• by Jenny Benzie, Advanced Sommelier + Certified Wine Educator, Proprietress of Épernay Wine & Spirits •
May has arrived, and everyone is revving up for the Nantucket Wine Festival (NWF). This is, by far, my favorite annual event on island. Not just because the entire weekend revolves around wine, but also because it is how I was initially introduced to Nantucket in all its splendor. This is my story about a place that I am glad to now call home.
While working as the Wine Director at Café Boulud in Palm Beach, I met several servers who spent the summer season working on Nantucket. They told me about the NWF and suggested that I volunteer for it. I got in touch with NWF founder Denis Toner, found a place to stay, and off I went… thirty miles out to sea! I volunteered at NWF for four years before the opportunity finally arose for me to spend the whole summer on the island. Since then, I never looked back and have even brought a few more washashores to Nantucket along the way.
My first year attending NWF was 2006. I made arrangements to volunteer at as many events as I could. There were so many to choose from! For starters, the Harbor Gala is a “must-attend” every year. I served as sommelier for the Great Wines in Grand Houses (GWGH) dinner at East Brick, a newly restored historic Main Street mansion. At that time, Mark Goldweitz owned the home. Little did any of us know that seven years later, Mark would become the new owner of NWF. That weekend, I attended the Grand Tasting, which was held in a tent at Jetties Beach. There I became friends with a sommelier from Fahey & Fromagerie, a fantastic wine and cheese company owned by Michael Fahey. Sunday morning’s highlight was the Veuve Clicquot brunch. That evening, I attended a winemaker dinner at Topper’s with Cellar Master Craig Hanna. There I met winemaker Alex Gambal, learned his story, and discovered his wines. After experiencing my very first NWF, I had so many good memories. I was impressed that the entire weekend went off without a hitch.
The 2007 festival rolled around, and my wine-loving friend Rebecca came with me. We had traveled to Burgundy together the previous year, where we tasted with Alex Gambal and visited Denis Toner’s home in Beaune. If you were at the 2007 festival, you may recall that the weather was cold and rainy. This was not something for which we Florida girls were prepared! On the evening of our GWGH dinner, it was one of those “Grey Lady” kind of days. But the hosts’ out-of-town residence still had a breathtaking view of the water. The chef was Patrick Ridge, who then served as the hosts’ private chef and now owns Island Kitchen. Assisting him was Tony Nastus, currently Chef de Cuisine at Le Languedoc. Sunday night, I attended Topper’s winemaker dinner, which featured August Kesseler from Germany.
After a one-year hiatus, I returned to NWF in 2009. This time, I brought with me two chef friends from Café Boulud in New York. I recall several highlights from the 2009 NWF. I was back in East Brick for the GWGH dinner. This time, the dinner was hosted by the home’s new owners, the Wackenhuts, who I knew from Florida. I met Skip Bennett and his team from Island Creek Oysters. (I’ve since been to visit Skip’s oyster farm!) That year, I also worked at the Burgundy Roundtable, which featured Laurent Drouhin, whom I had met while working as a sommelier at Caneel Bay Resort on St. John. Sunday night, I enjoyed dinner at Topper’s sans winemaker, but am glad to know that there is a Drappier Champagne dinner happening this year!
After having volunteered for four years, I was asked to come work as a sommelier at the 2010 NWF. I did the Burgundy Symposium again, the Champagne Tête de Cuvée tasting at the beautiful new Great Harbor Yacht Club, and was back at East Brick (third time’s the charm!) for the GWGH with Carissa Mondavi of Continuum and Boston chef David Bruce. The weather was perfect. The Grand Tasting spilled out of the tent and onto the lawn at the Nantucket Yacht Club. And I finally stayed on-island for my first summer experience.
The festival has experienced some great changes under the ownership of Mark Goldweitz and leadership of Nancy Bean. The fun, jovial concept of La Fête, which is similar to Burgundian celebration La Paulée, has been introduced. The number and diversity of NWF seminars has increased, and now includes top sommeliers from around the US. While I have participated as a sommelier for other eminent wine festivals, nothing pulls at my heart strings as much as NWF. Being on an island makes each event so much more intimate. Our interactions with winemakers are more personal. And the connections we make during the course of the weekend always bring us back to the Grey Lady. The relationships cultivated over this weekend are real and linger longer than the fog.
Épernay Wine & Spirits is located at 1 North Beach Street, near the White Elephant and The Nantucket Hotel; www.epernaywines.com; 508-228-2755