Right after the opening of the Hillsboro Trader Joe’s, I remember speaking to someone in their wine department who was talking about Gluehwein, which is a warm spiced red wine traditionally served around the holidays in Germany. Inquisitively, I asked where she had been exposed to this anomaly. She advised me that this product had been for sale at the Northwest Food and Wine Festival.
Curious, I thought, because I was not aware of such an event. This was perturbing because I thought I was aware of most any local wine events with the help of the fine folks at www.localwineevents.com (bookmark it!). Turns out, last year was the inaugural event for the Northwest Food and Wine Festival, which benefits the Oregon Food Bank. I try to stay up on these things, but this one just slipped past me. However, as the festival progressed towards its date this year, I was impressed to see how the successful promotion of this event had gone from something I missed last year, to an event that any self-respecting enophile from Portland would be ostracized for missing.
This year’s event was held at the Memorial Coliseum not the Convention Center; I found this out as I exited the TriMet MAX. The Memorial Coliseum is the really big place behind the Rose Garden (the place where the TrailBlazers play). Portland has some great event venues – all good, all really close together. So if you are planning a massive conference come to Portland we can handle it. Our airport (PDX) has been voted best in the country a couple of years in a row along with a stellar public transportation system (it provides service into the airport). Combine that with a culinary scene that is emerging as one of the best in the world and great hotels…well I’m sure you get the picture.
Good times abound in Stumptown. Now it’s time to talk about the NW Food and Wine Festival.Walking past the Rose Garden on a game day, there were plenty of fans as I continued towards the Memorial Coliseum. I was not sure I was at the right place.
No lights, no signs, only a lone door attendant carefully accessing the attendees for decorum then instructing the event was downstairs to the right.Any other event would have suffered from the speakeasy treatment but for this crowd it was perfect. I mean, really now, do we want just anyone discovering that for the price of a good meal at a nice restaurant, you could experience some of Portland’s best restaurant fare and sip over 400 wines?
The food was worth the price of the ticket alone and the wines were outstanding and if they were not all for sale at the event I would have said the tasting was priceless (but this isn’t a MasterCard commercial).As I walked downstairs, the directions for entry were clearly stated on simple and clearly understandable signage. Check-in was separated for attendees and industry folks, a great decision by the organizers. The separation of consumers and industry types ended there. Upon producing my e-mail (a confirmation that Enobytes was invited) and a business card, the attendant presented me with a program and a glass. When check-in to events like this go smoothly, it’s usually a sign the event will go as smooth as the check-in and my intuition was correct.
As you entered the room, the stage for performing chefs was directly to your left, signifying it as a definite focal point. One of the chefs from last seasons Hell’s Kitchen (Aaron Song) had just made an appearance as I arrived, preparing a couple of the signature dishes from the show (Lobster Spaghetti and Sweet Pea Risotto). Other notable local chefs also made appearances cooking their restaurants signature fare. Insight into the tricks of the trade by such talent certainly showcases just some of the valuable hidden bonuses included in the price of the ticket.Moving on to other attractions, we discovered the enormous chocolate fountain, staffed by a lovely lady named Pamela; it was a statement of indulgence and decadence that no one could pass without noticing.
The fountain, continuously flowing, provided another focal point for attendees who seemed to be mesmerized at times by the visual and sensual effect such a large amount of liquid chocolate could have on chocoholics. Unlike the tease of looking through the window as some Chocolateir practices their craft, at the NW Food and Wine Festival it was your own to dip into at your leisure and pleasure. Assortments of high quality fresh fruits were made available for every person’s dipping enjoyment. Just another fine example of all the unexpected delights this event provides.
With so many different wines on hand and almost as many restaurants, I usually walk the room to see the placement of wineries of interest and restaurant booth locations before I sample any wines. The sounds of instrumental electric guitar provided a background of entertainment without being intrusive, very pleasant throughout the event. As I walked the floor, I was surprised how busy and filled the room actually was.
At any other event with that many attendees, you might have felt crowded. The thoughtfulness and demeanor of the guests’ gave it a feel of comfort and the flow worked well. Everywhere folks were served with courteous service and genuine hospitality while remaining informative and polite.With the chefs in the limelight on stage being entertainers and educators I was surprised with how many of the winemakers that could hold their own as storytellers weaving a tale about how they became winemakers and owners.
A couple of the best were Mark Retz of Zerba Cellars and Don Redman of Mannina Cellars. They were gracious hosts with a knack for putting together the story of their journeys that led them to making wine, while weaving a seamless story of how their wines developed the personality that they individually possessed. The passion and tenacity of these winemakers were explicitly reflected in their wines character and outstanding quality. Anyone can stand and pour wine (as we would later find out), but it takes talent to represent with style and passion.
It was a pleasure to see another gracious professional host Mika from Laurelwood Brewing and I was not surprised to see how many people were drinking beer. Laurelwood makes a great product, a huge taste treat at any time. If you have not tried one of the pizzas at their new restaurant (the original Hollywood location) do yourself a favor and get in there; they make good pie. The new Laurelwood Brewery up the street is also worth checking out.Erath was pouring next to the beer, and they did a great job. As always, great wines, great times; thanks Dick!Michael David was also pouring several great wines and by now, I had developed an appetite.
El Gaucho served a tasty Lobster Bisque, the roasted meats from Gartner’s Country Meat Market exuded the quality they are known for; Bugatti’s Lamb Ragu over pasta succeeded, and Pazzo’s Arancini (fried Italian rice and cheese balls) were an excellent choice for an appetizer that worked well with wine and walking. Ringside, Hall Street Grill, The Rheinlander, Urban Fondue and Fenouil were just a few of the other restaurants that brought great food and plenty of it. Did I mention the food was worth the price of a ticket alone?
This event drew wineries from beyond the Northwest including of course California and also Australia and France. Beyond the wine and food, several other industries set-up booths to promote their products.If you were looking for grills, condos, cutlery, airline tickets, cars, timeshares, spa services, real estate or jewelry, purveyors of all these products were represented at the Northwest Food and Wine Festival.The volunteers and the staff did a great job and did it quietly and smoothly behind the scenes. However, many of the wineries staffed their booths with only one representative; when they needed a break, the volunteers would stand in. This is what I meant when I stated earlier that anyone could stand and pour wine. Trentadue, a California winery that has been a favorite of mine, fell victim of this scenario. As I tasted the wines from Trentadue and asked questions, I quickly realized the person pouring was not from the winery, the distributor or any other wine related background.
Everybody needs a break from time to time and the gentleman standing in was courteous and congenial; he simply should have been provided with a fact sheet to reference to – hardly a fault to dwell on.The only other aspect that could have used improvement was the availability of spit buckets and water to rinse glasses; at one point, wineries were rinsing glasses with their wines; rinsing with a $40 a bottle wine is just wrong. That being the total amount of negativity I could dredge up I would say it was a hugely successful event. Typically, I find fault everywhere and lay blame like a crop duster spraying crops.Keep an eye on the calendar for next year’s event; it will be grand. I look forward to attending and hope to see you there.