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25 things about wine and food (and the festival they rode in on)

Chefs, wine, winemakers, gadgets and memories to mark the silver anniversary of the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival

Mike Sutter

A program from the first Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival in 1986 is as purple with passion as a bottle of zinfandel.

"If you've seen the misty breath of Axis deer on an early autumn morning in the Hill Country . . . ," the introduction breathlessly begins. It goes on to promise three days of wine tastings, food samples, seminars, a gourmet dinner with guest chefs Stephan Pyles and Dean Fearing and a Sunday wine fair at Fall Creek Vineyards.

The cost for the whole shebang in 1986? $245 per person. In 2010, there's no all-access pass - buying a separate ticket to every one of the four-day festival's 17 events would run $1,145. But you can buy into the silver anniversary for as little as $25 at the Texas 25 event on Thursday night at Whole Foods Market downtown, a rooftop casual precursor of the Stars Across Texas Grand Tasting at the Long Center on Friday for $100.

In the spirit of the festival's 25th year, we look at 25 reasons to celebrate.

Five festival memories

• Susan Auler, co-founder of the festival and co-owner of Fall Creek Vineyards with husband Ed Auler: "Ed and I knew that when we first conceptualized the festival, its success would be dependent on showcasing the best talent in the food and wine world. Since (modern) Southwest cuisine and Texas wine both had their beginning in Texas about the same time, we invited our three-star Texas chefs who were gaining national attention to be our headliners: Robert Del Grande, Dean Fearing and Stephan Pyles."

• Rebecca Robinson, executive director, Wine & Food Foundation of Texas: "One of my favorite things about the Rare & Fine Wine Auction is watching Al Golden. Al has been a volunteer spotter for I don't know how many years, and the first time I saw him, I was transfixed. He is in constant motion and spots like a hawk. He darts around the room in his tuxedo, jumping, whooping and revving up the crowd. It's a ball."

• Larry Peel, co-founder, Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival: "When she was putting together the first festival, Susan Auler said, `Larry, would you please do the wine auction?' So I did, and we held it at the old Doubletree Hotel during the dessert course. I think we raised under $3,500, or something like that. We never imagined that 25 years later it would be raising over $300,000. That Susan Auler - it's hard to say no. She's a persuasive woman."

• David Bull, chef: "One of the fondest memories I have from the festival is the Sunday Fair in (2005). There was a battle between myself and Tyler Florence under a tent with about 200 attendees after a long beautiful day of food and wine. It was basically an iron chef-type set-up, but the twist was our celebrity sous chefs - mine was Texas legend Ray Benson and Tyler's was Mayor Will Wynn. It was a fun battle and very energetic as the crowd was rooting on the 'hometown favorite' vs. the city chef."

• Kitty Crider, former American-Statesman food editor, who has attended some component of almost all the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festivals: "Dozens of chefs arrive annually for the festival, making commercial kitchen space a premium. When New York chef Douglas Rodriguez came to do his signature chocolate cigars for the big dinner, his pastry chef prepped in a downtown brewpub. Afterward, she asked for a ride back to the Four Seasons Hotel with the photographer and me, but we were in a truck. ... She climbed into the truck bed and held her covered trays as we traveled to the dinner."

- Michael Barnes

Five wine people at the festival

• Jonathan Nagy, winemaker for Byron Vineyard & Winery: Being a basketball coach himself, Nagy followed the NCAA men's tournament, watching powerhouse Duke edge out the underdogs from Butler. In the tournament brackets, where would this California winery in the Santa Maria Valley be? "We'd be a little more like Butler. Kind of under-the-radar but comfortable with ourselves," Nagy said. "I was impressed by how they do all the little things right." Butler might be called a cult favorite this year, and Byron has developed its own cult following among pinot noir and chardonnay drinkers. This is Byron's first appearance at this festival. Events: Stars Across Texas Grand Tasting, Palate Cleanser, Sunday Fair.

