Best of Wines Recap: Greenwich Wine + Food Festival 2014

Emma Jane-Doody Stetson

The Greenwich Wine + Food Festival feels a lot like a rock concert.  People from across the state come by bus, train, cab, and car to Roger Sherman Park. This year marked the 4th year of the festival.  Although I have attended the event for the last three years, it never gets old.  Each year, Greenwich Food + Wine evolves with new guests and changing formats.

This year, the first thing I marveled at was the organization.  The number of demonstrations and participants had definitely increased, but guests were evenly distributed throughout the grounds.  

I enjoyed the food (understatement!), but as CTbites' wine correspondent, I focused on the wines and drinks served that day.  Wine is central to the festival; demonstrations not only include the best chefs, but also revered mixologists and sommeliers.

Here are my selection for some labels to watch:

One of the first presentations of the day came from Gretchen Thomas, Director of Wine and Spirits for Barcelona and Bartaco.  Gretchen has a remarkable palate, extensive knowledge, and a great deal of experience.  Rather than flaunt her skills though, Gretchen made wine feel fun and accessible.  She chose five Spanish selections and broke them down with easy terminology and entertaining analogies.  Gretchen specifically selected wines from regions of Spain frequently overlooked by the masses.

“We have blinders on about what’s going on in Spain outside of Rioja,” she explained as she poured the first glass.

Of the five wines I encountered, my favorite was the first pour, a wine called “Maddy.”  It is part of “Gretchen’s Selections,” a group of wines that Gretchen directly imports and brings into the Barcelona restaurants.  The slightly sweet wine had crispness and acidity that proved refreshing in 80+ degree weather.  Gretchen explained that the grapes herald from 60-100 year old vines.

The Abadia da Cova “Barrica” was another standout.  Gretchen explained this red wine with colorful, engaging descriptions.

“If Pinot Noir and Syrah had a baby, it would be this wine,” she chuckled.  She also observed that the wine, comprised of 100% Mencia, reminded her of when people keep roses in the vase too long.

“It’s stinky in a delightful way,” she said with in a playful, yet authoritative tone.

After taking in Gretchen’s demo, I journeyed from the mixologist tent to the “culinary village.”  Over 100 food and spirit vendors congregated in the enormous tent located in the center of the festival.  While enjoying delicious eats from the area’s best restaurants, I sought out new, interesting wines.

To me, the highlight proved to be the Turkish wines offered by Gregory von Hess of Val’s Putnam Wines, a store located in Greenwich.  Von Hess has been working tirelessly for over a year to bring the Suvla line to the United States.  I first met him last year, when he attended the festival with prototype versions of the wines.  Just a year later, he had the full line ready for launch in Greenwich the next week.

The Turkish Chardonnay quickly became my favorite of his white wines.  It sees just four months in oak.  As a result, it has a barely buttery texture that gives it body without feeling overwhelming.  It also has a slightly sweet, crisp profile slightly reminiscent of a Sauvignon Blanc.  It possesses all of the Chardonnay flavors, but with bright fresh acidity.  Greg informed me that this wine will retail for approximately $16.  

In addition, I had the opportunity to sample two Turkish Roses.  Both proved exceptional, but I especially enjoyed the Karasakiz Rose.  “Karasakiz” is an indigenous Turkish varietal usually used to produce red wine.  The Rose version took on an orange hue.  It had substantial body with a crisp, dry finish and notes of citrus, fruit, and earth.  This bottle too will eventually sell for about $15.

I concluded my tasting with the Turkish reds.  The standout was definitely the “Sur.”  Last year, the wine was a work in progress with a handwritten label.  This year it was a bona fide knockout destined to impress.  It’s comprised of 2% Petit Verdot, 34% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Merlot, and 14% Cabernet Franc.  It comes from a single vineyard within the Suvla domain.  “Sur” is full-bodied, but manages to retain bright tannins and notes of fresh fruit.  This higher-end wine will cost about $30.

L’Escale of Greenwich plans to serve these wines in their restaurant.  Val’s Putnam wines will carry them as well.

