Recap: Mohegan Sun's Winefest 2015...Good Times!

Emma Jane-Doody Stetson

2015 marked the 12th year of Mohegan Sun’s popular WineFest.  The format continued as it has in years past, with a Friday night bourbon tasting, Grand Tastings on Saturday and Sunday, an Elite Cru tasting, and a Celebrity Chef Dine Around on Saturday night.  The event also featured many celebrity chefs beloved from previous years like William Kovel, Todd English, Michele Ragussis, Govind Armstrong, Manouschka Guerrier, and Betty Fraser.  Yet, 2015 managed to stand apart with new additions and changing trends.

This year, I attended the Sunday Grand Tasting rather than staying the span of the weekend.  Sunday is slightly less attended, but still provides ample opportunity to see creative chef demonstrations and sample the offerings.

Celebrity chefs Manouschka Guerrier and Betty Fraser kicked off the day with their usual whirlwind demonstration full of antics and witty banter.  Both have culinary pedigree as well as TV features; Betty was a contender on Top Chef while Manouschka appeared on Food Network's Private Chefs of Beverly Hills and more recently NBC’s competition series Food Fighters.  Yet, when these two hit the stage one would have thought they’d made their careers in comedy clubs rather than esteemed kitchens.  The duo, who jokingly call themselves “Salt and Peppa,” made a version of Oyster’s Rockefellar (or Oyster’s Zuckerberg, a name bestowed by Betty who wanted a more contemporary title.)  Their half-hour performance was an interactive affair, with a helper called up from the audience and champagne being poured by the duo for guests in the front row.

After taking in the hilarious spectacle (which did result in some delicious oysters!), I set out on my hunt for noteworthy wines.  As I went from booth to booth, I did notice some changes from the previous year.

First, brand wines, novelty labels, and celebrity tie-in projects dominated the event.  The success of such vino is not new.  This fall, I reported on Kathie Lee Gifford’s new label and last year the Food Network debuted their own bottles.  Barefoot and Robert Mondavi have been power players for several years.  However, the majority of the 2015 Winfest was devoted to wines with mass market appeal.  For example, this year saw a wine endorsed by Lady Antebellum, Brancott Estate.

“They drink this wine at home and always have it on their tour buses,” the representative informed me when I asked about the partnership.

Also present were wines based on 50 Shades of Grey and Sakonnet Vineyards from the creator of Alex and Ani.  The blurred line between pop culture and viticulture speaks to an overarching trend and a change in the wine-drinking demographic.  Younger generations are enjoying vino more and more.  People in their 20s and 30s are turning to wine as drink of choice, as they would a beer.  It makes sense that entertainment icons would stake a claim in the flourishing market.

However, the festival was not without idiosyncratic finds.  Some of my favorite bottles came from an unassuming table, Angelini Estate Wines.  Winemaker and owner Paul V. Angelini proved soft-spoken yet charismatic, laid-back but knowledgeable.  He crafts 100% varietals from the Marques region of Italy.  The operation is small, with just 7.5 acres of vineyards.

First, he poured me a taste of the “Pergolo Rosso.”  It turns out that this is an indigenous varietal, and 100% versions of it are made by just 4 winemakers.  He makes only 2,000 bottles of it.  I fell in love with the wine immediately, not just for its uniqueness but for the notes of cigar box and smoke intermingling with fruit and earth.

“There are no tannins, it’s all floral,” he observed.

Angelini went on to present 2 forms of 100% Sangiovese- a regular and a Reserva.  When I asked what set them apart, he honestly and humbly admitted, “This one wasn’t up to snuff for a reserve.”  I found such candor refreshing.  (Though there was a more substantive difference; the Reserva did go through fermentation in barrels which gave it a slightly oakier profile).

Finally, I tasted the Angelini Estate Merlot.  Merlot encountered a decline after the release of Sideways when the main character eschewed it.  However, it has gone through a bit of a Renaissance over the last year and more people are returning to it.

“Merlot is seen a lot as an easy wine, but it’s not,” Angelini declared.

His Merlot is extraordinary, with spice and dark fruit coming together in harmony.  It is incredibly limited production- about 600 bottles.  For the winemaker, such low yields makes it a passion project rather than a money-making endeavor.

Another standout from the day was Bravium.  Derek Rohloffs, proprietor and winemaker, makes low-yield artisanal wines as well, with 48-448 cases produced depending on the wine.  I particularly enjoyed the Chardonnay.  The single-vineyard 2010 Chardonnay sees 80% of its fermentation in stainless steel with the other 20% in French oak.  Despite the relatively low amount in oak, it still had a pronounced presence.  It was balanced, but the oak leant it texture and body.

The Bravium Chardonnay embodied another trend: the rise of oaky, full Chardonnays.  Last year, I discussed how people gravitated toward light, stainless steel fermented versions of the varietal.  This year, however, the pendulum swung back the other way.

The preference transcended Chardonnay.  For instance, Willamette Valley’s Pinot Gris experienced 7% oak.  It leant structure and texture to the crisp, citrusy wine.

The 2015 Mohegan Sun Winfest also celebrated the rise of Connecticut in the wine, beer, and spirit world.  

For wine, Jonathan Edwards presented a Pinot Gris made from 100% Connecticut grapes.  They produce about 400 cases, all fermented in stainless steel.  It has notes of fruit and honey.  You can purchase it for approximately $21.

Up on the second floor, guests enjoyed a sneak peek of Stony Creek, a new brewery being built along the Branford River.  In addition a tasting room, the brewery will embrace outdoor activities with 16 feet of dock space, Bocci ball, yar games, fire pits, and more.

Stony Creek arose from the vision of Branford resident Ed Crowley.  He worked as a distributor for 20-30 years, but dreamt of his own facility.  Jamal Robinson, a veteran of Red Hook and Blue Point, came on to head up sales.  Brewmaster Andy Schwartz came from California, after working at Red Hook for 7 years.

Currently, they have two signature brews, Docktime Amber Lager and Cranky IPA, with rotating seasonal selections.  I had the chance to try both.  They were clean, balanced, and refreshing.  I can certainly picture drinking them on a warm day looking out on the river.

The Mohegan WineFest showcased many wines to enjoy now and gave us many things to look forward to… including next year!