Wednesday September 23 marked the official start of autumn, but one never would have known at this year’s Newport Mansions Wine and Food Festival. Summer seemed unwilling to leave. The day was clear and sunshine beamed down on guests. Crisp white tents stood out against the shimmering blue water. As the day wore on, people congregated along the water’s edge to dance to oldies, bask in the sun, and nurse glasses of white wine. It was a picture perfect day.
I had the chance to attend Sunday’s Grand Tasting, which had the impressive Marble House as its backdrop. About two dozen restaurants and 75 wineries gathered on the sprawling grounds to serve samples of their signature products. The event also included celebrity chef demonstrations, book signings, and a silent auction.
Celebrity chef and TV personality Martha Stewart kicked off the book signings where excited fans clutched copies of her newest book, Martha Stewart's Appetizers: 200 Recipes for Dips, Spreads, Snacks, Small Plates, and Other Delicious Hors d'Oeuvres, Plus 30 Cocktails.
Culinary legend Chef Jacques Pepin united with his daughter Claudine for the day’s headlining cooking demonstration. They were an entertaining father-daughter team. Chef Jacques Pepin seemed to get into a flow as soon as he touched the ingredients and equipment. He stayed focused on cooking and moved around the stage preparing the dishes instinctually. Claudine, on the other hand, was methodical and knowledgeable. She walked the audience through the process and answered questions, all while keeping a watchful eye on her father. She playfully got him back on track when he detoured from the recipe itself and did her best to coordinate between the crew and his culinary whims.
They punctuated the demonstration with witty banter, like when both tried to upstage the other with plugs for their newly released cookbooks. Claudine just released a children’s cookbook called Kids Cook French. Just as she started describing it, Jacques Pepin stepped in front of her with his own new book in tow, Heart and Soul in the Kitchen.
“And this is my new book!” he said with a cheeky half smile on his face.
Despite the teasing and conversation, they managed to produce a shrimp burger as well as a dessert. It was truly an honor for me to witness Chef Jacques Pepin at work and see how his legacy touched his family.
The food offerings at Newport Mansions Wine and Food Festival proved equally as admirable as the celebrity guests. The cuisine was a celebration of the Northeast, with restaurants from Maine to Boston coming to be a part of the show. A standout to me came from Earth Restaurant at Hidden Pond. The Maine-based restaurant presented Charred broccoli with green tomato curry and chamomile.
“Chamomile can be used in food,” they explained to me. “You can steep it just as you would in tea.”
The small plate had a variety of bright colors that made it aesthetically lovely. A slight crunch paired with the softer vegetables also made it texturally appealing. The restaurant calls itself “organic inspired al fresco,” and the seasonal, fresh dish was a fitting representation of their philosophy.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Tamo Bistro & Bar, located in Boston’s Seaport Hotel, served up a Grilled Soy Braised Pork Belly adorned with tamari aioli, pickled red cabbage, and pickled cucumbers inside a steamed rice bun. The meat was thick, juicy, and decadent. The cold cucumbers and soft bun played off the rich meat nicely.
Two other favorites came from Midtown Oyster Bar and Bistro du Midi. Midtown Oyster Bar showed off their command of seafood with a Yellowfin tuna tartare on a bed of rice. Bistro du Midi embraced autumn produce in their King Wild Salmon with Piparras chile, Heirloom radish, and Honeycrisp apple foam.
My sweet tooth was not disappointed either! One of my favorite dessert offerings were macaroons that combined traditional and seasonal. The sandwich portion of the tiny cookies was made out of chocolate, while the inside contained pumpkin. The whole thing was finished with a petit dollop of caramel that imparted a nice saltiness to the otherwise sweet dessert. Farther down the line, Brooklyn’s Robicelli’s Bakery enticed guests with another twist on salty and sweet: Pecan Potato Chip Blondies.
My true mission at the Newport Mansions Wine and Food Festival though was the WINE! As wine correspondent, professional, and enthusiast at large, I relished the chance to taste quality wines from wineries I had never experienced before. The wines presented exceeded my expectations. While other festivals tend to focus on middle tiered wines, the wineries here took the opportunity to highlight some of their best bottles. They brought limited release wines, highly rated bottles, and were not afraid of the esoteric.
First, I journeyed to Raats Family wines. The South African winery specializes in Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, two of my favorite varietals. I have a profound appreciation for South Africa as a wine region even though it often goes unnoticed.
