Changes in Store at the Nantucket Wine Festival -April/May 2013

THE NANTUCKET WINE FESTIVAL will return for its 17th year May 15-19, and the event that has grown from humble beginnings into one of the premier destinations for oenophiles worldwide will do so under new leadership.

by: Joshua Balling

Long-time Nantucket summer resident and Boston businessman Mark Goldweitz late last year made a major investment in the festival and brought in new management. While it will continue to host the pop- ular signature events that sell out year after year, and founder Denis Toner will still be involved, Goldweitz and his team have added a number of new twists, in- cluding a culinary marketplace, additional cooking demonstrations, Saturday breakfast on the harbor, a junior-chef competition, changes to the charity gala and wine auction, and an island interpretation of the annual Burgundy harvest celebration organizers are calling La Fête.

Mark Goldweitz, above, acquired the Nantucket Wine Festival from founder Denis Toner, left, at home in one of the vineyards in Bur- gundy, where he lives six months of the year.

“The festival has been building for 16 years, and is known for its exquisite mainstay events, and all those things will remain intact. What we’ve done is taken the beautiful foun- dation, and really en- hanced it,” said director of operations Nancy Bean, a Boston-based event planner who owns a home on the island.

“It’s always had outstanding wine-makers, and we’ve invited 15-20 additional ones this year who have never been here, from Piedmont, Tuscany, Bordeaux, Burgundy, everywhere. They’re not just representing a region, but the best of the best from their region.”

Wine should be about pleasure – not excess or pre- tension – said Toner, long a promoter of the inhibi- tion-lifting and dialogue-creating qualities of the fermented grape.

“Wine is for enjoyment,” he said. “Wine is about the pleasure of the table. If you hoard it in your cellar, you’re missing the point. The conversation, the culture – and often the lack of inhibition – that comes along with wine are transmitted in many ways at the table. At the festival we look forward to the responsible en- joyment of wine. It’s about learning. The operative word is savor. That’s what we believe in.”

The first festival back in 1997 reflected that philos- ophy. It was modest in scale, with two days of tastings from a couple dozen wineries at the Sconset Casino. Food was minimal, largely some breads flown in from off-island, some cheese and shellfish from Spanky’s raw bar. Toner gave away many of the tickets to friends and restaurant-industry colleagues to ensure a crowd.

But the former sommelier at The Chanticleer, under the ownership of Jean Charles Berruet, and later at Le Languedoc and 21 Federal, among other island restaurants, was on to something. Feedback was positive, and he realized he had a potential success on his hands. 

Toner and a small band of festival organizers, including his wife Susan, forged ahead and introduced an expanded schedule the following spring. Wine Festival II offered Grand Tastings with vintages from 130 wineries, appetizers from island restaurants, a cigar pavilion and seminars and demonstrations by 21 Federal founding chef Bob Kinkead, Oldways Preservation Trust founder Dun Gifford and others.

The second year also saw the introduction of winery lunches and dinners at island restaurants, the Great Wines in Grand Houses program that showcased some of the world’s greatest wines in the island’s most im- pressive homes, and a wine and art auction to benefit the Nantucket Community Music Center.

The two-day festival attracted over 1,100 people.

“Those early years were a far cry from what the fes- tival has become,” Toner said. “The whole thing has been based on working without a net. The only net was the understanding that Nantucket is a special place, one of the world’s best gastronomic destinations. Those beginning years, there was a funkiness to it. That funkiness has kind of diminished, but it’s just as effective.”

Over the next few years, the festival continued to grow in stature and size, adding more wineries to the Grand Tastings, a charity gala that paired wine-makers with chefs from island and regional restaurants, more speakers and eventually expanding to nearly a week of activities.

It wasn’t until 2003 when the festival moved into town from Sconset, however, that it really began to take off. Based briefly at the former Harbor House Hotel and then under tents in the Jetties Beach parking lot where stormy weather frequently posed a problem, it eventually ended up splitting its events largely between the White Elephant Hotel and Nantucket Yacht Club. Its stable of winemakers over the years has included some of the biggest and most promising names from both California and France: Michel Anglada, Ray Coursen, Alex Gambal, Ehren Jordan, Michael Mondavi and Robert Sinskey, to name just a few.

As the festival grew and began to garner a national, then an international reputation, tickets became harder to come by. No longer was Toner giving them away to friends and business associates just to fill the room. The annual gala to benefit the Nantucket Historical Association regularly sold out, as did the charity wine auction and many of the Great Wines in Grand Houses tast- ings, despite ticket prices that in some cases climbed into the $500 and above range. The number of Grand Tasting sessions was increased to four to accom- modate demand, and wine-makers themselves clamored for the opportunity to present their product to the discerning, high-net-worth audience the festival attracted.

Several years ago the festival began recognizing a Wine Luminary of the Year, and past recipients included winemakers Jorge Ordonez, Tim Mondavi and Coursen, and chef Ming Tsai.

Toner, who now splits his time between Beaune, France and Nan- tucket, recently returned to the island from California wine country, a trip he never would have had the time to make in the days leading up to the festival when he was the man in charge.

He’s looking forward to his new role, and sees nothing but positive change ahead for the event he created out of love – and on a shoestring – 16 years ago.

“It was really just a dream that reflects my interest in food and wine,” Toner said. “We wanted to show the world the density, quality and diversity of Nantucket’s restaurant scene. We are a culinary oasis. Historically, Nantucket has always had the wherewithal to have fine restaurants, which in turn bring in great wine. When we are open, Nantucket is the largest market for fine California and French wines in the country. We are an island filled with wonderful wine shops and the clientele to support them,” he said.

