I was in New York City last week and managed to catch the 7th annual ‘Winter Wine Festival’ at the PlayStation Theatre in the heart of Times Square. I’ve often wanted, but have never attended a US wine tasting, and the ones I’d read about in Wine Spectator magazine had looked incredibly inviting, so I didn’t hesitate to sign up. Even better was that my hotel was a mere two blocks away, described in the best British tradition as ‘stumbling distance’.
I booked the afternoon session of 3pm-6pm and was a little perturbed when, turning up a 2:55pm, the queue stretched to the next block and it was a full 20 minutes before I was allowed inside the venue. I’m not clear as to whether it’s an accepted norm in the US to pay for a slot and then have to queue for nearly 1/6th of it in the street, but I certainly wasn’t very happy. It would make more sense to let people in to the venue (there was space in the main auditorium) and advise wineries not to pour until 3pm. This is how it works in the UK and I’ve never seen any issues. Judging by some of the local accents in the queue echoing my thoughts, perhaps it was just bad organisation?
The venue itself was large and split in to several sections (with bleachers to allow you to chill for a while) accommodating the 68 stalls. Circa 40% of these stalls were given over to sponsors or food outlets and I’m surprised that this wasn’t advertised as a ‘Food & Wine’ festival, as the food had to be seen to be believed. UK tastings will often provide crackers or light refreshments in terms of antipasto, but here there were full on banquet tables filled with wheels of cheese, grapes, meats and numerous other light bites. I was interested to see that, when I finally got in to the venue some 20 minutes in to the event, the food tables were heaving with people all with overfilled plates, so clearly they weren’t too interested in the wine?!
This ambivalence continued as I observed lunging arms to the front of the tasting tables saying “Just pour me what you’ve poured her”. One person even said to me “You’re not actually writing notes are you?”
I was, but clearly this wasn’t expected as the show guide didn’t include any space to write notes beneath each wine. In fact the guide was a bit of a let-down, being merely 4 sheets of printed A4 paper folded down the middle. Another flag to differences between a US and a UK event was when I was seen taking pictures with my (admittedly, fairly decent) camera and hearing my British accent, I was asked if I was from the BBC. Strange days…
On to business, and my top 10 takeaways from the event include:
- Top Wine: Judeka Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG 2013 (60/40 Nero D’Avola/Frappato). Awesome with the cooked meats available.
- Top Wine: Penfolds Bin 311 Chardonnay 2013 – Intense Lime with clear wooded notes from 7-9 months in French oak.
- Top Wine: Brotherhood Holiday Spice NV, Hudson Valley USA – OK, so not the most expensive wine (circa $7), and I may have been focusing on the cold weather and the nice labels, but this was a warming, spicy wine that we don’t really get here in the UK. The literature makes claim to them being ‘America’s Oldest Winery’, and the leaflet they provide gives a whole host of festive wine drink options to try. Nice one.
- Sponsor of Interest: Three Brothers Winery, Alexandria Bay, Finger Lakes, NY. The largest winery in North NY, established in 2002 and situated in the majestic St. Lawrence River. Lots of interesting wines to be tasted here that probably don’t make it to the UK, and a few varieties I hadn’t tasted.
- New Grape: Winemonger Zahel Orangetraube 2014 – 100% Varietal. Something I’d never tasted before from Austria, with an inviting orange/peachy nose.
- New Grape: Three Brothers Estate Reserve Chambourcin, Finger Lakes USA 2013 (100% Varietal). A hybrid grape that is jammy, (very) sweet and red fruit oriented.
- New Grape: Kellerei Kaltern Pfarrhof Schiava 2014 (100% Varietal). Again, a variety I’ve never had the pleasure of. Light but full of intensity.
- Winner Winner 3 x New Grape: Thousand Island Winery, New York, St Lawrence Red (a blend of Chambourcin, Marechal Foch, Vincent)
- Biggest Shock: Pazdar Winery were offering many wines, some with the title of ‘Revenge’, ‘Fury’ and ‘Vengeance’. These are made with selected Chilli’s. I tried the Dragon’s Fury, made with the Ghost Chilli. An experience, but a palate cleanser needed. According to the guys on the stall, people drink their wines (and mine was probably the weakest of the lot) by the glass!
- New BFF’s: After nearly a full year, my article on Barefoot is still a winner with my readers. The team at the show couldn’t have been more helpful with providing me with merchandise and, with their ‘roulette’ wheel of prizes, they were the coolest table on show.
Overall, this was a unique event for me to get a first-hand taste of an American wine event and, for all the logistical things I think could be improved, would not have missed it for the world.
On a final note, I always love a tasting where you get to keep the glass, especially a logo’d glass that comes from a different country (it made it back to the UK in one piece I’m glad to say). The show guide exclaimed on the opening page “stop by our glass pick up area to receive a bag to transport it home”, and I was quite excited by this, loving a freebie. I’ll give over the last word (or picture) of this piece as to what greeted me at the counter. Cheers!