The Austin Food & Wine Festival Cleans Up Its Act the Second Time Around
Mon April 29, 2013 12:45 pm

Compared to last year’s Austin Food and Wine Festival, something was noticeably missing this time around: griping.

Speaking strictly for myself, the experience this last weekend was at least 100 percent better. Some of the improvement was due to luck and the weather. There was no repeat of last year’s dust bowl and the temperature was a little cooler, especially in the mornings. Even so, I thought I would have heatstroke during the audience-participation grilling event, “Heads or Tails,” with chef Tim Love and TV personality Andrew Zimmern, pictured above. With the sun beating down at 2 p.m. and dozens of grills full of hot coals going full blast all around us, I had the surreal feeling I had wandered into an episode of Survivor. And I was about to be voted off the island.

But luck was only an incidental part of the equation. The improvement was significantly due to a smart move to Butler Park, which was a smaller and grassier venue. It also had more trees; the organizers had set up more tables and tents; and you didn’t have to hike a quarter mile from one side to the other like last year. (Then, I would have killed for an on-site pedicab.)

This year, I never got to the H-E-B “grand tasting pavilion” (which sounds classier than “big tent filled with free food,” the more appropriate description of the area), but friends reported that it too was far better than last year’s disorienting mosh pit. There was more space, you could navigate easier, and, most important, there was representation by more small wineries and more local food vendors.

So was it worth the considerable money to buy a ticket (it’s $250 a person for basic entry, $850 a person for the special-privilege package)? That depends.

For the basic package, if you only did a fraction of what they offered—for instance if you went to only five food/recipe demos, did two lunchtime pig-outs at the tasting pavilion, and hit up the tasting room sessions a couple of times over the two-day event—you would more than get your money’s worth PROVIDED you could get in to enough of the demos you were really interested in. But, IMO, it was a deal. And of course we should consider the  intangibles like getting your picture taken with Marcus Samuelsson, Jonathan Waxman, or Paul Qui (if you have to ask who they are, this festival isn’t your thing).

For $850, you are basically buying guaranteed access (with less standing in line) and entry to a couple of exclusive “parties” (the big evening tasting walkabouts where the national and local chefs are all trying to out-do each other). I guess if you wouldn’t miss $1,700 per couple, it’s worth it. But that’s not a calculation I’ve ever been lucky enough to make. You one-percenters can tell me if you agree.

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