Do you remember seeing Finding Nemo in theaters? Or when Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California? How about when a young rapper named 50 Cent won “best new artist?” It probably feels like a long time ago… and it was! 2003 to be exact. And that’s also how long Mohegan Sun’s Winefest has been around. January 26-29, 2018 marked the FIFTEENTH anniversary of this massive event that brings together celebrity chefs, wine, beer, spirits, food, and local vendors for an entire weekend. I first attended the festival in 2013 and had the opportunity cover the event on behalf of CTBites for the fourth time this year.
Mohegan Sun’s Winefest has certainly evolved since its inception. For starters, they changed the name from “Winefest” to “Wine and Food Fest” to highlight the renewed emphasis on high-caliber chefs and quality restaurants. In that grain, this year’s festival commanded top talent. Celebrity chefs like Rocco Dispirito, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Todd English put on demonstrations during Saturday’s Grand Tasting. On Saturday, even more celebrity chefs came out for the Celebrity Chef Dine Around, including reality star turned restaurateur Kathy Wakile, Chef Roble of Bravo TV, Top Chef vet Betty Fraser, and chef to the stars Manouschka Guerrier. The weekend culminated in an epic brunch featuring culinary legend Martha Stewart and the one and only Snoop Dogg!
In earlier years of the Winefest, the Grand Tastings were the main event. This year, however, guests could purchase tickets to an assortment of peripheral events that could have been the main attractions themselves. Friday night saw a Bourbon Tasting and dessert showcase aptly entitled “Divine Delights.” The Grand Tasting took place on Saturday, but so did a “Vintage Cru” premium wine tasting and the Celebrity Chef Dine Around. (And an impromptu performance by Snoop Dogg at the casino’s nightclub, Avalon!) The Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg brunch concluded the weekend on Sunday. While the Grand Tasting costs $99 per person, the extra events run from $90-$199 per person. The current reincarnation of the Sun Wine & Food Fest is a full on weekend affair!!
I had the chance to attend Saturday’s Grand Tasting, which ran from 12-5pm. As a wine writer, I used to approach the festival as a chance to find small production, nerdy, premium wines that consumers may not have heard of. Over the years though, that mentality has changed. As the festival has grown in popularity and people turn out in droves to drink plenty of vino, vendors have shifted their focus to mainstream brands that attendees will recognize. Rather than being a place to unearth the undiscovered, the Mohegan Sun Winefest is a place to observe the latest trends, see what will be hot in the upcoming season, and find affordable options.
Based on the offerings at the Grand Tasting, it’s clear that rosé is not going anywhere! Last year, rosé sales soared and some speculated that it was all a wild craze doomed to a sudden end. That does NOT seem to be the case. Pinot Noir powerhouse Meiomi constructed an entire tasting room to showcase their rosé, a recent addition to their line. The miniature building, complete with couches, counters, and interior décor, was jam-packed all day. Barefoot Wines, known for affordable, easy-drinking bottles, showed off a still and sparkling rosé. Even Angry Orchard CIDER got in on the action. Their hard cider “rosé” gets its color from French apples with pink juice and vibrant skins. It was a huge hit.
It also looks like people will be getting their “spritz” on this summer. Producers are taking their wine-in-a-can programs a step further and offering various spritzers in cans. Itz Spritz, for example, is a gluten-free lightly sparkling beverage in flavors like Elderflower Cirtus, Cucumber Lime, and Golden Pear. Aforementioned Barefoot debuted spritzers as well. Their new “Refresh” line of spritzers is made using their wine as a base and packaged in cans for easy transport. Choose from Crisp White, Summer Red, Rosé, and Muscato.
Though Mohegan Sun’s festival is billed as a “Wine” and Food Festival, there is an entire floor devoted to beer. While the wine tasting takes place in the grand ballroom, the beer tastings unfold in a series of conference rooms upstairs. As I stepped off the escalator, the first things I noticed were the strobe lights and music coming from the Heineken room. While there were plenty of major brands, there were a few gems hidden throughout. Imagine my delight when I came across a tiny Greysail Brewing Company table tucked behind the Goose Island tent… pouring Captain’s Daughter on draft! They also served a delicious Leaning Chimney Smoked Porter that had a balanced, smooth texture with chocolate notes and hints of campfire.
With all of the beverage options, I of course had to punctuate my sipping with eating. The Wine & Food Fest hosted approximately a dozen area restaurants, and their food was available for purchase. Snacks cost about $3 while items like sandwiches and BBQ hovered around $5 or $6. The most expensive thing I spied was a cup of gourmet ramen for $10.
I was thrilled to spot Bear’s Smokehouse and made it a point to get there early before the ballroom became overcrowded. The Hartford-based restaurant has received acclaim for its authentic Kansas-style BBQ, bourbon program, and hospitality. They were dishing up their popular sliders in both pork and chicken with their special sauces readily available for custom drizzling. The meat was tender, flavorful, and perfectly accompanied by the spices in the sauce. It all sat on a lightly toasted potato roll, which imparted a nice fluffy texture.
For dessert, I couldn’t help but spring for NoRa Cupcake’s “Gangsta Cookie.” The new creation is a layering of chocolate chip cookies, caramel pretzels, and peanut butter cups. All that decadence is encased in a dark chocolate shell and topped with candied bacon and gold glitter. They are visually captivating and amazingly delicious. The treat expertly embodies the art of texture, with the crunchy pretzels and hard exterior playing off of the soft cookies and peanut butter. The bacon added a savory component to each bite that provided a beautiful counterpoint to the sweetness.
As preoccupied as I was with the abundance of food and drink options, I did manage to make time for chef demos! I managed to secure front row center seats for Rocco Dispirito’s exhibition where I watched him make a Truffle Risotto using ingredients that probably cost more than my rent. After showing us how to achieve the perfect risotto with plenty of audience interaction, he used copious amounts of truffle butter and shaved truffles to make the dish extra decadent. It was all topped with enormous Gulf Shrimp with plump, juicy heads for flavor.
Later, Boston-based chef Todd English took the stage. Where Rocco’s recipe was an exercise in gourmet eating, English took a more relaxed approach. He showed the audience how to make a giant meatball stuffed with cheese and spaghetti. It captured his cuisine: Italian classics turned on their head and re-invented for widespread appeal.
It’s hard to believe that next year, Mohegan Sun’s Wine and Food Festival will be turning 16! If it were a person, it would be old enough to drive! I’m already looking forward to next year. In the meantime, there’s always the tasty restaurant scene at the casino to keep me entertained.