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Rate and Review
Epcot's 2008 International
Food & Wine Festival
The Food and "Whine" Festival
Debra Martin Koma
AllEars® Senior Editor
article first appeared in the
October 14, 2008, issue #473, of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
Let me start by saying that I love Epcot's Food and Wine Festival. Love it. Anyone who knows me knows that it's my favorite annual event at Walt Disney World.
This is probably why I feel a little bit let down by this year's festival, the 13th annual event, which bears the theme "Cities in Wonderland." Far from being the usual culinary "wonderland" that I and many other Disney regulars have come to expect, this year's festival seems a little dull and uninteresting, not to mention seriously curtailed. In fact, we've had several comments from our readers about our lack of coverage of this year's event... I would argue that our lack of coverage is in direct proportion to Disney's lack of creativity in this year's programming.
Take for example the first weekend of the festival, with the highly touted Bocuse D'Or competition. It may have been a coup for Disney to have the opportunity to host this prestigious culinary competition, but to the average Food and Wine Festival attendee it wasn't such a fabulous deal. Yes, you could see some of the competition if you were in Epcot that Friday and Saturday -- the chefs were preparing their dishes in plain view of park visitors. But sadly, I did not have $450 stowed somewhere in the house to pay for admission to the high-profile gala dinner that concluded the competition, as much as I would have liked to attend. I did not even have $325, which was what the admission price was eventually dropped to for those already holding theme park admission tickets. (Disney does not comp AllEars® for any of these Food & Wine events, by the way -- we pay our own way, and $325 was just a tad out of our price range, especially given the cost of other events we wanted to attend.)
Because of the Bocuse D'Or gala dinner, the first Saturday of this year's festival featured no Party for the Senses, the premier tasting event held in the spacious World Showplace. Also that kick-off weekend there were no Vertical Wine Tastings, no French Regional Lunches, no Wine Schools, no Signature Dining Experiences. Nor was there a Friday evening City Taste, one of the only new offerings on this year's list of events. The only other events that opening weekend were programs I'd already attended in past years, like the Sweet Sundays and Food and Wine Pairings, and I know from experience that the format of these programs does not vary much from year to year. And while I understand that not everyone attends the festival every year as I'm lucky enough to do, the truth is that for a veteran there was not really anything new and exciting enough to entice me to drop everything to be there on opening day.
For that reason, I didn't fly down to Florida until the festival's second weekend.
don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying the Festival was lousy this year.
It wasn't, and, as always, I managed to find a lot to enjoy. I almost
feel a little guilty whining about something that I still think is basically
a great event. But please indulge me if I am a little critical of my beloved
Food and Wine Fest -- in my opinion, it has so much unfulfilled potential.
THE FESTIVAL CENTER
I start this, my seventh annual Food and Wine Festival review, at what has become the hub of the event's festivities -- the Festival Center (the former Wonders of Life Pavilion in Future World). Far from being IN the center, or a true "hub," the Festival Center is quite a hike from World Showcase and other Food and Wine Festival events. If you don't want to spend a lot of time schlepping back and forth from this location, really study the festival program and carefully plan which events you want to see daily. Otherwise you might find yourself running from the food booths in World Showcase, back down to the Festival Center, then over to the other side of Future World to Soarin' then back to the Center, then... well, you get the idea.
This year, nearly all of the festival's complimentary food and wine demonstrations take place in the Center, as do the majority of the ticketed programs. I suppose if you don't plan to spend any time seeing other parts of Epcot you could spend your entire day right there. In talking with other annual festival-goers, I understand that the relocation to this pavilion is largely due to complaints in previous years from people who objected to waiting outside of the Odyssey, which formerly hosted most of the festival's events, in the Florida heat and humidity. To be honest, I wasn't thrilled with waiting outside either, but I found the presentations in the Odyssey to be very well done, with an intimate, rather special ambience. Not so in the Festival Center. Because you are separated from other presentations taking place by simple partitions, or simply a row of tall plants, you can hear everything else going on in the cavernous pavilion -- the rumble of a cart of dishes being wheeled to a back room, the murmur of the crowds milling about waiting for the next event, the voice of the speaker in the presentation going on next door. Very distracting, especially if you're seated in the back of the area, trying to concentrate on what your presenter is saying. In addition, the configuration of some of the spaces used for the presentations lead to very cramped situations, with the majority of the tables quite a distance from the presenters, making it rather difficult to see. While this might not make a difference to you if you're attending a free session, it's a little more problematic when you've paid $75 and up for the experience.
