The past few weeks saw the introduction of two very different wine festivals to the Lehigh Valley. Both were the first annual iterations, however one was a massive failure while the other was a glimmer of hope for the future.
The Riverside Wine Festival took place on May 22nd and 23rd in a grassy area on Sand Island in Bethlehem. As I drove up I was surprised at the amount of cars filling the area. I soon found out that most of them were in the area for a play at the Ice House, rather than for the wine festival. Upon walking up I shelled out a staggering $20 and glanced around. There wasn’t many people and there wasn’t much going on. I wasn’t going to attend in the first place based on just the winery list, but I decided I should do it for the good of The El Vee.
Upon entering the “tasting area” I was handed a wine glass. From a box, the kind you buy a load of at Walmart for dirt cheap. So with my $1 glass I ventured to the winery tables, of which there were 5, to attempt to get the rest of my $19 worth. I didn’t end up doing so. Present were Amore, Antler Ridge, Blue Mountain, Cherry Valley, and Franklin Hill. I walked around and tasted the highlights of each…more wineries didn’t bring their full selections or even their best wines. I’m not one to usually complain about sample sizes, but the pours were terribly small, sometimes just enough to get a sip.
Some of the tables didn’t have a place to dump wine that you didn’t want any longer. Even more didn’t have water to rinse your glass between tastings and tables. The website told of “several food vendors on site to tease the palate with a variety of delectable choices.” The food vendors? Your typical Musikfest fare..chicken fingers, french fries, and a stand selling different flavored nuts and candy. FAR from what I would want to pair with a good wine on a lazy Sunday.
All-in-all, the Riverside Wine Festival felt like a waste of time. It was more than quarter-assed than half-assed. The money supposedly went to help fund the Star of Bethlehem Festival, of which the website is extremely vague, giving no dates or information other than bland descriptions of what the festival will supposedly stand for. For $10 in July you can go to Penn’s Peak for Wine on the Mountain, sample 9 Lehigh Valley wineries, get an engraved glass, and have access to way more delicious food than flavored nuts and ballpark concessions. For the Riverside Wine Festival to survive and be profitable they really need to market (which they did little-to-none of), drop the price, add more places to buy GOURMET food, and add more wineries or they’re going to flail again just like they did this year.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum we have the Lehigh Valley Food and Wine Festival, promoted and held at the Sands Casino and benefitting the Northampton County Community College’s culinary program. An aside real quick, the NCCC culinary guys are the ones from the Hampton Winds that won the Souperbowl. The obviously produce top-notch food so any money going into making this program even better is good by me.
After paying my $75, which at first seemed like a LOT of money, I entered the wine festival. I was greated with an engraved LV Food and Wine Festival glass, a guide to all of the food vendors, and a list of the wines that were being poured. Awesome. Inside the gigantic tent in the back of the Sands’ parking lot the Valley’s finest restaurants were dishing out absolute loads of deliciousness upon the masses.
I’m just going to go over some of the hits or misses here real quick…the whole list of food and wine will be at the end of the post. Bolete can do no wrong. They must shit delicious food and sweat it out of their pores. The halibut tacos, with the rich avocado mousse, tart onion, and sweet fruit offered up a great twist on an old classic and made me want to grab a bottle of dry riesling and sit outside all day. The steak from Emeril’s was the best beef there, not surprisingly. The real Emeril’s stand-out there was New Orleans with its turtle soup. Dark, hearty, and perfect for the rain that accompanied the festival, it packed just the right amount of expected cajun spice and was powerfully flavorful. I’ve only ever had turtle soup one other place in the valley, at the Pine Room at Saucon Valley Country Club, and it paled in comparison. The Hampton Winds carrot ginger soup with cardamon cream was the best version of that soup I’ve tried to date. Many places that attempt it miss the flavor matching completely but it was spot on here, providing for a refreshing break between everything else. Ocean’s Korean tuna tartar on scallion pancakes was quite possibly the dish of the event. The soy/ginger and rich wasabi mousse, on the salty, strong scallion pancake and a gorgeous piece of fish really did it for me. Bravo. The Savory Grill’s Jail Island salmon with fruit salsa wasn’t inventive, crazy, or gourmet, it was just delicious and would make for a great summer dish. Sodexho did good with their potato gnocchi and even better with their kiwi berry intermezzo. I could’ve drank a gallon of the stuff. St James Gate came in with the most interesting dish, the ale-poached chicken meatload, onion marmalade, and mustard vinaigrette, but I must admit that it was oddly delicious.