• Mike Martini, winemaker for Louis M. Martini: This grandson of California cabernet royalty is part of the original 1986 festival. With at best a fledgling Texas wine industry then, what drew him to Austin? "The music," he told me by phone from a cruise ship off the coast of Genoa, Italy, where Martini and a band of fellow winemakers were giving wine lectures in the morning and playing shows at night. "It was a different world then. They were trying to do the carbernets and hadn't really started on tempranillos yet. So it wasn't Hill Country wine then. It wasn't as attractive as Sixth Street." If Louis M. Martini were a record label instead of a winery, what bands would it sign? "I think Carlos Santana would be a really good hit because I really like that really rich, mellow - at the same time spicy - that type of wine." Featured events: Texas Culinary Masters Dinner, Stars Across Texas Grand Tasting, Big Dog Reds, Sunday Fair.

• Karen MacNeil, wine educator and author of "The Wine Bible": Just as she did during the inaugural festival in 1986, MacNeil will conduct a tasting of sparkling wines. "Back then, nobody would have imagined you could have champagne on a Friday night with barbecue. But of course we know today that - for the same reasons that beer is great with a lot of food because it's bubbly and cold - sparkling wine and champagne is great with a lot of food because it's bubbly and cold." Her advice to people discovering wine: "Everybody eats, and everybody feels pretty comfortable with solid flavor. Wine is just merely liquid flavor." Featured events: Toast to Stars, Test Your Tastebuds, Quintessa Reserve Tasting.

• Russell Smith, winemaker for Becker Vineyards: This respected Stonewall winery (its Iconoclast red was the house wine at two recent parties thrown by food-conscious friends of mine) is featured all over this festival. Smith plans to show Becker's flagship Raven blend of malbec and petit verdot at the Big Dog Reds tasting. "It's a really nice little wine. Really rich and dense, great dried fruits and toffee." Some favorites of late? "We bottled our 2008 Prairie Rotie - that's our Rhone blend - and it's tasting really good right now. ... We're making less merlot, and really trying to kick it up a notch. With this 2008 (Reserve Merlot) we just bottled, it's really delicious." Featured events: Becker Vineyards Luncheon, Stars Across Texas Grand Tasting, Texas Wine and Cheese Pairing, Big Dog Reds, Sunday Fair.

• Austin Hope, winemaker for Treana Winery and Hope Family Wines: "I love Texas. It's one of the better food places around, especially Austin," said Hope, who has been bringing his Paso Robles, Calif., wines to the festival for about 10 years. In his downtime from overseeing the family labels - including Treana, Austin Hope, Candor and Liberty School - Hope hunts the occasional duck. So which Hope wines go best with duck? "Treana Red and the Austin Hope grenache," he said. "You've got to cook them over oak. That's the best way to eat wild duck." Featured events: Treana Tasting, Big Dog Reds, Palate Cleanser, Stars Across Texas, Sunday Fair.

- Mike Sutter

Five festival chefs

• John Besh: Think you're busy? John Besh has an empire of a half-dozen restaurants, a new book, "My New Orleans," and he's on the "Today" show like every other day. About the time his book was coming out last fall, he opened Domenica, an Italian trattoria-style place. And his Restaurant August has twice made Gourmet magazine's list of best restaurants. And the James Beard Foundation named him best chef in the Southeast. And Food & Wine named him one of the top 10 best new chefs in the U.S. The guy has so many awards he's probably keeping Public Storage in business single-handedly. Featured events: My New Orleans: A Cooking Class with John Besh, Sunday Fair.

• David Bull: He made the Driskill Grill a destination hotel restaurant, and he hasn't stopped there. The onetime "Iron Chef" contestant is now executive chef at Bolla, the restaurant at the Stoneleigh Hotel and Spa in Dallas. And through a partnership with the hotel's management company, he's also planning to open two new places in the Austonian. Get ready to be a little confused: The more upscale spot will be called Congress, the comparatively casual spot Second at Congress. Once the youngest sous chef ever at the famed Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, Bull has spent his career collecting awards and raising the profile of Austin fine dining. Featured events: Culinary Masters Dinner and Silent Auction, Sunday Fair.

