Constructive Criticism for Wine & Dine
A note from the Profussor: For a long time I’ve been looking to open the platform of the FUSSYlittleBLOG to other voices in the community. After all, if there is something about food or the food culture in the Capital Region you want to get off your chest, what better place is there to vent your spleen than on a community of readers who will tolerate several hundred words on the evil of sprinkles?
Recently, Deanna Fox picked up the gauntlet and asked to write the story below. If you don’t know Deanna, she’s awesome. Not only does she now write the Eat This! feature for All Over Albany, but she writes food stories for the Albany Times Union too. Her own blog and the one she’s maintained over at the TU have languished a bit, but she’s active on Twitter and Instagram.
So, I’ll let her say this in her own words, but D. Fox has some strong feelings about the Albany Chefs’ Food & Wine Festival: Wine & Dine for the Arts. And I know she’s not the only one.
By Deanna Fox
For the past two years, I’ve gone to the Albany Chefs’ Wine and Dine for the Arts with various hopes and predictions. Mostly, I was there to look for interesting products and find new story angles. Of course, I was also there to hobnob and try to make a few beneficial connections, as well.
Mostly, those things happened. I wrote a story that was birthed from a conversation with a winemaker at the 2013 Wine and Dine. I did, in fact, make a few beneficial connections and mingle with a few people in the food industry I can at least call good acquaintances.
But I won’t be going to the Wine and Dine this year. Or probably ever again.
The reason is mostly this: How can something claim to be an ALBANY Wine and Dine when so many worthwhile establishments are excluded from participation?
Listen, I get it. These things cost money to produce. That’s why the organizers choose to work with sponsors who can give them a big check to cover expenses while in the planning stages. But how does this exclude local companies? Let me backtrack a little.
The Wine and Dine has been sponsored by Empire Merchants North for several years. Empire distributes some of the most recognizable names in wine and liquor (like Grey Goose, Bacardi, and Beringer). On the Wine and Dine homepage, there is a disclaimer at the bottom that states, “Empire Merchants North is the exclusive Wine & Spirits Sponsor of the Albany Chefs’ Food & Wine Festival. Please Drink Responsibly.” See that little word…. Exclusive? That means unless you are part of Empire’s distribution, you can’t participate in the event. You can’t even think about participating in the event. It’s not happening.
What this means is that Standard Cider Company gets exposure, but local darling Nine Pin Cider doesn’t. Swedish Hill Winery gets to pour samples, but Victory View Vineyard from Schaghticoke, which makes some truly outstanding wine, can’t. Owney’s Rum can be part of the Albany Wine and Dine, but Albany Distilling Company, which sits on some of the most historic real estate in Albany and produces a rum based on a centuries-old Albany recipe, can’t.
DeCrescente, which reps New York craft breweries like Adirondack, Brown’s, Keegan, and Steadfast, handles the beer aspect of the event. That’s a decent assortment of what’s available. It would be nice if places like Rare Form, Green Wolf, or Shmaltz could get a seat at the table, though.
This is how business works, right? The big players with the money come in and push the little guys out, keeping them from publicity and shelf space. But how does this really contribute to an Albany-centric event? It doesn’t. The caveat for the Wine and Dine is that it never claims to be a platform to promote quality local products. The organization’s mission statement is this:
To provide sustainable funding for the support and preservation of the not-for-profit arts community in Albany, NY, through an annual 3-day Food and Wine themed Festival that markets our restaurants, chefs, and their innovative cuisine; educates consumers on healthy, sustainable agriculture; and donates all net income directly to deserving non-profit arts organizations.
Nowhere does it say it’s looking to promote locally-produced beer, wine, spirits, or anything else of that nature, so I guess I can’t shake a finger at taking the money route over the quality or substance route. Still, this event is a powerful platform, and it is a shame that more isn’t done to highlight the local efforts to produce worthwhile foodstuffs through mostly noble efforts.
But let’s go back to that mission statement. It holds within it a few contradictions.
