If last night (Saturday) was a dud for downtown Asheville nightlife, it’s because half of the town had already indulged in a caloric escapade by early evening. Hundreds of flavor enthusiasts gathered at the U.S. Cellular Center for four hours of wine, food, competition and camaraderie at Asheville’s sixth annual Wine and Food Festival Grand Tasting event.
The name of the festival itself hints at the emphasis of wine before food, and a proliferation of beverages was certainly the main course for guests. The majority of vendors that dotted the venue’s busy upper corridor and sprawling main floor contributed to a diversity of libations, which included more than 100 regional and international wines.
Asheville neighbors like Addison Farms Vineyard of Leicester poured alongside representatives from more exotic locales like Bodega Gratia vineyard of Argentina, but Jones von Drehle of Yadkin Valley stole the show with their Rockin’ Red wine. The sheer quantity of wineries in attendance prevented long lines from forming at most beverage tables — a luxury that patrons missed once their appetite for aperitifs appeared!
Only Southern hospitality could explain the extent of heavy pours that sloshed around inside the event’s beautifully branded keepsake cups — and it wasn’t just wine up for tasting. Spirits like Snow Hill’s Covington yam vodka, Lenoir’s Carriage House Apple Brandy and Asheville’s own Howling Moon moonshine provided an interesting departure from the wine menu, and Asheville’s craft breweries were on hand with a selection of seasonal and staple brews. Cider lovers had several options including Angry Orchard and Naked Apple Cider Co., and even the non-drinking crowd had the tasty effervescence of Blue Blaze Soda, Crude Small-Batch Bitters & Soda or Mountain Valley Spring Water to fall back on.
Food vendors, although clearly outnumbered, showcased some of WNC’s finest small-batch brands by serving bite-sized snacks to the peckish crowd. Handmade crackers and high-quality meat products like Hickory Nut Gap Farm’s beef sticks were numerous in addition to cheeses, herb-laden dips and other small appetizers. Some vendors offered full-sized portions of their product for purchase, but samples were limited and many organizations packed up before 6 p.m., having exhausted their inventory.
For dessert, visitors were treated to artisan chocolates, cookie samplings, cheesecakes and other sweet bites — echoes from the festival’s Friday night dessert event. Blackbird’s famous coconut cake was a definite crowd pleaser, as was the Biltmore Estate’s peach-bourbon dessert topped with candied bacon.
“Don’t get distracted by anything. Just keep going,” urged one attendee to her significant other, as he attempted to navigate the winding upper corridor without succumbing to nearby temptation. It was easy to lose fellow festival-goers within the labyrinth of vendors, but the lower-level floor (which housed the bulk of the attraction) was expansive enough to prevent the waves of claustrophobia that plague less-organized general admission festivals.
The crowd was impressively well behaved, keeping the sound of shattering wine glasses to a minimum, and some brave parents even toted kiddies along for the ride. The bleachers for the Chefs Challenge spectators developed into an impromptu family section, and provided a surprisingly uncrowded area for patrons requiring a moment of retreat.
Read more about the Chefs Challenge here.
Photos of the Grand Tasting by Kat and Maria McReynolds: