Wine Fest or Marti Gras? Watkins Glen, NY

I just returned from the Finger Lakes Wine Festival in Watkins Glen, New York, one of the mega events for New York’s fastest growing wine region. After hours of sipping and swirling, I finally had some time to make sense of the formation of an emerging culture: the Wal-marting of wine.

For this annual festival that highlights Finger Lakes’ wines, do not think French or Italy. Do not think pate or inhaling into a glass and pondering the personal history of the grapes.

Think wine slushie and chardonnay ice cream. Think people wearing togas, cork screw necklaces, Marti Gras beads, and thousands wearing pint-sized wine glasses on their necks as if they were necklaces. Think hot dogs, sausages, and pizza, loud laughter, and packed crowds in muggy near 90-degree weather in upstate New York. Is this what “Sideways” has created?

The Finger Lakes Wine Festival draws in thousands of visitors, many from the northeast, but some from as far as Texas and Tennessee. While some attendees are wine connossieurs, many are there simply because they want to drink. They plan entire vacations around what could be deemed a drinking fest to sample 500 wines. They camp out in their RVs, trailers and even SUVs, and spend a weekend at the festival building bonfires and screaming “Bottoms up!�? The festival organizers seemed to stoke the playful wine culture by opening the first day with a toga party, and holding the event on a racetrack usually reserved for car racing.

For foodies it is also an eating fest with samples of cheese, chocolate, olive oil, breads and pastries floating about. In a year when New York wines are on the uptrend the festival is a delicate balance between selling out and showcasing New York’s offerings. It brings additional cash and exposure to the 80 plus wineries that do attend, and pokes fun at a culture often taken too seriously. I chatted with a regular festival goer from Long Island who told me that the event gives middle class America a chance to learning more about wine.

“It’s a common ground for people to get together, it’s a festival for every age group, parents, grandparents, it’s everybody,�? the Long Island lady told me. A young man and woman wearing cork screw crowns confirmed it.

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