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It's not too late to get tickets for the Nantucket Wine Festival, one of our favorite seasonal culinary events that kicks off next month, from May 17--21. We attended last year's festival and had a truly memorable experience, and not just because our blood alcohol content was usually above the driving limit. We tasted some spectacular wines, in both intimate and large-scale settings; we took notes on tannins and terroir in a few seminars and cooking demonstrations; and we indulged in one of the best gourmet dining scenes on the East Coast. In the process, we chatted with some friendly winemakers and wine critics who care deeply about wine. Their passion is infectious; you leave the island with a greater appreciation for what Ben Franklin claimed is "proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

Fortunately, you don't need to be a wine connoisseur to experience this divine love. Amateurs and professionals mingle with ease, and most of the seminars deftly cater to both. (A few wealthy Thurston Howl III types are in the mix, too, which makes for some phenomenal people watching.)

But you do need to act quickly to secure tickets and accommodations. Here is our guide to the best of the festival, or in some cases the best of what's still available.

Log onto www.nantucketwinefestival.com for tickets and a complete schedule.

The Grand Tasting

The festival's most popular event is the weekend-long marathon-for-your-liver, the Grand Tasting. You can't go to the festival and skip this, and some people come solely for this event. You spend the afternoon under a large tent near Jetties Beach tasting wines from over 150 international vineyards. You can also nibble on everything from artisanal cheeses to small dishes cooked up by local restaurants, or check out a live cooking demonstration. Then a few hours later you emerge from the tent and face the winds with a perma-grin. We highly recommend this.

The tasting is offered in four sessions during the weekend of May 20 and 21, from 12pm to 2pm and 3pm to 5pm both days, and you pay $65 for a single session, or $100 for any two (prices go up to $80 and $125 respectively on May 1). We recommend two sessions to get the full experience, and we caution that the Sunday 3pm slot is the weakest of the bunch; some vineyards ran out of wine a bit early and many seemed (justifiably) tuckered out.

Because the Grand Tasting is the one event that everyone goes to, here's our list of tips to enhance your time under the tent:

  • Have a pen and paper handy to jot down the names of your favorite samples, or you'll kick yourself later. Many of these labels are available in local stores, so you can purchase them at home. And don't hesitate to ask about wine prices. Most sell for less than $25, and a few excellent wines cost under $10. We found a respectable CAVE San Jose 2004 Pardina for $7.99.
  • Chat up the winemakers. We found them to be the friendliest group at the festival, and some are truly inspiring artisans. Talk to them long enough and they'll inevitably begin talking terroir, or soil. (Some even carry soil samples in plastic baggies!)
  • Stop by the Italian Wine Merchants (www.italianwinemerchant.com) table, and taste whatever they're offering. This is one of our favorite wine stores in Manhattan, co-owned by Mario Batali. The smooth, caramel-tinged Movia 2000 Veliko Bianco ($27), from Slovenia, is our pick for best value of the show.
  • For a taste of something unique and slightly unusual, check out the reds from Coturri, a small family-owned vineyard in California. The affable grizzly-bearded Tony Coturri works organically and produces wines with a natural, distinctively jammy taste that critics frequently liken to a "punch in the mouth" (in a good way). The Houston Chronicle notes, "the Schwarzenegger-esque syrah could out-punch Rocky in a dark alley."
  • Try sticking to one grape to taste for differences. We were on a Zinfandel-only kick for about an hour and found that approach more rewarding than tasting everything randomly.
  • Speaking of Zinfandels, the chocolate samples on hand make for a great pairing.
  • Try E.J. Harvey's clam chowder, and add hot sauce. And wonder why you've never added hot sauce to clam chowder before.
  • Play a new game: "Count the Ralph Lauren Polo Blazers!" One point for navy, three points for white. And watch for a few entrepreneurs pitching curious products ("The Martini Workout" anyone?).
  • Finally, drink water and pace yourself. You probably haven't heard that since college, but it's worth noting here.

