Mohegan Sun’s Sun Wine & Food Fest has been one of the East Coast’s best parties for 16 years now, and last weekend it returned to Mohegan Sun with a dose of new energy thanks to most of the events being moved to a new home, the brand-new Earth Expo and Convention Center and its adjacent ballroom.
The festivities also began a day earlier than usual, with Thursday night’s Boston Brews & Bites in the new Earth Ballroom. Guests had the opportunity to meet and have their photos taken with Boston sports legends Pedro Martínez, Paul Pierce, Ray Bourque and Willie McGinest while enjoying beer from Sam Adams and dishes including smoked chicken bites, sliders, charred octopus with romesco and crispy chickpeas, cheddar-stuffed kielbasa, buttermilk fried chicken oysters, and a venison terrine sandwich. The wall-mounted lighting proved frustrating for those trying to take perfect photos with their sports heroes, but all in all it was a big Boston love fest, and everyone seemed to be having a great time.
The Earth Ballroom was also home to Friday’s annual Bourbon Tasting, in which the Basil Hayden’s, Knob Creek, Maker’s Mark, Maker’s 46, and Jim Beam Black (as well as cocktails made with them) were freely flowing, complemented by meatballs, pizza, and tacos.
Friday night also saw a preview of Saturday’s main event: The Grand Tasting. As opposed to previous years, when the wine and cooking demo portions of the event were held in the Uncas Ballroom and the beer tastings were held in the rabbit warren of conference rooms upstairs, this year the two were joined inside the 125,000-square-foot Expo Hall, larger than two football fields. (The Uncas Ballroom, by comparison, is only 38,000 square feet.)
This allowed for plenty of room for the 7,000 guests to sample more than 1,000 wines and hundreds of beers, and to watch cooking demos from chefs including Marcus Samuelsson, Aarón Sánchez, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Todd English. There was also a lot more food available for purchase this year than in previous years, with offerings available from Frank Pepe, Backyard Smokers, Knot World Pretzels, The Whey Station, Ken’s Ramen, Matunuck Oyster Bar, and more.
Later that afternoon, a personal favorite event, Vintage Cru, was held in a portion of the Earth Ballroom (an upgrade from previous years’ Cabaret Theatre location). This intimate event allows guests to sample some high-end wines, many poured by the winemakers themselves. Highlights from this year’s event included three vintages of Staglin Estates Cabernet Sauvignon, Stag’s Leap Fay and Cask 23, Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cepages, Beringer Private Reserve Sauvignon, Penfolds Bin 407, and Malvira Barolo. There were also a handful of liquors on offer, bites including shrimp cocktail and cheese, and a special appearance by chef Bobby Flay.
Flay also put in an appearance, along with more than 20 additional chefs, at that evening’s star-studded Celebrity Chef Dine Around, held as usual in the Uncas Ballroom. Participating chefs included Alex Guarnaschelli, Marcus Samuelsson, Aarón Sánchez, Brian Duffy, Govind Armstrong, Maneet Chauhan, Rocco DiSpirito, and Todd English, and they served up dishes including oxtail croquettes (William Kovel), lamb arancini (Chris Coombs and Adrienne Wright), fried chicken and waffles (English), spicy cauliflower with goat’s milk feta (Jason Santos), pork belly Cubanos (Jamie MacDonald), shrimp and grits (Sánchez), grilled cheese with duck confit (Brian Duffy), roast beef and gravy (Guarnaschelli), and a spice-rubbed pork butter lettuce taco with salsa verde and bacon (Flay).
The party wrapped up the following morning at a Southern-style Sunday brunch, also held in the Uncas Ballroom. Country singers Martina McBride and Little Big Town’s Kimberly Schlapman were on hand for a cooking demo and chat with chef Anne Burrell, and a huge selection of Southern-inspired brunch fare was served. To top it off, none other than Questlove DJed the proceedings.
The Sun Wine & Food Fest is always a big party, and to attend every event requires a bit of fortitude. Each event is worthy in its own right, however, and the Grand Tasting in particular is only rivaled by tentpoles at much larger wine and food festivals like those in New York City and Miami’s South Beach. The fact that this festival exists on a much more manageable scale, and also happens to take place inside the always-fun Mohegan Sun, all but guarantees a fun time.
Event access and accommodations were provided to the writer at no cost.