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Festival toasts 200 wineries, winemakers

Ed Harrell, president of the Pittsburgh Wine Festival LLC, thinks the city's reputation as a shot and a beer town is completely undeserved.

"People from outside Pittsburgh don't necessarily think of (the city) that way at all," Harrell says. "I drove to Harrisburg six years ago and said, 'We want to organize a wine festival in Pittsburgh,' and they said, 'Great; let's do it.' "

The success of the festival continues Thursday, when the seventh annual event will take place at Heinz Field. Between 2,000 and 3,000 wine lovers have attended over the years, making it one of the largest wine festivals in the country, says Dale Markham, general manager of the Wine Festival.

"We routinely outstrip Philly," which hosts a similar event Saturday, Markham says.

People can elect to attend the VIP tasting that begins at 5 p.m. at a cost of $250 per person or the Grand Tasting at 7 p.m. at $125 per ticket. People who hold VIP tickets can stay for the Grand Tasting, but the earlier event will enable them to sample among 50 exclusive wines.

VIP attendees also will enjoy a special menu, although Grand Tasting attendees will savor hors d'oeuvres and sample from more than 500 wines from about 200 wineries in 18 countries.

Pittsburgh's is the largest of three wine festivals that will take place this week in Pennsylvania, with Hershey's taking place Friday, says Tony Jones, chief of product management and pricing division of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

"Every year, there's a great selection of wines," Jones says. "There's such a breadth and depth; it's like an adult Disney World" for wine lovers.

This year, the Pittsburgh Wine Festival will put a spotlight on female winemakers like Susan Selby of Selby Winery, Healdsburg, Calif., and African-American winemakers, like California winemakers Vision Cellars of Windsor, Black Coyote Chateau LLC of Napa, and Esterlina Vineyards of Philo. Some kosher winemakers like Baron Herzog Winery of Oxnard, Calif., and Recanati Winery of Israel also will attend.

Several luxury cult wines will be available, Jones says, including a vintage 1999 Screaming Eagle for $1,600 per bottle.

"You don't see these at the retail level, only at auction or if you get on their waiting list," Jones says.

Another attraction will be PLCB's "chairman selection" wines, which will be discounted an additional 30-percent.

Among the winemakers with local connections will be Bill Wolf, a Jefferson Hills native who, with his wife, Roxanne, owns Eagle Eye Wine in Napa, Calif. When the Wolfs present several wines at the event, Bill Wolf is carrying on a family tradition in the liquor business. His grandfather owned M.F. Wolf Liquor, a wholesale beer, wine and liquor distributorship in the early 1900s in Clairton.

"Pennsylvania is by far our largest (state) customer," Wolf says. "They carry everything in their stores" except Eagle Eye's Muscat. One of their most popular wines is Voluptuous, a red-wine blend available at the festival.

Wolf worked for Aramark for many years in Pittsburgh and other locales, ending up in San Francisco. In 1999, he and his wife bought an old walnut orchard in Napa, cleared the land and took courses around the world in winemaking. The couple made their first wine in 2003 and released it in 2004. Having overcome challenges that include a warehouse fire, they are looking forward to the Wine Festival.

"We had a very, very good reaction" when they offered wines at last year's festival, Wolf says. Quite a few attendees, alerted to Wolf's ties to his grandfather's business, came by. "It's good to come home," Wolf says.

Chef, restaurateur and public-television cooking-show host Lidia Matticchio Bastianich will do a cooking demonstration at the festival, as well as offer wines from her vineyard. The host of the Emmy Award-winning "Lidia's Italy" will autograph copies of her cookbook by the same name, starting at 6 p.m. She will be present during the week at her Strip District restaurant.

"I just like wine because of all the nuances," Harrell says. "With wine, there are so many varietals," including soil, rainfall in a given year and other weather considerations.

"I've traveled around the world, and tasted wines (in many destinations), but the same grape doesn't taste the same. With wine, you're never going to run out of variety."

Wine Festival survival

If you plan to attend Thursday's Pittsburgh Wine Festival, festival president Ed Harrell and wine experts suggest coming up with a plan of attack.

Go to the festival Web site -- www.pittsburghwinefestival.com -- to formulate that plan. The 200 wineries will offer some 500 wines, and consulting the list will enable the wine lovers to narrow the huge field and decide which wines they want to taste.

Oenophiles might decide to taste wines from just one country, such as France or Italy. Or, they might want to select a single grape, such as the pinot noir, and trace it through all the countries offering it at the festival. Another plan might be the selection of specific wineries, focusing on those wines alone.

Here are additional tips for those attending:

• When you have the wine in hand, study first the color of the wine. Color can give the imbiber plenty of information, such as the age of the wine, the type of grape used, weather during the growing season and hints about the wine-making process.

• Swirl the wine to release the aromas, or nose, of the wine.

• Put your nose into the glass and smell the wine. Aromas account for as much as 90 percent of taste. Try identifying the flavors, such as chocolate, vanilla or buttery.

• Taste the wine, using all the taste buds in your mouth. Be sensitive to the wine as you sip and savor.

Additional Information:

Seventh Annual Pittsburgh Wine Festival

When: VIP Tasting, 5-7 p.m. Thursday; Grand Tasting, 7-9 p.m. Thursday

Admission: VIP Tasting, $250; Grand Tasting, $125

Benefits: Innovation and Discovery at UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh

Where: Club Lounges, Heinz Field

Where to buy tickets: Online or via credit or debit cards at the door.

Details: Web site

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