I’ve been hearing about the Austin Food & Wine Festival for a number of years (2015 was its 4th year), thanks to Food & Wine Magazine. They do a really good job of tempting me into attending food events. The constant reminders of how many great chefs and exciting food and wine vendors would be there finally won me over this year. We bought tickets for the main event, which is a two-day affair, the day they came on sale. And I’m glad we did, because the saying is correct: Everything’s bigger in Texas.
I mean, it was epic. There were dozens of cooking demos, wine tastings, grilling sessions, and cocktail-making seminars to attend and that doesn’t even take into account the 6 long rows of tasting tables jammed full of wine, liquor, grilled meats, tacos and bags of Fritos pie that we had to eat. Okay, we didn’t have to – but well, yes, we had to!
Before we went, I read a few online reviews of the event and from those we had almost decided not to go. There were accounts of extremely long lines to get into demos, scorching heat with very little water available, dust blowing everywhere, a lack of food in the Grand Tasting, etc. Reviews from years past painted a pretty dismal picture. But I’m glad we decided to give the festival a try anyway, in hopes that the event organizers had learned from the previous years’ mistakes, because whatever happened in 2012 was not representative of 2015. The event was well-organized, there was more than enough food and drink, yes it was hot, but there was plenty of shade, and there were tons of things to do.
We’ve grown accustomed to the one-day food and wine event. We’ve been to Sonoma Wine Country Weekend 5 times in a row. We attend Taste Washington every year. We’ve even been to Feast Portland. All are one-day events lasting about 5 hours, and chockful of more wine and food than you could ever hope to taste in those 5 hours. So with Austin’s festival lasting two days (5 hours on Saturday and 4 hours on Sunday), we felt like we could slow down and enjoy ourselves a little more, since we had the time, and I really appreciated that.
Here’s a tip: Arrive early! The line starts forming around 10am, though the event doesn’t start until 11. By the time we got there a little after 10:30, we had a hard time finding the end of the line as it had snaked around and around the park so many times. It took about 10 minutes for us to be let in and there was still an incredibly long line behind us. Once inside, you can snag a bag with a tasting glass and a program and set out from there.
Hands-On Grilling Demo
One of our favorite activities was the hands-on grilling demonstration put on (and done up) Tim Love-style. If you want to participate in this activity (and you do!), you need to get in the huge line well enough in advance that you’re one of the 300 or so people they let in. I would also suggest going the first day because people haven’t yet caught on to how exciting it is, thus the line is shorter. We were able to get in by just walking up at the end of the line, but I wouldn’t hope to be so lucky next time.
For the grilling demo, they line up hundreds of charcoal BBQs, with cooking stations at each, and give everyone giant steaks to grill as Tim Love doles out bits of grilling advice, mixed with funny (and sometimes offensive) banter, and barks orders at people to take shots of tequila or drink more white wine. At times, he actually forgot we had food cooking on the BBQ. Like the time he climbed up on the rafters to throw corn at the audience. Or that time he called everyone wearing a headband up to the stage and made them do tequila shots.
Did I mention that each cooking station also had a couple bottles of wine and a shot of tequila, plus more food to cook than one person could ever hope to eat? Oh, and don’t forget the full bottle of mayonnaise at each station. In spite of the antics — or because of (I’m not sure which) — we had a fantastic time grilling our 10oz New York Strips, our 10 oz salmon filets and ear of corn, which we dressed up Mexican-style – hence the mayonnaise! But we were incredibly sad to leave behind all that food. The steak was one of the tastiest pieces of meat I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve eaten a lot of steak.
Alas, there were what seemed like a million other food stations that we needed to visit, and we already had a pretty full stomach for day one. There were at least four fire pits set up around the park where chefs were smoking, grilling and showing off their meat.
