Sun WineFest 2014 @ Mohegan Sun: The Recap

Emma Jane-Doody Stetson

Mohegan Sun’s annual WineFest is my Super Bowl.  Before the big game, football aficionados took to twitter in anticipation of the showdown.  I, too, waged a full out blitz on social media- enthusiastically counting down til I could try some great wines and see my favorite chefs back in action!  For the Super Bowl, avid fans suited up in team apparel and NFL jerseys.  I also donned some fancy getup; my yearly uniform is a pink shirt bedazzled with “Wine Diva” and a sparkly headband.  Some people love calfskin; I love food, wine, and fun.

From the moment I entered the Convention Center, it was apparent that this year’s festival was bigger than ever.  Media members are granted an additional hour to peruse the venue.  Last year there was a handful of us and it was easy to get a preview of what was to come.  This year, however, it seemed that people everywhere were vying to cover the event.  Media members were elbow-to-elbow before the doors even opened to the public.  It was an extravaganza!

The SunWineFest’s signature event is its Grand Tasting, which spans the weekend.  This year, it unfolded on January 25 and 26, from 12-5pm each day.  An admission ticket affords guests the opportunity to sample literally hundreds of wines from the commercial to the more obscure.  An entire upstairs floor offers a haven for beer lovers.  The weekend is not only about beverages- food is celebrated as well!  Foodoes can try dishes from popular area restaurants and products from artisanal producers.  They can even watch their favorite celebrity chefs do demonstrations on The Culinary Main Stage all weekend.

Stacey Geaughan sums up the allure of the weekend marvelously.  She drove all the way down from Springfield, MA to be a part of it for the second year in a row.

 “It was so much fun last year! I’ve never had so many wines,” she exclaimed.  “And there’s so much excitement, so many people here!”

As wine correspondent, I of course wanted to focus on the wines featured throughout the weekend.  The turnout proved fantastic.  Prominent New York and Connecticut-based distributors came out in droves to pour some of their most beloved bottles.  The WineFest saw the return of well-known outfits like Duckhorn Vineyards, Barefoot Wines, Brescome & Barton, Michael David, Banfi, and more.  At the same time, it also grew to include new entities.  It seemed like there were significantly more pavilions than in years past- which means more wine and displays!  I counted seventeen erected in total.

I will, of course, have a full report on the specific wines I got to try… stay tuned to CTBites for the complete lowdown!  I did, however, observe some general wine trends I found interesting.  First, I found that most Chardonnays were barely oaked or unoaked entirely.

“It’s what the market wants.  We’re moving away from structured Chards,” one representative informed me.  I seemed to hear that same line in slightly different versions with very few exceptions.

Additionally, I saw a resurgence of high-quality, complex Sauvignon Blancs.  I confess that I often dismiss this grape as less dimensional than other varietals or overly grassy.  The 2014 WineFest made me take notice of it though.  Superfly made a gorgeous one and The Ritual from Slocum & Sons proved an excellent representation as well.  The most exceptional Sauvignon Blanc, though, heralded from Casey Ranch.  The 6,000 acre ranch lies adjacent to Napa and relies on solar power and organic techniques.  The Sauvignon Blanc was perfectly balance, medium-bodied, and effervescent.

Other favorites of the day included Fess Parker’s Santa Rita Pinot Noir, Signorello’s Fuse Cabernet Sauvignon, Tortoise Creek’s Cabernet Sauvignon, and selections from Frank Family Vineyards.  Of course I will give details on these and more in follow-up articles to come.

Tables of gourmet bites adorned the perimeter of the ballroom.  People flocked to try food from places like Plan B, Summer Shack, Frank Pepe Pizzeria, and more.

One of my favorite offerings came from Esca Restaurant & Wine Bar.  The restaurant, located in Middletown, CT, will celebrate 5 years of business this June.  Their talented executive chef Daniel Sergi presented me with a “marinated flank steak sandwich.”  The dish included thai basil, saffron, and pickled peppers that were all arranged in a steam bun.  I loved the idiosyncratic choice.

“I wanted to do something different for Winefest,” Sergi explained.  “We mostly do Italian at Esca, but I like to go out of the box.”

The steam bun was the highlight of the dish.  It had a soft, pillow-like texture that I enjoyed immensely.  Sergi created them from scratch.

“A steam bun is an Asian type of roll,” he elucidated.  “It’s my take on a bon mai- but softer.”

Another standout heralded from Octagon Steakhouse near Mystic.  I applauded them last year for their “Dragon Chowder” that came complete with alligator meat.  This year, they dazzled guests with perfectly cooked bison meat with chimichurri and pesto.  It sat on a small bed of thin spaghetti that was seasoned to perfection.  As the meat and sauced seeped into it, it proved one harmonious bite after the next.

Michael Jordan Steakhouse rounded out my top choices for delicious eats.  They offered a more quintessentially New England spread.  For “surf,” people could purchase a lobster roll on homemade brioche.  The plate was a smaller version of the sandwich offered at the 23 sports café.

“I love this!” exclaimed the woman next to me, who had driven from Manchester, CT just for the event.  “It’s lemony.  I taste tarragon.  It’s very fresh with lots of meat!”

