The 2011 Milwaukee Wine Fest, glass by glass
Wine, Women and Song is the cliché embedded in our collective heads for an indulgent and fun life (since at least the 18th century). In this case, Wine, Women, Weather and Song was ringing in my head as I entered the Milwaukee Wine Festival after big, bad weather hit last year’s event, not just dampening spirits but tearing down tents and shutting opening night down cold.
After spending the 2010 festival huddled in the MAM underground parking garage because of severe storms, I was more than ready to take in the 2011 under peaceful skies. After all, with an enviable location next to the Milwaukee Art Museum’s iconic Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion, mostly clear skies, lots of wines to try, a TGIF crowd and the promise of live music, the event couldn’t help but be a good time.
The main sponsor was Harris Bank, the folks who recently bought hometown M&I, no doubt seeking and earning goodwill and name recognition by sponsoring the event. The food and wine sponsor was Sendiks Food Market, a high-end grocery chain with deep roots in Milwaukee and an ever expanding empire (and wine department).
This event is designed as an introduction to wine — an entry-level tasting, if you will. However the event’s press release was slightly misleading when it said “[The Milwaukee Wine Fest] is not only a great opportunity for the wine connoisseur to discover this year’s finest new and exciting blends, but it’s also the perfect place for newcomers to the world of wine to learn the basics from experts in a fun, relaxed setting.” To be brutally honest, “this year’s finest new and exciting blends” simply were not there.
But there’s something to be said for creating an accessible, non-intimidating wine experience, and there was a tremendous and diverse selection of easy drinking, good wines to get to know. In addition to the more than 270 wines available, a half dozen or more beer vendors offered over 100 beers to sample, many of which are new to the Milwaukee market. In keeping with the spirit of a tasting event, these too were poured in one ounce samples, maintaining an atmosphere of moderation and sampling — not partying.
A single food tent served a limited, but diverse and well-prepared menu of sliders, fish tacos and chicken salad wraps. Restaurants represented included Mason Street Grill, the Milwaukee Chop House, and Kil@wat.
Music was provided by rock group The Lloyd Dobler Effect, who didn’t appear on stage until 8 p.m. on Friday, leaving lots of silent time in the first few hours of the event, which unfortunately diminished the festive atmosphere. It’s a bit of an odd experience, strolling an outdoor enclosed space in near silence with lots of other people, creating a studious effect not unlike an art museum. I couldn’t help but think of the multitude of local musicians, from jazz trios and troubadours to accordion players and violinists, who’d be thrilled to set up at various spots or stroll the grounds keeping things lively when the main act wasn’t on stage.
There was a diverse crowd both days, ranging in age from barely legal to senior citizen. Friday saw most of the after-work crowd, but by 7 p.m. pretty party dresses and stiletto heels began to appear in attractive droves. Fortunately that began to change the atmosphere until the long wait for music finally ended around 8 p.m.
Seminars of related food and wine topics were listed in the festival brochure, but I saw only one in action — a distributor talk about Argentinian wines to a solid, attentive crowd. I couldn’t locate the proffered “wine experts holding interactive cooking demonstrations and wine seminars” even after asking the promotion staff on site.
As for the wines themselves, along with grocery store staples like Yellow Tail , Hey Mambo, and DeLoach, savvy distributors brought a very few well regarded mid-priced and premium wines. W.J. Deutsch & Sons Ltd. served not only the full Yellow Tail portfolio — from Moscato to Shiraz — but also the always terrific Girard Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, both worth seeking out at around $20 a bottle. Also being poured at the Deutsch table was a terrific Pinot Noir by Windsor, a Sonoma County producer.
The Cannonball Wines tent was hosted by the knowledgeable and friendly Maria McKinsey, a wine broker and Independent Brand Manager par excellence. She offered a succinct selection of three value wines — Alias Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot — along with three mid-priced wines of the same varietals — Cannonball’s Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot.
It takes someone carving their own niche in the wine distribution system to come up with this highly effective way to present choices, allowing tasters a direct way to compare the same wine types. The differences among them are key points like where the grapes were sourced and wine making factors like aging or use of oak, which can cause one wine (Merlot, for example) to taste quite different from another of the same variety. At under $20 a bottle, Cannonball wines, sourced from Mendocino, CA, seemed a terrific bargain with their big, chewy, fruit flavors of black cherry and cola. The 2009 Cabernet Blend consisted of 85% Cab, with small amounts of Petit Verdo and Syrah. Look for it at Sendiks stores if this sounds like your kind of bargain.
The Wirtz Beverage tent was another standout, offering 12 different wines ranging from a gorgeous Mer Soleil “Silver” unoaked Chardonnay to the always delicious proprietary white blend known as Conundrum, both in the premium price category, but eminently worth it.
Happily, I saw many serious wine tasters, couples and groups who took the time to sit and map out their tasting strategy, and many who were swirling and sniffing and tasting with great intent and eagerness. This is a sure sign of an existing connoisseurship or of a sincere desire to learn, which bodes well for the Milwaukee Wine Festival. As with anything else, you only stay a beginner for a brief time, then you move on and up to better things. In the case of wine, it’s a desire for more nuanced, structured, and complex flavors.
The beer selections seemed interesting — no Miller Brewing products in sight. It was fun to see some lager imports, like New Zealand’s Steinlager and Poland’s Okocim at the St. Killian’s booth. Also seen were interesting ales and craft beers of note such Belgian Duvel and Ommegang 3 Philosophers at the Duvel Moortgat booth. (Tellingly, many of these beers retail in their 750 ml bottles for the same as most of the wines poured.)
However, one particular and major faux pas was the location of the Uhles Tobacco cigar vendor in among the wine tents rather than standing alone far, far away from wine tasting, perhaps together with the other oddly-conceived vendors like Bath Fitter and the American Laser Center, which graphically displayed the lovely art of laser arm pit hair removal in oversize posters. As for the cigars, without exception nothing on this earth will make it more impossible to smell and taste wine better than the wafting fumes of a strong cigar. It simply obliterates the taste buds and our sense of smell.
In its fifth year, it seems festival organizers are still working out a few of the kinks, but that is all part of the process. In all, the event lived up to its goals and offered an accessible wine experience at the lakefront worthy of checking out.