Rob Moshein - The Austin Wine Guy

The 2012 Food & Wine FAIL, held in Austin..

May 01, 2012

Yes, Gentle Reader, I know. You are asking "AWG, you waited days to write about the Austin Food & Wine Festival?"  Yes, Gentle Reader, I did. On purpose.

Yr Mst Hmbl & Obdt Svt has learned over the years, it is best to wait when one wants to write a "crash and burn" piece.  As a dear friend, a successful journalist, once told me, when you need to write a bad review, "be honest, be fair, be polite."  Thus the waiting period, for the emotional gut feels (ie: "WTF were they thinking?") to be replaced by some rational thought.

I will start by saying, what a difference a year makes, and not for the better.  At least for the Austin Food & Wine Festival.

Before any challenges that my opinions here as somehow biased, please go back exactly a year and read my review of the 2011 Food & Wine Fest.  It was the best event they had put on in a very very long time. This year, was, in  a word, Not.

Now, I am all about an event that creates certain expectations, then at least meets those expectations and hopefully exceeds them.  That, to Yr Mst Hmbl & Obdt Svt is what this is all about.  So, allow me to parse out the expectations, and then the resulting performance as laid forth by C3 Events, who now own the Austin Food & Wine Festival.

What word is first in the name of the event? Austin.  Not New York. Not Aspen. Not Philadelphia.  Not Amarillo.  Austin.  Was the local media encouraged to participate? Absolutely not.  For the first time in over a DECADE, I was not even sent a release about the event.  Now, I am the only single blogger in Austin devoted solely to writing about wine, in Austin.  No, C3 doesn't care what the Austin Wine writer has to say.  Fine.  For the first time in literally 12 years, I was not invited to attend the Food & Wine Festival.  Fine. C3 does not care whether Austin Wine writers show up.  Now, some of you are thinking, "he's just pissed because he didn't get a free ticket…" Not really.  I got one anyway.  A friend had one extra exhibitor pass for his winery and let me use it.  Before I get to the insanity of the pricing, I must continue about their attitude towards "Austin".  

I ran into Virginia Wood, the Food and Wine Editor for the Austin Chronicle, the second largest print source in town.  I've know her for over 15 years, and she has been covering the food and wine scene in Austin longer than any single person still doing it today.  I think she started the same year as God had his Bar Mitzvah.  Was she invited? No.  She was invited to APPLY to be invited.  No joke.  She was so insulted, she didn't bother.  I didn't fault her.  I believe at the last minute they sent her (2) passes anyway.  You get the point.  C3 doesn't give a crap (I really want to use the stronger word here, but decorum dictates some restraint.) about AUSTIN.

That was reflected in the pricing structure.  $250 for the mere privilege of setting foot to the event.  $800 for "VIP" (insert a loud chortle here to be explained momentarily) access. I certainly was not going to pay those prices and had no intention of doing so.  Most of the local people I know felt the same way.  

They put on a generic "Food & Wine Festival", that happened to be "in" Austin. Not an "Austin Festival" by a long stretch.

Now, for "expectations" again.  $250 and $800 are a lot of money to the 99%.  If I am spending that kind of money, I expect value for expenditure.  So, I pretended for the day that I had spent $250, even though the pass I had allowed me free access anywhere.  Parking was a nightmare and cost $7 or $10 depending on where.  Everything was a long walk.  Last year? Parking was INCLUDED free and was a short walk.  Strike one C3.

The Saturday "Grand Tasting"…and related events.  

First. Dusty and hot.  Now, they can't control the weather, but, didn't ANYBODY look at a forecast and look at Auditorium Shores to see it is nothing but a giant dustbowl?  They could have laid down some hay, or mulch and rented some fans. But, they did nothing. Last year, the grounds of the Mexic-Arte were beautifully groomed, and intentionally chosen to prevent this disaster. Strike 2 C3.  

Ok, now am inside.  Wine is predominant.  Spirits almost equally so.  Food? umm. a little. By a "Little" I mean "microscopic".  Long lines, and when you get there, the bites were more fit for infants than grown ups.  My heart let when I saw my favorite "Salt and Time" had a booth.  I struggled through the hordes, waited patiently.  My reward? A literally 2 millimeter thin slice of lard the size of a nickel (not exaggerated, I took a quarter out of my pocket to compare) on a piece of bread about the size of the quarter.  It was tasty, but well, not much of anything.  Frankly, every bite in almost every booth was that small.  One exception. HEB of all things.  They had three different foods and the portions were reasonable.  I was starved.  At a Food & Wine Festival.  The thing starts at 11am, so its lunch time. Where's the food? OH, its for SALE. Yes, real portions of food are for SALE.  You charge hundreds of dollars to get in, then insist people PAY more to actually EAT at a "Food" Festival. That is insulting.  Last year, there were fewer food booths, but more FOOD to eat.  I was a happy camper.  Strike THREE C3.  Batter is OUT!

