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A recap of the New World Wine Wine Wine & Food Festival

Last week, more than 7,000 San Antonio foodies came out to sip, swirl, spit — and let us not forget chew — their way through the 6th Annual New World Wine & Food Festival. If revelers were unaware that the festival gained an executive director this year, the indefatigable Suzanne Taranto, they surely noted that it expanded from three days to six, a whirlwind of 45 diverse meals, tastings, classes, and seminars.

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Foodies pack the Hemisfare at the Finesilver Building, one event in last week’s New World Wine & Food Festival. Here, the hungry horde samples from more than 30 food booths and literally hundreds of wines. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

Guest chefs and winemakers came from the Canary Islands, Miami, Chicago, Mexico, Manhattan, Sonoma and all over Texas to participate, local chefs opened up their restaurants for events, and local vineyards and distributors their bottles. During the course of the week, foodies made merry, from sipping a 1995 Mouton Rothschild with Bruce Auden and Andrew Weissman to sampling sea scallops in amarillito mole with Mexico City’s Enrique Olvera to stuffing poblano chiles with the Food Network’s Aarón Sanchez.

Satiated, we rolled home to sleep off the vino, while Taranto and the Festival’s planners started working on next year’s fete, the proceeds of which, in the spirit of promoting the River City as a wine and food destination and celebrating Latin American and Mexican cuisine, will fund the scholarship program at the Center for Foods of the Americas, San Antonio’s CIA-affiliated culinary school.

In the meantime, this was a real swell clam bake and we’re all really glad we came — some highlights of the festivities from various artists:

Friday’s Winery Lunch at Becker Vineyards couldn’t have been more pleasant. The hour’s drive in the perfect Hill Country fall weather created a smooth transition from hectic day-to-day existence to a relaxed afternoon.

We started in a tasting room filled with artisan soaps, candles, lip balms, and the like made of Texas-grown lavender, a field of which was growing just off the huge breezeway. To prime our palates for the afternoon, a slightly fruity Becker Viognier was poured next to the incredibly round and soft Siduri Arbre Vert Pinot Noir and a surprisingly good McPherson Vineyards Lubbock Rosé. We then boarded a tractor-pulled wagon for a tour of the vineyards and a taste, in the field, of Becker’s Fume Blanc, returning to a leisurely lunch in the bright, pine-lined Lavender Haus dining room.

San Antonio Chef Michael Flores prepared an exquisitely light, blue-corn crepe with a savory lamb and shiitake filling served on a refreshing yogurt sauce. For comparison, Becker’s Reserve Chardonnay was served alongside Palmaz Vineyards Napa Valley Chadonnay, allowing the attentive diners to gauge the subtle distinctions in flavor and character. The main course was prepared by Chef Leu Savanh of Fredericksburg’s newest fine-dining establishment, August E’s. Unobtrusive yet neatly prepared, the Chateaubriand with bacon bordelaise was served with beautiful vegetable bundles and an excellent mascarpone whipped potato puree. Becker’s 2002 Zinfandel was a nice match, bolder and less refined than the Arbre Vert, but tasty nonetheless. The meal concluded with a dark chocolate and raspberry infusion fondue with assorted fruits from the Melting Pot, served with a fairly responsible Becker Port.

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With all the fine choices, it was hard not to find a few treasures at the Hemisfare at the Finesilver Building, says critic Diana Roberts, whose favorites included 2002 La Poussie Sancerre, the Novy Santa Lucia Highland Zinfandel, and the Palmaz 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon.

For connoisseurs and neophytes alike, the format was ideal. The tone was relaxed, with enough time to enjoy the meal and focus on the flavors as the winemakers talked unpretentiously about their wines.

Saturday evening’s HemisFare at the Finesilver Building was a bit more challenging, but every bit as worthwhile. With more than 30 food booths and literally hundreds of wines to choose from, it was a dazzling and — despite the clumsiness of juggling a wine glass, Styrofoam plates, and plastic forks, and trying not to bump or be bumped by the press of people among flaming sauté pans and popping corks — awfully fun. The crowd ranged from serious culinary devotees to those who were there to drink whatever made it into their glass, and both were amply rewarded.