That said, the presenters and the presentations themselves do seem to be first-rate for the most part. I attended a Kitchen Conversations featuring Chef Tory McPhail, executive chef for the famed New Orleans restaurant Commander's Palace, that was both informative and entertaining -- plus the duck entree we were served was outstanding. (See http://allears.net/tp/ep/fw08/fw08_kc.htm) I also was able to attend a well-run complimentary wine tasting presented by Clint Wilsey of Silverado Vineyards, which gave attendees the opportunity to sample four different wines (two chardonnay, two cabernet sauvignon) and hear the director of sales share his views on his Napa Valley winery's products. I wasn't even able to get close to a complimentary cooking demonstration given by Rock Harper, a participant in the reality television series "Hell's Kitchen," but it seemed to be a crowd-pleaser, and the presentation by Australian chef Nickey Riemer also seemed to satisfy those who attended.
What this means, though, is that these complimentary presentations are more popular than ever. Hopefuls line up an hour, and more, beforehand. I thought 45 minutes was plenty early for the Silverado wine demo, but as it turns out I got one of the last three tickets! Just made it. So, if there's someone or something you simply MUST see, plan accordingly. And remember, the earlier you get in line, the better seat you will have -- and that seems to also apply for the paid events. The festival program lists all the offerings, but you'll have to wander around the pavilion to find exactly which location your presentation will be held at -- the relevant events are posted on a column near the location's entrance. You'll probably want to scope that out early in the day or even the day before, just so you don't waste precious time (and stamina!) wandering aimlessly.
Besides the cooking demonstrations and wine tastings, other activities in the Center this year include bottle and book signings. There's also a wine bar, and, of course, shops selling merchandise with the Food & Wine Festival logo (t-shirts, aprons, tote bags, etc.), as well as books by many of the chefs featured during the festival. There's also the Mad Hatter's Wine Cellar, which has a fantastic variety of wines from around the world, including many produced by wineries spotlighted throughout the festival.
Moving out of the Festival Center, you'll not want to miss one of the main highlights of the Festival -- the International Marketplaces positioned around World Showcase. These food booths -- 27 this year -- offer up cuisines and beverages from regions all over the world, both near (like Louisiana, this year's featured state) and far (New Zealand and India, for example).
After taking several laps around World Showcase's one-plus mile circumference, and sampling more than a healthy share of the foodstuffs, I have to say that it seemed like the overall food quality was slightly improved this year. Additionally, prices hadn't increased much, and portion size seemed to have stayed fairly consistent -- I didn't feel cheated at all. I just wish, though, that the booths would take a little risk and offer up some more exotic foods. (I think I've made this complaint before?) At the Italian booth, for example, we might expect to find pizza -- but couldn't the second food choice be something a little less predictable? Instead of baked ziti (yawn), could we maybe have something like polenta or risotto? In Greece, what about something other than the Spanakopita again. Moussaka? Pastitsio? Just a thought.
Having said that, though, the Lousiana booth does offer up a nice change of pace. Over the course of the festival, you'll have the chance to explore seven different regions of the state, a different region each week. In addition to complimentary culinary demos, there's live entertainment at this spot daily -- from Zydeco music to Cajun street dancing. There's a definite Mardi Gras feel to the whole section. At the cooking demo I attended given by Chef Louie Finnan, he prepared shrimp creole while talking without missing a beat, not only of his own background, but of Lousiana's colorful culinary history. Unfortunately, though the tempting aroma of the dish he prepared was divine, he was unable to pass samples around -- something about a fear of allergies. Well, I probably didn't need the extra calories anyway, but the waste of perfectly good shrimp bothered me.
