Getting the Most Out of a Wine Festival

Posted in: Our Wine Travel Log
By Robert Johnson, Editor
Jun 4, 2011 - 9:00 AM

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In February, The Food Network's South Beach Food & Wine Festival attracted 53,000 people.

If that's any indication, culinary tourism could be back--and back big-time--in America. That's good news for foodies, many of whom had to cut back on their culinary adventures during the economic downturn.

Just two weeks ago, the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival provided another indicator of the health of the festival scene, as attendance was solid. This month (June 17-19), it'll be the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.

Festivals of various sizes seem to be popping up everywhere. Some, such as the Charleston Wine + Food Festival (held in early March), started out as relatively small showcases for local restaurants, then expanded into multi-day events. Others started out big and just got bigger.

A typical wine festival could be held indoors or outdoors, and involves a number of stations staffed either by winery or distributor representatives who pour samples for guests. There usually are appetizers available, or some sort of cheese-heavy buffet to help soak up the wine.

The more extensive food-and-wine festival typically is more food-oriented, highlighting the wares of local restaurateurs and caterers. There also will be a number of wine stations, but top-tier wineries may choose not to participate.

And then there's the massive food-and-wine festival, such as the aforementioned events in South Beach and Aspen, where food and wine sharing equal billing, and it would be impossible to sample everything available.

Whether small or large, and whether food-centric or wine-centric, attending a festival involves developing and sticking to a strategy in order to get the most out of it.

First, of course, you need to figure out which festival you'd like to attend. Here's a good online resource to help you choose.

Once you've made that critical decision and taken care of your travel arrangements, the following tips should come in handy...

  1. Know where you're going after the festival.

    We want everyone to get home safely, and just by their nature, festivals sometimes see people over-imbibe. Festivals that are held at hotels are the best. Those that offer shuttles to and from nearby hotels are next-best. Even if it involves calling a taxi, make sure you'll be able to return to your hotel safely after the event. If there's any way you can avoid driving, do so.

  2. Do some research.

    Find out which wineries will be pouring at the event, which should not be difficult; festival organizers often include a list in their advertising and/or on the websites.

    Beyond that, try to find out which wines the participating estates will be pouring. As an example, there's really no need for you to head to the Kendall-Jackson table if all they're going to be pouring is their ubiquitous Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay. On the other hand, if their rep is bringing some bottles that normally could be purchased only at the winery, that table would be worth a stop.

  3. Map out your tasting plan.

    Once you know who will be there and what they'll be pouring, make a list of the wines you'd really like to taste. Plan to visit those tables first, because wineries sometimes bring only a few bottles of their best, and that supply often is exhausted quickly.

  4. Spit. A lot.

    Most winery tasting rooms offer "dump buckets" in which guests may spit out the wine they've just tasted. (One need not swallow wine in order to experience its full range of flavors; swirling it in the mouth is sufficient.) But buckets can be few and far between at some festivals, which makes spitting problematic.

    Just in case, many festival-goers bring along their own "bucket" in the form of a large plastic cup or even a coffee tumbler. Remember, the more you spit, the more you'll be able to taste safely.

  5. Eat.

    Virtually all festivals offer some sort of snacks to nibble on between sips. Eating food helps mitigate the effect of the alcohol being ingested, keeping you sharper longer--which means you'll ultimately be able to enjoy more wine.

    At festivals where food shares the billing with wine, some of those food offerings may have been prepared by celebrity chefs. So eat up!

  6. Watch the lines.

    Particularly near the end of the festival, many people go back for "seconds" at their favorite food stations. Sometimes, waiting in a line will introduce you to "America’s next great chef."

  7. Pace yourself.

    If you were to sample every wine at every table you visit, you’d be "done" in an hour, and likely would have missed 95 percent of the wines being served.

    A better strategy is to ask the person doing the pouring, "If you could drink only one of your wines, which one would it be?" Some will immediately pour their best bottling. However, some will answer your question with a question, such as, "What kind of wine do you like?" Your reply to that query should always be: "Good wine."

  8. Team up.

    Going to a festival with several people can provide tasting opportunities that simply aren't available to a couple or someone flying solo. Here's a great strategy that our tasting panel uses when attending festivals...

    Assign each person on your "team" one or two varietals or specific types of wine. If there are four people involved, that means you can cover eight different types of wine.

    Have each person visit as many tables as possible and taste only their assigned wine type(s) at each table. Make sure everyone takes notes. They need not be detailed, but they should provide a method of "ranking" the wines tasted.

    When there's one hour of tasting time left, have everyone meet at a designated location and report on their three favorite wines in each category. Just like that, you have a "best of show" list that you can use to track down some of the better wines being poured.

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