IT WASN’T THAT LONG AGO that the only people allowed to attend comparative tastings of wine and beer were trade insiders and journalists. These cloistered enclaves of professional tastemakers still exist, but nowadays opportunities abound for the engaged amateur or the merely curious to test their palates against as many merlots, malbecs, Pilseners, and pale ales as they can soberly manage. Festivals, fairs, and expos with wine or beer themes — some merely daylong, others stretching over a week — are now annual fixtures all over New England.
While these regional raves go on year-round, they really come into their own as the weather warms and tourism heats up. Events may revolve around special wine- or beer-themed dinners at local restaurants, or they might focus on a single big tasting event. Either way, they offer one of the few opportunities for consumers to interact directly with the folks who make the beer, wine, and food they admire. Admission to specific venues is typically limited, so it’s a good idea to purchase tickets well in advance, especially if you come upon something that looks like your cup of chardonnay — or maybe cask-conditioned ale.
Nantucket Wine Festival
May 18-22 / Nantucket
New England’s premier wine event, and the only one with a solid international reputation, offers tastings, seminars, and dinners at a variety of island venues — including posh private residences — with top chefs and winemakers from around the world at the five-day event. Prices range from around $50 per person for the Breakfast on the Harbor events to $225 for the Ruinart Champagne brunch to $2,975 to score a seat for the first-growth Bordeaux dinner. Men sporting faded-red trousers and Sperry Topsiders are admitted for half price (just kidding). nantucketwinefestival.com
June 6-11 / Kennebunkport, Maine
Now in its 12th year, what started quietly as a food- and wine-themed party in this charm-to-burn coastal village has morphed into a six-day celebration of Maine’s food, drinks, and arts communities with 38 events centered on small-scale dinner parties hosted at local restaurants and private residences in Kennebunkport and neighboring Kennebunk. Guests enjoy a meal featuring local ingredients prepared by a regional chef amid an exhibition of work from an attending artist. Prices range from about $175 to about $250 per person. The festival closes on Saturday with Brews & Tunes on the Village Green (entry fee $15) and an evening gala wrap-up where an open bar, buffet, and live music are included in your $150 entry fee. kennebunkportfestival.com
Burlington Wine & Food Festival
June 12-18 / Burlington, Vermont
Not to be confused with the Burlington Beer Festival — a rite of winter in this university town above Lake Champlain — the city’s signature summertime frolic is a wine-centric affair. The seven-day festival comprises three seminars and five winemaker dinners at local restaurants. Two Vermont wineries, Shelburne Vineyard and East Shore Vineyards will be represented at the Grand Tastings. Among others, three are from California and one from Italy. But perhaps you’ll get to sip something local at the two grand tasting sessions set for Saturday (afternoon and evening) at the city’s expansive and beautiful Waterfront Park. burlingtonwineandfoodfestival.com
Vermont Brewers Festival
July 15-16 / Burlington, Vermont
Just one month from its wine party, Waterfront Park shifts gears to welcome members of the area’s lively craft beer community and others from around the country and Canada. The admission price of $35 (plus a $2 service fee) gets you into one of four sudsy tasting sessions (two each on Friday and Saturday) and provides you with 15 tickets, each redeemable for a 3-ounce pour from the scores of visiting (mostly Vermont-based) breweries. Seminars in beer and cheese pairing are offered, too. Warning: This is a wildly popular event, and although you can sign up for pre-registration (which gives you a chance to buy “pre-sale” tickets as early as May 1) regular ticketing does not begin until May 16 and can sell out in as little as 10 minutes. Best to have your fingers poised over the keyboard as the clock strikes midnight. vtbrewfest.com
Stowe Wine and Food Classic
August 26-28 / Stowe, Vermont
This three-day event is a production of Stowe Charities, whose beneficiaries include the local Copley Hospital and Camp Ta-Kum-Ta, a Vermont based camp for children with cancer. Hosted this year at the Lodge at Stowe Mountain Resort, the classic kicks off Friday with a night of blues, beer, and food truck cuisine ($20), but the big events are the five-course wine-pairing dinner and charity ball ($180) on Saturday night and the grand tasting on Sunday afternoon ($60). While the scheduling of events is not quite complete, the festival’s successful 17-year history speaks for itself. stowewine.com
Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival
September 22-25 / Newport, Rhode Island
When it comes to providing spectacular venues for eating and drinking at airy heights of elegance, the mansions at Newport aren’t easily bested. That’s where, for 11 years, the Preservation Society of Newport County has been staging one of the top wine and food events of its kind in the United States. Two grand tastings at the Marble House anchor the four-day event (starting at $160 per person), but you can also sign up for a Bordeaux dinner ($1,000 per person), a gala at Rosecliff, and a dinner with visiting winemakers ($300 per person). There’s no guarantee you’ll rub shoulders with a robber baron here — but you never know. newportmansionswineandfood.org
FOOD TRUCK AND CRAFT BEER FESTIVAL CIRCUIT
At the other, more affordable end of the spectrum, Food Truck Festivals of America is hosting five events in New England between June and September. In the typical format, $5 to $10 gets you into the event and access to the trucks. At events where craft beers are poured, $18.50 buys access to the trucks and includes either three 12-ounce brew tastes or a 2-ounce taste from any of the beers on tap (but only from 3-7 p.m.). Tickets are available online via Eventbrite, foodtruckfestivalsofamerica.com, or at the venue.
> Worcester Food Truck & Craft Beer Festival
Elm Park in Worcester
June 4, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
20+ food trucks, 50+ craft beers
> Providence Food Truck & Craft Beer Festival
India Point Park in Providence
August 6, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
25 food trucks, 50 craft beers
> Cape Cod Food Truck Festival
Cape Cod Fairgrounds in Falmouth
August 20, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
25 food trucks, 50+ craft beers
> Vegetarian/Vegan Food Truck & Craft Beer Festival
The Arsenal on the Charles in Watertown
September 10, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
20 food trucks, 50 craft beers
> Quincy Food Truck & Craft Beer Festival
Pageant Field at Merrymount Park in Quincy
September 17, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
25 food trucks, 25 craft beers
Stephen Meuse talks wine on NPR’s “America’s Test Kitchen Radio” with host Christopher Kimball and blogs at thewineidea.com.
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