A good way to journey around the International Marketplaces without overeating is to go with a friend, so you can share the tastes, and not fill up too fast. Unfortunately, the friend I went with had already made the rounds -- so I was on my own. Never mind, I managed! Samples that stood out for me this year: Louisiana's crawfish etouffee (don't forget to pick up one of the cute tiny bottles of Tabasco!) and praline bread pudding with bourbon sauce; Munich, Germany's Spaetzel with Creamy Mushroom Ragout; and the Roasted Beet Salad with Goat Cheese in San Francisco. Misses? Yep, there were a few: the Beef and Corn Pie in Buenos Aires was dried out and flavorless, the Guava Roll in Mexico was simply a very cold and dry jelly roll, while Vienna's Beef Goulash with a Bacon Dumpling was missing one very important thing -- beef! Nary a shred to be found in my portion.
New York State Wine Adventure was a good concept, an offshoot of last
year's American Wine Adventure, I suppose. But this year's version wasn't
very adventurous, if you ask me. The booth offers only four different
New York State wines -- three of them white. The Pearville Fair makes
a return appearance this year -- situated over by the American Adventure
pavilion, this special exhibit offers a Kitchen, in which cooking demonstrations
are presented several times a day, as well as crafts and several hands-on
activities for the kids. Other returning festival features include the
popular Australian "Wine Walkabout," which allows you to sample
four wines for $8 (up from $7 last year), and the History of Beer in America,
with daily seminars on the "art and science of brewing." What?
No Twining's Tea Tastings? Too bad -- maybe they'll be back next year.
Also returning for limited runs are the Taste of Puglia, Italy, (October
23-November 2) and the Greek Island Wine Bar (October 16-26).
Whereas last year I felt that the Festival had really spread beyond Epcot's borders, this year it's definitely been reined back in. Aside from a few special "Signature Dinners" at Victoria and Albert's and bluezoo, all the events take place in Epcot, with most, as I said before, in the Festival Center. Nothing at all is being held in the Odyssey, the former counter service spot that sits between Mexico and Future World. And in my opinion that's a shame. As I said earlier, there was a specialness to the events held in this out of the way location -- an almost elegant, exclusive feeling that was well-deserved, considering the high price tag some of the paid dining experiences carry.
rest of the festival is basically the same as it's been the last few years.
There are Food and Wine Pairings offered at a few restaurants -- but only
Marrakesh, Tutto Italia and Tokyo Dining. There are no pairings at Le
Cellier or Coral Reef this year, but the pairing at Bistro de Paris has
been expanded into a full Regional Lunch, a marked improvement. (Look
for my review coming in the next few days on AllEars.Net.) As always,
there are daily Eat to the Beat concerts in the America Gardens Theater,
with old musical favorites. In coming weeks, you'll see Expose, Kool and
the Gang, and, one I'm very excited about -- David Cassidy! And, after
taking the first festival weekend off, the weekly Party for the Senses
tastings have resumed on Saturdays in the World Showplace. This year I
hear they are not featuring performers from "La Nouba," though,
but rather from a troupe called "Metropolis" -- I won't see
that first-hand until I return for my next Food and Wine Festival visit
in a few weeks.
Yes, I'm going again, with my family. Because in spite of all this "whining" I do still very much enjoy "Food and Wining" at Epcot. If you go, I hope you will enjoy yourselves, too. Let me know what you think!
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Cities in Wonderland, Epcot's 13th Annual International Food and Wine Festival, runs daily through November 9, 2008. Entrance to the Festival is included with your park admission, but there are several special events that are an additional (and often hefty) charge. Many events are sold out, but some openings remain, particularly for the Party for the Senses. To make reservations, contact 407-WDW-FEST. And if you're thinking ahead to next year, the dates have already been announced: September 25 - November 8, 2009. Remember that reservations for many of the ticketed events go fast -- be sure to watch AllEars.net and the AllEars® newsletter for an announcement, probably sometime in July, concerning reservations for the 2009 Festival.
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Food and Wine General Info: http://allears.net/tp/ep/foodwine.htm
Photo Gallery: http://allears.net/tp/ep/fw08/fw08_photo.htm
Other articles by Debra Martin Koma: http://allears.net/btp/dkoma.htm