The Fruit of the Vine -Spring 2014

by: Joshua H. Balling

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

The 18th annual NANTUCKET WINE FESTIVAL will be held May 14-18 in and around the White Elephant Hotel with a full lineup of luminaries from the world of food and wine, and this year, there will be more focus than ever on the culinary aspects of the five-day event.

“It’s really equal parts food and wine at this point,” said executive director Nancy Bean, who along with long-time summer resident Mark Goldweitz took over management of the festival last year from founder Denis Toner.

“Coming out of last year’s festival, we really recognized how important the culinary piece was, and we wanted to call attention to it. Nantucket is such a culinary destination. There is such a concentration of amazing restaurants in a small geographic area, it’s incredible. The wines served here are reaching people from all over the world in these outstanding restaurants. Some of these wine guys come back year after year, and become part of the island’s restaurant culture, and the reason people know about their wine around the country is because they had it on Nantucket. It’s a good launching ground for lots of wineries.”

The festival will feature four times the amount of food than last year at its Grand Tastings in tents on the White Elephant lawn overlooking Nantucket Harbor, with 15 restaurants offering tasty treats to accompany the 600-plus wines from 150 wine-makers in attendance.

The festival has also upped the activity in its culinary tent at Children’s Beach, which will serve as the hub of a number of events, including a Celebrity Chef Cooking Stage, Culinary Marketplace, Breakfast on the Harbor and a Junior Top Chef Competition, in which students from Nantucket High School will be paired with culinary-school students and professional chefs in the quest to prepare a meal worthy of a $5,000 scholarship.

“People who love food, maybe that’s their focus, can now enjoy the part of the festival that doesn’t have a wine focus. The response to the culinary tent last year was overwhelming. The Junior Top Chef Competition was phenomenal. It’s such an important experience for the students, and for me, it was one of the most rewarding things we did,” Bean said. “We meet regularly with the students now, the kids from last year arecoming back, and new ones are coming in. It’s a part of the festival that really engages the community.”

The expanded culinary offerings are also an opportunity for the festival to offer events at lower price-points, Bean said.

“In the past to see a chef demo, you had to be at a Grand Tasting. You don’t have to now. You can go to the culinary tent. The culinary marketplace is a $30 ticket. People can afford to go in and out all day long. Kids can go.The Junior Top Chef competition is just a $10 donation or a can of food to the Nan- tucket Food Pantry.”

The festival has also brought in a number of renowned chefs from across the region this year, including Jason Alberg of The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, and Joanne Chang of Flour Bak- ery + Cafe in Boston.

“Jason is an incredible advocate of supporting local purveyors. It sounds like old news to some people, but Jason really is involved in the farm-to-table movement,” Bean said. “He’s incredibly creative, and has such an attitude of partnership. He’s a brilliant chef. He’s this big outsized presence, but very per- sonable and so friendly.”

Alberg is president of Berkshire Grown, an organization dedicated to promoting the support of local farming and strength- ening the relationships between local farmers and restaurants. He often works with Jeremy Stanton of The Meat Market in Great Barrington, who will also be in attendance at the festival. Alberg is scheduled to participate in the May 14 Open- ing Reception, the May 15 Harbor Gala and May 16 Culinary Marketplace.

This won’t be Chang’s first visit to the island. Last summer, she was the guest chef for a brunch at Straight Wharf Restaurant at the invitation of her good friends, the restaurant’s owners Amanda Lydon and Gabriel Frasca.

“She’s an unbelievable person, always accessible, and really has a place in her heart for the island. She’ll talk to people for hours,” Bean said.

Chang will prepare the dessert course for the festival’s ultra-high-end wine dinner La Fete May 17, and is scheduled to attend Breakfast on the Harbor that morning for a book-signing and culinary demonstration.

At its heart, though, the event still pays homage to the fruit of the vine. Festival favorites like the wine dinners in private homes, seminars, symposiums and the charity gala all return, in addition to new events like a Ruinart Champagne Brunch. Also returning is the celebrated Burgundy Lunch, hosted by Toner, who remains involved with the festival.

La Fete, introduced by the festival last year, is moving to the Nantucket Yacht Club.

“It’s a truly amazing experience. It’s 200 people for a sit-down dinner, with five featured chefs, both local and visiting, that are amazing, and a vintner at every table, with 25 professional sommeliers to serve and explain the wine,” Bean said. “The wines are donated from private collections. It was probably the most tweeted about event from
last year. It truly epitomizes what the wine festival offers to people: Access to the world’s best winemakers and chefs. You’re seated next to legendary winemakers, talking about family stories. That access is pretty unique to the festival in general. These chefs and winemakers aren’t parachuting in and then disappearing. You see them all over.”

The festival is also bringing back the sommelier program it introduced last year, in which 21 of the top sommeliers from around the country will be on hand at the private tastings and dinners, as well as the Grand Tastings, to answer questions and provide insight into the wines being served.

The festival remains true to Toner’s original philosophy of wine as a vehicle of pleasure, not excess or pretension.

“Wine is for enjoyment,” said Toner, long a promoter of the inhibition-lifting and dialogue-creating qualities of the fermented grape, and former wine director at The Brant Point Grill, and sommelier at Le Languedoc and 21 Federal. “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 enjoyment of wine. It’s about learning. The operative word is savor. That’s what we believe in.”

Bean agreed.

“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. For us, as it was for Denis, it’s not about profitability, but about maintaining the integrity of the event,” she said.

“This festival 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, and about New England. 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.”

The first festival back in 1997 was far more 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. The two-day event attracted about 1,100 people.

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 names from around the world: 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 a charity wine auction and many of the Great Wines in Grand Houses tastings, despite ticket prices that in some cases climbed into the $500 and above range. The number of Grand Tasting sessions was increased to accommodate demand, and wine-makers themselves clamored for the opportunity to present their product to the discerning, high-net-worth audience the festival attracted. In recent years, more than 3,000 people have attended the event.

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.

This year’s luminary is Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards. Draper is known for his cabernets and chardonnays from the Monte Bello estate vineyards, and received the prestigious “Winemaker’s Winemaker” Award from the Institute of Masters of Wine in 2013. ///

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

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