She Said, He Said: Impressions of a Grand Wine Event

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The more wine we drink, the more apt we are to forget what it is like to attend a wine event as simply a consumer. That is why we like to let others give their impressions to our readers as well. Every year one winemaker or another invites us to attend events during Wine and Food Week in The Woodlands, and we always have a conflict – the main one being that the venue is 60 miles north of our home. Even the most prolific spitter is bound to feel the effects of alcohol at events of this size — and getting in a car and driving 60 miles afterwards is just plain foolish.

Lucky for us, my friend and colleague, Larry Brett e-mailed me one day asking about the event. He lives much closer to The Woodlands than we do, and his daughter had suggested attending the Wine Rendezvous Grand Tasting and Chef Showcase in celebration of Father’s Day.

Bridget Brett and Larry Brett at Rockets Game

Father and Daughter: Bridget and Larry at a Houston Rockets basketball game.

About Larry…

Larry and I met over a year ago, when we both began working on the same litigation. He was talking about football and I mentioned that I had interned at the Mid-American Conference office one summer in compliance. Turns out he knows the former commissioner Rick Chryst, who headed up the MAC during my internship. The conversation shifted from sports to wine (as conversations between lawyers are wont to do) and I discovered Larry was a bit of an aficionado. Born and raised in Philadelphia, he is also a great story teller. Larry has a wine story that goes something like this…

“I discovered wine over 20 years ago from an attorney co-worker from Napa who opened his Washington D.C. area home for detailed educational wine tastings and wine dinners. Several years after that, while working for a national luxury club corporation, I organized and hosted very well attended wine dinners and blind wine tastings for serious wine aficionados in two different states, who enjoyed vertical tastings, obscure varietals and lesser known regions in winemaking countries.

The interesting fact that virtually no one else knows, is that, completely out of the blue, about ten years ago, a publisher once offered me a $1000 for a private email I sent a friend, who thought it was very insightful and could make a good concept for a book and brought it to the publisher who was looking for new ideas and agreed. I rejected the offer, as it seemed odd to make money from a private email to a friend and if it were such a wonderful idea, $1000 was too little payment. I sort of regret that now, as no one else has come forward since and offered even one dollar for one of my emails. I still write them.

About Bridget…

Bridget is a 27-year old hailing from Reston, Virginia (Washington DC area). An Ocean Engineer, Bridget studied at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts for both Bachelors and Masters degrees to satisfy her love for massive ships, shipping logistics, and the ocean. She currently works as a business analyst for a global energy company in Houston. Bridget says her dream job is to be a cruise ship captain, but she has decided to put that on the back burner for now as it would require living at sea for all the years of her youth.

“Instead, I greatly enjoy the fact that I have vacation days I can assign to cruises out of the nearby Port of Galveston,” says Bridget. “I credit my Dad for giving me the desire to be a continual student of wine. He challenges me to improve my personal wine collection every opportunity he has to be a taster.”

Without further ado, Bridget and Larry write about their experience at the 2012 Wine Rendezvous Grand Tasting and Chef Showcase in The Woodlands, Texas.

Two Ways To Enjoy The Woodlands “Wine Rendezvous Grand Tasting & Chef Showcase” 

by Bridget Brett, along with Larry Brett

Bridget says:

As we did, you can attend this great event with your 50-something father, in celebration of Father’s Day, or with your 20-something daughter, who sees it partly as new and exciting and also as what older people might like. While from time-to-time during the event, Dad and I agreed about our favorites and least favorites, often our views were individual.

HEB, one of the event sponsors, did a wonderful job of having an incredible amount of really good food and people to help make the event a success. It was one of the surprises of the night, that a supermarket could be a star in the midst of wineries and chefs competing for prizes and appreciation.

I was struck by the enormity of the event space in The Woodlands Marriott and two areas on the ballroom border. The Carlton Woods lounge was open to all in attendance while The Cadillac Lounge experience was more exclusive. VIP ticket guests entered through a ring of shiny luxury cards, stopping first by event bouncers, who checked for their special ticket.

