Here’s a trivia question: Which food festival is driving distance from Chicago and Milwaukee, takes place entirely in a self-contained little village where all of the events are walking distance apart, has been going on since 2000, and annually brings in some of America’s leading chefs, including Geoffrey Zakarian, Stephanie Izard, Graham Elliot, and Rick Tramonto? Give up? It’s called the Kohler Food & Wine Experience, and it happens every year in the cute little town of Kohler, Wisconsin. We had the opportunity to check it out this past weekend, and not only was it chock-full of fun and educational events, it was extraordinarily well-organized.
The home base of the event is Kohler’s The American Club, a resort that was previously the home of workers at the Kohler factory across the street, and today it’s still owned and operated by the fixture company, along with a host of restaurants (including the stunning and high-end The Immigrant), a world-class spa, shops, and two golf courses. Located about an hour’s drive from Milwaukee and about 2½ hours from Chicago, it’s the Midwest’s only AAA Five-Diamond resort hotel and a member of Historic Hotels of America. As would be expected from such a well-respected company, it’s extraordinarily well-run, and its namesake food and wine festival is one of America’s best.
The festival began on Thursday night with a “Chefs’ Challenge” event on the Main Stage (sponsored by Stella Artois, who was handing out free glasses of their beer and cider from an adjacent tent all weekend long), and on Friday and Saturday the festival was firing on all cylinders. All the chefs listed above gave cooking demos to sold-out crowds; dozens of intimate wine tastings, with names like “Understanding the Stags Leap District in Napa Valley,” “Amazing Reds of South America,” “Cabernet from Two Hemispheres,” and “Wines from Southern Italy,” were held in the American Club’s conference center and led by leading authorities in the field; beer and cocktail seminars were hosted by the likes of Goose Island and Hendrick’s, and every night featured several main events: on Friday the super-fun “Taste of the Vine,” held at the Kohler Design Center, allowed guests to sample offerings from more than 30 wine producers while checking out sample bathrooms furnished with high-end Kohler appliances; and Saturday’s Feast of Talent, a seated dinner in the American Club’s ballroom, featured dishes from Elliot, Izard, Tramonto, Zakarian, BelGioioso Cheese founder Errico Auricchio, and Kohler master chocolatier Anette Righi DeFendi (yes, they make their own chocolates, too!), along with plenty of wines, each chosen and presented by the producers themselves.
Aside from attending seminars and demos, guests could visit the high-end Kohler Waters Spa, hit some golf balls on the Whistling Straits (where the PGA Championship will be held next year) or Blackwood Run golf courses, go hiking or trap shooting at River Wildlife, or browse through a selection of featured wines, spirits, and locally-made foods at a market set up opposite the tasting rooms. While all the events were walking distance from each other (and the autumn weather couldn’t have been more perfect), shuttles were on hand to bring guests to and from each event.
The Kohler Resort is a gem of the Midwest, and while there’s more than enough to do there any time of year, there’s no better time for food and wine lovers to visit than during the Food & Wine Experience. There’s nothing else like it anywhere, it’s a great opportunity to try some wonderful wines and mingle with legendary chefs, and best of all, it’s a whole lot of stress-free fun.