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Thoughts on mega- wine and food festivals

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Just back from the 3-day Whitefish Wine & Food Summit (WW&FS) and my head is filled with things to say about these gigantic, multi-day extravaganzas. Whitefish was the brainchild of Bill Foley, the financial services tycoon who ranked #4 on Forbes’s 2007 CEO compensation list, at $180 million. Held in the Montana Rockies, at a ski resort Foley owns, WW&FS seems to be patterned after similar festivals, such as Aspen. You know the routine: morning seminars with famous winemakers, elegant lunches, afternoon walk-around tastings, rest time, then fabulous dinners overseen by superchefs followed by drinking into the wee hours at whatever bar is open. In the case of WW&FS, the entrepreneur in Foley added a kind of “best of the year” ceremony honoring a couple individuals.

What is the purpose of such affairs? Multi-fold. To educate and entertain the public, certainly, although it’s bound to be a well-heeled public that can afford to travel and pay for tickets and lodging. To give participating wineries an opportunity to market and promote themselves to said public. To allow the media in and write about the event and the winemakers and, in so doing, co-market them. (Disclosure: I oversaw two seminars, all my expenses were paid by WW&FS, and I received an additional stipend.) And, a final purpose, to earn (hopefully) a profit for the organizer.

I’ve been to less successful wine and food events and more successful ones. The bummers are those where the public comes largely to overeat and overdrink and not seriously to learn. At these, the winemakers who pour are largely bored, just out peddling their wares and anxious to get home. The best ones are high-level affairs where everyone has a superior level of proficiency and acumen, the joy and intellectual level is high, and people leave happy they came. Whitefish was such. Although it had its problems (what big event doesn’t?), they were mostly visible only to us insiders; the public didn’t see them, and the public’s happiness and education are all that count. I hope Bill Foley continues WW&FS next year.

Some random, unorganized observations:
- You always find technocrats at these events who find all sorts of faults with one wine or another: brett, or V.A., or whatever. They’re like heat-seeking missiles on search-and-destroy missions to find anything they can detect as a “flaw” and then tear the wine down. It makes me think of Barbra Streisand. Does every wine have to be perfect, like Matthew McConaughey or Jennifer Garner? The young Streisand’s lips were too full, her nose too long and hooked, the eyes set too close in the forehead. Yet you couldn’t take your eyes off her. Certain wines are like that: Not technically perfect, but captivating.

- Along these lines, one winemaker on a panel over-reacted when he apologized to the audience for an excess of brett in his wine. I don’t think anyone else had that impression, not even the other winemakers. Besides, he said he’d never before detected brett in dozens of other bottles of the same wine he’d opened, and so he wondered if there’s a such thing as “bottle brett.” I don’t know that there is. I think this winemaker simply suffered from a case of “dais angst,” a form of stage fright, in which your head makes molehills into mountains.

- Bob Cabral, at Williams Selyem, said his “Westside Road Neighbors” regional blend “fills in the holes” of his single-vineyard bottlings. So why does Neighbors cost less?

- The ongoing debate of California (or West Coast) Pinot Noir versus or vis-a-vis Burgundy is getting borrrring. Can’t we just talk about Pinot Noir instead of endlessly comparing it to something it’s not? If we were as obsessed in sports with France as we are in wine, we’d be arguing over whether pétanque is superior to baseball.

- Joe Davis (Arcadian) said the Pisoni Vineyard has “captured the attention of writers due to the uniqueness of the site.” Agreed; but you cannot discount the uniqueness of Gary Pisoni’s personality (and his sons). The marketing effect of a towering personality was appreciated by Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild. And along these lines, see the below:

Quote of the weekend: “If you want to be successful in this business, make friends.” — the extraordinary Michael Jordan, general manager of Napa Rose restaurant at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa

P.S. Please visit my other blog at Wine Enthusiast’s unreserved.

  1. I love attending wine and food festival, you can learn so much of what your drink is all about and also the food is usually good.

  2. RR, what are some of the best wine & food festivals you’ve gone to?

  3. Steve,

    I’m glad you enjoyed yourself in Whitefish. I hope to see you and the other winemakers back next year!

    Best Regards

  4. Dan, I hope to be back there too. Thanks.

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