2013 was the second year of the current incarnation of the Austin Food and Wine Festival and by all accounts, much improved. The festival is, in its way, much like an excellent fine wine…a bit expensive but ultimately satisfying and hedonistically rewarding.
From the Taste of Texas held Friday (4/26/2013) evening and Saturday’s Rock Your Taco Showdown, both at Republic Square Park, to the seminars and Grand Tasting held Saturday and Sunday at Butler Park, there was plenty of delicious food being consumed and excellent wines in glass. Food and Wine Magazine did a wonderful job of showcasing the best of Texas cuisine and Austin style (live music and food trucks). The Austin Food and Wine Festival is unique, not an Aspen Food and Wine Festival wannabe.
First off, I want to give a shout out to the volunteers who were helpful, knowledgeable and courteous. Even a bigger shout out goes to the security folks who had a great sense of humor as they quickly searched our bags for “bayonets and weapons of mass destruction,” smiling all the time.
The culinary and wine talent offered high energy and fun seminars that engaged the audience at every turn. Laughter, claps and cheers rang out from tent to tent. If there was a negative, it was that some of the more recognized presenters just needed more chairs to accommodate their audience size. This meant that attendees in an 11:00 seminar would find a full house at the 12:00 seminar they hoped to experience. We attended predominately wine seminars, as you would expect, and enjoyed every one. However, these were not your Basic Wine 101 or Be a Wine Snob in 10 Easy Steps seminars…anything but…
The charming, energetic and yes at times bawdy, wine personality Mark Oldman (@MarkOldman), of Drink Bravely fame, offered sessions labeled Drink Like a Pro where we learned the “benefits” of AM drinking…not just day drinking.
The session also included a primer on sabering a Champagne bottle and how to order hard-to-pronounce wines. These wines, like Viognier or Grüner-Veltliner, can be a better menu value, because others are intimidated to order them…added bonus; you’ll impress the heck out of your friends. Oldman’s session, Cinema Vino…Wines from the Movies filled well before the start time. While anyone could stand behind the chairs and listen; the seated folks got to Drink Bravely, usually six wines with each seminar.
Ray Isle (@islewine), Senior Wine Editor of Food and Wine and native Texan, shared Wines for Spring, took us Around the World with Pinot Noir and revealed the Superstar Wines from Food and Wine Magazine. Ray has a Texas-gentile and self-effacing style, which dispels any sense of pretentious wine snootiness.
The Wine Wise Guy, Anthony Giglio (@winewiseguy) eschews wine snobbery and intimidation at every turn. The author of Food & Wine Magazine’s Wine Guide 2009 and 2010, Anthony’s pack-house seminars included French Underdogs and Blind Tasting for Fun.
My inner wine-geek did not go unfulfilled, thankfully. Winemaker Graham Weerts of Stonestreet Alexander Mountain Estate and Gilian Handleman, wine educator for Jackson Family Wines, gave an informative seminar, Altitude Matters, revealing the similarities and uniqueness of wines grown at high altitudes, (above 1000 feet sea level). We sampled many varietals from around the globe searching for commonalities like mouth-watering acidity and grippy tannins (wine geek-speak).
While our seminar stops were wine-centric, I can report that the folks in the culinary tents were having a blast with the culinary talent. And as for the talent in general, they could not have been more generous with their fans. Everywhere celebrity chefs, like Chef Marcus Samuelsson, could be seen with their arm around a fan smiling into a camera.
The food… The food…The food was amazing. There were some of Austin’s most recognized food trucks on the grounds but celebrity chefs and celebrated restaurants were offering delicious tastes of familiar and unexpected flavors.
Each day had famed chefs manning the Fire Pit in the center of the park. I was particularly enthralled Sunday morning talking to Jack Gilmore, Jack Allen’s Kitchen, as entire pigs and goats spun lazily over the open fire. Swine and wine…does it get better than that?
The Grand Tasting was open four hours each day offering a robust selection of wines and culinary delights. Wineries from around the world were represented. Texas vintners like Pedernales Cellars and Duchman Family Vineyard stood toe to toe with the likes of renowned winemakers Silver Oak and a personal favorite, Jordan Winery. In addition there were plenty of liquors and craft beers represented. My new wine find …drumroll…Ramian Wines of Napa Valley, created by winemaker and Texas Tech graduate, Brian Graham. Brian’s single vineyard wines were an absolute delight.
As for pushy crowds…nothing to worry about. With the exception of the popular seminars, there was plenty of room for elbows, food plates and wine glasses. Most food lines were under 5 minutes, if they existed at all. The Grand Tasting, under a 20,000 sq. ft. pavilion, offered enough choices to keep the crowd milling about so in most cases lines for food and drink were only 2-3 folks deep. Of course the rock star chefs at the Taste of Texas (Austin BBQ King Aaron Franklin had the longest line) and Rock Your Taco Showdown events had longer lines, but the weather was great, the wine and beer flowed, the live music played… no one seemed to care.
Chef Tyson Cole from Uchi was the repeat winner for top taco honors, earning the 2013 crown from a judging panel that included ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons (keeping it Texas). Our favorite was a Chef Marcus Samuelsson (of Yes, Chef fame) curry influenced creation.
As Sunday afternoon approached, we left Butler Park wholly satiated, if not over-fed. I can only imagine what hedonistic smorgasbord The Austin Food and Wine Festival 2014 will have in store.