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The Grand Wine & Food Affair

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By Teresa Byrne-Dodge
UNTIL three years ago, the month of April came and went in Sugar Land without much fanfare. This small city, located just southwest of Houston in Fort Bend County, was perhaps most remarkable for its unique name, which was planted in the popular culture when Steven Spielberg used it in his first film, 1974’s The Sugarland Express, starring Goldie Hawn and Ben Johnson.

Its name, in fact, comes from the city’s history as a sugar-cane plantation and longtime home of Imperial Sugar. Since the 1960s, Sugar Land’s suburban lifestyle—comfortably separate from that of gritty Houston—has engendered rapid population growth, good schools and medical care, and miles and miles of golf fairways. (Are you surprised to know the city was named #3 by Money magazine in 2006 as one of the country’s top 100 places to live?) The good life would be enough for most bedroom communities.

Then, in 2003, someone got a big idea: Let’s have a food festival.

With a huge dose of can-do spirit, a group of industrious Sugar Land-ers began to plan a tasty production that would one day rival the famous food-and-wine festivals of Aspen, Miami, and New Orleans, among others. They would modestly call it The Grand Wine & Food Affair.

“When I began the research, we found that many major cities have a multi-day wine event,” recalls Keri Schmidt, who was hired as director of The Grand Wine & Food Affair. “We began by attending the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta. Since then, we have attended numerous festivals around the country, and we learn something new all the time.”

One of the organizers’ first goals was to find a presenting sponsor for the festival. Houston’s Central Market quickly stepped forward to claim the prize, and the event was launched with appropriate fanfare in April 2004. Unluckily, on its debut weekend, it rained and rained and rained, the way it rains only along the Gulf Coast. The tents were ankle-deep in mud, and traffic was snarled. Despite that, early reviews were good.

Reason: Unlike the Italian Festival or Greek Festival, for example, this is a wine and food festival geared solely for grown-ups. There are no moon-walks or face-painting for the kids, and the beverages are the kind that minors cannot (legally) enjoy. The Grand Wine & Food Affair is about eating and drinking on a sophisticated level, with events that range from intimate black-tie dinners to an informal sip-and-stroll where cowboy boots and sandals are equally welcome. The festival’s second effort in 2005 went off beautifully, and by 2006, several of the seminars and dinners were selling out.

This year’s event is set for April 25-29, with its headquarters again at the Marriott Sugar Land Town Square, and special events sprinkled around the greater Houston area and beyond. The 2007 lineup of food-world celebrities includes Richard Chamberlain of Dallas, owner/chef of Chamberlain’s Steak and Chop House and editor of The Healthy Beef Cookbook; Paula Disbrowe, author of the just-released Cowgirl Cuisine; David Bull, executive chef of the Driskill Hotel in Austin; Randy Evans, executive chef at Brennan’s of Houston and author of The Kitchen Table Cookbook; Kent Rathbun, owner/chef of Jasper’s in Houston and Dallas; John Sheely, chef/owner of Mockingbird Bistro in Houston; François Payard, chef/owner of New York’s Payard Patisserie & Bistro and author of Bite Size; and many, many more.

The festival kicks off with a Wednesday-evening black-tie dinner called One Enchanted Evening, which will feature Pat Kuleto, founder/owner of Napa Valley’s Kuleto Estate Winery. Kuleto, who has also opened more than 170 restaurants around the country (including San Francisco’s famed Fog City Diner, Postrio, and Boulevard restaurants) will talk about his terroir-driven approach to making wine. The dinner, prepared under the direction of chef Matt Maroni, will be held at The Lodge at Bayou Bend in Houston.

Port-lovers will want to attend the Thursday evening port tasting, which will be held in Houston at Brennan’s restaurant. The tasting will be led by Premium Port Wines’ Paul Mugnier, a highly regarded expert on the history of port.

Taking a page, perhaps, from the crazily extravagant Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog, the 2007 festival is introducing a new event, the Ultimate Texas Wine Flight. That would be flight, literally. Up to 30 lucky wine-lovers will be flown by private jets to Flat Creek Estate in the Texas Hill Country, where they will tour the winery, then be served a multi-course dinner in front of the limestone fireplace overlooking the vineyards. On the way home, the winery’s port will be served with handmade chocolates. The cost? Well, you know what they say: If you have to ask…. [Tickets for the Wine Flight are $1,350 per person.]

Another spotlighted event, and far more affordable at $80 a ticket, is Lunch at the Waldorf-Astoria with John Doherty, executive chef at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City and author of the recently published Waldorf-Astoria Cookbook. Doherty, who has cooked for more presidents, celebrities, billionaires, rock stars, and world leaders than anyone else on Earth, will sign copies of his cookbook in addition to preparing recipes from the book.

Doherty, in fact, was at the 2004 festival, so this is a return appearance for him. “Initially, I wasn’t too sure about such a ‘young’ festival, but the organizers were very welcoming and the event itself was well produced,” he says. “I was surprised at the full representation of the wineries [nearly 100 wineries will be on hand at the 2007 event], and everywhere I went that weekend I overheard or was pulled into conversations about food and wine. This is definitely a festival for food-and-wine professionals, as well as passionate foodies.”

Besides providing a weekend getaway for food-lovers, the festival also supports an endowment for students attending the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston.

April is no longer a quiet month in Sugar Land, thanks to this event. With the rattle of pots and pans, chefs’ appearances, hundreds of tasting stations, and the pop-pop-pop of Champagne corks, it might be dubbed The Sugar Land Excess.

Read 18190 times Last modified on Friday, 13 July 2012 13:06

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