Navigating the wine selections with any sense of purpose or discrimination was tricky, but the sheer number of options made it almost impossible NOT to find a few treasures — such as the 2002 La Poussie Sancerre, the Novy Santa Lucia Highland Zinfandel, and the Palmaz 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon. Among the stellar food options, Pesca seared a large sea scallop to perfection atop a ginger-laden slice of lotus root, radish slice, and chili-infused pan juices. A contingent of chefs from the Canary Islands served up a scrumptious rabbit stew; a mousse of salt cod with silky potato, garlic, and olive-oil puree; biscotti with a rich, traditional fig paste; and a rice pudding to die for. (An insider tells us that, at the last minute, the Bureau of Alchohol, Tobacco, and Firearms rejected the Canary Island wine labels destined for the Festival, thus precluding the winemakers from attending.)

All in all, it was an over-the-top experience, but not so much so that I didn’t have the wherewithal to sample the elusive Pechuga Mezcal. Among the most complex and refined agave spirits in Mexico, it has a smoky, slightly sweet flavor, and it goes down smooth, without the harsh afterburn Mezcal can sometimes have.

Diana Lyn Roberts

At the Black Tie Affair Friday evening, an affable young man — one of few in a tuxedo — announced couples as they made their way up the curving stairs of the Westin Riverwalk. We were tempted to squire ourselves in as Lady and Lord, but quickly forgot this impish behaviour when we stepped into the reception hall and beheld the spectacle: The well-heeled and glittering crowd, flocks of sparkling stemwear, chefs in white coats, and long auction tables of wine.

We dove into the middle and came up with a glass of Bouchaine Pinot Gris Carneros 2003, which, with its subtle lemon and apricot flavors, was a refreshingly crisp companion to a plate of spicy mussels served on a bed of salt with smoky guajillo hollandaise and a tangy, fine-chopped salsa prepared by Enrique Abogado, executive chef for Nestle in Mexico City.

No sooner had we applied ourselves to a delightfully sharp blue cheese and a rich, cherry-laden Siduri Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2004, than the chimes rang for dinner.

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Children stomp grapes in a large tub at Totally Tejas at Rio Cibolo Ranch, one of 65 events in this year's San Antonio New World Wine & Food Festival.

We were seated with executives from Ben E. Keith Foods, a convivial and entertaining lot, who regaled us with tales of fish-that-got-away and mythically giant tins of artichokes. Yet, with five forks, three knives, nine glasses, and only one spoon, we had a lot to focus on, not the least of which was a chile pasilla stuffed with quesillo mousse and drizzled with sweet mezcal syrup. The mousse did nothing to quell the smoky heat of that pasilla; one bite had us in hiccups. Our only reprieve: The fruity Acacia Chardonnay Carneros Napa Valley 2004 and its creamy, sweet companion, Bouchaine Chardonnay Carneros 2003.

As we slowly fell into our cups, winemakers — Texas expatriates all — took the podium with stories of the wine life. Most charming, and long-winded, was Dianna Novy Lee musing about how she and her future husband, Adam Lee, left jobs in the food and wine department at Neiman Marcus to start Siduri Vineyards in Napa Valley with only $24,000 and a deep passion for pinot.

At our table, folks were waxing romantic over red meat: While some found it a bit gamey, Edgar Leal’s succulent wild boar tenderloin served with aji Amarillo mashed potatoes was the only plate of the evening to draw acclaim from the table. It was a good match for a Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) CARO Mendoza Argentina 2001, which was earthy with plum and raisin flavors. We defended the glass with an extra fork when over-eager servers came to fetch it, and found it also posessed coffee overtones, making it an excellent pair with the Oaxaca chocolates served for dessert.

We couldn’t help but notice our fellow travelers politely tucking their mezcal, a smoky Single Village Chichicapa, under the table’s centerpiece — and who could blame them? A tiny sip revealed that it tasted just like the next day’s hangover.

Which came all too soon. At 9:30 a.m. Saturday morning, we found ourselves at the Plaza Club for the Texas Winemakers Symposium, eight glasses of Sangiovese and a panel of sleepy but game vintners before us: Richard Becker, Jim Johnson (Alamesa), Craig Parker (Flat Creek), Kim McPherson, Gary Gilstrap (Texas Hill), and Ken Maxwell (Torre di Pietra).

Like schoolchildren, we all took up our glasses, swirling and slurping dutifully through the 10-minute blind tasting. Of note, the Becker Vineyard Sangiovese Merlot 2002, which had not only full-fruit flavors, but also rich herb undertones, and the fresh raspberry notes of McPherson Cellars Sangiovese 2003.

A couple of sips in — no one was spitting — it no longer seemed uncouth to be drinking before breakfast, although drinking with breakfast might have been more fun. (Planners: More than a small plate of cheese is needed to strengthen bellies weakened by mezcal.) And with a soft morning light filtering through the Plaza’s heavy drapes, it was quite relaxing listening to the winemaker’s banter — I learned that Italy has nothing on Texan soil for producing sangiovese and, furthermore, says McPherson, if Texas winemakers are to make a name for themselves, they should focus on syrah and pinot gris, which are well suited to our climate.

Susan Pagani

Texas, I like to think, specializes in the family-friendly event, if for no other reason than it often fails to exclude children from activities that more sober states — Hubert Humphrey’s Minnesota, for one — have long since labeled adult-only. Take Mutton Busting at the annual winter rodeo: We strap perfectly good children onto skittish sheep, whack the animals on the flanks, and give a prize to whichever child is dumb or ornery enough to hold on longest (yeah, I’ve exclaimed over this before, but, come on!)

My Minnesota-bred-moderation reflex aside, this was exactly the sort of diversion I was hoping for at the New World Wine & Food Festival’s Totally Tejas event, to which I took my 13-year-old son. Sponsored by H-E-B, Totally Tejas was branded “fun for the whole family” and promised “all the amenities” of host Rio Cibolo Ranch, which did not, I’m sorry to say, include live animals.

There was, however, plenty of wine. It wasn’t “totally Tejas” wine, either, the best of the bunch being from Portugal by way of the Rothschilds (I might not have found it, shunted off to the quiet side of the barn as it was, without the help of Current wine critic and long-time Festival co-organizer Ron Bechtol). Texas has seven distinct wine-producing areas and more than 100 wineries, so like some of the Rudolph-nosed friends I encountered (a sure sign of an afternoon spent happily in the cups) I wondered why the event wasn’t organized by region, and for that matter, why it didn’t seem to highlight Texas wines.

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HEB grill master Kevin McCall prepares skewers of Angus beef.

My son, meanwhile, drilled me with a baleful “bored out of my mind” stare. Most of the kid’s activities, which included grape-stomping and a pottery demonstration, were geared toward the younger set and after a tense exchange with a girl at the Disney booth who was not trained to deal with the trademark adolescent ambivalence, he went to retrieve the soccer ball I had unwisely forbidden him from bringing into the corral.

Good timing, because I had finally found the aforementioned Portuguese wines and was busily comparing the “A” level to “Top” level. A friend in a walking cast hobbled by in search of her nieces and nephews. “My sisters got drunk and left me with the kids,” she joked. But with comparatively little food to offset the “tastings,” everyone was looking a little rosy. The snacks that were available ranged from seasoned potato chips to H-E-B Angus Beef Kabobs to Sweet Designs Bake Shop’s Texas Sand Tart cookies, but they were handed out so sparingly that the event didn’t transcend a Saturday afternoon at Austin’s new Whole Foods Market — where they also sample food and spirits, there’s a fabulous rooftop playground, and it doesn’t cost $40 to walk in the door.

Elaine Wolff



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