And now for some of not-so-good things I tried that day. The Cafe’s genoise was delicious, but holy richness. Any more than a small bite of this and you’re asking for a stomach ache and a coronary. Moving on…I eat asparagus. It’s good. But I just can’t do asparagus soup…I tried it at the Souperbowl and it was mediocre but The Farmhouse’s rendition with local goat cheese was nearly gag-inducing. I saw lots of very full cups of this going into the trash so I know it wasn’t just me. It’s a shame since The Farmhouse is one of the most respected culinary destinations around, but you can’t win em’ all. And now we come to Prime Steakhouse. I haven’t made it there yet, but they didn’t give me a good first impression with their prime rib and sirloin sandwich bites. The first bite I took was complete fat. Into the garbage it went. Shula’s Steakhouse? If you’ve got steakhouse in your name don’t bring the calamari. Show off what your restaurant is really all about and don’t be cheap. (Note, I’m not bitching because I feel like I’m entitled to try a $100 steak at a food event, I’m bitching because it’s a stupid business practice. I’ve done the Shula’s think and dropped $200+ on a meal there and it was the best steak in the Lehigh Valley). And lastly, Villa Enterprises’ stuff was all very meh. Not terrible or bad, just meh.
And to the wine: Only two Lehigh Valley vineyards were displayed which was kind of disappointing: Blue Mountain and Clover Hill. The only other PA wine was from Chaddsford (near Philly) and all of the rest was from Italy, New Zealand, Spain, Washington, Argentine, Australia, California, Chile, and France. There were a lot of good, cheap selections here that wowed me. To name a few: Wyndham Shiraz Bin 555, Mondavi Fume Blanc, Marques de Casa Concha Carmenere, and the Hogue Cellars Genesis Cabernet. I didn’t have much that was terrible…although I wouldn’t pick up a bottle of Mondavi Woodbridge Moscato or Graffigna Pinot Grigio anytime soon. To my surprise they were dishing out Perrier Jouet Gran Brut NV, which will run you about $43 a bottle at the store. I snapped up a few glasses of that (one of the only wines that fully ran out) and a few of the Charles De Fere Cuvee Jean Louis Brut NV. Nothing like some good Champagne to round out the afternoon.
The organization of this event was impeccable. The tent was probably just big enough (could always be bigger), they had the Craig Thatcher Band with Nyk van Wyk cranking out awesome tunes (seriously, Kashmir on the violin made the crowd go nuts), and everything went smoothly. Plates with wine-glass holders built in were perfect. The passes that were supposed to be punched limiting your sampling of wine usually weren’t punched at all. The samples weren’t samples, they were full glasses. The ONLY request I have for next year is they had a big dance area in front of the band stage that was empty until everyone was done eating and drinking. For the first few hours they should fill it up with standing tables as there was nowhere just to set your plate down and eat for a second, forcing many to leave the tent and side on curbs around the area. Once most of the eating is done they could just have a few people remove the tables and open up the dance area, problem solved. It was an absolutely amazing event…I came out feeling like every cent of that $75 was worth it. I was stuffed like a pig and feeling great. According to a few of the Sands people I overheard, about 900 people attended, and I’d expect that number to grow significantly for next year. Until then!
