Sun Winefest Recap: One Woman's Search for the Best Bottles

Emma Jane-Doody Stetson

It was the calm before the storm.

As I strolled into the Sun WineFest before the doors opened to the public, the ballroom appeared almost peaceful.  Exhibitors casually erected their stands and freely moved about the space.  Within an hour, that all changed.  People stood packed shoulder to shoulder and attempted to elbow their way through the throng for tastes of wine.  The crowd surged with energy, and my heart raced with excitement.

For some, the Mohegan Sun WineFest is one giant party: an excuse to get buzzed with friends, blow off steam, and sample as many wines as physically possible.  For others, the event is a valuable opportunity to find exceptional bottles. 

“I drove all the way from Rhode Island to come here,” explained one guest, Jenn Jendzejec.  “I came last year, and I like it because I can try a variety of wines .  I just took a wines class at Johnson and Wales, and now I want to be able to pick and choose what I drink.”

People like Jenn have a multitude of options; the wine enthusiast can find everything from the lavish to the affordable to the eclectic at the Sunfest.  The weekend’s main feature, The Grand Tasting, boasts over 1,000 wines, beers, and spirits from all over the world.  It lasted two days, occurring between 12pm and 5pm, January 26-27.  Some larger distributors, like Worldwide Wines, have oversized pavilions with all four sides lined with bottles.  Others, had tables in the front of the ballroom.  There was something extraordinary going on in every direction I turned.

Exhibitors transcend wine itself.  A few respected companies with more artisanal products participated in the Grand Tasting as well.  For example, Bottega del Vino Crystal came with a selection of beautiful crystal glasses meant to enhance the notes of wine.  Their vision is summed up by their catchy slogan: “If the wine matters so does the glass.”  I was a bit skeptical at first, but the representative, Robert Hall, truly believed in the glassware’s potential.

“The wine tastes better.  The difference really is crazy,” he maintained.  They even offer seminars to increase wine appreciation.  In the past they have partnered with Mohegan Sun, and they hope to have more events in the future.  Regardless of how the crystals affect the wine, one thing is certain: the glasses are exquisite.  Each one is hand-made and perfectly shaped.  Remarkably they are still dishwasher safe.

In addition, celebrity chefs punctuated the afternoon with cooking demonstrations on the main stage.  Culinary heavyweights like Todd English, Donatella Arpaia, Govind Armstrong, Betty Fraser, and Robert Irvine took turns preparing signature dishes for the crowd.  The demonstrations frequently turned interactive, and guests were invited on stage to help cook, sample food, or even participate in a Top Chef inspired cook off.

Robert Irvine, host of Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible and Worst Cooks in America brought his infamous culinary boot camps to life with a dynamic segment involving audience members.  When several guests admitted to enjoying olive oil, he had them come on stage, tip their heads back, and eat the ingredient.  Then, he had them taste grape oil instead.  “Olive oil’s bitter.  This tastes good!” he barked.  With his intense personality and bulging biceps, no one dared disagree.

Chefs Betty Fraser and Manouschka Guerrier put on the most hilarious, memorable demonstration of the weekend Sunday afternoon.  Fraser is a Top Chef Alumnus while Guerrier appeared on Food Network’s Private Chefs of Beverly Hills.

“I literally cook for dogs,” Guerrier informed us.

“Don’t call the nice women of Beverly Hills that!” Betty rebuked.

“No- literally- I cook for dogs.  Rich people’s dogs,” Guerrier clarified amid giggles.

The demo was really more stand-up routine meets circus performance.  It was punctuated with chaotic equipment malefactions, uproarious one-liners, and a whole lot of wine!  The pair refer to each other as Salt n’ Pepper, but they reminded me of Kathy Lee and Hoda on the Today show, dropping witty comments with wine glasses permanently affixed to their hands.  By the end of the segment, they’d salvaged enough of their food from the seemingly possessed burners to prepare a delicious play on Eggs Benedict.  They also gave two audience members a chance to compete in a 15 minute long head-to-head cooking competition.

