It’s September, and that means festival season! One of the biggest (and best) in New York state is in our backyard. It’s the Hudson Valley Wine & Food Festival, held at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds on September 10 and 11, 2022. This year is the 21st anniversary of the festival. If you’ve been before, you know what the buzz is about – it’s an event where you can visit favorite wineries and new wineries without traveling farther than Rhinebeck. If you haven’t been and you love wine (and craft beverages), clear your calendar for that weekend.
You may wonder how it’s possible not to enjoy a wine and food festival. You get a group of friends together, arrive, get your tasting glasses, get a program that lists all of the attendees, and get started. This is a simple and direct approach, and it works. You’ll taste some great wines wherever you decide to start, and you and your friends will soon be toasting and tasting and having a ball.
Where it gets challenging is when you’ve reached the tenth or so (who’s counting?) winery for more tastings, with perhaps a couple of distilleries, too, since they’re sprinkled among the wineries, and you realize you’re already pretty looped, and you really can’t “taste” anything anymore. And yet there are still soooo many more wines and wineries to visit (not to mention cideries, more distilleries, and breweries).
There are some wine and food festivals that are do-able this way. You grab some food and get back in the lines, figuring you’ll get a second wind. The Hudson Valley Wine & Food Festival, however, is one of the largest on the East Coast, and you’ll have a much better time if you and your friends go with some kind of a game plan.
Perspective on the Festival
The festival is celebrating 21 years at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck, NY. It’s a beautiful site, with lots of parking, bathrooms, and open space. When it was first held in 2001, there were fewer than 100 farm wineries in New York State. Today there are nearly 400! Back in 2001, there were even fewer distilleries, cideries, or craft breweries. In fact, it wasn’t until 2016 that craft beverage producers besides winemakers could sell directly to consumers by the glass. When that happened, the HVWF Festival organizers rightly allowed these producers to participate.
While it’s still called the Hudson Valley Wine & Food Festival – and wineries are dominant – it is actually a New York state craft beverage festival. This is a great thing for festival-goers, but be forewarned: the choices are staggering. According to James Martin, the festival’s event coordinator, participating craft beverages include about 50 wineries, a dozen distilleries, several cideries, and about 30 beers on tap in the beer tent. The wine, spirits, ciders, and specialty food vendors are spread throughout four massive buildings, with assigned spots clearly marked and listed in the program.
As the number of craft beverage producers has increased, so has the number of participating food trucks, which are conveniently located just outside of the halls and by the beer tent. This year’s choices range from traditional burgers and dogs to Jamaican, Thai, Middle Eastern, Mexican, Polish, and more, including plenty of vegetarian and vegan dishes. There are also specialty food vendors among the wineries and distilleries, so you can snack on the goodies they sell. Water, lemonade, sodas and other non-alcoholic beverages abound, as well. This is important, as eating and staying hydrated are important to making it through the day.
I’ve been to festivals as both a consumer and a vendor. I’ve gone into the experience as someone excited to try new wines and easily won over by the pretty bottles, the enticing descriptions, and the quick buzz you get early on. I’ve also been one of the wineries selling wine, making my products as attractive as possible and talking up the wines to help people appreciate and enjoy them – and also buy them. As a consumer, you may already be too buzzed or too distracted to really “taste” the wines, but as a seller, you want people who taste your wine to buy it, which means pouring on the sales talk, offering and encouraging additional tastes, reminding them of promotions – whatever it takes. This adds up to a lot of tasting.
As fun as it is to take chances on some new wines, it’s very disappointing to bring them home, look forward to opening them, and discover that you don’t really like the wine after all. It’s also no fun to wonder if you’re going to make it through the afternoon because you’re so buzzed already, but everyone around you keeps drinking. How can you both enjoy AND SURVIVE the massive, rowdy, delicious and, yes, intoxicating Hudson Valley Wine & Food Festival?
Here’s some insider advice.
Debbie Gioquindo is the Hudson Valley Wine Goddess. She came up with that title for herself when she started a blog on Hudson Valley wines nearly two decades ago. She’s passionate about wine – Hudson Valley wine in particular – and she’s been actively promoting it at the festival from very early on, offering wine education seminars on site, and coordinating a competition for Hudson Valley wines that’s held at the festival and is judged by an esteemed panel of more than a dozen wine professionals.
“It’s true that the festival gets bigger and bigger every year,” she said, “so there is more and more for people to taste and consume. If you really and truly want to experience the wines and learn some things, you can’t be buzzed by the fourth winery you come to.” To avoid this, she cautioned, there are some simple things to do before you get to the festival, and some things to remember to do once you’re there.
Research and prepare
The first thing to do is your behind-the-scenes research. The festival has a website and a Facebook page that are updated regularly with participating craft beverage producers and food trucks. Take a look. Are there wineries you’ve visited already and whose wines you know you’d like to stock up on while they’re there? Wineries from all over the state are at the festival, and you can save yourself a trip to their distant tasting rooms by visiting them here. Make a list of the wineries whose wines you already want, and put them at the top of a “must not miss” list that you’ll take with you. Keep it in the Notes app on your phone so you don’t forget.
