Recap: Jacques Pepin & Newport Wine & Food Festival

Emma Jane-Doody Stetson

“My father turns 81 this year,” Claudine Pepin announced to a tent packed full of people.  There was an audible gasp from the audience, but her father, legendary Chef Jacques Pepin, seemed not to hear.  He continued on with the recipe at hand, seamlessly moving from pan to pan.  Jacques Pepin has certainly been a fixture in the culinary world for many years, but he shows no signs of slowing down.  His latest cookbook, Heart and Soul in the Kitchen, came out in 2015.  PBS plans to include him in their American Masters series.  Yet another cookbook is in the works.  Cooking Lessons from My Grandfather, a project with his granddaughter, is due out next year.

And for the last 11 years, Jacques Pepin has never missed a Newport Wine & Food Festival.  The weekend long celebration has gone through evolutions and transformations, but Pepin has always been a constant.  People adore him, evidenced by the enormous crowd wedged shoulder to shoulder watching him create recipe after recipe on the KitchenAid Culinary stage.

It’s easy to see why Pepin would return year after year.  2016 was only my second year at the Newport Wine & Food Festival, but it’s already emerged as a favorite.  I was invited in 2015 to cover the event as media and leapt at the opportunity to do the same this year.  The stunning backdrop alone is worth the trip.  The Grand Tastings unfold on the lawn of the Marble House overlooking the ocean below.  Both years the weather has been perfect- crystal blue skies with bright sunshine and a slight breeze.

More importantly, though, Newport Wine & Food Festival is a culinary showcase.  Chefs from Rhode Island and Boston gather to prepare special small dishes while demonstrations like Pepin’s unfold on the main stage.  There are hundreds of wines to try, from expensive bottles to major brands to the more obscure.  The wine professional and food lover in me rejoiced as I set out on the hunt for the best wines and dishes of the day.

It was a day of dynamic duos.  I’m not just referring to Claudine and Jacques Pepin, but the assortment of offerings.  Two heavy hitting wines had tables directly next to each other in the back of the tent: Joseph Phelps and Chateau Lagrange.  Joseph Phelps presented the 2013 vintage of its coveted Insignia as part of its lineup while Lagrange poured tastes of its 2005 Chateau Lagrange.  The formidable pair attracted a line of people that stretched around the back of the tent.

Joseph Phelps’s Insignia is credited as being the “first proprietary Bordeaux-style blend produced in California.”  Insignia is a favorite of Robert Parker; he awarded the 1991, 1997 and 2002 vintages with perfect 100 scores.  The 2013 vintage is expected to score from 96-100 when the results are announced next month.  The blend changes from year to year so that the winemaker can use the best grapes.  The 2013 vintage is comprised of 88% Cabernet Sauvignon.  I loved the dark, chocolaty flavors and full body.  Insignia will make for the perfect fireside wine in the winter months ahead.  Of course such excellence comes with a price tag: Insignia retails for around $230. “It’s the best of the best that we grow every year,” explained Chris St. Marie, National Sales Manager.  

The wines from Lagrange also lived up to their acclaim.  I started with their second label wine, Les Fiefs de Lagrange 2010, a blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot.  The fruit comes from younger vines and it is a more affordable option at $46.  It was bright, balanced, and easy-drinking yet its quality was evident in its structure.  The Chateau Lagrange 2005 was another category of wine entirely.  Because of its age, the wine had time to develop its flavors and the tannins had opportunity to soften.  It still burst with flavor though.  Red fruits like raspberry mingled harmoniously with darker fruits like plum and blackberry.  The bottle embodies the beauty of Bordeaux- its ability to age.  It retails for around $100.

Another memorable duo came in the form of a vineyard and its restaurant.  Newport Vineyards featured their wines alongside small bites from Brix Restaurant, the bistro on the property.  Both had noteworthy offerings individually, but they proved even more remarkable when paired together.

I admit that I approached Newport Vineyards with some skepticism.  100% estate grown Rhode Island wines sounded intriguing, but I realized they could also be disastrous.  Rhode Island isn’t really recognized as a great wine growing region- weather is tricky and the growing season is short.  My only other encounter with a Rhode Island winery had not ended well.  However, these wines were well-made and tasty!

“We have 20 year old vines,” Karen Jensen, Food & Beverage Supervisor from the vineyard, told me.  “They’re old.  They’re good.”  They have 62 acres devoted to growing grapes for the wines.  Nothing is sourced.

