Taking Stock

Reporting from the 17th Annual Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival

The Barr Mansion
The Barr Mansion

The brochure described a premium event and promised we'd "experience everything Italy has to offer ... right here in Austin, Texas." For the most part, this year's Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival delivered on all the promises. The 17th annual Festival sold out quickly and had hungry foodies packing the Four Seasons Hotel and numerous other venues from Wednesday night through Sunday afternoon. The new Wednesday night "World Flavors of Austin" dinners provided in-depth exposure for more Austin restaurants, and Thursday's luncheons in the vineyards offered an opportunity to experience the actual Hill Country while enjoying excellent regional food paired with the best in Texas wines. I wholeheartedly agree with Saveur magazine Editor Colman Andrews' opinion that roots in Austin and the Hill Country are the best things the Festival has going for it.

My personal vote for "Best of the Fest" would be the Texas Meets Tuscany tasting in the Barr Mansion's Artisan Barn. Sponsored by HEB and expertly planned and executed by local herbalist/author Lucinda Hutson, the midday party was simply impeccable. Imagine a distinctive indoor-outdoor venue filled with an excellent sampling of the signature dishes from Austin and Texas food purveyors: fine Texas wines from Alamosa Cellars, Texas Hills Vineyards, Messina Hof, and Cap*Rock Winery, a miniature Italian market stocked with locally made goods such as smoke-dried tomatoes from Boggy Creek Farm and Silver Mountain vinegars from Wimberley with live string music as a pleasant backdrop. There were tasty panini and whole wheat ciabatta studded with grapes from Sweetish Hill, luscious gelatos and sorbettos from Binasco (recently relocated to Fredericksburg), toothsome potato gnocci in a rich duck sauce from Bottega della Pasta, cheeses from Dallas' Mozzarella Company, our own Pure Luck Organics, and elegantly garnished flans (that's crema della caramella in Italian) from Marta's Desserts. Hutson's famous Basil Cheese Torta from her Herb Garden Cookbook made an appearance, as did several delicious recipes from Terry Thompson-Anderson's new Texas on a Plate cookbook (which debuted at the Festival), and an Italian Cream Cake filled with chocolate mousse and dusted with cocoa from Barr Mansion pastry chef Alain Braux. Perhaps the best part of the event (other than Hutson's meticulous planning) was the number of guests booked to attend. It was one of the few events I attended all weekend that didn't suffer from overcrowding. Guests could enjoy all of the foods and wines as well as really interact with the talented, hard-working vendors. It was an exemplary showcase for the foods, the wines, the venue, and most of all, the Festival.

Running neck and neck for top honors would have to be Saturday's comparative tasting of California and Italian wines. Everyone from Festival participants to winemakers raved about this idea. The Italian Cheese and Wine Primer -- presented with infectious enthusiasm by Grape Vine Market guys Ike Johnson and Chuck Huffaker -- was packed with incredible cheeses paired with remarkable wines but also unfortunately packed into a space much too small for the number of people who'd paid for tickets. This brings us to the root of the problem. This year's Festival was in many ways a victim of its own popularity. Several events were too crowded. The Stars Across Texas tasting on Friday night has simply outgrown the Four Seasons ballroom. It's not possible for the air conditioning or ventilation systems to process the body heat of 1,200 people plus the heat and sterno fumes of hundreds of chafing dishes comfortably. If the Festival board wants to entertain 1,000 to 1,200 people at that event, it's time to move it to the Convention Center. And as much as I loved breaking Jim Murphy's big handmade ciabattas around the family-style table at the Culinary Masters Dinner Saturday night, the fact remains that portion control on some courses varied wildly, much of the food still came out cold, and, at four hours plus, it was the only presentation in recent memory longer than the Oscar telecast. The evening's deserving honorees -- Who's Who award winner Jeff Blank, Unsung Hero Teresa Byrne-Dodge, Dine With Texas Wine restaurateur Bruce Auden, and Texas Culinary Academy Excellence Award student Anishka Fragoso -- would have benefited from introduction earlier in the evening. After 11pm, the rowdy crowd was pretty much past paying attention to the important presentations. end story

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