Reality-Based Gastronomic Opinions
The Newport Food and Wine Festival
Newport Yachting Center
4 Commercial Wharf
Newport, Rhode Island 02840-3007
Neighborhood: Newport, Rhode Island
Event date: August 20, 2011
Veni, vini, vici – we came, we wined, we… wined some more. Then onto the spirits and brews. Pitstops in between for some gourmet snacks. Ok, more wine now. Man, I’m getting tipsy here already.
Welcome to the Newport Food and Wine Festival, a product of Chris Guinan’s 360 Marketing and Events. This is the second year running, and after a dynamite debut last summer, it’s officially the largest food and wine fest in the New England area.
Let’s talk about Newport, Rhode Island (relax, it’s only ~4 hours drive from NYC). If you haven’t been before, go with or without a festival. It’s a beautiful New Englandy island full of beaches, bars, ginormous Sothebys-brokered cribs, period B&Bs, boutique hotels (a few Relais & Châteaux properties), and the famous rows of mansions from the robber baron dynasties of the early 20th century. You can already eat and drink very, very well in Newport anyway, and the addition of this kind of fest makes for the perfect three-day weekender of sun, fun, palate saturation, semi inebriation.
This festival is expansive. It’s held in the heart of Newport, on the harbor on two massive, parallel tent-covered piers, surrounded by yachts and the backdrop of Newport’s most bustling waterfront section. The tents are bookended with Viking cooking stages hosted by a rotating roster of celebrity chefs. Hundreds of vendor booths and tasting tables surround you at any given moment. The exhibitors are primarily wine and spirits distributors and importers. Some wine producers are present (those with a substantial portfolio), as well as craft brewers and distillers from around the world. Twenty or so restaurants and food producers are also in the mix, each hawking one or two small dishes that they consider a specialty.
Half the battle is cherry-picking and knowing where to start. And how to pace. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. The festival spans three days with several ticketed tasting events, including Sunday prosecco brunches. One or two of the tastings sold out within a couple of weeks of the event, so definitely plan a bit ahead on this one.
Here’s how it went down.
I arrive for the Waterfront Grand Cru Tasting ($175) at 6pm on a warm, clear Saturday evening. This is the top-shelf tasting, smaller in size, that features high-end wines and foods. Your ticket also gets you admission to the Grand Tasting ($75) that runs afterwards from 7-11pm. But the Waterfront tasting is where it’s at. You’ve come this far, don’t skimp on the bonus round, it’s the highlight and well worth it. The Waterfront tasting is held in the area that will later become the VIP area for the Grand Tasting. It’s flanked by booths serving wines and food, and a maze of cocktail tables and outdoor couches are set up in the middle.
Julie Peterson, VP at Vins De Provence, is pouring a rosé from Sasha Lichine who has set out to produce the “finest dry rosé in the world” at his vineyards about 10 kilometers north of San Tropez. It’s a good start. The body is firm but light, without being too sweet or syrupy. Julie is doing tastings throughout the balance of the summer at Navy in the Hamptons, as well as an event at Boulud Sud during Fashion Week in NYC, so look out for Vins De Provence in the coming weeks.
From a nearby Rhode Island town of the same name, Matunuch Oyster Bar is shucking fresh native oysters to a small crowd gathered in front of their table. The slippery little suckers are farm raised in Potter’s Pond near South Kingston, RI. Although I don’t personally partake in bivalves, the crowd is horking them down their gullets with ferocity, so I have to assume they are the real deal.
Creekstone Farms services national accounts and specializes in 100% black angus beef. They are serving up short rib tacos with crema and pico de gallo. The quality of the beef is high, but the dish itself is bland and lifeless. Oh well, good enough padding for the moment.
Pascal Jolivet brings a strong 2008 sancerre vintage which shows fairly well at the booth of Manhattan-based importer Fredrick Wildman, but their real headliner is the 2008 Puligny-Montrachet from Olivier Leflaive ($60 retail), a heady and oaky burgundy.