All of the chefs were completely down-to-earth.  They were eager to greet fans, sign cookbooks, and even impart culinary tips to young aspiring food lovers (OK, I might be referring to myself there….).  When I had the chance to speak to the charming, handsome Todd English, he revealed his favorite dish to cook on a chilly winter’s day.  “I love soups,” he stated.  “I like trying different ones with chicken and squash.”

Govind Armstrong had some more romantic culinary wisdom to offer behind the scenes.  As the author of Small Bites, Big Nights and one of People Magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People,” I thought it would be appropriate to ask him which dish he would recommend preparing for Valentine’s Day.

“Definitely oysters,” he said.  “I know it sounds cliché, but they’re perfect.  I’ll add a little champagne sauce.”  As for the main dish, he recommends duck.  Fortunately, he’d taught us all how to make a delicious cured duck breast during his demonstration.  “Just stay away from the garlic,” he laughed.

Although Mohegan Sun had lined up numerous official events to make the weekend unforgettable, there were unexpected surprises as well.  For instance, the popular tattoo artist Ed Hardy showed up at his wine brand’s tent to sign T-Shirts, pose for pictures, and chat with fans.  Don’t let the tattoo arm sleeves fool you: he is quiet, reserved, and humble.  As drunk women proclaimed their undying love for him and his work, he responded with small, slow smiles, as if trying to take all of the commotion in.  He found the whole experience incredibly fun.  “I’m loving it here.  I’m having a blast,” he told me.

His wines are accessible and entertaining.  The true claim to fame is the Sangrias, and they just released a white version to supplement the red.  The mixture comes ready to drink and, when chilled, provides the perfect beverage for a summer barbecue.  Ironically, Hardy himself doesn’t drink.  He leaves wine production up to talented, skilled individuals that he trusts to make the best decision.  “My guys know what they’re doing,” he explained.

With all of the wine flowing, it was advisable for guests to eat throughout the day.  The SunFest offered numerous culinary options for foodies.  Booths from revered restaurants, both from the casino and surrounding areas, lined the ballroom.  Chefs prepared fresh gourmet fare as guests looked on in anticipation.  My favorite of the weekend came from Octagon Steakhouse, a restaurant in the Mystic Marriot Hotel.  They served two dishes: a glazed hangar steak and their signature “Dragon Chowder.”

“Everyone always wants to know what makes it ‘Dragon,’” said the chef, Muhammad, with a look of mischief in his eye.  With a little prodding, he started listing some very interesting ingredients.  “Alligator meat, skate wing, purple potatoes, beer…,” he began.  While some might balk at such atypical ingredients, many food enthusiasts found it fascinating.  The chowder provided warmth on a frigid winter’s day and a touch of cayenne added an extra zing to the already tasty combination.

Other standouts included meatballs from the First & Last Tavern in Plainville, Connecticut and Sol Toro Tequila Grill’s shrimp ceviche. 

Sampling the cuisine from these restaurants required tokens, which were available for a nominal charge.  Ultimately, the small plates cost between 3 and 6 dollars each.  However, the proceeds from the cuisine, along with a portion of other earnings from the day, went to benefit a worthwhile charity called the Channel 3 Kids Camp.  The camp, located in Andover, CT, has helped children in need for 103 years.  It sits on 150 acres and provides services to children while connecting them with nature.  They began small, but have expanded their initiatives over the years.  Now they are involved with the popular Nature’s Classroom programs that benefit teens.

“Mohegan Sun is such a great sponsor,” says the camp’s Executive Director, Denise Hornbecker.  “We’re so thankful to them.”

Mohegan Sun prides itself on being “A World at Play.”  It lived up to its slogan, truly offering a “world” of opportunity to the thousands of people who attended the SunFest over the weekend.  Whether you were there to party or learn, drink or eat, stand out or blend in, there was something stimulating for everyone.  2013 was the 10th anniversary of the annual event, and I’m already looking forward to next year.