The first is the statement about innovative cuisine. I don’t have the ticketing numbers in front of me, but I’m guessing that the Grand Tastings are the most popular events during the entire three days of the Wine and Dine. Like all the other (trite) dine arounds in the area, local restaurants and some producers come in and sling some two-bite version of a popular dish on their menu or that they offer in catering gigs. Innovative? Far from it. The most exciting thing last year was the fact that Henry St. Tap Room decided to serve ice cream in a push-pop tube. Riveting stuff. I feel bad for the poor kid who had to form all of those suckers.
I had a conversation with a particular chef of note (who in addition to being on TV has written more than one best selling cookbook) about some of the food at last year’s Wine and Dine. He said nothing positive, claiming most of the “ethnic” food was “inauthentic.” And he was brought in to herald the benefits and successes of this event!
Most of the chefs (scratch that: ALL) of the chefs I’ve ever spoken with about the event say the only reason they attend is because they feel they have to. That they feel beholden to go, and that they might be somehow “blacklisted” if they don’t. (Many say that they feel pulled into a system of cronyism, but that’s for another day.) That getting their pictures splashed across myriad PR materials is free-but-not-really-free advertising for them.
If that’s the case, what incentive is there to be innovative? None of them have been able to quantify how participating in the Grand Tasting has translated to customers in the restaurant door. It was hard to get a dinner seat at Tara Kitchen before Aneesa’s appearance at last year’s Wine and Dine. It doesn’t seem any more or less hard now.
Some of the better-executed food samples at the Grand Tasting have come from restaurants associated with large-scale catering groups (like Mazzone). Which makes sense, since this is basically just a big catering showcase (making it feel more like a bridal show than a food festival). I wonder if the average eater who goes to this event really feels like they are getting a deal for their $65 ticket. They’d be better served to take that money and have a nice dinner at a new-to-them restaurant.
All this really does is contribute to the common claim that the Capital Region is filled with dining mediocrity. Innovation is lacking across all events at the Wine and Dine. That says less about the skill or the chefs represented than it does of the stagnating format of the event.
One instance in which this format does work is for value-added producers, like Bake 4 You or DreamPuff Marshmallows. Because the festival-goer is getting to taste an actual product, like a cookie or a confection, that is exactly what they would be purchasing outside of the festival, they are more likely to remember a positive experience and therefore more likely to buy the product after the festival is over. The serving is a true representation of the product being promoted, not a pared-down, hackneyed version put on a plate with little thought or intention besides feeding all the people. It does an incredible disservice to many of the outstanding chefs and restaurants in the area.
Now about that, “educates consumers on healthy, sustainable agriculture,” bit. Show me where that is happening? No really… where? January is prime CSA sign-up time, why not pull a farm group in to offer on-the-spot sign-ups (maybe there is some sort of rule about money exchange, who knows). Why not pair a chef and a farm together for some sort of dining event? I’m not really understanding how the goal to educate consumers on healthy, sustainable agriculture is manifesting at the Wine and Dine. (I’ve heard some rumbling about the Chef’s Consortium maybe being part of the Wine and Dine this year… I’ve yet to confirm that. I’d like to see how these two groups work together). This feels kind of like big food corporate greenwashing.
My final gripe with the Wine and Dine (or, at least the last one I’ll broadcast here) is who it aims to benefit. Why a big food festival for arts? Why not food for food’s sake? This isn’t unique to the Albany Wine and Dine – any food festival that benefits anything other than food feels so unfortunate. I’m a proponent of having arts in a person’s life whenever possible, but people aren’t going to support the arts if they can’t eat. When people can’t sustain themselves, it leads to a whole host of social, political and economic problems. Having an expensive food festival benefit the arts feels like a supreme practice in the exclusivity and elitism that presents itself in several iterations throughout the festival’s scheme.
I understand a festival can’t be all things to all people, but I’m not the only person to speak out about this. Then again, there are some people who sing the festival’s praises to high heaven. I wish I could do the same. Hopefully one day, I can.