24 and Counting
Tastes of the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival
Events of the 24th annual Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival begin today, April 16, and run through Sunday, April 19. Whole Foods Market is once again the festival's primary sponsor. In response to the current economic climate, organizers are offering a slimmed-down program with fewer food-related options this year, but they promise next year's 25th anniversary lineup, already in the planning stages, will more than make up for it. The schedule does feature events at some new venues such as the Hotel Saint Cecilia, the Long Center, the AT&T Conference Center on the UT campus, and several Downtown steak houses, while the Sunday Fair returns to the scenic Salt Lick property near Driftwood after a hiatus of several years.
One new facet of this year's festival is the inaugural year of Barrels Across Texas, a fundraiser featuring wine barrels that were distributed to various local artists willing to donate their time and decorating skills. The resulting barrel art pieces have been on display at venues and restaurants around the city since their completion earlier this spring. (For a full list of artists and barrel locations, plus barrel photos, go to www.barrelsacrosstexas.com). Several barrels will be on display at the Stars Across Texas grand tasting on Friday night, and then they will all be auctioned off live at another party scheduled for Thursday, April 23, at the AT&T Conference Center. Funds from the barrel auction will benefit the festival, Dell Children's Hospital, and the Capital Area Food Bank. For the complete lineup of festival events plus listings of participating chefs, restaurants, and wineries, go to www.texaswineandfood.org. Most of this weekend's daytime wine tastings were already sold out at press time, but there is still time to stop by the festival desk at the Four Seasons or go to www.frontgatetickets.com and snap up tickets to the following events.
Culinary Masters DinnerThursday, April 16 – $150
Once again, Four Seasons Executive Chef Elmar Prambs and pastry chef Naomi Gallego will extend the hospitality of their kitchen to the celebrity chefs invited to present the festival's Culinary Masters dinner. This year's guest chefs are Uchi executive chef/owner Tyson Cole, Gage Hotel Executive Chef Paul Petersen from Marathon, and Monica Pope, chef/owner of t'afia restaurant in Houston. All three have been recognized as candidates for Best Chef of the Southwest region of the United States by the James Beard Foundation. The five-course menu they will present, complemented by the wines and Champagnes of the Moët Hennessey portfolio, promises to be as inventive as it is delicious.
Stars Across TexasFriday, April 17 – $100 (VIP lounge add-on, $40)
The annual Friday night grand tasting has changed from a presentation of local restaurants to the premier showcase for top eateries from Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and the Hill Country, managing to outgrow every hotel ballroom in town in the process. This year, Stars Across Texas moves to the terrace at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, where guests can enjoy wines and signature sweet and savory dishes created by Texas culinary stars under the actual stars overlooking Lady Bird Lake. This year, Stars will also offer a VIP lounge with food provided by Aquarelle, ASTI, parkside, and Zoot, along with custom handcrafted chocolates from Katherine Clapner's new venture, Dude! Sweet! Chocolates of Dallas. Locals may remember Clapner from her sojourn as pastry chef at the Hilton Downtown Austin. After returning to Dallas to help her longtime mentor chef Stephen Pyles open his eponymous restaurant in 2007, Clapner struck out on her own last fall to follow her passion for creating innovative new flavors with chocolate. The menu of handcrafted, small-batch chocolates from Dude! Sweet! (www.dudesweetchocolates.com) is the result of Clapner's passion and creativity. Look for El Rey and Valrhona chocolates flavored with sea salt, passion fruit, ginger, Texas lavender honey, Guajillo chiles, cocoa nibs, roasted beets, and curried bananas. Clapner is currently leasing work space from Empire Bakery Co. in Dallas and selling her chocolates online and at a few Dallas stores and restaurants. Her plans for the future include a small shop in Dallas' trendy Oak Cliff neighborhood and placement in stores such as Neiman Marcus, Central Market, and Nordstrom. A visit to the Stars VIP lounge includes a chance to explore Clapner's unique chocolates before they debut in Austin stores.
Sunday FairSunday, April 19 – $45, or $30 for designated drivers
Sunday Fair is always the most accessible and family-friendly event in the festival lineup. After several years on the banks of the San Gabriel River in Georgetown, the fair has returned to the scenic grounds at the Salt Lick Vineyards near Driftwood. (Be aware that the Old Settler's Music Festival takes place in the same immediate neighborhood along the same winding, two-lane road this weekend – plan driving time accordingly.) Guests at the fair can observe cooking demonstrations provided by top Texas chefs, sample craft-brewed beers and artisan Texas food products, and taste the best vintages from more than 50 participating wineries, all while enjoying the musical talents of artists Patrice Pike, Drew Smith, Dan Dyer, and Adam Ahrens.
One booth of particular interest will be that of the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas, which will showcase its fascinating and user-friendly interactive cookbook, Plate & Vine. The Web-based recipe collection was developed by Austin's Keeper Collection (www.keepercollection.com) and offers users the opportunity to search recipes by chef, menu category, ingredient, or degree of difficulty, complete with photos demonstrating preparation techniques. In addition, the software features drink and beverage pairing suggestions, the ability to scale recipes according to the number of servings needed and provide matching menus and place cards, and even send a handy, detailed shopping list to the user's PDA. Plate & Vine interactive cookbook currently features almost 100 recipes created by some of Texas' best chefs, with more coming online periodically throughout the year. Three Austin chefs with recipes in the collection will be on hand to demonstrate their work. Chef Justin Raiford of 34th Street Cafe, chef Jason Donoho of FINO, and Fête Accompli chef/owner Quincy Erickson will be cooking up a storm in the foundation's booth, giving fairgoers the rare chance to sample dishes made from a cookbook's recipes before actually buying the book. In order to make that investment even more attractive, the foundation is offering festival guests the opportunity to join the organization for half off the annual fee of $50 and to purchase Plate & Vine for the reduced members' price of $20 until the end of April. For more info about joining the foundation or buying the cookbook, call 327-7555 or see www.winefoodfoundation.org.