The very first Philly Wine Week hits this weekend, and you don't have to be an oenophile to get in on the action. From March 23 through 30, winemakers, brand ambassadors and importers will pepper nearly two-dozen Philadelphia restaurants and wine bars with more than 85 events meant to appeal to enthusiasts of all levels of expertise.
THE TIME HAS COME
In a city crowded with beer-focused festivities, Philly's wine scene is ripe for the picking.
"We felt like Philly Wine Week was something whose time has come," said Bill Eccleston, Philly Wine Week co-founder and wine director at Ristorante Panorama in Old City. He and Kate Moroney, wine director at Vintage Wine Bar & Bistro in Midtown Village, began putting their plan for a week of wine festivities into action just after the New Year.
They invited wine bars and restaurants all over town to come up with their own events. Over the course of eight days, highlights will include wine-and-chocolate pairings, a crash course in wine tasting with nationally renowned sommelier Marni Old at the German Society, wine-based cocktail competition, and a "Women in Wine" night featuring a film screening. Tria's Rittenhouse and Midtown Village locations will host "Madera Monday," and at Jet Wine Bar on South Street, it's an evening of port-based cocktails. Get a "Taste of Sicily" at Midtown Village's Barbuzzo, or pick a winner in a wine-pairing "cage match" at Alla Spina up on North Broad.
There should be something to pique just about everyone's palate and to match every budget. Many events are reasonably priced. Some are ticketed, while others are pay-as-you-go and require no reservations at all.
LOCAL LOVE FROM DOWN UNDER
At Garces Trading Co., dinner will be paired with Decibel Wines, a New Zealand brand by winemaker and native Philadelphian Daniel Brennan.
Brennan grew up in the restaurant business. His family owns McCrossen's Tavern in Fairmount. Between music gigs — the main focus of his 20s and the inspiration for the name Decibel Wines — he would hold monthly tastings, a tradition still kept at the Fairmount mainstay. From there grew his appreciation of wines, especially the bright and fruity blends of New Zealand.
After a little research and a "quarter-life crisis" he found a school he liked and, at the age of 31, up and moved to New Zealand for a three-year, hands-on program in winemaking. Six years later, Decibel will make its mark in Philadelphia during Philly Wine Week — while Brennan will be Skyping in from the vineyards of New Zealand.
"As soon as I saw [Philly Wine Week], I wanted to be a part," said Brennan. "It means a lot to me ... When I worked at the restaurant, I saw places like Tria start to boom, and Jet. And I always hear about Beer Week. I thought it was a great idea. And I said, 'I don't care what it is.' I said I wanted to be a part. And the Garces group reached out to me. And I know they're excited, and so am I."
"It's a good combination," he continued. "Jose Garces, involved with a local guy making wine overseas and bringing it home. I saw the menu for it, it's gonna be great."
The menu, prepared by Garces' chef de cuisine Nathan Johnson, is a three-course tasting of grilled Spanish octopus, braised pork jowl, and a New York strip steak. It will be paired with a few of Brennan's favorites: a sauvignon blanc with the first course; a malbec with the second (which he boasts is a wine-geek wine — not like a big, jammy Argentine, but a lighter, more versatile expression); and a pinot noir, brought in especially for the Garces dinner. For dessert, an olive oil panna cotta will give everyone a chance to revist their favorites.
"We wanted something that would offer a broader range," said Eccleston. "Other events have been so exclusive. People shouldn't be intimidated and should learn and enjoy the possibilities."
Eccleston is familiar with just how exclusive the scene around wine can be. For the past 13 years as general manager and wine director of Ristorante Panorama in Philadelphia, he and his team have amassed one of the most impressive collections around, holding the "Guinness Book of World Records" title for the largest wine bar in the world, with 120 bottles — 150 selections by the glass if you include the ports, sherries and dessert wines.
Panorama will host Wine Week's opening night event on Sunday, and a bit of pomp and circumstance isn't out of order. "Barrels and Bubbles" will feature a winemaker pouring barrel samples from Karamoor Estates out of Fort Washington. In true Philly form, DiBruno's Bros. will handle the light fare — cheese and charcuterie, of course — and Paws will represent the charity front.
"We want to make it a celebration of local producers. People don't realize how really good the local wines have gotten in the past decade. The PA Winery Association has curated a really good selection for the opening event," said Eccleston. It includes Black Walnut from Chester County, Crossings from Washington Crossing, and Penns Woods from Chadds Ford.
Philly Wine Week will mark its official opening that night with a demonstration of sabrage, a technique reserved for very special occasions, whereby the cork and neck of the champagne are completely severed from the bottle — by way of saber. (The dull side, if you can believe it.) Apparently it's all in chilling the neck. But don't try it at home. At least, not until you've seen it done in person.
The week wraps up next Sunday at Alla Spina, giving industry pros a chance to unwind and connect with a gathering of enthusiasts.
So now, while beer lovers can bask in their week in the sun, wine drinkers will no longer shrivel on the vine.