Wine Highlights from The Greenwich Wine + Food Festival

Emma Jane-Doody Stetson

How much can change in a year! Last year, I attended the Greenwich Wine & Food Festival as a CTBites contest winner.  I was just a typical reader who had entered the website’s Facebook contest in the hopes of getting a ticket to the coveted annual event. 

Now, just a year later, I was standing under the CTBites tent, which was prominently stationed right at the entrance to the festival.  After attending Greenwich Wine & Food last fall, I went on to write for the website and ultimately become their wine correspondent.  And at that moment I was preparing to interview some food and wine heavyweights including Gretchen Thomas of Barcelona and Laurie Forster, “The Wine Coach.”

2013 marks the third year for the Greenwich Wine & Food Festival. Serendipity sponsors the event and a portion of the proceeds go toward Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.  The camp offers children from families coping with cancer the chance to enjoy the outdoors and spend time with new friends for the summer.  The camp also provides family weekends and outreach programs throughout the rest of the year.

The Greenwich Wine & Food Festival spanned a weekend.  It began on Thursday October 3 with a kick-off party that afforded guests the chance to mingle with culinary experts who would be featured in the upcoming days.  Friday night consisted of a Grand Tasting Gala.  People who purchased tickets for this enjoyed food from select chefs, live demonstrations, and wine from Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits.  The climax came on Saturday with the Culinary Village, chef demonstrations, an afternoon burger bash, and live music by Dispatch at night.  Saturday proved especially exciting for CTBites.  For the first time, the food blog erected a tent and hosted a panel of chefs and sommeliers.

The Culinary Village is a staple of the event.  Close to 100 food, wine, and spirit vendors set up tables within an enormous tent and offer guests a glimpse of what they could experience if they went to the venue itself.  Restaurants offer tasting portions of signature items and wine shops pour tastes of popular bottles.

“Greenwich Wine & Food Festival: where people eat and drink until they throw up,” joked Top Chef winner and attendee Richard Blais.

As Wine Correspondent, I sought out the wine distributors, importers, and stores in addition to the delicious eats.  I was profoundly impressed with the diversity of vino available for sampling.  I started my day by visiting Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits, wine sponsors of the Grand Tasting Gala.  I fell in love with the Cigar Zin immediately.  While lighter in body and color than a typical Zinfandel, it retains the leathery peppery elements that I so relish.  The blend consists of 90% Zinfandel, 5% Petite Sirah, and 5% Syrah.  At around $14.99 it is a steal.  It is available at Greenwich Wine and Spirits, Horseneck Wine & Liquors, the A&P Package Store, and LeBellas- all in Greenwich.

Next, I paid a trip to 90 Cellars.  I was familiar with their concept before approaching their table.  90 cellars takes grapes from established, credible vineyard and uses them to make wines marked with the 90 cellars label.  They do not reveal where exactly the grapes originate, which allows them to sell them for accessible prices.  I am a fan of the Cotes de Rhone so this time I tried something new: the French Fusion.  The red is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Mouvedre.  I loved the burst of red fruit, but appreciated the fact that it was not overly tannic.

“There’s little oak so the flavors come out,” explained Mike Munk, the state manager.

I also tried their Sauvignon Blanc which is hands down their bestseller.  Though not one to usually enjoy a Sauv, I enjoyed the crisp minerality.  I could certainly see myself purchasing a bottle or enjoying a glass.

The Wine Mapp, a store in Greenwich, teamed up with Kyle O’Donnell, a representative from Worldwide Wides, to produce yet another remarkable tasting line-up.  Unlike other booths, they featured a port.  The Taylor Fladgate Port is a late vintage, which means its exact year is undeclared and it is meant for immediate drinking.  I found it lush, deep, and round: a true steal at just $19.  I then moved onto a bottle from a brand called Antu.  The red goes by the name of “Ninquen” which translates to “plateau.” The 70%/30% mix of Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere was fruitier than I expected in a delicious way.

“There’s much more mountain fruit in that region,” explained Kyle.  “The fruit is more intense than in other wines.” 

An additional discovery worth mentioning are Rotation Wines, which were presented to me by Timothy Wilkes of Master Brands.  The brand makes 4 varietals: Merlot, Chardonney, Cabernet Sauvignon, and its newest addition: a blend of Merlot, Cabernet, and Zinfandel.  They come exclusively from Napa Valley.

“One of the best parts of these wines is you get Napa wine for about $10 a bottle,” Wilkes told me.

I enjoyed the red blend especially.  While most red blends come across ripe and sweet with notes closer to cherry, this was black, rich, and full.

Emma Doody with Gretchen Thomas

Although I mainly focus on wine, I couldn’t help but sample- well, more like dig in- to the abundance of gourmet eats throughout the culinary village.  Acclaimed restaurants from both New York and Connecticut presented small versions of menu items or dishes that embodied their style of cooking.  One of the first counters I stopped at wound up being a favorite of the day.  55 Degrees, Harvest, and Scene, all of the same restaurant group, teamed up to create an awesome spread.  Harvest served a deviled quail egg with white truffle, black truffle, garlic, and onion for flavor.  I enjoyed the country pate tartlet from 55, too.  Hints of brandy and oregano made it the perfect morsel.

“Harvest is more American style,” explained Gus, Harvest’s head chef.  “The others are more Italian wine bars.”