• Bryan Caswell: Want Gulf Coast seafood? Bryan Caswell's Reef in Houston shows it off better than most any other place, but that's just one corner of Caswell's empire. He's also chef-owner of three other spots - two Little Bigs (burgers and wine) and Stella Stola, which endeavors to find the connective tissue between the cuisines of Texas and Tuscany. Like the man said, he's a walking contradiction, partly fact and partly fiction: The kid who grew up hunting and fishing on the coast is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America; the 2009 Best New Chef from Food & Wine also helps with Continental Airlines' in-flight food service. (Insert your own punch line here.) Featured events: Culinary Masters Dinner and Silent Auction, Stars Across Texas Grand Tasting.

• Elmar Prambs: He's been running all things food at the Four Seasons since the year that Halley's Comet last passed close to the Earth, 1986. That's a remarkable run, and what's equally remarkable is Prambs' flair for bold flavors and food presentation. If you've never been, do yourself a favor and check out Trio, consistently among a handful of Austin's best and most innovative restaurants - especially after a reboot and renaming a few years back - and home to one of the great happy-hour deals in town. Featured events: Culinary Masters Dinner and Silent Auction, Stars Across Texas Grand Tasting.

• Kent Rathbun: There's lots of reasons to like Kent Rathbun, not least that he beat Bobby Flay on "Iron Chef America." He was thrice nominated by the James Beard Foundation as best chef in the Southwest; we also like him for Texas-centric Jasper's "Gourmet Backyard Cuisine," or highfalutin comfort food. He's also the man behind Abacus and Rathbun's Blue Plate Kitchen and is a prominent presence on the national food scene. Featured events: Culinary Masters Dinner and Silent Auction, Stars Across Texas Grand Tasting.

- Patrick Beach

Five wines at the festival

• Joseph Carr wines: "Especially for Whole Foods Market, they're excellent value wines. We do really well with the Napa Valley cabernet and the chardonnay. They're very good examples, stylistically, of what they're supposed to represent." - Devon Broglie, a sommelier and Whole Foods Market specialty coordinator for the Southwest region.

• McPherson Cellars Sangiovese (Texas): "The thing that impressed me so much was how fresh it was and how much the winemaker let the classic characteristics of that grape variety shine through. It had the acidity and that type of classic sangiovese plum fruit that make that wine so food-friendly, such a great steak wine. With McPherson, they planted an Italian variety, but they're not trying to turn it into a Californian wine." - Jeremy Parzen, Austin-based wine industry marketing consultant.

• Murphy-Goode wines: "Primarily known for their cabernet and zinfandel. They're really down-to-Earth, nice people, and that is reflected in their wines. I think sometimes the people behind the winery influence the wine as much as the terroir and they become part of it. Big, industrial wineries produce a big, industrial kind of wine, and honest family people doing honest work produce honest wine. And Murphy-Goode is definitely that." - Rob Moshein, the Austin Wine Guy blogger.

• Quintessa Rutherford Napa Valley Red Wine : "That's a winery with a commitment to quality. It's a balanced, age-worthy California cabernet, year-in and year-out. I would rather have wines of balance any day than a monster wine that's gotten wild scores in its first year of conception. To me, Quintessa falls within that category of tried-and-true." - Mark Sayre, sommelier of Trio at the Four Seasons Hotel.

• Tablas Creek Vineyard (California): "Excellent examples of Old World wines done in a New World setting. They're all Rhone-style wines - blends of syrah, mourvedre, grenache, whites as well - that are done in a very elegant, traditional style."- Broglie.

- Mike Sutter

Five types of wine accessories

• There's only one thing between you and a glass of wine, and it isn't always easy to get out. Synthetic corks are more popular than ever, which means more of us are struggling to pull them out. It's not your imagination that synthetic corks are harder to remove than natural ones, says Tony Curtis-Wellings, owner of Faraday's Kitchen Store in Lakeway. Try a cordless electric wine opener like the $40 version from Waring (available at Faraday's ) that sits on top of the bottle and removes the cork without any effort from you. Two-step lever corkscrews ($10-$15 from companies such as Trudeau) also will help remove synthetic corks or natural ones that are prone to cracking.