If you’re familiar with New York State wineries and other craft beverage producers, you may see some new names on the list of participants. Get a mini behind-the-scenes peak at these businesses to see what they’re about by visiting their websites and social media pages. You’ll get a sense of which ones appeal to you. Make a list of these, too, so you don’t miss out on visiting them at the festival.
What kind of beverages do you like best?
Another consideration before just jumping in to taste any and everything is to really think about the kinds of wines, spirits, beers, and even ciders you like best. If your tastes run to big, dry reds; brown spirits; double IPAs; and off-dry ciders, don’t kill your palate in the first hour by trying off-dry whites, dessert wines, or porters, for example, along with the beverages you know you’ll really enjoy when you bring them home at the end of the day. Your wallet will thank you, too! “Go with what you know you’ll like at the festival,” Debbie advises, “and ask the producers for recommendations based on your tastes. Don’t waste your time or theirs trying something you know you won’t enjoy,” she says.
What to bring and wear
Go prepared with a water bottle that’s easy to carry or will hook to a belt loop; a purse that can go over your head and doesn’t weigh a ton (pare down what you carry in it to your driver’s license, a credit card, some cash, lip balm, the car key, and a pen); comfortable shoes with thick soles (the floors get dirty and sticky); a shirt or dress that’s not white (these attract red wine like bees to honey!); and a collapsible travel cup that comes with a loop for attaching it to things (more on that later). Try to be as hands-free as possible going in. “Everyone gets a fabric bag when they get to the festival,” James told me, “that includes a glass, a program, and a beautiful magazine.” This is great, but it’s another thing to carry.
Deciding on a day
Festival hours are 11am to 6pm on Saturday and 11am to 5pm on Sunday. “The festival typically draws 10,000 to 16,000 people,” James said, “and most of them come on Saturday. If you’re attending with older or less mobile people, you may want to choose to come on Sunday when it’s a bit quieter.” There’s an option to get a weekend pass to the festival, too. Knowing you have two days to explore and shop can take the pressure off and make for more informed choices.
On the grounds
While you and the people you’ve come to the festival with are waiting to get in, share your strategies and thoughts. Think about planning for regular breaks where you compare notes and decide where to go next. Think about when and where you might want to eat. Will some of you want vegetarian while others want barbeque? Take a designated lunch break. There’s live music by the beer tent, and taking a break there is a nice idea. Is there a seminar you’re interested in? Set an alarm on your phone so you get there in time.
“While everyone may be pouring into the closest building to get started,” Debbie said, “go to the one that’s least crowded first, which is usually the building farthest from the main entrance. Are some of the new places you want to try there? Get to them. You’ll avoid bottlenecks at the booths, you’ll get to ask questions, and your tasting experience will be better.”
Remember the suggestion to bring a collapsible travel cup along? Here’s why: “You can take tastes of the beverages without having to drink them all,” Debbie reminded me. “Bring along a spit cup,” she said, “and use it.” This is tricky at a festival when you’re with friends, because you have to very consciously do this, and spitting out your tasting sample can be both awkward and appear rude. But if you really want to try a lot of stuff and you don’t want to get too toasted, you have to make your peace with this and really do it. A collapsible travel cup is just right. Use it, rinse it, fold it, and start over at the next booth. With your own water bottle, you won’t have to shimmy among many others trying to get to the rinse water and dump buckets. Just pour a bit into the collapsible cup, swish it around, dump it, and move on.
Remind yourself to get to the producers whose craft beverages you know you want to stock up on, and place your orders. You don’t want to risk getting to them at the end of the day and finding out they sold out of the one thing you wanted. You don’t have to lug your purchases around with you, just the claim tickets, so don’t worry about being loaded down with bottles for the rest of the day.
“Drink a lot of water between tastings,” Debbie advised, as well. “You want to stay hydrated. Having your own water bottle is great, and you can refill it with bottled water if you need to. Try a lemonade or get an iced tea or coffee. Be sure to eat, too,” Debbie said. (I don’t have to remind myself of that wherever I am!)
Are you remembering to try the wines you’re most interested in first, or maybe exclusively? If you’re there to find something really worth bringing home, make your tastings count.
Know when to fold
You’re a person, not a machine, and as such you have a limit. Recognize it and respect it. There’s a fine line between good time and too much. Remember that you have to get home, that you may be going out to dinner where you’ll have more wine or cocktails, that you want to enjoy the rest of your weekend or not feel sick at work the next day. That you want to remember what you bought.
Speaking of which, give yourself time to collect your purchases at the end of the day. It’s a bummer to stand in line with lots of folks who are all starting to feel the effects of too much and wait for your bags or boxes of bottles to be found and brought to you at the claims area.
Festivals are fun
By the end of the day – or the weekend if you want to do it that way – you will have tried some craft beverages that expand your knowledge of what’s possible here in New York State, you will have made some new friends, you will have walked a lot, and you’ll be tired. But happy. Put your purchases away in a cool place when you get home, wash your souvenir glass and put it among your collection, and start planning some dinner parties.
Oh, and mark the calendar for next year – the Hudson Valley Wine & Food Festival is always the weekend after Labor Day.