Later, I had the chance to try wines from Shaw Vineyards located along Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes. The vineyard encompasses about 20 acres and is powered by wind and fully sustainable.  Although our market is dominated by mass produced wines, Shaw remains a family affair.  I had the opportunity to taste through the wines with Steve Shaw Jr. who oversees the enterprise with his father.

Although I am not generally a Pinot Grigio fan, I loved his version of the varietal.  The wine, from his “LiBella” line, proved remarkably aromatic.  While other Pinot Grigios are marked by sweet fruits and acidity, this one had complex floral notes and a medium body. “It’s the opposite of any Italian Pinot Grigio,” Shaw stated.

Of the reds, the Shaw Vineyards 2009 Pinot Noir resonated with me.  Only 230 cases were created.  I immediately appreciated the texture.  The unfiltered wine had barely noticeable particles that filled my mouth with flavor.  Smoke, fruit, and earth came together for one delicious sip.

While these wines are not available in CT, they are for sale in VarMax, which is located in Portchester.  Shaw estimated that the LiBella Pinot Grigio retails for around $15 and the Pinot Noir retails for about $35.

My wine conversation would not be complete without mentioning Kathy Lee Gifford!  For the first time, Gifford, a Greenwich resident, came to the festival to introduce her GIFFT wines.  Gifford is best known for her 10am appearance on the Today show, but this past year she introduced her own line of wine.  She has always enjoyed the drink, but the line is also a playful homage to the glass that appears with her on TV each morning.

I had the chance to speak to both Kathy Lee Gifford and Heidi Scheid, who partners with Kathy to make the wines.  The Scheid family owns a vineyard in Monterey, California and GIFFT is a 50-50 partnership.  Both Kathy and Heidi attest to the Kathy’s direct participation.

“I didn’t want to just slap my name on something,” Gifford declared with a smile.

Heidi went on to tell me, “Kathy was just up in the vineyards helping pick grapes last week.”

I was impressed to learn that wines are estate made.  Many commercialized wines source their fruit, but all grapes come from the property.

I tasted the Chardonnay with Heidi.  It had moderate oak as 50% was done in stainless steel and 50% was done in oak.  Heidi explained that Kathy asked for something “fresh, but not overpowered by oak.”  During their larger presentation to the crowd, the two described how one of the final steps of production was choosing a preferred Chardonnay out of four ultimate contenders.  Both women chose the same version independently, confirming their shared vision.

I sampled the Red blend as they talked about it on the main stage.  It consists of 10 grapes, including Merlot, Petit Syrah, and Syrah.  For the red, Kathy strove to create something “smooth and juicy.”  The wine was easy drinking and would definitely be a crowd pleaser for parties.  It has fruit, light tannings, and a medium-body that caters to a variety of palettes.  Wine Spectator recently awarded it 91 points.

I confess that I am always dubious about wines released by celebrities, and approached the GIFFT table with healthy skepticism.  However, I did enjoy the wines immensely.  Both were delicious and approachable.  For just $15-20, the wines would be great for everyday drinking.

You can find them at Best Cellars, which has locations in Greenwich, New Canaan, and Ridgefield.  Continental Fine Wine in Greenwich also carries them.  For those farther up 95, Turnpike Spirits stocks them as well.

As I perused the tables searching for notable wines, I was surprised to see the number of cocktails being offered.

Just recently, Gretchen Thomas made the bold assertion to CTBites that “we've come through the Dark Ages of the Cocktail.”  The festival seemed to confirm her words.  Cocktails are everywhere… and they’re good!!  Ketel One mixed their vodka with lemon juice, green tea, bitters, and green chartreuse topped with ground nutmeg for a seasonal rift on their spirit.  Napa and Co also delivered a memorable cocktail.  Eric Ribeiro’s signature drink, named “24 Carats” unites vegetables, ginger beer, fruit, sherry, herbs, bitters, and spirits in a glass.  The drink has a sweet profile, but the earthiness of the vegetables balances it.

2014 marked another successful year for the 2014 Greenwich Wine + Food Festival.  Like a rock concert, I was consumed with excitement at the time.  And like a rock concert, I can’t wait until next year’s installation!