The National Harbor 2012 wine and Food Festival was a great event and a regular feature of the harbor that, if you somehow missed out on this past weekend, we encourage you to attend next year. From the fantastic venue to the samples provided by the enormous list of vendors, the two day event highlighted local businesses, wineries, and restaurants, while playing perfectly with national brands and personalities. Organized by Trigger Agency, in coordination with the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, the five course dinner with wine pairing that included the best the festival had to offer created an event that ranks as one of the best festivals offered in the DMV area.
While “food” may have found a place on the title of the festival, assortments of alcohol were by far the main focus of the event, featuring over 150 different wines, beers, and spirits to sample from. Maryland’s stingy pouring law aside, there was plenty to enjoy by the harbor. One of our favorites was Knob Hall’s Jealous Mistress, a red blend made from 80% Chambourcin and 20% Merlot. With a strong black cherry flavor and a hint of prune, it had plenty of body, lively tannins, a long finish. Another stand out was Villa Maria Estate’s Sauvignon Blanc, a New Zealand wine that had rich passionfruit and tropical fruit overtones, but was balanced out by the natural mineral undertones. It had a clean, crisp flavor with nice citrus aftertaste.
Although wine had a lot of focus in the event, other forms of alcohol had their own well deserved focuses. A craft beer tent featured beers from around the area and the country, New Belgium’s spring seasonal, Dig, being one of the best that were available. Although it had a fair share of hops, its body was the usual kind for a spring pale ale, light, amber colored, and notes of citrus. Separate in the VIP section, actual Belgium beers had their own place. Glasses of Stella, Leffe, and Hoegaarden were lined out for attendees to enjoy each brew in their respective glasses. While we enjoyed the experience, we were curious why the Belgium beer garden, unlike last year, was kept separate from the rest of the general festival grounds.
The food portion of the festival included local restaurants, catering services, a few food trucks, and a variety of cheese and spices stands. Kloby’s Smokehouse had stripped a whole hog and served the pulled pork alongside their Carolina BBQ sauce. The pork was extremely succulent and the tangy sauce went pitch perfect with the meat. Another stand out was Old Hickory Steakhouse’s BLT Gazpacho, heirloom tomato soup with cubes of cooked bacon working in perfect harmony. The Gaylord National Hotel’s prized restaurant gave us pause to wonder why we hadn’t seen this approach to such a classic dish before and made us very excited for planned dinner they were hosting later in the evening (more on that later).
Besides the many food and wine venders, the Wine and Food Festival also invited speakers to present, most notably Cooking Light Magazine’s Chef Billy Strynkowski. Using Cinco de Mayo as a theme, Chef Billy prepared a Mexican Vegetarian burrito and Shrimp Ceviche. However, the real prize of his presentation was his candid remarks and best practices for cooking. After opening your olive oil, stick it in the fridge. Try adding crunched pistachios to your guacamole to give it more variety in flavor and body. When you cook with produce, extract the seeds first since they will only water down the flavor of the dish. These kinds of tips helped Chef Billy’s presentation stay with us longer than any buzz we had from the many wines we sampled.
Even as the festival’s official hours came to a close, the experience continued down the road at the Gaylord National hotel’s Old Hickory Steakhouse. Working with festival organizers, they put together a dining experience that brought out the best of what we had sampled and seen during the day. With the assistance of Cooking Light’s Chef Billy and Tortoise Creek Wines, we were treated to a dinner of five courses and wine pairings. From the Oysters with a duet of sauces to the sunchoke veloute, the entire meal lived up to Old Hickory’s reputation as one of the finest restaurants in the National Harbor area.
Our personal favorite of the meal was the Lamb Porterhouse with Cauliflower and a Lamb-Beet Jus and paired with Tortoise Creek Wine’s 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, “Cherokee Lane”. We’ve had lamb many times before, but this is the first time we’ve seen it presented as such a large piece of meat. It was a great cut of lamb, perfectly cooked and incredibly tender, but the real stars of the dish were the accompanying sauces. The lamb-beet jus both complimented and enhanced the lamb of the flavor, adding a slight sweetness to the savory flavor of the meat. The puréed cauliflower sauce was unlike anything we had seen done before with the veg and brought a whole new character to the meat, even though it was best simply with the other vegetables. Not to be outdone, Mel Master, owner of Tortoise Creek Wines, boasted that the paired Cabernet was his “pride and joy”, explaining that it came from coming from Lodi, the only area in California to have an actual certification for sustainable farming. We have to admit that while the wine was good on its own, it really came through when paired with the flavor of the lamb.
We had been to National Harbor for the 2011 Wine and Food Festival and found it so enjoyable that we had to come again. With Groupon offering deals on two-day passes and the early bird specials, there is little reason not to take advantage of this event next time around. The venue of the harbor cannot be beaten and we have always been able to find new favorite wines to order again. This year’s incarnation was no different, only made sweeter by our experience at Old Hickory Steakhouse’s success in bringing together the best elements of the festival into one meal. Whether you stay at the Gaylord or not, Old Hickory Steakhouse may not be your cheapest option for a meal in the area, but you can be sure it’s your best. For those who may not have a lot of time or PTO to spend on lengthy trips outside of the DMV area, the National Harbor is the perfect place to get away from the beltway and rush of the city without having to go too far or sacrifice a boat load of money. This combination of great food and excellent wine makes it even harder to say no.