The wines.  There were a lot of wines. I'll grant that. The selection? Seriously insipid for the most part. 90% were California wine.  Three were Texas. Exactly two booths for French. With a few exceptions, most wine poured is easily found in your local grocery store.  A Food & WINE event, with grocery store wine?  Doesn't C3 know that Glazer's and Republic are not the only distributors in town? Last year the selection was very balanced and far more interesting.  Wine Riot in Boston last week had a MUCH more balanced and interesting selection.  They only charged $45 (and had more food!).  Next batter C3, strike one.

Ok, here I will insert a few good things.  A 2009 Château de La Coste Margaux that retails for $35 was really good.  LangeTwins wines from Lodi were for the most part, new to me, well made and reasonably priced.  My buddy Dave Miner's wines were showing well.  One of the Duckhorn wine makers was most kind to spend a good deal of time showing me their wines and chatting about them.  I still maintain they are consumer style and not my palate at all.  One bright note is that California seems to finally be moving away from the over oaken, flabby dense Chardonnays of recent years.  The reds, well they still all taste the same.

Texas whites were showing quite well.  Duchman and Pedernales white wines showed quite nicely. Of particular note were the Duchman Vermentino and Trebbiano and the Pedernales Viognier.  

Just when I'm hitting my stride, after about two hours, they throw everybody OUT! Ok, that one calls for a WTF?  They tell us we can't go back to tasting for two plus hours.  Ummm, reallly? Why? One answer "to prevent drunkenness".  Ok, I can accept that, EXCEPT all the "rest areas" had OPEN BARS pouring all the hard liquor and more wine you want PLUS they had no real food.  I was in the "VIP" area, and they had only Olivia restaurant handing out little puffs of beets, to soak up all the free Tito's you could suck down.  Yeah, that prevents drunks. Next Strike 2 C3.

Took the chance to chat with a local who ponied up the 8 large to attend. Was it worth it? I asked.  Do you think you got value? I added. His answer, after a very long pause was a hedged "not really. No. And they will charge even more next year, you watch.  I gave it a try.  I wont' do it again."  Strike 3 C3.  Second Batter YEERRRR OUT.

Thought I'd try to get into one or two of the lectures going on. Yes, lectures. What else can you call someone standing up there talking and demonstrating, but not FEEDING you anything, at a FOOD and wine Festival. Getting in? Fuggedabutit.  Lines worse than security screening at JFK on the day before Thanksgiving.  Last Batter, strike ONE.

The "pearl of wisdom" from the Food Network celebrities pontificating onstage? Well, let's see. Iron Chef Morimoto has "cat hands".  Uummmkay.  "learning to cook a steak is an everyday thing" from Tim Love. Now THAT is worth eight hundred bucks right there….not.  Jonathon Waxman "Sometimes a plain skirt steak is the best" Wow, pithy and insighful…Andrew Zimmern lectures his audience that for them to be even attending a Food & Wine Festival, much less the thought of our society that actually has one, is the root of what is wrong with our society. Hmmm, did Zimmern cash his PAYCHECK for showing up? well duh.  Strike TWO last batter.

Thought to self, I must be really grumpy this weekend.  Maybe it was just me.  Reached out to friends.  One wrote "How about making it affordable, Charlie? $250 for the privilege of standing in line for mini samples? $250 for a couple of demos by Food Network "stars"? Charlie, we have great culinary events in Austin already. I don't care for your high priced "destination events." What's next? How about an Austin Burning Man?"  Another "IMHO this is kind of a 'fail' for C3. A food & wine fest can not and should not be handled like a music festival. when I first got there Saturday morning, the toilet facilities were in disgusting shape. No toilet paper, dirty, full, broken towel dispensers. Really??Only ONE hand washing facility, put together by the Meyers people. There was a line to wash your hands. Now, the vendors had, behind the tables, the portable hand washing stations. Why didn't think to put those all over the place?"   Another "I don't see a problem with having spirits there, but jesus, do something sophisticated with it, you are charging people $$$ to get into this thing."  Most telling from a former Board member: "C3 did the same damn thing in 2003 when it was licensed to them and it took us years to overcome the bad press it engendered. They paid the (old) festival another fortune to sell themselves as Austin's destination foodie event for the next 3 years, and all they've ever been interested in is making a National event. As goes the Festival, so goes Austin. Sad :-("

Lastly, from another friend who ponied up $800.  "I paid for the parking. The police wouldn't let me in to the Palmer Center lot…then when I got to the demo I had reserved and showed them my schedule confirming my reserved seat, they had given it away to someone who had just the regular pass…plus they didn't even feed you anything they were cooking…so why the F*** did I pay extra? I was so angry I just left.  It was ridiculous, and made worse that I was a Board member of the Festival for years."

I will let these words of others serve as the finale here.  Res Ipsa Loquitor.

Inning over, C3.  No runs, no hits, Nothing but strike outs.

Rob Moshein
Austin Wine Guy

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