The 5th annual Newport Beach Wine & Food Festival may have just found itself among Southern California’s elite culinary events. It wasn’t just about four days of gourmet food and drink that took you across Newport Beach’s coastal paradise. The weekend was dedicated to much more than the palate, with everything from liquid nitrogen to homemade flamethrowers [thank you Richard Blais] turning this festival into an entertainment spectacular for all in attendance.
Two days of grand tastings highlighted the weekend, with a near-full overnight transition of food and drink purveyors. With a few years under their belt now, festival organizers made a smooth event even better, with a flow that kept the crowd happy and festive without feeling overcrowded. And they’ve somehow mustered the ability to bring even more world-class talent to the stage, with celebrity chefs like Michael Mina and Jet Tila joining vets Hubert Keller, Katsuji Tanabe, Amar Santana and others in an all-new and even more intimate cooking demo setup.
Chefs Tanabe and Santana, when they’re not killing it in SoCal, expanding nationally or tearing up Top Chef, make for a part cooking demo/part comedy act duo, lighting up the stage with ridiculous banter and jaw-dropping knife skills. Expect to see them roaming the venue throughout the weekend, shouting hilarities through a megaphone to add a perfect zest to each day. Then throw in Richard Blais, who, in all his eccentricity, busts out a homemade flamethrower to char a fish, then adds boiling water to liquid nitrogen for a truly explosive grand finale. Sure, these may not necessarily be lessons you’ll try at home, but the Newport Beach Wine & Food Festival has nailed it in capturing chefs in their element for a truly theatrical experience.
With great chefs comes great food, and the festival’s tastes did not disappoint. Top dining destinations from across Orange County, as well as a few spots coming in from LA and San Diego, set up shop and left everything [or nothing, as a good festival goes] on the table. Sushi Roku’s baked crab hand rolls, Aveo Table + Bar’s pork belly donuts and Old Vine Café’s curry shrimp were but a few crowd favorites. LSXO’s Vietnamese short rib, Catalina Island Company’s grilled octopus and Marche Moderne’s enormous seared diver scallops also earned repeat visits. Foie gras mousse-filled cream puffs, heavenly garlic soup, and just about every cut of sashimi you could ask for made stomach capacity the weekend’s limiting factor.
Dessert was in a league of its own here as well. The Dirty Cookie’s cookie cup milk shots and the illustrious Salt & Straw’s decadent ice cream took the cake, though there was plenty of cake served throughout each day as well. Miss Mini’s Butterfinger, Oreo and cookie dough donuts were so elegantly displayed that you almost didn’t want to touch them [but of course you gave in]. Giant macarons and peanut butter blondies completed the sugar rush.
Wine does come first in the title, after all, and a strong lineup made its presence known throughout the weekend, with 90+ point pours for days. Guest enjoyed endless sips of DeLoach Vineyards, Chateau Montelena Winery, Haute Couture French Bubbles, S.R. Tonella Cellars and Juggernaut Wines among others. Additional libation purveyors included Stella Artois, Duke Bourbon Whiskey, Hangar 1 Vodka and TatraTea, a tea liqueur that’s all the rage in Eastern Europe and includes a 144-proof bottle in its lineup.
The Newport Beach Wine & Food Festival’s grand tastings took place once again at the city’s beautiful civic center, just a few minutes from the coast. The weekend brought in an always-classy but never shy crowd, which of course became more and more entertaining as wine poured throughout each day. Live music and upbeat emcees carried the festivities even further, and you couldn’t have asked for better weather.
2018 set a high bar, though 2019 is sure to take things to an even greater level. For more information, visit NewportWineAndFood.com.
The San Diego Spirits Festival saw another successful year in the Port Pavilion on the San Diego Harbor. An intimate event in comparison to your typical festival, the San Diego Spirits Festival kept a strong focus on its namesake, bringing together an assortment of vodkas, tequilas, whiskeys and other libations.
Big brands such as Ketel One and Don Julio came out to show off some of their newest flavors, with Ketel One’s grapefruit & rose making a strong impression. Tito’s vodka and Reed’s ginger brew teamed up to make ‘the American mule,’ and Lillet made a signature wine cocktail as well.
The festival was dominated, however, by smaller, emerging brands that brought the same panache to the table. Caramba tequila got the party going with a number of extravagant margaritas. American soju surprised everyone by distancing its branding away from the drink’s Korean roots, and making a [rather tasty] soju-based margarita.
44 North Vodka, an under-the-radar brand that secretly supplies the key ingredient to electric lemonades at Las Vegas pool parties and popular restaurants [Hash House a Go Go being one of them] showcased an excellent cocktail selection. Big Gin served alongside, with a number of namesake drinks. One of the absolute highlights, however, was Mule 2.0, which absolutely elevated pre-mixed cocktails by delivering a great product right out of the can.
With the historic Midway on one side, the downtown skyline on the other and perfect sunshine all the way through, this annual event couldn’t have asked for better conditions. The San Diego Spirits Festival took place over two days, and also included live entertainment [samba dancers and a snake charmer in tow!], a spirit competition and a bottle competition. While limited food is available for purchase at the festival, guests are strongly encouraged to eat prior to the event. SanDiegoSpiritsFestival.com
The 15th annual California Wine Festival saw an array of wineries, breweries and food purveyors gathered amidst a classic summer day in sunny Santa Barbara. Taking place in downtown Santa Barbara, literally steps from the beach, the festival attracted a fun-loving crowd that perused from tent to tent, different tastes in tow every step of the way.
Many familiar labels and storefronts from years past returned for repeat performances, accompanied by a few new faces. And as the festival’s name reveals, wines were the star of the show, with free-flowing red, white, rose, champagne and sangria. Wineries included 3 Steves, Miner Family Winery, Ferguson Crest, One Madrone, McGrail Vineyards, Rutherford Wine Company, Wood Family Vineyards and Vinemark Cellars among many others.
Beer lovers found themselves right at home as well, with breweries gaining a stronger presence year after year. Everything from Mexican lagers and red ales to hoppy IPA’s and avocado ginger compilations made for an intriguing and palate-pleasing addition to the wine scene. Featured brewers included Unibroue, Santa Barbara Brewing Company, Karl Strauss Brewing Company, Island Brewing Company, The Brewhouse in Santa Barbara, Firestone Walker and M. Special.
While food isn’t a namesake feature of the festival, a scattering of culinary vendors kept libations in check. Enterprise Fish Co., Hippy Pop Popcorn, Oat Bakery, Hoppy Fused Food, and Santa Barbara Woodfire Catering represented some of Santa Barbara’s local food scene, joined by larger brands such as Kerrygold and Gelson’s.
Be on the lookout for the next California Wine Festival, with events taking place across Southern California year-round. Visit CaliforniaWineFestival.com for more info.
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.