By Sara Roahen
It was possibly the most significant event in the history of American wine making. In 1976, an English owner of a wine shop and wine school in Paris held a blind tasting of American and French wines for an all-French panel of wine aficionados. American wines won both red and white competitions. The results shocked the wine world, not to mention the American vintners who didn't even know about the competition until they had won.
"This event was a real watershed because it proved for the first time that the New World is capable of making wines that stand up to the great wines of the world," says Tim McNally, vice president of the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience (NOWFE). This year, the NOWFE looks back on the event with its panel "A Commemoration and a Perspective," featuring Steve Spurrier, the store owner who organized the 1976 blind tasting, and Warren Winiarski, whose Stag's Leap was the 1976 red wine winner.
The success of an event such as NOWFE itself is no small matter for oenophiles, either. Within just 10 years, NOWFE has evolved from a gathering of a couple hundred aficionados in a modest hotel ballroom to an internationally renowned jamboree of thousands at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
NOWFE's vice president, Tim McNally, remembers attending the Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen in 1991, just weeks before the first New Orleans wine event. At that point, NOWFE's founding members had enlisted only 40 people for the debut Experience; in a panic, some organizers wanted to call it off. McNally and his wife, Brenda Maitland (a charter member of the Board of Directors), wore NOWFE T-shirts at the Aspen festival, passing around pamphlets to fellow attendees. A few wine die-hards from the Aspen festival actually arrived in New Orleans two weeks later. They have returned to NOWFE every year since and are now "great friends" of McNally and his wife.
Last year, those die-hards joined about 8,000 other NOWFE participants; the numbers are expected to soar again this year.
Among international festivals, NOWFE is distinguished by its emphasis on the "food" in its title. More than 90 restaurants and food-related businesses donate labor and food for the Grand Tastings on Friday and Saturday. The wineries pour alongside chefs who dole out samples from participating restaurants. This ups the ante from the bread slices and cheese cubes served at most wine festivals around the country.
In fact, McNally says, aside from the approximately 175 wineries that arrive in New Orleans with thousands of bottles of fermented juice, it's the city's restaurants that make the Experience. "The police make Mardi Gras by allowing us to have a good time," he says. "In a similar way, this event works because of the restaurants."
Many area restaurants also participate in Wednesday evening's Vintner Dinners. Chefs and winemakers collaborate to compile four-course prix fixe dinners. Affiliates of the wineries, often the winemakers themselves, attend the dinners to present the wines paired with each course. (See list of participating restaurants.)
As in previous years, all the events kick off Thursday evening with the Royal Street Stroll. The barricades go up, musicians come out and wineries uncork more bottles for the Stroll, which includes sipping under the stars, dancing in the street, and shopping in Royal Street art and antique galleries.
The three-hour Stroll begins at 5:30 p.m. NOWFE's Grand Tastings of wine and food run from 5 to 9 p.m. on Friday and from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday. Adhering to tradition, NOWFE wraps up on Sunday with Bubbles & Brunch (and jazz) at 11:30 a.m. at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Also on Friday and Saturday is another hallmark of the NOWFE: its seminars. This year, seminar participants include John Larchet, an Irishman living in Australia, who is the proprietor of the Australian Premium Wine Collection. Larchet is responsible for bringing labels like Hill of Content and Clarendon Hills into the United States. Says McNally: "If he's [Larchet] got his name on the bottle, you can trust it with your life." You can catch Larchet at his Friday seminar, titled "Terroir Australia."
That is, if you're willing to miss the seminar "The Cheese Course," which stars Fetzer Vineyards' Culinary Director John Ash, New Orleans Chef Anne Kearney, and self-professed "cheese ambassador" Jim Yonkus, who works at Martin Wine Cellar in New Orleans. The trio will discuss the ins and outs of selecting quality cheeses and pairing them with wine.
Several wine tastings pepper the seminar schedule, including two verticals. Vertical tastings are like controlled studies. While the vintage dates vary, the producer and the place of production remain consistent. The idea behind vertical tastings is to identify characteristics present in a particular wine year after year. Tasters also discuss differences between the years due to weather or environmental changes. And vertical tastings provide a rare arena for observing how age affects a wine. Often, says McNally, "You get to taste a wine exactly the way a winemaker wants you to have it."
A wine of another process gets its foot in the NOWFE door during "The Art of Blending ... The Tawny Palate." Port, a fortified wine, enjoyed a resurgence of popularity when the '90s cigar craze struck. Paul Mugnier of Premium Port wines in Dallas is returning to his hometown to conduct this seminar.
Also this year is the first ever "Meet the Press" seminar, a forum for a handful of food and wine journalists to uncork frustrations about wine reporting. Organizers expect things to get heated. "They have opinions, but they don't have agendas," says McNally about the writers, none of whom are affiliated with particular wineries. Participating journalists will include Dana Campbell from Southern Living, Joe Czerwinski from Wine Enthusiast and Jerry Shriver from USA Today.
In the June issue of Southern Living magazine, it was Campbell who called NOWFE "one of the best culinary events, not only in the South, but in the country." Although the Experience is not about New Orleans per se (it attracts wineries and wine lovers from Australia to Napa Valley), it's no coincidence that a four-day affair revolving around eating and drinking takes place in a city that can't get enough of either.
To register for the tenth annual New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, call (504) 529-WINE, or log on to www.nowfe.com.
The following restaurants and wineries take part in the Vintner Dinners. The all-inclusive dinners begin at 7 p.m. Contact restaurants directly for more information and to make reservations.
56 Degrees (610 Poydras St. 212-5658) with Jacob's Creek and Wyndham Estates
Alex Patout's Louisiana Restaurant (221 Royal St., 525-7788) with Korbel and McPherson
Andrea's (3100 19th St., 834-8583) with Mirassou and Silvan Ridge
Arnaud's (813 Bienville St., 523-0611) with Carmenet and Louis M. Martini
Bacco (310 Chartres St., 522-2426) Folie a Deux and Gruet
Bombay Club (830 Conti St., 586-0972) with Cathedral Cellars and Australian Boutique Wines
Brennan's (417 Royal St., 525-9711) with Chateau Potelle and Davis Bynum
Broussard's (819 Conti St., 581-3866) with Gundlach Bundschu and St. Supery
Bull's Corner Lakefront (316 Old Hammond Highway, 832-0017) with Pontchartrain Vineyards and Chateau Ste. Michele
Cafe Giovanni (117 Decatur St., 529-2154) with Fetzer and Jekel
Christian's (3835 Iberville St., 482-4924) with Arcadian and Garretson
Commander's Palace (1403 Washington Ave., 899-8221) with Robert Mondavi
Court of Two Sisters (613 Royal St., 522-7261) with Banfi Vintners
Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse (716 Iberville St., 522-2467) with Cuvaison and Markham
Dominique's at Maion DuPuy (1001 Toulouse St., 522-8800) with Fritz and Sokol Blasser
Galatoire's (209 Bourbon St., 525-2021) with Buehler and Carneros Creek
Gerard's Downtown (500 St. Charles Ave., 592-0200) with Covey Run and Honig
Grill Room at Windsor Court (300 Gravier St., 522-1992) with Martin Ray and Schuetz Oles
Hyde Park Grille (1525 St. Charles Ave., 586-1525) with Kendall-Jackson
Kelsey's (3923 Magazine St., 897-6722) with Hess Collection and B.R. Hardy
Mike Ditka's (628 St. Charles Ave., 569-8989) with Thomas Fogarty and Van Duzer
Mr. B's (201 Royal St., 523-2078) with La Famiglia and Toad Hollow
Muriel's (801 Chartres St., 615-3132) with Franciscan and La Crema
Palace Cafe (605 Canal St., 523-1661) with Goosecross and Justin
Pelican Club (312 Exchange Alley, 523-1504) with Chateau St. Jean and Stag's Leap
Red Fish Grill (115 Bourbon St.,598-1200) with Duck Pond and R.H. Phillips
Smith & Wollensky (1009 Poydras St., 561-0770) with King Estate and Rodney Strong
The Bistro at Maison de Ville (727 Toulouse St., 528-9206) with Beaulieu Vineyards
The Rib Room at Omni Royal Orleans (621 St. Louis St., 529-7045) with Chalk Hill and Valley of the Moon
The Upperline (1413 Upperline St., 891-9822) with Bois du Renard and Morgan
Victor's at Ritz Carlton (921 Canal St., 524-1331) with Gallo of Sonoma
Zoe Bistrot at W Hotel (333 Poydras St., 525-9444) with Geyser Peak and Ironstone
Reserve seminars require an added fee. The Seminar Schedule:
Friday, July 13
9 a.m. "A Commemoration and a Perspective," with fine wine consultant Steve Spurrier and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' Warren Winiarski
10 a.m. "Terroir Australian," with proprietor of the Australian Premium Wine Collection John Larchet, or "The Cheese Course," with Fetzer Vineyards' John Ash, Peristyle Chef Anne Kearney, and Martin Wine Cellars' Jim Yonkus
11 a.m. "Emerging Appellations," with Cafe Margeaux proprietor A.C. Flynt
2 p.m. "The Mystique of Boutique Wines," with fine wine specialist Glenn LeBlanc and several other winery representatives
3 p.m. "Chateau de Beaucastel ... A Ten Year Vertical" (Reserve seminar)
4 p.m. "The Art of Blending ... The Tawny Palate," with Paul Mugnier of Premium Port Wines (Reserve seminar), or "Quintessa Vineyards ... A Vertical Tasting with Quintessa Vineyards' Bettina Sichel" (Reserve seminar)
Saturday, July 14
9 a.m. "Meet the Press"
10 a.m. "Ten Appellations of Bordeaux," with director of European Estates Chris Grenaille
11 a.m. "Oak ... The Spice Rack of Modern Wine Making," with winemaker John White, or "Evolving New Orleans Cuisine," with food critic Tom Fitzmorris
Noon "Crazy for Cabernet," with Robert Mondavi Jr.