The 20th anniversary of The New Orleans Wine and Food Experience (NOWFE) is in the history books and it was a full serving for all of the senses. Yes, any festival in New Orleans usually qualifies for that comment, but this one was red-lining in a number of categories. Just not always where you would expect. Intriguing.

Before I get into this diatribe, let me state that I was in on the founding of NOWFE back in the late 1980s and early 90s. I served on the board of directors of the organization for nine years and was president for two years. Yes, I am positively biased about NOWFE, but that does not mean I have not been critical. I’ve seen this thing for its whole life, warts and all.

One big quibble, and just that, is that this year was not the 20th staging of the event. Since the first one was in 1992 at the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street, the 2012 edition would be the 21st. Do the math. Again, no big deal; just saying.

Except for one big public event on Friday night, the Big Gateaux Show, this NOWFE pretty much followed formula and events at the same time as previous years. Again, not a criticism, just noting that maybe some of the activities might work in different times. The Vinola event, a high-priced wine tasting featuring higher priced wines, is right before the Royal Street Stroll on Thursday. But there is nothing on Wednesday, except that in the evening are the wine dinners, which also feature higher cost wines. Seems to me that Vinola fits better on Wednesday afternoon, leaving Thursday afternoon open to something else, like maybe a champagne/sparkling wine tasting. Or offering the time slot to marketing groups for wine-producing areas who wish to get together and promote their wineries as well as tourism opportunities.

Anyway, enough with me re-engineering the event. That’s the board’s job. Let me give you an overall impression of what I found this year.

In the large picture, the cuisine served by local and regional chefs blew the wines away. I spoke to a large number of visiting winemakers and winery representatives. They all noted that there is no – no – wine event anywhere that features so many great dishes as NOWFE. To a person, they were astounded and impressed.

Once again, our New Orleans and regional chefs came through. The food was not all about Caesar salad and some soup, which was the case a few years ago. This time the hospitality community went the distance. Amazing preparations (yes, preparations) were plated (yes, plated), many with multiple layers of ingredients and sauces. You did not leave either Grand Tasting hungry. No way.

Usually at a wine festival, talk goes like this: “Did you try that wine on that table over there?” “Oh, yes, that one is very good, but the one on the table over there is incredible. Get it before it runs out.”

That talk was going on, but more often than not, it was about the food, not the wine. I attend at least seven or eight wine festivals a year. Guests talking about the food never occurs. It’s always about the wine. Not in New Orleans, and not this year.

So here’s some unsolicited advice to local wine distributors: Tell your wineries what’s going on here. The wineries that come here to support this event and its many charities do not realize that we aren’t like any other public wine festival anywhere. The wineries usually bring their wines that are in current release and they want you to fall in love with them, then go and buy them.

But someone has to tell the wineries to bring at least one something special to NOWFE. Bring a label that maybe we don’t know, or have not had in awhile. Open our eyes. Surprise us. We’ll stay at your table and drink your other wines, but dazzle us. Just like our chefs are doing.

A few items of particular note, and not all for the same reasons:

  • The very first thing that has to be mentioned is the tremendous staging of the signature 20th anniversary event, the Big Gateaux Show. Our very own Tariq Hanna of Sucre did an amazing job of bringing in the biggest names in the confection world so they could evaluate entries covering a broad spectrum of candies and cakes. What a grand affair, complete with champagne and burlesque girls. Gawd, I love this town.
  • As long as we are on the topic of sweet, the Best of Show winner for Sweet was chef Phillip Lopez of Root, who creates his own, totally house-made, version of the Yorkie, complete with coco puffs, which he makes, again, in-house. That’s on the menu at Root and you should not go to that restaurant and not try this bit of heaven.
  • Still on sweet, but this time lady-sweet, who were those beautiful girls up on the trapeze, wrapped in sheets, swinging above the Grand Tasting area and pouring wine for grateful onlookers? Not just attention-getting, but attention-demanding.
  • The Cold Creole Tomato Soup with Louisiana Crawfish Pico de Gallo from chef Gus Martin at Muriel’s on Jackson Square was summertime perfect.
  • Kudos to the Voodoo Shrimp from chef Duke LoCicero with Café Giovanni on the first block of Decatur Street.
  • Did anyone else try the Burrata Stuffed with Foie Gras Mousse, Balsamic Caviar, on a fresh tomato slice with a dried fresh tomato slice? Melt-in-your mouth flavors from chef Peter Sclafani – yes from the New Orleans’ Sclafani family, of Ruffino’s Restaurant in Baton Rouge.
  • There was a noticeable lack of champagnes and sparkling wines, but l'Hermitage from Roederer was quite wonderful. And the Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs at the same table was also excellent.
  • Susie Selby from Sonoma was pouring her excellent syrah, but that’s not the big news. She has just re-done her public tasting room in Healdsburg and it’s all Mardi Gras-themed. Plus she will be releasing this month a sparkling wine (shh, it’s still not common knowledge) and it will be called Carnivale. Susie really loves New Orleans.
  • I moderated a seminar called Sips ‘n’ Sliders with Clay Mauritson of Mauritson wines in Sonoma and John Conover of Cade wines in Napa; other moderators included chef Isaac Toups of Toups Meatery on North Carrollton Avenue, chef Richard from Luke’s on St. Charles Avenue and chef Brack May from Cowbell. Included were six wines from five countries (two were from California). Universally across the board it all worked so well together. The meats in the sliders were pork, then beef and finally lamb. Wowzers!
  • Another seminar in which I had a hand by describing the four French wines was the Tom Fitzmorris seminar on the Restaurants of the Riverbend neighborhood. Chefs and owners Frank Brigtsen, (Brigtsen’s), Scotty Snodgrass (One), Nathaniel Zimet (Boucherie) and Eman Loubier (Dante’s Kitchen) staged a seminar for the ages. The plates that came out demonstrating the quality and range of dishes being prepared by these restaurants in just a corner of New Orleans is nothing short of astonishing. This seminar was dedicated to the memory of the late Anne Gooch, a founder of NOWFE, wife of Galatoire’s David Gooch, and a great culinarian in her own right. Anne passed away this past year but not before she created and designed this seminar, which she did every year.   

NOWFE, 2012 edition, rang a lot of bells, and did so loudly. The Royal Street Stroll was a grand event made even more so by cool, or at least not-so-warm, evening breezes. The staging of the Grand Tastings was tasteful and stage lighting added to the intimacy of a large barn of a room, Hall J in the Convention Center. I heard not one complaint about a wine dinner. The Ella Brennan dinner was a festive occasion quite well attended and conceived.

Congratulations to the Board members and the many volunteers. You all made it happen. Thank you for a marvelous time.