Some intertwined themes of the event were initially confusing. Here? Now? Why? At the same event, there was a roaming couple in opulent medieval costumes, as well as a table with pictures of beaches in Aruba and food from one of its restaurants. The event theme of “Royal, Regal, and Real” then later became more solidified as we met Darren McGrady, a chef fit for the Queen and a true celebrity himself.

Choose Your Strategy

Our program for the main showcase event lacked a map or suggested tasting paths, so Dad asked someone working security where the best wines might be. Unlike most exhibitors who naturally tell you it’s theirs, the guard had insider information on the special wines and conspiratorially suggested a cluster of tables for our early path.
Armed with what we thought was a verbal treasure map, we giddily made our way to our first tasting table, and then another, and another.

Boy, were we disappointed with the complete plainness of the first wines we tried. Three separate versions of really mild, almost watery wine, It was like the wine equivalent of Bud Light, Miller Lite and Coors Light at a craft beer festival. At first both surprised and disappointed, we then recognized what was happening. The friendly local volunteers at the Fetzer, Benziger, and Trinchero tables offered merely basic wines in the first glass. The wines were respectable, with no obvious flaw, other than plainness. We were in exactly the right place, but were not making the best approach.

We thanked them for their initial offer of the wine they had cases and cases of to pour, but asked instead for something with more depth, or more body, or a longer finish, or one that was in some way unusual while chatting them up to get some of the more limited winery product.

Just as in a restaurant, you can’t simply ask the waitstaff what is good, as you are told it all is. Just as in a restaurant, some is really good. Other dishes are okay. I learned to watch which bottle the volunteers had their hands on as people approached. If, when I asked for something in particular they still reached to pour from the bottle their hand was on first (from the ten or so open bottles in front of them) I said, politely, not right now, I want to see your other offerings. Then my Dad and I looked at what they had. Typically, with a bit of checking, we found something much more interesting to try, often with the aid of the volunteer, who would then direct us to the better wines from the array.

Pace yourself, and be selective

At an event like this you must be selective. No one could possibly try even five percent of the wines in that giant ballroom, which must have been nearly a thousand different ones. So pause, and politely decline the first wine they offer, especially if after you tell them what you are looking for, they just reach for the same wine they were going to pour before you asked. We sure learned our lesson after the first three plain wines and asked more questions and declined some wines.

Our fourth taste was one of our favorites, the 2009 Montes Alpha Syrah, a Chilean medium-bodied wine with a dark presence in the glass, fruit nose, and a lingering finish. We were impressed by the character of the wine. The purveyors of the Montes Alpha encouraged us to try the 2009 Argyle Pinot Noir. Not so much to our liking, we put a plus sign in our notes for the Montes Alpha. It’s kind of funny, when people tell you if you liked that, then you’ll like this. Nope, sorry sir, but I really did like the first one. Can I try it again to be sure? Yup. Montes Alpha is on my shopping list.

After a side stop for a satisfying smidgen of a “Texas kick” mac & cheese from D’lish catering, we tasted the Reynolds Family Winery 2008 Stags Leap Cabernet Reserve. We were immediately struck by the tannin and pepper that relaxed into a winning fruit finish. This full-bodied wine was enough to leave us smiling. No big surprise that this wine retails around $75, but at least this bottle would be one to impress an entire dinner party.

When we were ready for a bubbly distraction, we ventured over to the Champagne Gazebo, near where we first entered the ballroom. From an established quality recognition perspective, the array of sparkling wines was the most impressive table collection we had seen at the event.

Once my Dad saw me nab a glass of the non-vintage Veuve Clicquot Rose, he was ready to select a competing Rose. We enjoyed the lingering, fresh finish of the Veuve Clicquot, and agreed this was the best of the Champagne and a highlight among the other wines as well.  We were lucky to catch the Ramian Estate 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, which they named Canard, from Calistoga, in Napa Valley, before the event began to wind down.

One curiosity we found was wine from Israel. Fleischer Wines had an inviting table for those curious to compare the standard Napa and Sonoma wines to those of the Holy Land. The Galil Mountain Yiron is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah and had a unique oak aroma distinct from the other wines we experienced.

