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New Orleans Wine and Food Experience- Memorial Weekend 2007

25 May 2007

A very popular local event is moving up with more national focus. Its a great time for a last minute trip to the Crescent City. Here is a summary from Tom Fitzmorris, a food writer and author:

The main event in the NOWFE program takes two days, each with two disciplines. Friday evening and Saturday midday at the Convention Center, a bill of seminars is offered. These achieve the greatest heights, as chefs and winemakers at the highest levels talk and pass around samples. Some of these are extraordinary; unfortunately, those sell out quickly. However, some still have openings.

After the seminars, the doors open on the Grand Tastings. In a gigantic hall, restaurants dole out something like 60 dishes and winemakers pour about 400 (no kidding!) wines. And then a new bunch of both food and wine comes in the next day.

A few years ago, the Grand Tasting was on the verge of becoming unpleasant, with too small a hall and not enough food. I would say both lacks have been much improved/ For the last two years, it’s taken place in the big ballroom at the New Orleans Hilton, which is much more handsome and comfortable than the Convention Center. (Bad news: NOWFE will not be able to return to the Hilton next year.)

The wine still fantastically overwhelms the food, but you shouldn’t have any problem eating well. Some of the restaurants bring major specialties (i.e., Galatoire’s with its crabmeat maison), but others get adventuresome (Dominique’s usually brings fresh conch ceviche last year).

On top of that, culinary demonstrations go on, with chefs whipping up something before your eyes and then passing it around. The demos also give one a rare opportunity to sit down. The Grand Tastings are a stand-up affair, although they do provide you with an interesting gizmo that allows you to hold both a plate and a glass of wine in one hand, leaving the other free for a fork.

All of this largesse costs $80. That’s a charity expenditure unless you love wine, in which case it’s a bargain. The wines being poured are a very mixed lot, with a dizzying number of unknowns vying for your attention with many, many major names. This is one of those activities, like going to the opera or playing tennis, in which the more you know, the more you’ll get out of it.

The best-known secret of the Grand Tastings is that most of the wineries have a limited amount of special wines hidden behind their tables. They are not stinting about giving these to those who express an interest and a little bit of knowledge. But start with the basic wines before you start demanding the good stuff. (Which not all the wineries will have anyway.)

The final event of the Experience is the Sunday Bubbles and Brunch. This year it’s at Arnaud’s, which for my money is the best brunch venue in town. The Champagne is Perrier Jouet–not the end of the world. The menu is here.

Not all is perfect about NOWFE. The wine selection has degraded substantially since the early days. Most of this owes to the fact that wineries are now being asked to do many more events like this and can’t come to everything. But I notice particular weakness at the vintner dinners, where some restaurants are serving truly ordinary wines. There are, I’m afraid, too many dinners.

The Experience remains a tour de force, however. And its end result–raising a lot of money for educating people interested in a culinary career–is so important to our city that the week-long overfeed remains the best major culinary event of the year.

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