can be a valuable resource in many ways. Outside of these two options, how does the passionate amateur meet and talk to the people responsible for what’s in the bottle?

Food and wine festivals have been happening for years around the country but are gaining momentum in actual events available, number of attendees and the number of exhibitors from all related industries. Today’s festivals range from Pebble Beach to Aspen to Nantucket and everywhere in between. Typically, a festival will go on for a weekend or more, sometimes coordinated with some featured event of the region, as in foliage season for Vermont, or timed to bring in the crowds off- season. I attended a couple of wine and food festivals in 2017 and they were informative, fun, entertaining and a great opportunity to talk, face to face, with winemakers, celebrity chefs, well-known wine educators and many purveyors of product. 

Nancy Bean of Wise Up Events runs the Nantucket and the Newport food and wine festivals. “We have a formula that would work anywhere with some customization,” she told me. “We need to know what brings people to the region. Both Nantucket and Newport share the ocean setting, so we look for local flavor, local chefs and local products. And we love to support artisan purveyors, from knife companies to balsamic vinegar producers.”  

The Nantucket event happens in the third week of May and draws around 3,500 paying devotees. There are 65 events coordinated over five days, including food and wine dinners in elegant waterfront homes complete with such experts as Eric Asimov of The New York Times, Kevin Zraly and Ray Isles, all of whom are expected to be back this year. The Newport Wine and Food Festival occurs in the third week of September and overlooks the ocean from the mansions along the Cliff Walk. Newport draws more than 4,000 people and lasts for four days. As in Nantucket, the Newport festival has multiple gala dine ers paired with wines introduced by wine educator Robin Kelley O’Connor. At the weekend tasting tent, there are wine, beer and spirits to taste, food to sample and chef demonstrations on a culinary stage and on an outdoor grilling area. Last year, I also got to take a freshly minted Maserati SUV for a test drive around the streets of Newport.  At any of these festivals, there is likely to be topic-related book signings by the authors.

If you’ve been to a festival, you need to grab a couple of friends and go again. If you haven’t been, make 2018 your year to explore one.  And, when you go, don’t hesitate to talk to the experts. They have a wealth of experience and knowledge they are excited to share with the public. Ask for business cards and reach out to them when you follow up back home and reexperience their creation. It’s an education. It’s a party. It’s a concentrated “Wow.” 

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