We tried several different varietals after the Yiron, and can honestly report that the wines from Galilee (yes that Galilee that calls to mind Biblical references as one sips) were not as enjoyable as the wines from the Golan Heights. As a group, they need some refinement, and we’ll check wines from that region again in the years to come, but it was a new experience in wine for us.

Just Enjoy the Event

All in all, we tasted so many wines, perhaps too many for enough to stand out. Can you really be sure that your tenth wine was good enough to recommend to others, more so than the twentieth one? It becomes a blur, a good one, but this event is not a place to make a systematic study of all of the wines.

Rather, it is a place to get in the fun, meet the people around you and follow their recommendations for wine, or food. Or just to hear their story about how they came to this event. You have tons of good wine and food, but after a while, you stop, hold onto your glass, laugh at something someone said, and join in their conversation.

If you really wanted to try everything at the event, you’d have to make it about a week long. We were more than satisfied by the close of the event, but a volunteer made sure we tried her favorite dish of the night – a pastry from Le Mistral Restaurant. We were wowed by the raspberry macaroon dessert where the chewy cookie sandwich combined well with the smooth sorbet in a fashion so as to not be overly sweet. Good thing we saved a tiny bit of room for the final taste of the evening.

Larry says:

Food, Glorious Food! (Perhaps I was more hungry than thirsty at first).

Food is such a vital companion to wine — or wine such a vital companion to food, as a chef might say — that we must give you that perspective. After all, the very ambitious program in The Woodlands is called “Wine and Food Week” and the big Saturday night event was called The Grand Tasting and Chef Showcase.

If you had told us beforehand that one of the most impressive groups in this wine and food competition would be a local supermarket, we would have disagreed, on principle. We went thinking wine, and enjoyed drinking wine, particularly the successful searching for the wine we wanted to drink again after a taste. But if you actually saw it in person, we know you would agree.

Along the way, everywhere we turned were tables of freshly prepared dishes from local restaurants and an abundance spectacularly displayed cheeses, meats, and fruits. This event certainly proved that just as chefs can go to your local supermarket and assemble ingredients to make dishes to amaze you, so can the staff of your supermarket, especially at HEB.

Cheese, Glorious Cheese!

Cheese, Glorious Cheese! Photo by Bridget Brett

They enjoyed preparing the food and watching you appreciate how good it was, rather than just placing on a shelf to go into your cart at the store. Granted, supermarkets have samples to try in person, but multiply that by a thousand, with all kinds of dishes made, fruit cut, vegetables with dips, meat with sauces, cheeses cut.It’s as if every display case at HEB were open and all of the food was cooked and you could try everything. You could see the excitement in the staff over how cool we in attendance thought it all was.

Notable food discoveries

Latin Bites a Peruvian/South American restaurant, from the Memorial area of Houston, is the first restaurant we want to try for a meal with family and friends. Their samples were beautifully presented, almost artfully, with one taste as different and remarkable as the next, featuring subtle and different spices on their meat dishes and an array of vegetable offerings that were really special, even for someone who often eats vegetables as a requirement, rather than a choice.

Mi Cocina, with its first restaurant in the Houston area, actually at The Woodlands Mall, has a delicious beef and pork taco, with flavors that helped convince us that a thousand restaurants can make tacos, but only a few can make them this well. Mi Cocina has a loyal following in the Dallas area, with over 15 restaurants there. This one in The Woodlands is our first and we’ll go to try other items on the menu with great anticipation.

Royal Chef Darren McGrady

Royal Chef Darren McGrady

We also unexpectedly learned a bit about the British Royal Family, as their former chef, now an author, touring chef and charity fund raiser was on site with staff, making and serving the favorite dishes of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana. The show’s hit was a mixture of crème brulee and bread pudding, said to be a particular favorite of the royals. One interesting anecdote from one of the former palace staff, included that Diana’s portion was always small, with another chiming into the conversation, “Sadly,” It was an unexpected moment at a 2012 celebration here in Texas, but one we’ll remember, a bit of detail to a famous person’s story that had already been evident, but definitely more touching told in person, rather than on television, or in a book.

Overall Impressions

There were innumerable chefs and restaurants, with their own tables, in this sea of edible opportunity. Many were just okay, some even disappointing. Others, we never got to, or ending up walking past to get the right wine for the food we just picked up from another restaurant’s offerings.

The scale of the Grand Tasting and Chef Showcase is so extensive, that you cannot possibly try it all in three hours. Of course, trying a different food and wine every couple of minutes brings you to a Thanksgiving Dinner kind of experience in about an hour. You have really enjoyed it, but it’s not as if you could have dinner again, maybe not even tomorrow. So, we didn’t get to try much of the food, or many of the wines.

We would certainly go back again next year, and try some those we missed this time. We had a marvelous dinner, with seemingly everything from a supermarket or fifty restaurants to choose from. Among those we missed trying was Samba Grille, which won the Chef’s Competition from votes from other chefs and food critics. With all of the good food we had, how good must Samba Grille be? We’ll try them out, downtown soon.

Who Was There? What Were They Like? Was There Any Fun?

The Grand Tasting may be about wine and food, but it is also about the people who attend. It is about whom you are curious; whether the “beautiful people,” the fun people around you, or those who approach you for information when they see you sitting behind a table writing notes for your article on the event.

Gatherings are better or worse from the vibe, the type of energy the people in attendance bring with them to the event. Some parties are more fun than others because everyone just enjoys himself more and more as the night goes on and the collective excitement is infectious.

This event got its life from the volunteers, who loved it before you came in the room and were happy that you had joined them.
This Woodlands-based event had a great vibe, with the baseline a low one, all of us strangers in a long line waiting to enter, waiting politely and somewhat stoically to have our tickets scanned, our hands stamped and encircled with a bracelet, and have your photo IDs checked (seemingly everything but fingerprinting). While in line people spoke, quietly, to those with whom they arrived. Enter the event, and it was a wow for everyone — bright, colorful, and so, so big, with abundance everywhere.

The tickets are pricey, $132 and change, but not without value. Ticketholders have an opportunity to taste wines from hundreds of open bottles, dozens of which were $40 and up retail and $75 and up in a restaurant. For the food, one could easily have a buffet/brunch experience that would cost him $50 per person in a restaurant.

To our surprise, we could always get more of the wine we liked, even the expensive ones. The staff in attendance, a blend of winery employees, wine distributor representatives, and local volunteers seemed eager for guests to enjoy their representative offerings. Some of the more expensive wines we discovered through a more deliberate process. After tasting one group’s favorite, we asked them to point us toward a favorite by another winery.

The volunteers played an important role for those on a committed wine journey, as they quietly and mostly reliably served as your tour guides for the great food and great wine mixed all though this vast maze of opportunity.

My favorite people were the volunteers, each of whom got to enjoy the event during breaks from their table, and who all went home with a bottle of wine of their choosing. Other events I have attended across the country are often brought down by lifeless event help, sporting weak smiles, and sighs while pouring and looking away, thinking about a better day. This event got life from the volunteers, who loved it before you came in the room and were happy that you joined them.

We were a quiet group in line, and the wine does give a group social energy, but we got it first from the volunteers, who were hundreds of neat, interesting people, mostly from the Houston area now, but often originally from many other places.

We plan to come back next year, and we might join the group of volunteers. It is such a great event and helping the others who attend next year enjoy it as much as we did this year would be a good next step.

Cheers!

Bridget Brett and Larry Brett

Photography: Unless otherwise noted, photos were provided by The Woodlands Wine and Food Week, and used with permission.

About Amy Corron Power

A licensed attorney, Amy is a wine-lover, foodie, photographer, political junkie and award-winning author who writes about Wine, Food, Beer & Spirits. As Managing Editor & Tasting Director for Another Wine Blog, she travels all over the world's wine regions to share her experiences with her readers and nearly 10,000 twitter fans. Amy holds certifications through the International Sommelier Guild, and is also certified, with honors, as a California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS). She is a member of the Guild of Sommeliers, The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas and regularly attends Houston Sommelier Association events.