- FIND YOUR CALLING: Wine lovers can pick and choose their favorites, possibly including The Calling cabernet sauvignon from this Rio Lago, Calif., vineyard.
Celebrate the Grape, an annual event now in its third year and sponsored by the Arkansas Times, is a great and inexpensive way to eat, drink and be merry all while helping the Argenta Arts District. This year's event returns to downtown North Little Rock on Friday, June 5, with more than 300 wines from the world over to taste; cheese, desserts and other food items from eight local restaurants; and jazz music provided by the Little Rock Central High School swing band Reunion.
Advance tickets for the event are $30 (it's $40 at the door, still a steal considering that price would cover four or five glasses of wine at most restaurants these days). The festival runs from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Farmers Market lot at 419 Main St. in North Little Rock.
David Cone, the director of fine wines at Glazer's distributor in North Little Rock, has been involved with the event since its inception and says this year's plans are "more of the same from what's been done in the past." Why fix a good thing, right?
"It's been a good event over the years." Cone said. "There is a lot of variety being offered not only by us, but by the other wholesale distributors."
Along with Glazer's, other participating distributors are Central, Moon, Custom Beverage, De Nux, Vino of Arkansas, Natural State and Glidewell out of Fort Smith.
One hot new item being added to the offerings is wine ice cream from New York's Mercer's, and it will be available at Glidewell's tables at the event. Paula Glidewell began offering the brand to retailers last August.
"It's very popular," she said. "It doesn't have enough wine in it to be regulated by the [Arkansas Beverage Control] but is regulated by the [federal Food and Drug Administration], and I like to keep it in an age-appropriate venue. I don't think children should be having wine ice cream," Glidewell said.
Don't blame the adults, though, if they act like kids around the Glidewell tent trying the new offering.
"People are crazy about it," she said. "We had New York transplants in Northwest Arkansas who wanted it so we brought it in for them, and it's gone from there." Mercer's is available in Central Arkansas as well as northeast Oklahoma and southern Missouri and into the St. Louis area through Glidewell Distributors, Glidewell said. It can also be found at Eleven, the restaurant at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.
"Every event we have it, it's a hit," she said. "It steals away a lot of the attention from the wines." The biggest expense in bringing Mercer's wine ice cream to Fort Smith and then to retailers is the specialized refrigeration required, she said. Eight flavors are available here; five will be featured at the event.
As for its wines that will be available, Glidewell features more imports, because the major distributors such as Glazer's, Central and Moon tend to have the bigger sellers out of California.
"My French wines are going very good right now," Paula Glidewell said. "I find that the craft beer people really appreciate a good French wine because the best wines started in France. The malbecs in South America have gone well for us. Plus, the way the market has turned recently, what's selling for me is upper-level French wine. Fort Smith may be a blue-collar region, but we're still selling the better French wines. So we'll have some French wines at the festival along with some Spanish wines that have grown in popularity and some fun California ones."
Custom Beverage is another distributor that will present several wines that may not be as familiar to folks as everyday name brands.
"What each of these wines has in common is that their respective wineries are independently owned and most are sustainably farmed," said Custom Beverage's James Cripps.
Cone, of Glazer's, which has four separate divisions of 45 wines each being showcased, said his company is beginning to see a little more interest at this time of the year in rose.
"I don't think anything really strikes me as a new trend, if you will. You're still seeing a lot of demand for cabernet, chardonnay, pinot noir," he said.
Look for Haymaker and Mud House, a couple of new sauvignon blancs from New Zealand that Cone says he really likes. "Despite the names, I think they really deliver great value," he said. "I really, really love their style, that New Zealand style that has crisp acidity. Some people don't like that style, but I do."
Another popular festival entry in an affordable price range is the Meiomi pinot noir. Charlie Wagner, son of Caymus Vineyards founder Chuck Wagner, has developed and expanded the Meiomi line, Cone said, of which there will be three offerings, including a Beran Zinfandel.
Also on the must-have list are such wines as Duckhorn's Decoy, a popular-selling pinot noir in this market, as well as the Ferrari Carano Fume Blanc, "a great summer wine," Cone added. Also, don't miss the Flowers Chardonnay, which Cone said was an allocated high-end wine. And for a varietal that is rare in the market, keep an eye out for the St. Francis Claret. "It's a Bordeaux blend and has some petit verdo in it," he said.
Such usual standby favorites in this area as the Santa Margherita pinot grigio and the No. 1 selling rioja, Marques Caceros, will be available, Cone said.
For the less dry types, St. Michelle offers a few Rieslings that are perfect for summertime, he said.
Sports fans will recognize the name Jim Nantz, the sportscaster from CBS, who has a couple of wines that will be presented at the tasting under the brand The Calling, with a cabernet from Rio Lago, Calif., and a Dutton Ranch chardonnay, both higher-end wines.
"There are so many wines, you get to pick and choose and eat some good food and have a good time," Cone said.
Whole Hog Cafe in North Little Rock will be serving pulled pork sliders with slaw and all six of Whole Hog's sauces. More food or cheeses to pair with the wines will come from Arkansas Ale House, Arkansas Fresh Bakery, Kent Walker Artisan Cheese, Cocoa Rouge Chocolates, Graffiti's Italian Restaurant, SO Restaurant-Bar and Two Sisters Catering & Cafe.
To purchase advance tickets, go to arktimes.com/grape.