“People don’t realize that 70% of the world’s grapes are in South Africa,” Regional Sales Manager Chris Morris told me. “Since 1992, the wines have become really good, but people are still shying away from it.”
Founder Bruwer Raats spent 7 years in France before arriving in South Africa and purchasing property there. He went onto realize that he had clay soils that were ideal for growing Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc.
The Old Vine Chenin Blanc was exceptional. Unlike other versions of the varietal that employ stainless steel, 30% of this one saw French oak, 20% of which was new. It imparted texture and elegantly supplemented notes of white peach. The wine received 90 points from Wine Advocate and provides excellent value at around $20.
Of the reds, I gravitated toward the Family Cabernet Franc. Cabernet Franc is an idiosyncratic grape with a unique flavor. In addition to its fruit notes, it has distinct botanical characteristics. It takes a talented winemaker to harness all of its potential and craft a thing of beauty. Raats succeeded. His 100% Cabernet Franc smelled and tasted of ripe fruit, bell pepper, and spice. The “flagship wine” was awarded 91 points from Wine Advocate and sells for approximately $35. It is one of the most elegant manifestations of Cabernet Franc I have ever tasted.
I continued my quest for exceptional wines at Vinska Klet Goriska Brda. The Slovenian winery poured some of the day’s most esoteric bottles, as Slovenian wines are still uncommon in the Unites States. National Sales Representative Paul F. Monte, Jr. tasted me on wines from Colliano, a cooperative of 530 growers situated on the Italian Slovinian border. Many of them made use of an indigenous grape called Rebula.
Monte blew me away with an “orange wine” made from 100% Rebula. They infused it with smoke, herbs, and aromatics. The process is lengthy and intense. It ages for a year before aromatics are added. It then ages for another year. Colliano’s orange wine is not yet available in the United States, but if it were it would retail for approximately $80. The innovative bottle is certainly one of a kind.
After my adventures with international wines, I focused my attention on Arkenstone from Napa. The family estate makes high-quality small production wines. Jake Krausz, the Estate director, presented three wines. I fell in love with Arkenstone’s Atlas Peak Sauvignon Blanc immediately. I detected prominent notes of honey, unusual for crisp mineral-driven Sauvignon Blancs.
“This is not your typical Sauvignon Blanc,” Krausz confirmed when he saw the surprised expression on my face.
He explained that the Atlas Peak Sauvignon Blanc derives its flavor from low yield, small berries, and high concentration of fruit. It also goes through an intricate aging process. It travels from concrete to new French oak, to used French oak. Krausz says the ability to oak the wine comes from “where it’s from and how you’re farming it.” The white wine has to have enough strength of its own to “stand up to the oak.”
Only 300 cases are produced. As a result, one must journey to New York to find it or order directly. It sells for $48.
The Arkenstone Estate Obsidian was the day’s most memorable domestic red. Strong and powerful, it consisted of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. All of the grapes were hand-farmed from the Arkenstone Howell Mountain Estate. It spent 22 months in the barrel: 11 aged individually by lot and 11 after blending. The French Oak imparted even more body to the already substantive blend. Cocoa, blueberry, and dark fruit came through as I savored each sip.
Wines, too, can have a dessert course! Bouchaine had one of the most interesting dessert wines I have ever encountered: a late harvest Chardonnay. The estate, known as the oldest facility in the Carneros region of California, first envisioned the wine in 2005. They wanted to make use of the “cold long winter” that struck them. In the 2013 edition, they waited until December to pick the grapes so that the botrytis would concentrate the sugars and impart sweetness. They finished the wine by adding a touch of dry Riesling for balance. The wine was elegant and smooth. Unlike some dessert wines that are consumed by honey, this one tasted of green apple and fresh fruit.
“It’s not cloyingly sweet,” said Vice President of wine production Greg Gauthier.
I pointed out that the wine would certainly pair with other courses besides dessert. He confirmed this and said that it goes excellently with spicy dishes. The wine retails for $30 and can be ordered directly from them.
The Newport Wine and Food Festival proved just as refreshing as the breeze that blew through it. The festival distinguished itself from others by having exceptional celebrity guests, quality wines, and an array of restaurants from many states. From the mansions that seemed like they came straight out of The Great Gatsby to the ocean views, I felt like I was experiencing a piece of paradise.