The list of food:
Burgers and More by Emeril:
Mini slider, creole mustard, lettuce, tomato, and kicked up coleslaw
Mini slider, balsamic onions, lettuce, tomato, and kicked up coleslaw
Mini chicken slider, muenster, lettuce, tomato, and kicked up coleslaw
Blue: Hawaiian ahi sashimi on a toasted corn chip with asian microgreens and a wasabi soy mayo
Bolete: Halibut ceviche tacos, house made crisp tortilla, avocado mousse, picled red onion, and tropical fruit salsa
The Cafe: Genoise with buttercream
Warm sliced Carnegie pastrami, rye bread, coleslaw, and mustard
Warm sliced Carnegie corned beef, rye bread, cole slaw, and mustard
Edge: Mushroom toast-sauteed crimini, oyster and shitake mushrooms with triple cream brie, brioche, and a tarragon drizzle
Emeril’s Chop House:
Pepper-crusted prime NY strip loin, wild mushroom salad, pinot reduction
Shrimp and grits with scallions, bacon, and mushrooms
Emeril’s New Orleans:
Local goat cheese and heirloom tomato bruschetta
The Farmhouse: Chilled asparagus soup with Stonecroft Farm goat cheese
The Hampton Winds:
Braised beef shin with southwestern slaw on crostini
Chilled carrot ginger soup with cardamon cream
Looper’s: Brioche with mascarpone, lemon curd, and seasonal fruit
Melt: Sweet shrimp salad with roasted yellow tomato vinaigrette, marinated roma tomatoes, and basil oil
Korean tuna tartar on scallion pancakes with soy-ginger vinaigrette and wasabi mouse
Lobster mac and cheese
Pacifico: Skirt steak churrassco skewers with chimichurri sauce
Prime Steakhouse: Prime rib and sirloin sandwiches with various sauces
The River Grille: Chili marinated beef satays, skewered and wrapped in bibb lattuce, topped with mango tomato relish and cilantro aioli
Dr. Joe Jurgielewicz duck breast, ricotta cavatelli, blistered grape tomatoes, brown butter sauce
Panned Jail Island salmon with tropical fruit salsa
Heirloom tomato gazpacho
Shula’s Steakhouse: Calamari fried, tomato coulis, and mustard aioli
Potato gnocchi salad with riesling poached local asparagus and grape tomatoes and a ginger tarragon emulsion
Sun dried tomato crisps with jumbo lump crab and chipolte aioli
Kiwi berry intermezzo
St James Gate:
Ale poached chicken meatloaf, cipiollini onion marmalade, mustard vinaigrette
Citrus cured Atlantic salmon, new potato salad, capers, horseradish cream, and shaved fennel
Sausage and peppers
Chicken and parmesan
Mini mousse cups
Graffigna Pinot Grigio
Wyndham Shiraz Bin 555
Jacob’s Creek Reserve Shiraz
Jacob’s Creek Pinot Grigio
Jacob’s Creek Sparkling Rose
California Au Bon Climat Winery
Emeril’s Red Red Wine
Au Bon Climat Pinot Gris/Pinot Blanc
California Robert Mondavi
Robert Mondavi Private Selection Pinot Noir
Solaire Cabernet Sauvignon
Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc
Frontera Cabernet/Merlot Blend
Casillero Del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon
Marques de Casa Concha Carmenere
Charles De Fere Cuvee Jean Louis Brut
Louis Latour Due Chardonnay/Viognier
Domaine Du Pesquier Cotes Du Rhone
Perrier Jouet Grand Brut
Chateau Du Bois Chantant
Banfi Le Rime Pinot Grigio
Banfo Rosa Regale Brachetto
Banfi Centine Rosso
Banfi Chianti Classico Reserva
Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc
Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay
Kim Crawford Pinot Noir
Kim Crawford Pinot Grigio
Campo Viejo Temranillo Crianzo
Campo Viejo Rioja Reserva
Hogue Cellars Johhnisberg Riesling
Hogue Cellars Chardonnay
Hogue Cellars Merlot
Hogue Cellars Genesis Cabernet Sauvignon