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Monday, July 07, 2014

A Good Taste

Back in the Sack Dept.: Nearly thirty years ago, an Albany hotel created a winetasting event that set a standard for that kind of event, and it persisted there for over a dozen years, much to the credit of then-innkeeper Gary Smith. After Gary left, it stuttered on for a while longer before evaporating. Here’s a preview piece I wrote for the 1991 edition.

                                                                                          

“IT'S THE ONLY WINE EVENT in the country that I attend.” That’s winemaker Hermann J. Wiemer speaking, who offers as testimony to the event that he hasn’t missed it during its five years. “I’m pleased with the way New York is represented, and I know a lot of California participants feel the same way.”

Hermann J. Wiemer
The Desmond Americana hosts the mid-winter festival that brings winemakers from around the country for a long weekend of seminars, tastings, displays and food. This year it takes place Feb. 7-9 and boasts an unprecedented 90 wineries in attendance.

“In almost every case, that means a winemaker will be there,” says Remo Pizzichemi, “to talk about the product in a way nobody else can.” As food and beverage director for the hotel, Remo has the massive job of coordinating the event on both sides of the kitchen door. Along with his passion for wine is an eye for detail that strives to make every aspect of the event run smoothly. He is especially proud of the showing of New York’s winemakers, a dozen of which will be attending.

“What we’re building here is an incredible participation on a state level,” he says. “Our seminar on New York State’s sparkling wines is sold out and the one being co-hosted by Glenora Winery is about to sell out.”

Wiemer is equally enthusiastic. “This is a good thing and I’m happy to be included. It’s probably the only place where New York wines get exposure side by side with California wines, so people can see that California isn’t the answer to everything.”

With so many entrepreneurs in attendance there’s always a spirit of competitiveness, but the wine business as a whole tends to be fairly unified. “There’s quite a bit of camaraderie,” says Remo. “Everyone has to be united to fight the threat of sliding sales.”

“A very nice group of people always comes to the event,” Wiemer adds. “I love it. The people are always very interested.”

Food is always emphasized during the festival, with chef Michael St. John challenged to devise an array of dishes that will complement the many liquid selections. A special release wine tasting begins the festival at 6 p.m. Friday, followed at 8 by an auction of rare and oversized bottles to benefit WMHT-TV. Craig Goldwyn, director of the American Wine Competition, returns to oversee the bidding. A late-night dinner buffet winds up the first evening.

Seminars and a grand tasting run throughout Saturday afternoon. A dozen different topics will be discussed with industry leaders. Among them are component tastings, in which the individual elements of a wine are examined; vertical tastings, in which a particular style of wine is followed through a series of vintages, and panel discussions on many aspects of the business.

Learning never has been so painless. “Wine runs the risk of seeming like an elitist thing,” says Remo. “Unless you have festivals like this one. We’re offering consumers the opportunity to learn at their own pace, at their own level. It’s not an intimidating thing.”

After five years it’s gotten popular enough that some guests book for the following year as they check out. The Desmond has 324 guest rooms, 80 of which go to the wineries. “Most of our overnight guests will be there for the wine weekend, and a few rooms will be people taking advantage of our ‘Breakaway Package’ to get a good price on a room and drop in on a tasting.”

Even some locals elect to stay over, as Patricia Bokan has done year after year. As co-owner of Englebardt’s, a wine and liquor store in Schenectady, she likes to keep a professional eye on what’s happening in the industry. “Most of my ordering for the holiday season is done by October,” she says. “By February I’m ready to start re-stocking, so the festival lets me sample what’s available and talk to the winemakers about it.”

Changes in scheduling and accommodations have prompted some revisions to the event. Gone is the formal sit-down Saturday dinner. “Seating was just too limited,” says Remo. “What we’re offering this year is a cabaret-style buffet. This gives guests the opportunity to sample more wines with dinner and speak with more winemakers.” It also has a political inspiration: winemakers whose product wasn’t represented at dinner in years past felt slighted, especially when forced to explain the lack to nearby guests.

Seminar times have been moved ahead, so the midday meal on Saturday and Sunday has been lightened to a deli-style luncheon with beers from noted micro-breweries. The festival finishes Sunday afternoon with a raffle of almost 200 bottles of American wine. At which point some of the guests will emerge into daylight for the first time that weekend.

Patricia Bokan says that she and her husband lose track of time. “Remo does such a great job of providing everything that you forget there’s an outside world.” She already has booked the seminars she wants to attend. “There’s never enough you can learn about wine when it’s the winemaker who’s teaching you. I think it gets absorbed better that way.”

The festival is presented in a modular manner designed to allow guests to enjoy any or all of it; the complete package, for $249, includes accommodations Friday and Saturday and every event. A Friday overnight with late-night buffet and Saturday’s daytime events is $119.50 per person; for $149.50 per person you can have a Saturday overnight with cabaret dinner and Sunday’s events.

A combined seminar and grand tasting session is $25 each day, as is Friday’s special release tasting and wine auction. Add the late-night buffet Friday and it’s $50.

“Wine is truly a non-offensive beverage,” says Remo, “that gets attacked as being snobby or immoral. It’s not, but we can only learn this through education.”

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 31 January 1991

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