• Boxed wine is no longer just swill sold on the bottom shelf at grocery stores. You can buy plenty of high-quality wine sold by the box, plus it stays fresh longer than an opened bottle and is portable to places where glass isn't suited. Now you can carry and pour boxed wine in style at your next picnic with the Baggy Winecoat ($58, www.scandinaviandesigncenter.com ), a sturdy purse that holds a bag of wine with easy access to the spigot. There are even pockets to hold ice packets to keep wine cool.

• Most wine charms are less than charming, but Modern Twist has created sets of silicone wine tags that are functional and chic. Can't remember which is your square Vinotagz? ($12 for a set of 6, Extraordinaire, 500 N. Lamar Blvd., Sanctuary Bath Garden, 3663 Bee Cave Road, Wanderland, 3419 N. Lamar Blvd., and www.moderntwist.com ) You can write your name with a ballpoint pen that is easily wiped off later. The tags also double as napkin holders. Another alternative to wine charms are the colorful Party People by Vacu Vin ($6.94 for 12, www.surlatable.com ), wacky characters that suction onto the side of any glass.

• Decant or aerate? Depends on the wine. Decanting is done specifically to separate older wines from the sediment that collects in the bottle over time. Aerating gives wines a chance to breath, which opens up their aroma and flavor. Most wines, especially reds, benefit from a little breathing time, and you can either use an aerator like the popular over-the-glass version from Vinturi ($40, www.vinturi.com , Sur La Table, Twin Liquors) or in a carafe or decanter, such as the curvy Spiegelau's Siena decanter ($99, www.spiegelau.com), which doubles as a beautiful hourglass-shaped centerpiece.

• After working hard for so many years aging wine in a winemaker's cellar, wine barrels can have second lives in many forms, including a 22-inch Lazy Susan from Sur La Table ($119 at the Domain store or at www.surlatable.com ) that bears the mark of its former winery home.

- Addie Broyles

Festival schedule

Subject to ticket availability

Thursday:

• Winery luncheons at Fall Creek Vineyards (sold out), Becker Vineyards (sold out) and Stone House Vineyard (sold out). Noon to 2 p.m. $65 each.

• Culinary Masters Dinner and Silent Auction. 6:30 to 10 p.m. Four Seasons Hotel. $150.

• Texas 2 . 7 to 9 p.m. Whole Foods Market . $26 (sold out)

Friday:

• Stellar Cellar Collection. 1 to 2:30 p.m. Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. $75.

• Treana tasting. 3 to 4:30 p.m. Max's Wine Dive. $65.

• Toast to Stars. 5:30 to 7 p.m. Hyatt Regency Austin. $50.

• Stars Across Texas Grand Texas. 7 to 10 p.m. The Long Center. $100. Additional $40 for VIP lounge.

Saturday:

• Texas Wine and Cheese Pairing. 10 to 11:30 a.m. The Carillon. $50.

• Test Your Tastebuds. Noon to 1:30 p.m. Four Seasons Hotel. $50.

• Big Dog Reds. 1:30 to 3 p.m. III Forks. $75.

• My New Orleans: A Cooking Class with John Besh. 2 to 3:30 p.m. $55 (sold out).

• Palate Cleanser. 2 to 4 p.m. Driskill Hotel. $40.

• Quintessa Reserve Tasting. 3:30 to 5 p.m. $85.

• Grape Escape Cocktail Showdown. 5 to 7 p.m. $45. (sold out)

Sunday:

• Sunday Fair at the Vineyards at the Salt Lick in Driftwood ($45; $30 designated driver; see map, above)

Information: 249-6300, www.texaswineandfood.org .

Auction of rare and fine wines

The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas will host the Rare & Fine Wine Auction to benefit the foundation's charity programs at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Four Seasons Hotel (98 San Jacinto Blvd.). The $250 ticket includes a champagne reception, wine and an hors d'oeuvres buffet. 327-7555, www.winefoodfoundation.org .