Newport Vineyards clearly drew inspiration from French Styles.  Their Pinot Gris was the first wine I tasted and also my favorite of the bunch.  Jensen appropriately described it as “Alsatian.”  It was floral and zesty, the perfect wine to pair with food.  I really enjoyed their oaked Chardonnay as well.  So often, people misappropriate the phrase “White Burgundy” in a desperate attempt to hearken their wines to one of the most prestigious wine regions in the world.  In this case, though, the comparison was spot on.  It had a full body with touches of pear and apple.  It even had the underlying minerality of a White Burgundy.  Barrel fermentation gave it soft, balanced oakiness.

Newport Vineyards also did well with their red varietals.  The “Gemini” red blend incorporated Cab Franc and Merlot and they had a straight Merlot too.  Estate red wines can be tough in the Northeast, but they managed to get fresh flavors of earth, bell pepper, and red fruit.  The wines generally retail from $20-$25.  They are available at the vineyard and online:

Meanwhile, Brix Restaurant presented a unique dish: a pickled egg.  It was a deviation from the array of seafood, beef, and duck at the festival that day.  They pickled the egg for a week in cider vinegar and spices before adding a habanero gel and crispy garlic.  The egg took on a purple hue while the habanero, garlic, and spice added bursts of flavor.  I made a mental note to use this as an hors d'oeuvre the next time I entertain.  It’s like the much cooler cousin of the deviled egg.  It tasted delicious on its own, but a sip of the Pinot Gris really made it sing.

Although the egg does not appear on Brix’s actual menu, it does represent the restaurant’s vision.  The restaurant serves farm fresh dishes like a Blueberry Salad with pickled blueberries, baby kale, puffed walnuts, roasted leeks, blue cheese, and blueberry lemon vinaigrette or a Smoked Duck breast with Rhode Island mushrooms, blackberries, purslane, and Riesling.  They have a selection of cheeses too.  The egg tasted so good and the menu looked so delicious that I stopped at Brix for dinner after the festival.  I certainly recommend it to anyone visiting the area.

There were a number of other standouts from Saturday’s Grand Tasting.  A highlight of my day unfolded fortuitously at the table devoted to Hall Wines.  Although they had served the revered “Kathryn Hall” Cabernet Sauvignon at a special dinner the night before, I still had the chance to try the Hall Sauvignon Blanc, WALT “Blue Jay” Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, WALT “Gap’s Crown” Pinot Noir, and Hall Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.  I had just gotten to the “Blue Jay” when the brand ambassador said, “I’m sorry.  I have to go.  Kathryn just texted me and I have to go get her at the entrance.”  Five minutes later she had returned with Kathryn Hall!  She poured through her wines and signed copies of her new book A Perfect Score: The Art, Soul, and Business of a 21st Century Winery.  Perfect timing!

There was no shortage of food.  Brix’s egg was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  Food was distributed during the demonstrations this year so that the recipes could be enjoyed in real time.  Behind the main tent, chefs took turns firing up a giant Lynx grill overlooking the water.  Restaurant after restaurant lined the perimeter of the tent, thrusting plates into the hands of the thousands of passers by.

In the frenzy, another clear favorite emerged.  Beer in Boots won me over with their small, savory plate.   The Boston based gastropub presented a cherrywood smoked duck breast served on leek and turmeric crostini with ginger bacon jam and pickled blueberry.  Any of the components on their own would have been delicious.  The unique spiciness made the crostini something I would happily snack on any day.  The ginger bacon jam was sweet, spicy, and savory all rolled into one.  I could picture it adorning chicken or even simply smeared on bread.  Everything put together was outstanding.  The crunch of the crostini juxtaposed the tender, fatty duck meat.   The spices in the jam and crostini played off each other perfectly.  The small dollop of jam enhanced the dish without overwhelming it.

“We’re not here to wow you with things that are impossible, but inspire you with things that are probable,” Claudine Pepin told the crowd and me earlier in the day.  From there, she and her father quickly executed not one but three recipes in under a half an hour.  Probable?  Not really… I’d probably burn down my kitchen if I attempted that much so fast.  Inspiring?  Absolutely.  Watching the two banter and work together, and represent two generations of cooking captured the power of food.  It not only feeds us, but brings us together.  That’s what Newport Wine & Food is: a time once a year where thousands of strangers can come together because of their appreciation for food and wine.  I can’t wait to see what next year holds!

CTbites and the author were not compensated for this post; tickets to the event were provided without charge. The opinions contained herein are solely those of the author.