Double Cross Vodka (~$50 retail, 750 ml) is a personal favorite, and for me shares the “best vodka ever” title with California’s Hangar One Vodka. Double Cross is seven-times distilled in Slovakia and is about as good as a vodka can get. They have a large booth and are also the festival’s spirits sponsor. But why are they serving their tastings mixed with cheap tonic and fruit juices? Make mine neat. I want to sample the product free and clear. Sure, the argument could be made that people want to try the spirit as the cocktail they would eventually mix for themselves at home, but would Dom Perignon serve a tasting mixed with orange juice? Creo que no.
Martinique-based Rhum Clement is pouring high-end rums distilled in the rhum agricole method. I go straight for the flagship, Rhum J.M. Millésimé ($300 retail, 750ml, 48% abv), a 15 year old cask-aged rum that leads with Christmas spices and finishes on some butterscotch. The oak is massive and this defies any rum preconceptions you may have.
The Waterfront Grand Cru tasting comes to a close and I move off the VIP cloud into the public Grand Tasting, hereby referred to as “general population”. This fills the rest of the two massive piers.
Highlights in general population include Warwick, RI’s Eleven Forty Nine restaurant which is serving an absolutely killer BBQ pulled pork taco with goat cheese crema and pineapple salsa. A hit with everyone, the crispy shell and detailed melange of flavors is a slam dunk. The packaging and concept behind Schmidt Sohne’s line of German rieslings is clever, eye-catching and funky. Strangely, it turns out that this line is sold in most stores on US Army and Navy bases around the world. A taste of Illegal Mezcal’s joven and reposado hooch is a new discovery. This smoky beast works well neat, and would take a well-designed margarita to the next level. Jessica Levine’s Cigar Masters makes a showing and is doling out hand-rolled cigars at $10 a pop, tasty but potentially palate-sizzling, so take a few puffs and put it away for later.
WTFs include Daily’s ready made cocktail-in-a-box fiasco. Pomegranate margaritas, mojitos, and cosmopolitans in a box that looks like Hi-C? For realz? Sugary to the point of ridiculousness, and devoid of any spirits (the ingredient list reads “wine”), it is well deserved by the early-twenties DBs that drunkenly slather at the tasting booth. Local Sakonnet Vineyards is pushing a swilly merlot/pinot/cab/chancellor meritage that is described as “a nice summer wine”. Eeeeyeah.
But the real WTF is more generally aimed at all of gen pop and the festival itself. Get this. About half – HALF – of the booths are manned by servers wearing blue Newport Yacht Club Staff polos. So they are venue staff that are being paid to pour drinks to the public – without having a clue about what they are serving. No explanations, no business cards, no product knowledge or information of any kind. FAIL.
I walk up to a distributor’s booth.
ME: Hi. What’ve we got here?
CLUELESS SERVER: I have a tequila, a rum and some Chartreuse.
ME: Wait, that’s not a tequila, that’s mezcal.
CLUELESS SERVER: They told me it was a tequila.
ME: No. It’s not. It says mezcal right there on the bottle. See?
CLUELESS SERVER: I tasted it. It tasted like tequila.
ME: Let me do you a solid. This is a tasting, not a bar crawl. You will probably have a hundred people asking you about what you’re pouring. A mezcal is…
CLUELESS SERVER: [slightly closes gaping mouth]. I’m just here for my thirteen bucks an hour.
ME: But it’s not even the same product!
TWO DRUNK DUDES: Hi.
CLUELESS SERVER: Want some tequila?
This also happened with a sake importer. This also happened with a whiskey importer. Come on. Why would any company sign up to pay thousands of dollars for a booth here, then not staff it with one of their product experts, but instead with a generic “bartender” that will be manning the same booth at a comic book convention next week. Does this make any sense? Bad for the producer (giving out free product for no brand awareness), bad for the customer (no info or learning), and bad for the overall event (makes it look like an all-you-can-drink slugfest instead of a legitimate tasting event). Guys – get this fixed up or the real tasters will stick to only the VIP events next year and opt out of the Grand Tasting altogether.
So all in all this year’s festival was a success in that it was clean, well-organized, manageable, and – in the smaller tastings – a great place to meet and mingle with other eaters, wine buffs, and generally cool people. The misfire on staffing the booths with venue people is a huge mistake and could be a deal breaker in the future, but for now this is worth the time and money and definitely the potential for a long weekend of fun.
Written by Eric Reithler-Barros