How to Navigate a Wine Festival?

Umami* of Nantucket | Navigating a Wine Festival
(Advice from Nantucket Wine Festival founder Denis Toner)
By Sara Boyce
Let’s face it: Wine can be a bit confusing. Most of us are familiar with the basics. Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah (so far, so good), Petite Syrah (OK, now it’s getting a little more confusing), Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris (wait, is that the same as Pinot Grigio?) And the list of varietals goes on from there. Introduce different winemakers, their various wines, the vintage, location, and wine can seem downright overwhelming.
As with anything, the only way to learn is to jump in and practice. Luckily, “practice” in this instance can be a lot of fun. We have an extraordinary opportunity to sample wines from many top winemakers and we don’t even have to go anywhere. They come to us. That’s right, the 17th annual Nantucket Wine Festival brings more than 150 wineries to the island between May 15th and 19th.
Nantucket Wine Festival
Photo: Wendy Mills
Nantucket Wine Festival
Photo of Denis Toner by Wendy Mills
Denis Toner, Founder of the Nantucket Wine Festival, has some simple advice on navigating the Wine Festival, and it involves a strategy.
Strategy: Particularly at the Grand Tasting, there are so many wines to choose from that it’s easy to get muddled. The temptation is to taste all the wines you can.
What you need is a tasting strategy, which can be based on any number of variables. For example, you may choose to taste Sauvignon Blanc, so look for the tables that have Sauvignon Blanc and note the differences between the different producing regions. Principally the great Sauvignon Blancs come from California, the Loire Valley in France, South Africa, or New Zealand.
If you’re a Cabernet person, you could start with Napa Cabernets and move to New World Cabs (Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia). Or you may want to try the Left Bank Bordeaux wines, which are principally Cabernet based.
Taste: Remember, this is a tasting, not a gulping contest. You want to live to get to the end of the tasting.
Take notes: Bring a notebook so you can take some notes. Or just remember the wines that leave an impression.
Food: Remember that there is also food at the Nantucket Wine Festival, including plenty of great bread from Pain d’Avignon. Use the bread, particularly the baguettes, to cleanse your palette, or have a glass of water and move on to taste more wine. Stay away from really stinky cheeses and fancy baguettes (garlic or cheese) – they can get in the way of the wine. No one wants a mini-war on their tongue.
Look around for some of the classic, time-tested combinations. For example, foie gras pairs beautifully with Riesling and Sauterne. Eat an oyster with a Sancerre, a Chablis, or an unoaked Chardonnay. Pairings such as these give you a deeper understanding of the complexity of any particular wine.
Ask questions: The marketing guys are wonderful (I know; I was one) but they are there to sell their wines. The winemakers are the ones with dirt (or merde) on their shoes. Their interpretations of the wine are invariably simpler and more logical. Ask about their wines, their theories of tasting wine, or what makes a great, good, or a well-made wine. They will judge your seriousness by the quality of your questions, so start the dialogue.
Nantucket Wine Festival
Grand Tasting by Gene Mahon
To Spit or Swallow:

It’s a wine tasting. If the wine is really good, no doubt you will want to swallow the wine. Though the winemakers and distributors will pour small portions, you don’t have to drink it all or even swallow the wine. You want to taste a range of wines without drinking too much. In my opinion, about 65% of the quality of the wine is in the nose – the olfactory component. It’s a long day and you want an accurate impression of the wines you’ve tasted, so just a small taste.
Private Homes & Seminars:

Attending wine dinners and seminars are as if you’re at a great restaurant and tasting
all the wines on the list. The wineries go out of their way to bring their very best wines because Nantucket is an important wine market. The tastings in small private homes are focused and concentrated, and you’re often at the table with the person who made the wine. Many life long friendships have been made at these dinners. Attending seminars is money well spent.
Nantucket Wine Festival
Hospices de Beaune Luncheon, Great Harbor Yacht Club, 2012
Gala: The Gala is a grand social event, taking place as it does at the opening of the season, and a chance to see old and meet new friends. The Gala is also a place to learn more about the 40 restaurants and 40 wineries. You need a strategy here too, even though it is a social event. Pick up a Nantucket Wine Festival program and chart a course.
Adhere to these precepts and you’ll have a much more enjoyable and fulfilling festival.
In Vino Veritas!
For more information about the Nantucket Wine Festival:*”Umami” is something the Japanese recognize as the 5th flavor, in addition to sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. A nuanced word, one could define it as the “je ne sais quoi” that deepens flavor, the experience, and imparts satisfaction and sensory delight. To me, it’s “that which makes Nantucket special”.

One of Nantucket’s residents who came to the island for 3 weeks and stayed a decade, Sara Boyce is always looking for that ‘extra flavor’ in life whenever and wherever she can. After many years running The Brigham Galleries, Sara recently launched, where she works with Nantucket’s wine authority, Denis Toner, to discover and promote exceptional, small-production wines. A supporter of the arts and many of the island’s non-profits, chances are she’s cooking, brainstorming marketing concepts, or on the dance floor if she’s not traveling. To share thoughts on Nantucket’s food, wine, or social scene, email Sara
This article initially appeared in Mahon About Town, May 15, 2013

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