I had a humbling moment at Oak & Almond.  I had never heard of the eatery until the Community Plates fundraiser, but they blew me away that night with a pork belly and scallop plate.  When I saw them on the list for Greenwich, I ran over to their section enthusiastically.  My heart sunk with disappointment when I read that their burger contained both cheddar cheese and head cheese.  I am sensitive to large quantities of dairy and feared that two types of cheese would throw my system into chaos.  I voiced my concern to their chef, Jeff Taibi,  who let out a laugh.

“Head cheese isn’t cheese!” he chuckled.  “I’ll just leave off the cheddar.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Well… it’s…. pig’s head.  The meat from the ears, face, all combined.”  He studied my face for disgust but found only childlike glee.  I love adventurous eating and accepted at once.  It was a riff on a Cuban with country ham, a head cheese patty, a pickle, mustard, and a just toasted bun.  In a week they had expanded my already broad food horizons twice and impressed me profoundly.  How had I not heard of them before?

“We’ve been open since mid-March, but now we’re really starting to get busy and recognized,” Taibi informed me.

Harlan Social produced a third memorable dish of the day: short rib perogies with caramelized onions and mushroom sauce.  Perogies made from scratch were stuffed with succulent meat and dressed with a deep, earthy mushroom sauce.  The richness could have been overwhelming, but for a small tasting plate it proved perfect.  Steven Lewandowski, the chef, explained the process to me.  He told me that they handmade and shaped the perogies.  They braisded the short rib meat in red wine and then pulled it.  The mushroom sauce came from a reduction of the drippings from the meat and truffle.

“I’m Polish.  I LOVE Perogies!” he proclaimed.

An honorable mention went to Pinch.  The restaurant just opened in July and is located in the Empire City Casino.  I appreciated what their vision: it seemed like Southern comfort foods meets a New England seafood joint.  They gave guests their signature shrimp cocktail with horseradish custard, a smoked salmon sandwich with egg, and an apple tatin.  The components have potential.  Their use of horseradish was admittedly atypical and creative.  Serving a tatin at the festival was ambitious and a departure from other desserts.  Still, the technique itself needs some fine-tuning that will come with time.  Pinch will be a restaurant to watch; I see them gaining widespread attention as they gain experience as a restaurant.

The true highlight of my day unfolded in the afternoon: the interviews with the chefs and sommeliersin the CTBites blogger’s lounge.  I watched as my CTBites colleagues interviewed local culinary figures including Arik Bensimon of leFarm, Adam Patrick of Walrus & Carpenter, and Geoff Lazlo of The Whelk. Chef Matt Storch of Match and Chelsea served as a moderator for some of the conversations as well.  We also snagged last minute interviews with celebrity chef Graham Elliot and Ace of Cake’s Duff Goldman as well.

I had the amazing opportunity to sit down with two-time Top Chef alumnus Dale Talde.  Although originally unscheduled, he agreed to sit down for a Q&A about his personal journey as a chef, Brooklyn restaurants, and time on Top Chef.  At times he was poignant and contemplative- pointing out that his experience transcends Top Chef and pointing out that reading Yelp reviews and food blogs can be instrumental in helping a restaurant improve itself. Other times, he was candid and humorous, like when he admitted to the crowd that he does no cooking outside of the restaurant and his apartment’s oven is full of classic Nikes.  I enjoyed the talk thoroughly.

Around 4, I picked up the microphone again to interview Gretchen Thomas, Wine & Beverage director of the Barcelona restaurants.  This conversation felt particularly special: my very first article, and audition piece of sorts, was an interview I had with her back in the fall of 2012.  Earlier in the day, Thomas gave a demonstration with biodynamic wines.

“As much as we would like to believe it’s just grapes in the bottle- it’s not,” she informed us.  She then went on to describe how some vineyards have created environments that allows vines to flourish without chemicals and pesticides.

Her interview with me was a touch more personal in nature.  She discussed her start in the world of wine.  She told us how “Barcelona took a chance on [her]” and a profound relationship took off from there.  At one point, I asked her what she felt the greatest misconception was when it came to vino.  She replied that people often save champagne and sparkling wines for special occasions rather than drinking them all the time.

Laurie Forster, the wine coach, discussed other misconceptions when she spoke with me.  She had the crowd in hysterics when she was describing the “secret language” that comes with wine drinking.

“You say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to stay in tonight and have a glass of wine. Really what you mean is, ‘I’m going to stay in tonight, have three glasses of wine, and watch a marathon of Duck Dynasty,” she laughed.

Don’t let her candor and un-pretentious attitude fool you though: this woman knows her stuff!!  She made a radical departure from software saleswoman to wine connoisseur (something I appriected hearing about considering my recent transitions), but she did it through academics and study.  She completed the initial test towards becoming a Master Sommelier and become Advanced Certified with the Wine & Spirits Education Trust. She is also a member of the Society of Wine Educators and took wine classes at the Culinary Institute of America.

Today, she serves a “wine edu-tainer.”  One of her most recent endeavors is putting on stand-up acts about the stereotypes surrounding wine.  She also holds creates events in which she helps make wine accessible to her clients.

“I made a commitment to create events that help people connect with wine in a way that is approachable and fun, while creating opportunities for them to bond with each other,” she explains on her website.  “The most rewarding part of my job is that I can save my customers from the awkward moments I suffered with the wine list back in my software days.”

By the time 6pm rolled around, I was physically exhausted, but my mind was working on light speed.  That’s the thing about the Greenwich Wine & Food Festival: it exposes you to new ideas when it comes to food and wine.  It is a think tank for foodies; it leaves you creatively stimulated and wanting to learn more.

I can’t wait to see what the next year holds.