drink food wine

Newport Beach Wine and Food Festival: A First Timer’s Tale

“Unless you want me to pour the wine into your hands, you’ll probably need a glass.” 

The man speaking was tall, though not uncommonly so, with light gray hair slicked back in one fell swoop from his forehead. He wore a red polo shirt, khaki pants and while his eyes were kind, he had the distinct air of someone in the know, which he was. And which he rightly should be; any sommelier pouring at the Newport Beach Food and Wine Festival has got to know what’s what.

 “A glass would be better,” I finally replied, sheepishly and under my breath. Geez, get a grip.

“This must be your first time here.”

I nodded. 

“Glasses are up at the front,” he said and before I could mumble a “thanks,” the red-clothed wine connoisseur was off, decanting a sparkling rosé to a woman in a big, straw hat and flowing sundress. (All well-respecting women in straw hats and flowing dresses drink sparkling rosé, I’d suppose.)

Once at the entrance of the festival, I was greeted by two ladies, the same duo who had moments before ushered me inside.

“Something else we can help you with?” They asked in unison.

“I, um, need a glass.”

The women pointed to a table where rows of wine glasses were neatly lined up, encased in canvas-and-rubber holders that made them look as if they were preparing to scale the craggy rocks of Joshua Tree, or else readying to be embraced by a festival attendee’s vino-loving fingertips. Either option might work, I thought, although the second seemed, for these adventurously dressed glasses, a more apt fate.

Back at the festival tents, now armed with my glass-in-harness, I made my way through what can only be described as a paradisiacal world of gourmet delights. Edging the interior perimeter of the tents, stands were expertly set up by restaurants whose names I had written about and dined at—Montage Laguna Beach, A&O Kitchen + Bar, Sushi Roku, Selanne Steak Tavern—and some whose titles escaped me but proved nonetheless culinarily enticing. (I later learned a sprinkling of restaurants and wineries at the festival were newly opened, thus putting a swift end to this brief mystery.)

On wooden platforms, granite countertops or white tablecloths, food was placed at each station with sophisticated finesse. But food? No, this wasn’t just food; this was art.

Among the selections of creative epicuriosities I tasted at the festival: Bourbon-soaked French toast, newly pan-seared and warm; pesto-doused kelp pasta topped with fresh herbs and garden-ripe cherry tomatoes—a surprisingly refreshing, light dish; maple-infused butternut squash soup, at once smooth, sweet and decadent; fois gras s’mores, accented by a chocolate ganache that dribbled lusciously between house-made graham crackers …

It was almost too much and yet, hardly enough. I don’t think I quite understood my stomach’s capacity until this very sunny afternoon in early October, testing the boundaries of my appetite as I bippity-bopped from one restaurant’s culinary magic show to the next, in between cleansing my palette with sips of black-cherryish Pinot Noir, apple-crisp Chardonnay, and dark, full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Life was good in those hours spent rambling the tents, hobnobbing with top chefs who seemed intrigued by even my most absurd questionsBut Chef, what’s the difference between the saffron that’s stringy and the kind you sprinkle on rice? Can a dessert really be considered a dessert if it’s got duck meat inside? Are we allowed to have seconds? (Yep, we most definitely were.)

After hours of eating, drinking and taking it all in, the time finally came to bid the foodie affair adieu. As I left, I made sure to pass by the red-shirt wine pourer from hours ago, glass still lopped around my neck, and when our eyes caught he winked at me ever-so-slightly, perhaps knowing in the way only a sagacious sommelier could, I was a first-time festival-goer no more.

P.S. A few of my photos from the fest …

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Melissa Marni is a Southern California-based writer and the founder/editor-in-chief of little word studio. If you really want, you can follow her on Instagram here.

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