The Austin Food + Wine Festival is a DIY affair, sending attendees from booth to booth to make their best efforts at tasting the huge selection, or just sitting back and going for tried-and-true local favorites. Every year, aside from tastings, it offers demos, chef showcases, and an opportunity to really think about risk taking and true enjoyment in cuisine.
After being canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, the festival made its delicious return — for its first-ever fall edition — November 5-7. Below, we offer a taste of the best drinks, bites, and culinary experiences we savored over the weekend.
This year's festival wasn’t just about the food and wine. One attendee noted that this year’s collection seemed to lean more into liquor than it used to. Still, his favorites were both wines. He liked the Haak Amorcito Sweet Red — only mildly sweet and made from Texas grapes — and the Cheurlin Brut Spéciale Champagne.
Another festivalgoer told me her favorite drink was a cocktail from the Maker’s Mark station, even though she doesn’t usually like whiskey. One said she was only drinking whiskey that day, and kept going back to the Oak & Eden bourbon, which is finished in-bottle with a corkscrew of cut oak barrel floating inside. She disliked the High West offering, which she said burned too much.
The only stop I made for wine was 100% Cork, an educational campaign by the Portuguese Cork Association that maintains cork is the best stopper for both environmental and quality benefits. I thought they could give me a more objective recommendation, with a wider variety of options, than a winemaker trying to sell their own goods. The person manning the booth recommended the Rombauer Chardonnay from Carneros, California. If I needed to show someone what “buttery” tastes like, I would have handed them my glass. I instantly thought of the sourdough focaccia with fermented garlic and tomato at the Casper Fermentables booth around the corner, and lamented that I wasn’t holding both at once — the only pairing that jumped out at me all day.
My favorite drink was the Select Spritz, done the Venetian way with three parts La Marca Prosecco, two parts Select Aperitivo, one part club soda, and a green olive (Roland at that booth, specifically, your favorite olive fiend found out). The Select Aperitivo is closer to Campari than Aperol in its robust flavor, but a taste straight-up revealed it to be thick and syrupy. The seller gave me instructions for a luxury she couldn’t serve at the festival: drizzle a homemade Select reduction over a vanilla ice cream and prosecco float. Move over, affogato.
My favorite sample was an elk sausage slider from Lonesome Dove, with seared foie gras and blueberry jam. Had I read the ingredients card more carefully, I might have abstained from the fattened poultry liver banned in California and New York City, or at least asked the chef for some background on their sourcing. But if I skipped it, I wouldn’t have involuntarily said “Mmmm!” to myself like a cartoon character taking a first bite of a Krabby Patty. The patty wasn’t nearly as gamey as I expected, but held up very boldly against the sweet compote.
Chi’lantro’s kimchi mole was the most unexpected creation of the day, served on a wanton tostada with pulled chicken and toasted nori. The kimchi brought some sourness to the sweet mole, and whether it was my expectations of kimchi and mole, or any particular reality I could taste, it makes sense to combine the two very earthy dishes. Wax Myrtle’s shishito poppers with whipped feta, Benton’s ham, and dates were another unexpected, fresh twist that I’ll reminisce about every time I come upon their less delicate jalapeño inspiration.
Someone else might have been into this, notable mostly for the extremity of the experience: TLC’s “atomic” shrimp cocktail with Texas Gulf shrimp. “It’s hot,” warned the server, “but it’s a horseradish hot.” I heeded his warning mentally and took a big bite, knowing I hate horseradish and would want to get it over with as much swiftness and shrimp as possible. The aromatics rushed into my nasal cavity and burned like acid, honestly not dissimilar from the time I had my nose cauterized with silver nitrate. I turned and immediately spit it back into the serving carton. Oddly, I could taste the fresh, briny lingering of the shrimp. People must have loved it, because they were sold out before 2 pm.
Of the several demos happening around the perimeter of the event, from barbecuing to wine talks, to tacos and a book signing, one stood out. Zephyr Gin, distilled just outside of Birmingham, England, and operating out of Dallas, set up a gin and tonics class to break up the day and offer some hands-on learning. It started late and the presenter was hard to hear from the back of the tent, but it was all worth it to taste the flagship spirit (sweet and citrusy) and the 88 proof twist, Zephyr Black (spicy, strongly botanical).
We sat down to individual laminated spreads with the two gins, citrus fruits, aromatics, pre-made mixers. and bartending tools. After some historical background, the presenter walked the tent through mixing our own gin and tonics, and assembling our take-home jars of tonic syrup. I didn’t think I’d be the type to keep homemade tonic syrup in a jar in the fridge, but I’ll be at the liquor store with half that tent, I’m sure, looking for a bottle of Zephyr to pair it with. I’ve never gone crazy for nor complained about a gin and tonic, but this one made me a believer.