The past couple of weeks have been good to local oenophiles. Last weekend saw the inaugural Burlington Wine & Food Festival — put on by the Vermont Wine Merchants Company — replace the defunct Green Mountain Chew Chew Festival in a plum spot on the waterfront. The previous weekend, well-heeled aficionados headed to Trapp Family Lodge for the 12th annual Stowe Wine & Food Classic. A benefit for Copley Hospital in Morrisville, the event consists of three days of drinking and dining, culminating in a “grand tasting and silent auction” on Sunday.
Having attended both the waterfront festival and the grand tasting, I’m struck by two things. The first is the number of people willing to shell out for pleasure, and for charity, with the economy in the nascent stages of clawing its way back to normal. The second is just how different the two events — both celebrating great food and fine wine — managed to be.
Take the locales, for starters. Attendees reached the Trapp Family Lodge via a long drive on mountainous roads. (Food writer Alice Levitt claims she’s witnessed more than one middle-aged woman, overcome by the glorious view, fling out her arms and burst into strains of The Sound of Music.) Once there, guests found vintners and restaurateurs mingling inside an airy tent in which one could easily snag a bite and find a sip to go with it. A band with a singer performed slinky jazz standards. It was all very genteel.
There was a different energy on the Burlington Waterfront last Saturday. Despite heavy rain, nearly 1000 people wandered down Depot and College streets to soak up the goods during the day’s second tasting session, from 4 to 8 p.m. Inside a darkened tent smelling pleasantly of damp earth, a band rocked out onstage while people in casual dress lined up to sample a few of the 200-plus wines.
Although you could get Vermont artisan breads and cheeses in this main tent, you had to visit a separate section outside for main dishes from area restaurants. Other purveyors, such as those for Ben & Jerry’s and Stonyfield yogurt, camped out around the venue’s edge.
The whole area was loud, fun and bustling. Inside the big tent, a few people danced, and some couples, apparently overcome by the wine, got hot and heavy.
The difference in crowds and vibes is explained partly by location and partly by price. The Burlington festival cost $40 per person, while Stowe’s ran $60. But that bought unlimited samples, while B-town’s cheaper cover actually purchased 15 drink tickets and just one food token (more could be had for $1 and $5, respectively).
That meant digging around for tickets while balancing a wine glass and a plate of food, and, in my case, spending an extra $20 to try more of the fare. Worse, I agonized over each pour, hoping I’d happened on the most complex cabernet or the sexiest syrah.
In Stowe, by contrast, I pinged carefree from table to table, trying three Rieslings here, going back for seconds of the Three Penny Taproom’s housemade chorizo there. Small plates were the order of the day. Michael’s on the Hill had small cups of chilled smoked-trout vichyssoise, Hen of the Wood offered crispy pork-cheek croquettes, and Ariel’s Restaurant wowed us with a fluffy goat-cheese soufflé. I couldn’t stay away from the pork cracklings made at southern Vermont’s Verdé.
Burlington offered fewer food options, but each one was nearly a meal unto itself. I spent my first token for L’Amante’s perfectly cooked rib-eye and giant prawn with white bean and arugula salad. Then I followed the scent of smoke to The Belted Cow Bistro table, where I was rewarded with a shaved pork and broccoli rabe sandwich topped with a sprinkling of Parmesan. Healthy Living’s plump, homemade chicken sausage with curried slaw packed tons of flavor. I honestly can’t say which festival’s food I preferred.
Everything else may have been worlds apart, but the events shared celebrity flair. Stowe boasted famed winemakers Bruce Neyers of Neyers Vineyards in St. Helena, Calif., and David O’Reilly of Owen Roe Winery in Oregon’s Yakima Valley, plus a cooking demo from Yankee Magazine’s Annie Copps in a perfectly outfitted traveling kitchen. The Queen City fest’s crown jewel was figure-skater-turned-winemaker Peggy Fleming and her husband, Greg Jenkins, who own Fleming Jenkins Vineyards & Winery in Los Gatos, Calif.
Some diners might prefer the fashionable ease of the Stowe Food & Wine Classic, others the lively scene on Burlington’s waterfront. Me? I’ll take ’em both.