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It started, as most good stories do, on a Monday. The day was clear and bright (or so, in my recollection of this memory I’d like to think), and there I was, walking my dog along a particular stretch of pavement by my local Balboa Peninsula supermarket. In my ears, John Mayer’s “Queen of California.” On my mind, not a whole lot. (Just being honest.) And that’s when I saw it. A small poster affixed to a nearby storefront announcing the third-annual Newport Beach Wine & Food Festival was coming to town. This would be, according to the sign, a spectacle of immense epicurean proportions, and immediately I knew I had to be a part of the show.
And I will be. Tomorrow. When I get my chance to sample the event’s fine fare with all the excitement of a guest newly invited to an Ina Garten garden party. But first, here are just a few of the Newport Beach Wine & Food Festival restaurants and wineries I can’t wait to see …

1. Andrea – Executive Chef Marco Criscuolo
Marco Criscuolo, head chef at Andrea, isn’t just a longtime crafter of upscale Italian fare; he’s lived the very meals he creates. A native of Puglia in Southern Italy, the epicurean innovator studied locally at Istituto Alberghiero Cesare Braico then sharpened his knives in famous kitchens around the world before finally settling down at Andrea, the critically acclaimed restaurant right inside Newport Beach’s Pelican Hill Resort. “My cooking style merges tradition, innovation and new cooking techniques, while respecting fresh and local ingredients to create inspired Italian cuisine,” the chef told Newport Beach Magazine last year just before the 2015 festival. Seasonal and local you say? Yep, in.

2. Watertable -Executive Chef Manfred Lassahn
Watertable, the stunning eatery at Huntington Beach’s Hyatt Regency, serves up fresh California cuisine and ridiculous ocean views. A highlight of the Watertable menu is Chef Lassahn’s famous avocado bread, wherein the shortening found in typical loafs is replaced with puréed avocado. And with one bold maneuver, the chef becomes the undeniable hero of avocado toast enthusiasts everywhere. Can this please be at the festival tomorrow? (Asking for a friend.)

3. Selanne Steak Tavern – Executive Chef Josh Severson
Chef Severson has got some serious steakhouse chops (sorry, we had to). Previously, Severson was chef de cuisine at the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort & Spa in Dana Point, CA (working under Chef Frédéric Castan) and before that, masterminded filet mignons and porterhouses at James Beard-winner Tom Colicchio’s CraftSteak in Las Vegas. These days, you’ll find him beachside at Selanne Steak Tavern focusing on simple cuts perfectly executed and prepared. Crossing my finger’s he’ll have some tartare like the Wagyu beaf version served at his restaurant, which comes with crunchy fingerling potatoes and wild rocket topped by a quail egg.

4. Montage Laguna Beach – Executive Chef Lee Smith
The first time I sat at the balcony of the Montage I had to blink a whole lot because honestly, I couldn’t believe the view was real. (Oh but it was and it still very much is.) Stylish pool surrounded my manicured lawns and beyond, the glittering ocean, this Laguna Beach spot is hardly a restaurant; it’s an unforgettable memory in the making. Adding to its geographical intoxication? The food, which is even sweeter thanks to confectionary veteran Lee Smith, who leads an all-star team of bakers, chocolatiers and pastry chefs at the Montage Laguna Beach. Last year, Smith told Newport Beach Magazine his favorite dessert was, “salted caramel ice cream,” and I can only hope that 1. This is still true and 2. He channels his own predilections for the festival tomorrow because when it comes to dessert, salted caramel always wins.

5. Twenty Eight – Executive Chef Shirley Chung
Two words, one eatery: Top Chef. I’m sorry but anyone who can compete on Bravo’s grueling, pressure-packed culinary showdown is a winner in my book. And Chef Chung made it to the Season 11 finals. Now, she’s California cool, mixing up eclectic, global flavors in a way that transforms them into something wholly new. (I see you crispy lobster wontons with spicy apricot jam, summer beach and basil blossom.)
Yum, right? Right. Now let’s talk wine, and specifically five wineries I’m hoping will spare me a pour on Sunday …

1. Gamble Family Vineyards
“Putting one’s name on a bottle of wine does not come lightly,” says Tom Gamble, farmer/owner of Gamble Family Vineyards on the Napa Valley winery’s website. I’m crossing my fingers Gamble has their Old Vine Sirah at the festival, an earthy, rustic creation with notes of mushroom, spicy vanilla and black cherry.

2. Kieu Hoang Winery
Prior to this winery bearing the Kieu Hoang name, the spot was owned by world-class winemaker, Michael Mondavi, so you know the grapes are poppin’. The gently sloping, vine-covered mountainside belonging to Kieu Hoang is located in the Carneros region of Napa Valley, which has an ideal clime for bright, floral and fruity Pinot Noirs.

3. B.R. Cohn
B.R. Cohn credits a favorable locale for its full-flavored creations; the winery enjoys a unique positioning in the valley between Sonoma Mountain and the Mayacamas Mountain Range, as well as a hot spring that burbles beneath the grapes. Oh and bonus: B.R. Cohn also produces olive oils from fruit grown right on their farm so here’s to them bringing samples of the basil-garlic combo to the fest. Hashtag delish.

4. Round Pond Estate
What I love most about Round Pond is that it’s a blend of old and new; winemakers walk the vineyard daily, caring for each and every grape. And though the Round Pond mill is totally techy (as it should be in 2016), all wines are blended and bottled not by cold machines but by the warm hands that made them, which creates what the winery calls “modern classics.” Sigh. That’s beautiful.

5. Duckhorn Wine
Since the late 70s, Duckhorn Wine has been something of a Merlot pioneer. Though people were using the grape at the time, no winery was really making this varietal as a stand-alone wine. Enter Duckhorn, which produced its inaugural Merlot vintage in 1978. “I liked the softness, the seductiveness, the color,” explained co-founder Dan Duckhorn on the winery’s website. “It wasn’t so bold, didn’t need to age so long, and it had this velvety texture to it. It seemed to me to be a wonderful wine to just enjoy. I became enchanted with Merlot.” Soft, seductive, velvety … oh my gosh, can’t wait.

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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