America’s Best Food And Wine Festivals

Chef Ming Tsai (photo Perry Johnson, Imagica)

Some are down-home, others are fancy, but they all celebrate the country’s greatest tastes. Dig in!

By Tom Passavant

If there’s one thing we Americans have in common, it’s a love of food. So it’s no surprise that food and wine festivals are booming all across the land. They range from serious wine sipping at serious prices to funky frolics where $7 will get you a plate of chitlins and a front-row seat at the hog-calling contest. I doubt there’s a single community south of Fairbanks, Alaska, that doesn’t have a weekend dedicated to strawberries, tomatoes or sweet corn.

While local events make for a great Sunday drive, the more elaborate food and wine festivals now constitute a legitimate vacation alternative to a week of sitting on the beach. Actually, if you choose the right festival, you can sit on the beach all morning and have famous chefs teach you how to cook the catch of the day that afternoon.

A few weeks ago, I joined the 5,000 festival-goers who filled huge white tents in downtown Aspen, Colorado, at the Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen (as it’s formally named), which takes place for three days every June. Over the weekend the crowd savored 80 cooking and winetasting demonstrations and seminars, in addition to sampling products from 300 of the world’s top vintners and a slew of food producers eager to get their wine, cheese, coffee, organic beef or chocolate truffles into many influential mouths that would not only taste but would spread the word.

Chef05emeril Emeril Lagasse (photo Perry Johnson, Imagica)

In just one morning I watched barbecue guru Steven Raichlen grill pineapple, whole sweet potatoes and salmon skin "chips" in front of 200 people; sampled three spectacular pinot noirs from Sonoma’s Martinelli Vineyards & Winery; and had chef Matthew Zubrod, of Aspen’s new Dish restaurant, shove a piece of salt-cured foie gras in my mouth as I walked past his booth. "Foie gras for breakfast!" he exclaimed. "It’s not just for dinner anymore."

There was more, lots more, to taste, not to mention the chance to pick up cooking tips from a galaxy of first-name-only chefs (Mario, Wolfgang, Jacques) or to buttonhole a wine guru like Joshua Wesson and ask which hot new bottling not to miss in the tent. Sidewalk encounters with high-profile restaurateurs like New York’s Danny Meyer, who owns Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern, among other top-ranked dining rooms, or TV Food Network star Giada de Laurentiis are the foodie equivalent of stargazing at the Cannes Film Festival. Here in Aspen, though, you can walk up, introduce yourself and fire away with whatever question is on your mind.

You’ll also meet less widely known producers and vintners. One day I spoke to Tony Truchard and his wife, Jo Ann, as they poured samples of their acclaimed cabernet, chardonnay and pinot noir. "Doctors can get their minds totally off medicine at all the food festival tastings and seminars," said Tony Truchard. "And here in Aspen, for example, the setting is beautiful, and there’s so much nightlife and good dining."


Aspen Food & Wine Classic (photo Perry Johnson, Imagica)

He should know. Not only is he the owner of the highly praised Truchard Vineyards in California’s Napa Valley, but he’s also Tony Truchard, M.D., an internist who practiced in Reno and Napa before finally turning to full-time winemaking in 1989.

After 24 years of trend setting, the Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen is widely considered the capo di tutti capi of America’s gourmet festivals, but these days there’s enough competition for these events to comprise a major industry. What’s more, the festivals take place at some of America’s most alluring destinations, and at peak season: Miami Beach in February, Texas Hill Country in spring, Hawaii in July, and Santa Fe in the fall.

Generally speaking, they’re held over long weekends three or four days is the average length. Prices vary enormously, because some festivals offer events on an la carte basis (I’ll take two cooking demos, a grand tasting and a chef’s dinner, thank you), while others are prix fixe deals that include all the food and wine events on the schedule. Just about every festival also offers packages that include lodging. To cite a few average examples, tickets to the Aspen festival cost $825 and include all the events except special reserve wine tastings. At the Texas Hill Country hoedown, seminars and luncheons average $45 to $50 apiece. At the Santa Fe Wine & Chili Fiesta, they’re $45 to $145 each.


Aspen Food & Wine Classic (photo Perry Johnson, Imagica)

But you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars to celebrate and savor good food in a group setting. Not when America offers up festivals honoring chitlins and Moon Pies (not together, mercifully). Fellsmere, Florida, has its frog leg festival every January. The National Date Festival fills Indio, California, in February, and the hard-to-crack black walnut is feted in Spencer, West Virginia, every October. Just west of Aspen, funky Carbondale, Colorado, celebrates Dandelion Day every May with you guessed it dandelion wine and the same enthusiasm that its up-valley neighbor lavishes on cutting-edge cabernets.

Some of these single-ingredient shindigs have reached near-legendary status, what with a combination of quirkiness and savvy marketing. Who, for example, hasn’t heard of the Gilroy Garlic Festival, held in Gilroy, California, every July? Traverse City, Michigan’s National Cherry Festival, the Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland and the Hatch Chile Festival in New Mexico have launched a thousand location shots by TV weathermen.

Regional or special-interest festivals are also popular all over the country. These include Seattle’s Taste Washington extravaganza, the Hospice du Rhone blowout in Paso Robles, California, the Finger Lakes Wine Festival in New York and the Nantucket Wine Festival.

The International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon, is the epitome of a smaller festival. Held in July on a tree-shaded college campus, it’s a three-day bash that teeters (as do some attendees) between a college lecture series and the ultimate picnic.

A 9 a.m. discussion on the effect of French versus American oak might be followed by an outdoor tasting of, oh, 200 pinot noirs from around the world, then a luncheon at a winery, another tasting and an outdoor dinner in which whole salmon are lashed to alder stakes and grilled, Northwest Indianstyle, over flaming hardwood logs. I once saw a millionaire winery owner pour one of the world’s legendary wines, a $1,400 bottle of 1990 La Tache from Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, into plastic cups at a picnic here. Oh yes, and Oregon’s best chefs are on hand to cook the meals. My advice: Stay in a dorm room so you don’t have to drive and book early.

No matter how much fun you can have at a local or regional food or wine festival, it’s the big-name bashes at the very top of the food chain that have captured the public imagination. And for good reason: They’re great fun, you’re bound to learn something, and you’ll come home with bragging rights for your next dozen dinner parties.

Winemakers and food producers use these festivals to showcase their best new products before an audience of their industry peers and sophisticated consumers. They hope to attract press coverage and, if word of mouth is good enough, perhaps a distribution deal for their latest $125 cabernet or their American-raised Kobe beef.

"The Kapalua Wine & Food Festival was just a perfect combination of people and events," says Linda Hayes, a Colorado writer who was there in July. "I tasted hundreds of wines with the winemakers, went to cooking seminars with nationally famous chefs and got to try a bounty of Hawaiian foods prepared by island chefs. And of course, it’s held on Maui, which is reason enough to attend."

While the formats of the top festivals are similar, each bash has its own distinct personality. The three-year-old South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami, for example, has become known for an outstanding lineup of star chefs, plus dinners and tastings held right on the sand. Taste of Vail occurs at the Colorado ski resort in early April, the perfect time for blending sunny spring skiing with cooking demos, dinners and an annual on-slope cookout that is literally and figuratively at the very top. The Texas Hill Country festival, which emphasizes local wines and food, is the second largest in the country after Aspen. It boasts great live music in Austin and some quirky outings like The Big Bad Barbecue-and-Beer Bus Bash, which stops at legendary barbecue pits as it rolls through the wildflower-covered countryside.

Meanwhile, back in Aspen, Wolfgang Puck was about to go up against Jacques Pepin and his daughter, Claudine, with their cooking demonstrations scheduled at the same hour in adjoining conference rooms at The St. Regis Aspen. "Wolfgang to the right, Jacques to the left," said the volunteer doorman over and over. For the record, Puck’s demo filled up slightly faster, but both events were standing room only.

A bit later I was back in the tasting tents sampling some outstanding wines from…Texas. Terrific chardonnay, a Bordeaux blend and perhaps the best American-made viognier I’ve ever tasted were all being poured by Richard Becker, M.D. Dr. Becker and his wife, Bunny, are the proprietors of Becker Vineyards, located near Fredricksburg in the aforementioned Texas Hill Country. As it turns out, the Beckers are friends of the Truchards’, having met them at the Hill Country bash several years ago. Only then did the doctors discover that they’d both attended the University of Texas Medical School and practiced internal medicine before turning to making wine.

"Growing grapes is like practicing medicine, in that no one knows how hard it is," said Dr. Becker, whose wines have been served at the White House. "You need the same level of care and attention, and you can’t do it on autopilot." With that, he turned back to the thirsty crowd and began pouring more wine.


For a list of single-food festivals, check online at the culinary Web site www.marketplace.chef2chef.net. An excellent site for wine festivities is localwineevents.com.

Here is contact information for many of our favorite celebrations.

Black Walnut Festival, Spencer, WV; 304/927-5616; wvblackwalnutfestival.org

Chitlin’ Strut, Salley, SC; 803/258-3485; chitlinstrut.com

Dandelion Day, Carbondale, CO; 970/704-4115; carbondale.com

Fellsmere Frog Leg Festival, Fellsmere, FL; 772/473-7727; froglegfestival.com

Finger Lakes Wine Festival, Watkins Glen, NY; 607/535-2481; flwinefest.com

Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen, Aspen, CO; 877/900-9463; foodandwine.com

Gilroy Garlic Festival, Gilroy, CA; 408/842-1625; gilroygarlicfestival.com

Hatch Chile Festival, Hatch, NM; 505/267-5050; hatchchilefest.com

Hospice du Rhone, Paso Robles, CA; 805/784-9543; hospicedurhone.com

International Pinot Noir Celebration, McMinnville, OR; 800/775-4762; ipnc.org

Kapalua Wine & Food Festival, Kapalua, HI; 800/527-2582; kapaluamaui.com

Maine Lobster Festival, Rockland, ME; 800/562-2529; mainelobsterfestival.com

Nantucket Wine Festival, Nantucket Island, MA; 508/228-1128; nantucketwinefestival.com

National Cherry Festival, Traverse City, MI; 231/947-4230; cherryfestival.org

National Date Festival, Indio, CA; 800/811-3247; datefest.org

RC and Moon Pie Festival, Bell Buckle, TN; 931/389-9663; bellbucklechamber.com

Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, Santa Fe, NM; 505/438-8060; santafewineandchile.org

Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival, Austin, TX; 512/542-9463; texaswineandfood.org

South Beach Wine & Food Festival, Miami, FL; 866/333-7623; sobewineandfoodfest.com

Taste of Vail, Vail, CO; 970-926-5665; tasteofvail.com;

Taste Washington, Seattle, WA; 206/667-9463; tastewashington.org

This story first appeared in Diversion magazine.

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