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Monday, April 18, 2016

Decanter Wine & Racing Festival

I only recently began to explore Maryland wine, but I am making a serious effort to learn more. I tasted some of the state's best offerings last January at the Winter Wine Showcase in Baltimore and I walked away very impressed by what I discovered. So when I was offered tickets to the Decanter Wine & Racing Festival near Laurel, Maryland, I jumped at the opportunity.

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The event is held at the Laurel Park Racetrack and is not your typical wine festival. After checking in and picking up a glass, I strolled through the indoor tasting space and then wandered outside to explore the tent, which contained additional wineries and food venues. Outside the tent, there were food booths and trucks assembled beyond the betting windows and offered an excellent spot to purchase lunch or a snack and watch the races.

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The event started at noon and I arrived as the doors opened. I wanted to beat the crowd as much as possible, so that I might taste a few wines without having to wait in line. I started out tasting multiple wines per table, but as the throng began to assemble and lines formed at the tables, I refined my plan and decided to concentrate only on Cabernet Franc. I have a certain fondness for that varietal and I can fairly say that I have tasted a large number of them from Virginia, the Loire and California. I will not go so far as to call myself an expert, but I do have a lot of experience with that grape and there are characteristics that I can certainly pick out.

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In the spirit of full disclosure, there were 23 wineries in attendance and I did not visit all of them. This was largely due to my own personal shortcoming. I just do not have the patience to stand in a long line to taste wine. Nevertheless, I was able to taste enough Cab Franc that I came away with a sense of its importance as a Maryland varietal. Most of the wines I tasted were from 2013 and clearly that was a good year in Maryland. A feature of all the Cab Francs I tasted was the ripeness of the fruit. Most lacked even a hint of green pepper and the best had notes of spice and black pepper in the finish. The examples from Great Frogs and Elk Run were quite good. The Knob Hall and Boordy Cab Francs were absolutely stellar. 

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In addition to wine, food and horse racing, there was live music and a competition. One of the annual features of the event is a “Best Dressed” contest. So many attendees were attired in their best spring outfits, which necessarily included large spring hats. It adds an additional element of fun to the event. 

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My only lament about the festival was the crowding at the booths. Many of them were pouring eight or more wines, so even at a frenzied festival wine-pouring pace, visitors might spend several minutes at a single table. I have seen other festivals limit the number of offerings the wineries are allowed to present, in an effort to alleviate some of the crowding. In the end, however, this is just the nature of the beast. 

On the flip side, the event was well organized and executed. It was more than just another festival and provided a variety of attractions and events to keep the crowd engaged. For me, it was just a springboard. From here I will begin to explore Maryland in earnest. I am gaining some understanding of the wine industry’s geography, the varietals and the premier wineries. I do recommend this event as a way to become acclimated. If you went this year or if you stop in on a subsequent year, please let me know what you think.


Monday, April 11, 2016

Taste of Monticello 2016

The average Virginia wine drinker knows the Taste of Monticello Wine Trail celebration as a festival in the Ntelos Pavilion at the east end of Charlottesville’s downtown mall. Most people do not realize that this annual event takes place officially and unofficially over several days in April with a variety of events. The festival is simply the culmination of a larger celebration. While it is too late to sign on for 2016, let me give you a rundown, so you will know what to look forward to next year.

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From the perspective of the local wineries, a key feature of the Taste of Monticello is the wine competition judged by a panel of wine experts. This is a chance for winemakers to submit their premier wines in search of gold and the competition's top prize, the Monticello Cup. From among the top wines, the tasting panel selects the "best in show." This best of the best is subsequently awarded the Monticello Cup at a Thursday night award ceremony. The event is open to casual wine enthusiasts and features a keynote speaker.

My favorite of the public events is the series of wine dinners hosted by the participating wineries. These take place throughout the week and typically involve a set fee that includes dinner at a local restaurant or other venue paired with the host's wines. Of course the owners and winemakers will be in attendance at these events.

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Peter Chang’s Chinese cuisine paired with Afton wines

I attended the dinner sponsored by Afton Mountain Vineyards at Peter Chang’s China Grill. I was invited to sit at the head table, which was quite an honor. So I was able to get to know owners Elizabeth and Tony Smith, as well as Damien Blanchon who makes the amazing Afton Mountain wines. I will point that a seat at the head table was not the only way to meet the owners and winemaker. They worked the floor and went by each of the tables to talk about the wines and greet the guests. 

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The Virginia Grape (right) with Elizabeth and Tony Smith

I will just sum up the wine dinner by saying that it was as fabulous as any meal at Peter Chang’s, but the wine pairings took the multiple courses to the next level. Ten cold appetizers, six hot appetizers, two entrees and dessert were paired with the Afton sparkling wine, Gew├╝rztraminer, super-Tuscan style Festo di Bacco and it was finished off with the Port-style dessert wine. It was a meal to remember and the wines were simply amazing.

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On Thursday night is the awards ceremony, which features an opportunity to taste all of the silver and gold medal winners along with a food pairing. The floor of the Jefferson Theater was the venue and it was packed with fabulous wine and sumptuous goodies that were available before and after the award presentations. You just do not get many opportunities to taste from such a lineup of amazing Virginia wines. This year Michael Shaps 2015 Viognier was recognized as the top-rated white wine and Barboursville Vineyards won the Monticello Cup with their 2010 Petit Verdot Reserve.

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The main event for most wine drinkers is on Saturday at the pavilion. With the purchase of a reasonably priced ticket, you can taste the offerings of 32 wineries from the Monticello Wine Trail. The festival is a popular draw and can get a little crowded, but there are few events that feature this many wineries. Some attendees may drink their way through all of the tables, but a discerning wine drinker can use it as an opportunity to become acquainted with some of the wineries they are less familiar with. Alternately, it can be an afternoon of reacquainting with some of your local favorites.

So keep your eye open next year and take time to celebrate our local wine industry. I will be sending out reminders and I may see you at one of the events. If you attended this year, I am anxious to hear what you thought.