For all the festival gave him over the years, the time had come to let it go, Toner said.

“The decision was difficult, but Susan and I were pretty tired, frankly. It started as a little thing, a labor of love. It still is, but it got to be bigger and bigger and bigger, and we got to be older and older and older. Although I loved it, physically and emotionally, it became more difficult to move forward. It was time to let go,” he said.

“Denis will remain the face and spirit of the Nantucket Wine Festival,” Goldweitz said. “He’ll be an ambassador of the festival and liaison with the wineries, which he knows very well, but I hope he’ll also get to enjoy himself more from Wednesday through Sunday.”

One thing, however, hasn’t changed: Toner’s feel- ings about wine.

“The more I’m in this game, the more profoundly I feel the importance of le plaisir de la table, the pleasure of the table. There’s a cultural transmission that takes place. Wine, in fact, is just that. I think Benjamin Franklin said all good ideas came from the table. That’s so easy to forget in the digital age. Being in France I see it all the time. All the good ideas come at the table. It’s neither the workplace nor the home. It’s the third place, the intersection of culture. It’s right there, that common place.”

This year’s festival will stay true to Toner’s original vision, while refining its offerings, Bean said.

“The Nantucket Wine Festival began as a labor of love and has grown organically into one of the most prestigious festivals out there. It’s definitely one of the premier food and wine festivals in the country. Our goal is to make it one of the top three or four, up there with Aspen and Naples, Fla.,” she said.

“Nantucket is so unique because it’s boutique and on an island. One of the things important to us is not trying to be something we’re not. We’re on the harbor, we’re Nantucket. We want to celebrate the community. We want to keep this being about the island. Yes, we have a mobile app, but we’re not going corporate. This festival has maintained its boutique feel while growing to be one of the most important wine events in the country. People don’t think twice about coming. Winemakers want in. They have it on their calendars. But we think it will be interesting to invite new people, from other parts of the world, who don’t yet know Nantucket.”

The year’s festival has expanded its footprint, due in part to renovations at the Nantucket Yacht Club, where the Grand Tastings have been held in recent years, but also out of a desire to involve more of the downtown hospitality commu- nity, Bean said.

“The events are being spread out around the island a bit more. The White Elephant is still the host hotel, and it will continue to be, and that’s where the Grand Tastings will be this year. But we’ve engaged the Dream- land Theater for some ongoing events, we’ve engaged the Nantucket Hotel. We’ve even got a lot of the inns around the island in- volved. This year there will be a lodging pro- gram with a wine and cheese event at each inn, winemakers staying at the inns, a wel- come basket.”

Food will play a larger role this year, with the addition of a culinary tent at Children’s Beach, which will serve as the hub of a number of events, including a Celebrity Chef Cooking Stage and a Culinary Marketplace Thursday, May 16 with chef demonstra- tions, artisan and island vendors, book-sign- ings and other events. There’s no alcohol allowed, so it’s an all-ages event. The ex- panded culinary offerings are also an oppor- tunity for the festival to offer events at lower price-points.

“The marketplace is a $30 ticket. People can afford to go in and out all day long. Kids can go. We tried to make it a little more accessible to the community,” Bean said.

“We are who we are. It’s a high-end wine event, and we can’t be all things to all people, but accessibility is a big reason why we in- troduced the culinary tent. It’s not just for island people. Not everybody wants to go to the Grand Tasting and taste 750 different wines.

“The culinary tent is affordable, and the ticket prices in general are pretty much what they’ve always been for the mainstay events. For us, as it was for Denis, it’s not about profitability, but about maintaining the in- tegrity of the event. In the past to see a chef demo, you had to be at the Grand Tasting. You don’t have to this time. The junior chef competition (which will pit student-chef teams from Nantucket High School, Johnson and Wales, the Culinary Institute of America and Le Cordon Bleu against each other) is free. We’re just asking for a donation to the Nantucket Food Pantry.”

The festival has also beefed up its educa- tional offerings, launching a sommelier pro- gram where 15 of the top sommeliers from around the country will be on hand at the pri- vate tastings and dinners, as well as the Grand Tastings, to answer questions and provide in- sight into the wines being served.

Goldweitz has been involved with the event for a number of years in an advisory capacity and hosted several wine dinners.

“Mark is really entrenched on the island. He’s developed a passion for Nantucket, and for historic restoration,” Bean said.

“His passions are Nantucket, wine, food and historic restoration. Here you have a festival that’s evolved over the last 16 years so beauti- fully, and Mark has the foresight to recognize that this festival is amazing, but it could be so much more. Mark’s attention to detail is really refined. He has an eye for all things fine, an in- credible ability to refine things, to take exquisite properties and turn them into masterpieces.”

“The wine festival has so much potential to continue to grow and be a refined, world-class event. Mark really was the perfect person to come in and say this is fantastic, but how can we continue to grow it and fine-tune all the pieces? He loves the wine festival, he has en- joyed attending it for years. From his perspec- tive, he’s always looked at it with an ‘if we could do this, if we could do that’ kind of an eye.”

Toner agreed. “Because of the nature of events like this, there are mini-crises all the time. Mark was always great when, as we say on Nantucket, the ship hit the sand. Not only that, but he has that capacity to take it to an- other level. It’s never going to be the same fla- vor. Just like the first Opera House Cup was different than the next year’s model, it’s the na- ture of the beast. But I’m very pleased that Mark and Nancy are carrying the flag.”

As for the future, “You can’t change every- thing year one. We are moving forward,” Bean said. ///

Joshua Balling is the associate editor of Nantucket Today, and the assistant editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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