Famous Chef Cooking Demonstrations
And then there were the cooking demonstrations. The festival brought in no less than 15 well-known chefs that everyone was clambering to see. The schedule included cooking demos by many of them, lasting about 45 minutes in which they cooked a couple dishes. But don’t think you get to taste that food. Jonathan Waxman cited health regulations as the reason, but I know someone ate all that food. And if they didn’t, then all those large, delicious-looking lobsters just went to waste.
We watched parts of the demos by Jonathan Waxman, Antonia Lofaso, Hugh Acheson, Richard Blais and Paul Qui, but it wasn’t our favorite way to spend the time. They weren’t interactive and we didn’t get to try the food – so the 45 minute time commitment was a little steep. We did go to one demo, though, which ended up being more of a “show”. Graham Elliot and Andrew Zimmern faced off in a “Mystery Challenge” that was simply hilarious.
Both chefs were dressed up in full WWF costumes and competed against each other in a mystery box challenge. From the start we could tell this was going to be less about the cooking and more about the crazy antics that ensued. If you’re wondering what I mean, just watch this video for a little glimpse.
Wine & Cocktail Tasting Sessions
Day Two was slightly less crowded, but the lines for the scheduled events were actually longer. Nick attended a session called “Rye Openers” where they were served three rye cocktails with a shot or two on the side. There was around a 15-minute waiting line to get in. Later in the day, when we tried to get in to the “Taste Your Way Through Italy” session, the line formed at least 45 minutes in advance and was too long by the time we joined it. If there’s something you absolutely don’t want to miss, you need to continually monitor the lines that are forming and maybe spend an hour of your precious time waiting.
Instead of waiting in lines, we chose other things like the wine and liquor tastings that were taking place at JW Marriot’s Meet the Maker tent. We tried some great wines from Silver Oak and Twomey Cellars in California, Duckhorn Vineyards in Napa and some Herradura Tequila. The tent was never very crowded and we had a chance to talk directly with the winemakers and producers.
The Grand Tasting Tent
The Grand Tasting area was in the center of the park, surrounded by the demo kitchens. There were about 6 long rows worth of food, wine, cocktails and desserts. And in the very center was a DJ and dance floor. We appreciated the diversity of the samples. The vendors weren’t just from Texas. They were from all over. We found wines from Spain and Italy, and some from California and Washington. The food ranged from smoked meat to light summer salads and gazpacho.
Since this was our first year and we weren’t sure what to expect, we only attended the 2-day grand event, but there are many other events that make up the Austin Food & Wine Festival. There’s the Feast Under the Stars on Thursday, the Taste of Texas on Friday and Rock Your Taco on Saturday. The 2-day pass without extra events was $250. The All-In Pass, which included all of the events, was $500. And you could also buy tickets to the extra events separately. After spending the 9 hours of drinking and eating, I’m not sure the extra events are a good idea – but maybe next year we’ll give one a try and see for ourselves.
In parting, I will leave you with a list of things we learned that might help you out if you’re planning to go next year. 2016’s event is already scheduled for April 22-24. If you’re on the fence about it, I suggest you go. It was probably one of the best and well-organized food & wine events we’ve been to. Definitely worth it!
Tips & Advice for Attending
- It’s likely to be hot outside (it was in the 90s and full sun in 2015). So stay hydrated and reapply sunscreen. They had plenty of bottled water throughout the park.
- They give you a bag when you arrive, so no need to take your own.
- Some events hand out tasting plates with a hole for your glass, but they didn’t here. We were given a plastic wine cup with no stem. Bring your own plate and stemmed glass if you want.
- On Saturday, people start lining up at least an hour early and the line gets long, but it moves fast.
- If you’re waiting in a long line, fill up a plate of food samples and grab an extra pour for the wait. We like to have one of us hold the spot in line while the other goes to grab more food and wine.
- Do the Hands-On Grilling on Saturday. By Sunday, everyone’s caught on to how fun it is and the line is long – you might not make it in!
- Enjoy yourself, but don’t over do it, especially on Saturday because you have to make it back for Sunday. Sip and pour!