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Food & Wine Festival
and Food in Balance Workshop
sponsored by Beringer Wines
Sunday, October 1, 2006
Beringer Napa Valley Chardonnay
Beringer White Zinfandel
Beringer Napa Valley Pinot Noir 2004
Beringer Napa Vally Cabernet Sauvignon 2001
Debra Martin Koma
Senior Editor, ALL EARS®
As someone who enjoys experimenting with food and wine pairings, I was excited when I read about one of the newest offerings at the 2006 Epcot Food and Wine Festival -- the Wine and Food in Balance Workshop. The 90-minute session was billed as "essential" for those interested in "discovering how to intelligently pair wine with food for everyday living and those special occasions." Yep, that was for me. The programs were to be presented on Sundays during the Festival in the space formerly occupied by Ariel's restaurant, located in the Beach Club resort. Since I had never dined at Ariel's before it closed as a full-service restaurant, I was also eager to see the inside of this establishment.
Sadly, I was disappointed on both counts -- I didn't learn much about pairings nor did I see the interior of Ariel's.
Arriving at the Beach Club on Sunday, October 1 exactly at 2 p.m. for the very first Wine and Food in Balance Workshop, I very nearly ran to Ariel's, which is located around the back of the resort, near the exit to the Stormalong Bay pool area. As I approached the restaurant, I heard loud music and caught a glimpse of lots of people dancing, with a cast member posted outside the entrance. When she saw me running toward her, she asked if I was looking for the workshop, then directed me to Salon V in the Yacht and Beach Club Convention Center.
Do you KNOW where that Convention Center is? Neither did I.
After asking for directions at Bell Services (there were no directional signs posted), I made my way down past the Beach Club bus stop and over toward the Yacht Club, finally finding the Convention Center. I wandered around for several minutes trying to locate Salon V (again, no signs pointing to the Food and Wine Festival event), eventually stumbling upon a small group of people who were clearly waiting for the workshop, too.
The room was nicely set up with long linen-covered tables, with place settings of four glasses of wine, styrofoam Mickey cups, water jugs, and small dishes with apple wedges, lemon wedges, Carr's water biscuits, a few chunks of brie, and packets of salt and hot red pepper flakes. Alongside each place was a full-color brochure entitled "Progressive Food Menu," produced by Beringer Napa Valley.
After waiting several minutes (presumably to allow others to make their way from Ariel's down to the Convention Center), the program finally began at about 2:20 p.m. There were still at least 20 vacant spaces set at the tables behind me when we started.
The presentation was led by Jim Hicks, assisted by Ken Simmons, both of whom work for Beringer Vineyard's parent company, Foster's, maker of Foster's Lager. Perhaps the two are more comfortable talking about beer, because I did not get the impression that they were in their element discussing wine. Hicks, who used the Progressive Food Menu as his reference, began by talking a little about the four wines set before us, which were all from the Napa Valley -- a Chardonnay, White Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon. He then discussed how food and wine pairings have been developed traditionally. For example, many pairings evolve due to regional factors -- in the Burgundy region of France it was natural to pair deep Burgundy wines with beef. Other pairings are what he termed "color-coded" -- white wines with white meats, red wines with red meats. While these pairings work, Hicks said that Beringer had developed a more sophisticated method for coming up with appropriate pairings based on the dominant flavors of a dish that would allow the wine to taste the way the winemakers intended. (These main points were all covered in the brochure, by the way.)
Hicks then instructed us to taste a tiny bit of the apple, followed by a sip of each of the different wines. While we tested, Hicks went on to describe the different tastes a person has. I knew about salty, sweet, bitter, and sour, but the fifth taste, umami, or protein, was news to me. Apparently umami is a savory taste discovered by a Japanese scientist in the early 1900s, but the receptor for the taste was only identified in the last 10 years. Nevertheless, this taste is important when trying to pair foods and wines.
As we continued to nibble at our apple, I expected that one of the presenters would talk about what we were tasting, and how we could learn to pair wines based on what we discovered. What exactly was I looking for? What should I avoid? No such detailed instruction came. We were basically told repeatedly to take a nibble of something, then take a sip, then we moved on. I took my own notes as to what I thought of the different combinations (apple with cabernet? icky), but I had no idea how what I was tasting would help me choose wines for various dishes in the future. Yes, it was interesting to note how a squeeze of lemon or a sprinkle of salt on the apple brought things "into balance," as Hicks said, and changed the way the following sip of wine tasted. But without any further explanation or instruction, I learned nothing of value to me for when I attempt to create my own food and wine pairings at home.
Shortly before 3 p.m., Hicks took a few questions from the attendees, and while his answers to such queries as "What wine would you serve with turkey?" were entertaining ("I hate turkey!" was his response) they did nothing to further educate me on how to pair wine with a particular type of food. I understand about going with what I like, not necessarily following any "rules," but I had been looking for a little more direction than was offered.
At 3:10 p.m., not even an hour after it had started, the workshop concluded. The men from Foster's departed, leaving behind a room full of rather confused, some even disgruntled, wine drinkers. As one woman seated near me put it, "This should have been one of the free seminars."
I'm afraid I have to agree with her.
Hicks implied that since Beringer is the sponsor of this program, subsequent Wine and Food in Balance workshops will follow a similar pattern, although they will return to the original venue, and Hicks himself probably will not be the presenter. While I did learn a few things (I'm definitely more aware of umami now), the all-too-brief presentation, the meager food offerings, and the samples of wine provided were definitely not worth the $45 per person (plus tax) price tag.