Michael Jordan’s gave carnivores a treat with their juicy short rib that had been braised for 20 hours.  It came with caramelized carrots, which derived their flavor from the vegetable’s natural sugars rather than manufactured sweeteners.  It was flavorful and decadent without being rich or overpowering.

And what would the Mohegan SunWineFest be without awesome chef demos?!?  2014 saw the triumphant return of many fan favorites.  On Saturday at 1pm, Robert Irvine of Restaurant Impossible  took to the stage and entertained us with his signature boot camp meets Food Network segment.  He lives for audience participation and gets people up on stage for everything from marine-inspired drills to dance routines.

He began by instructing us all to stand… and found his first victim.

“Rule 1- don’t sit when I’m on stage!” he barked.  He continued by bringing the woman who had remained sitting on stage and presenting her with a giant, raw halibut.  The fun continued as audience members were constantly called up.  The exhibition ended with an older gentleman from the audience belting out a tune at Irvine’s request as everyone else on stage had a dance party in the background.  The audience laughed and danced along with excitement.

His demo was not without its thoughtful moments though.  He offered up excellent cooking tips for his seafood dish and highlighted its flexibility.

“Who likes white wine?  Red wine?” he asked.  “Well, this is a dish where you can use either or.  No hard or fast rules!”

He also took several minutes to set the record straight on Restaurant Impossible.  When a spectator asked him about how real the show was, Irvine matter-of-factly stated, “Restaurant Impossible is never scripted.  I don’t know who they are or where they’re from before I walk in.”

He values the people he helps on the show as well.  “I stay in touch with everyone,” he avowed.  That personal investment pays off; he estimates that they have a 76% success rate.

The most poignant moment of his presentation, though, came when he took time out to honor the men and women of the US military.  He thanked them for their service and encouraged us to use them as inspiration in our own lives.

“If everyone did one random act of kindness our life and world would be a better place,” he told us.

On Sunday morning, Chefs Betty Fraser and Manouschka Guerrier delivered an unforgettable, hilarious performance to kick off day 2 of the fest.  The two, who jokingly refer to themselves as “Salt & Pepper,” were just as much a stand-up comedy act as a cooking demo.  They started with the intention of making Avocado Coconut Ice Cream with Haitian Rum Caramel.  While most ice creams derive their creaminess from eggs and milk, this one relies on the avocado for its texture.  The recipe recently won Guerrier first prize at a cook-off in New Orleans.

“I was the only winner to twerk onstage for their acceptance!” she boasted with a mischevious grin on her face.

But alas.  Somewhere between bottles of champagne on stage and a non-working burner, the best intentions went out the window.

“What MacGyver crap are you trying to pull right now?” Manouschka asked as Betty tried to salvage the caramel.  After lots of bantering, laughter, and misadventures, they managed to produce the ice cream portion of the dish- sans caramel.  Guerrier believes the one of the great things about it is that it will stay good for a while.

“It’s like Walt Disney- put it on ice- it will last forever!” she chuckled.

(It was later ascertained that the caramel failed because they used a sautee pan.)

Of course the Mohegan Sun WineFest always transcends the food, wine, and celebrity chefs.  Each year, it features several local craftsmen and products related to the industry.  This year, sponsors R. Murphy Knives had a table and assisted with the Oyster shucking contest at the end of the weekend.  The company, founded in 1850, specializes in industrial knives, like those used to open oysters.  Owners Mimi and Mark are the 4th owners since 1950, but their passion has expanded the business immensely.  They have become so respected that Island Creek Oyster Farm in Massachusetts solicited their help in crafting the perfect knife for their use.  They alsoreceived recognition from Cooks Illustrated and The Wall Street Journal as well.  Their products are perfect for the industrial arena, restaurants, and the home cook alike.

For those who enjoy a fine cigar, Adonis: Cigars of the Gods had a kiosk prominently placed near the entrance.  While the insides come from a factory in Honduras, these cigars are local in that both the wrapper and binder come from Connecticut.  They also have some that are hand rolled on premises.  The owner describes his cigars as a “nice mild to medium.”  Adonis has been a staple at every single WineFest.

And of course, Robert Hall was there with a dazzling array of glassware meant to enhance the aromas and flavors of wine.  Bottega del Vino, the company he represents, sums up its philosophy in its motto: “If the wine matters, so does the glass.”  Last year, I had the chance to try their red wine glass and had amazing results.  This year, he showed me his latest addition: a champagne glass meant as an alternative to a flute.  While he understands that most bubbly drinkers might prefer the traditional flute, he maintains that his wider glass will allow for more appreciation of each sip.

The WineFest is a fun to be sure, but is also benefits a great cause.  Proceeds from the cuisine, along with a portion of other earnings from the day, go toward 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 are involved with the popular Nature’s Classroom programs that benefit teens.

“Our high quality, year-round programs promote leadership, diversity and integrity with activities that broaden self-esteem, communication and respect for others,” they explain in their mission.

Like the Super Bowl, the WineFest eventually came to a close.  But like the football showdown, it left behind an air of excitement… and the promise of many awesome years to come.