I had an interesting conversation this week with Bonnie Lowery, owner of Old Fort Pub on Hilton Head Island.
We were over there doing some shoots ahead of the Hilton Head Wine and Food Festival when we got to talking about wine on the island. She told me she remembered when they couldn't get good wine on the island at any of the restaurants. "No one would come south of Charleston," she said, "Before 278 went all the way to 95."
That reminded me of my first visit to Hilton Head Island in 1990. We drove up overnight from Miami, got off of the highway in Hardeeville and made our way through back roads until we got on the main highway that took us over this huge bridge out to this island oasis.
Little did I know that eight short years later I'd move to this area, and that I'd be writing about all of the wonderful food and wine that island has to offer.
If you make your way to the Lowcountry with any regularity, then you know the long list of choices you have for wonderful dining experiences. Old Fort Pub is certainly on anyone's go-to list. It should be if it isn't. Their claim to fame? Beaufort County's only AAA Four Diamond restaurant. So they certainly have that going for them.
It is just one of the places that will be highlighted during the upcoming Hilton Head Island Wine and Food Festival.
The list of restaurants hosting wine dinners the week of March 10-15 is significant. Ombra, Sage Room, Wiseguys, Redfish, CQs and on and on and on. If you know the island, then you know the list is a who's who of culinary talent.
Old Fort Pub is on the list, and they are going to try something that, frankly, I'd never heard of. They are calling their dinner a "side by side" pairing - two wines to try with each course.
"I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be a lot of fun," Executive Chef Keith Josefiak tells me. "This is one of the few times a year where we can open the box and have some fun with everything we have access to."
I know for a fact chefs get excited when they get to do a variety of things not on their menu. He is planning four courses, again each with two wine pairings. The courses will include wild Atlantic shrimp and crab, roasted medallions of beef with house-made beef jerky and much more. It was hard for the chef to contain his excitement when he was talking about the menu - you can tell he and the staff at Old Fort Pub really enjoy these events, especially a week-long, island-wide one.
"It is a celebration of great food and great culinary talent," Lowery tells me. "You feel the energy all over the island during that week and everyone tries to get out to enjoy at least some of it."
Believe it or not, this is the 29th year they've been hosting the festival. It has grown tremendously. The "Grand Tasting" on March 14 is worth the price of admission in the first 15 minutes.
Last year, the selection of wine wasn't what I expected - it far exceeded what I thought we'd get. Many times at big wine tastings, you'll get to try wines in the $25-$35 per bottle range.
At Hilton Head's Grand Tasting, we were regularly coming across bottles that retail in the $45 range. I had a few that were even higher than that. I remember a distributor last year telling me, "Yeah, for this tasting, we really bring out some great wines." He wasn't kidding.
Of course, the entire week culminates with the "Public Tasting" on March 15. It's an outdoor event with no shortage of great wines. To be fair, you won't find much of the higher-end juice, but it's still a great opportunity to chat with some people about what you like and don't like and maybe learn something new. We know there are quite a few of you on this side of the river who enjoy trying new wines (some a little more than others, right?) but it is a great time in a great setting. A group of girls last year chipped in and rented a van and a driver and let the good times roll!
Seriously, though, this event is top-notch. The folks putting this party together know what they are doing. There is great food, great wine, great atmosphere and great fun, all in one spot. I'll be there, enjoying as much as I possibly can.
I've been looking forward to it since last year. Any of those dinners are going to be great, I'm sure, but the Grand Tasting is something you will very much enjoy.
I'm just glad someone decided to extend Highway 278 so we can enjoy it!
See you on TV, Jesse