Other Available Seminars and Events

Some people see nothing of the festival beyond the Grand Tasting, but we recommend trying out a few Wine & Food Seminars for the variety, and for the chance to taste the wines in more intimate settings (restaurants and hotel pavilions in the town area). These "classes" can have anywhere from 10 to 60 people, last 1.5 to 2 hours, and cost $50 to $100 or more. Of course you taste wine at all of them, usually 4 to 6 pre-poured samples per class. The course quality is generally high, though we attended a few duds last year (that are no longer offered), so a $100 class is a gamble. The only sure bet of the most expensive seminars is the Greatest Wines of Italy class ($150) moderated by Italian Wine Merchant's Christopher Deas, who is sure to blow you away with his wine selection.

Otherwise, most of the available tickets are $50 and involve food pairings or cooking demonstrations (a good thing; the festival food is uniformly excellent). A Nantucket Lobster Tales class looks like a winner at $60. Surprisingly, it's still available, probably because the festival website currently says, "The food will be paired with the striking wines of (TBA)." Others' hesitation is your gain.

The Winemaker's Symposia are panel discussions in which world-renowned wine experts talk (and sometimes argue!) about a specific grape varietal. You can go to a tasting of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Bordeaux -- though they all happen simultaneously, Friday 10am to noon, so pick your grape. And don't let Sideways sway you; Merlot is still available (though Pinot Noir is, not coincidentally, sold out).

Other events are more for social mingling than anything else. The Stirrings Cocktails & Couture fashion show ($75) on Saturday night is new this year, and the Opening Reception ($40) is on Wednesday. Both should have tasty food and wine, and a fabulous Botox-injected crowd.

We also highly recommend you make room in your budget for one of the Winery Lunches & Dinners ($90-$225 per person), offered at several fine local restaurants on specific evenings. We dined at American Seasons, whose maverick chef Michael LaScola served up fois-gras cr¿me-brulee (!) elsewhere at the festival, so we were expecting big things. They delivered, with a 5-course meal ($185) that included a Spring Tasting of "white asparagus soup shooter with sorrel foam; lobster-and-sweet-bread terrine with an orange-and-basil vinaigrette; and house-smoked salmon rillette with a baby beet salad and American Golden caviar." And that was just the first course. Each dish was served to the restaurant en masse and paired with a Stags Leap wine, which a vineyard representative helpfully introduced aloud, giving the meal an intimate, yet slightly communal, feel. This is exactly the dining experience you seek in romantic, gonzo-gourmet Nantucket.

You can view all the participating restaurants here. The American Seasons Winery Dinner is sold out, unfortunately, but you can still book a "regular" dinner there, and your other Winery Dinner options are equally stellar. In a contest of average restaurant quality, we begrudgingly admit that New York City would lose to Nantucket.

A Package Deal?

If you do a double Grand Tasting, plus 3 other events, you'll spend between $250 and $400 per person, not including the Winery Dinner. You can also get a Grand Cru package for $425, which gets you into: all 4 Grand Tasting sessions; 2 Wine & Food Seminars of your choice; 1 Winemaker Symposium; the Meet the Winemakers Reception, which is basically another Grand Tasting on a much smaller scale, for Cru package people only; and the Early Admission VIP Receptionbefore the Saturday Grand Tasting, which just gets you in a half hour early, at 11:30am. And you get a few t-shirt and poster tchochkes.

Is it a deal? If you don't need all 4 Grand Tasting sessions and you're picking $50 events, buy individually and save your money for a winery dinner. Otherwise, do the math. We'd price the exclusive Winemaker Reception at about $50, and the Early Admission pass is negligible aside from the "first kid in the candy store" feeling you get when they let you in early (worth $20 to some, priceless to others).

Where to Stay

Rooms are booking up quickly but are definitely still available. Most of the accommodations on the island are comfortable, charming inns that charge less than $200 a night, and those are your best bet (note that many have a 3-night minimum for the festival). Hotel prices are generally more, $250 and up, or as much as $600 to $1,000 a night for beachfront cottages of The Wauwinet (tel. 800/426-8718 or 508/228-0145; www.wauwinet.com).

A great service to call at this point is Nantucket Accommodations (tel. 508/228-9559; www.nantucketaccommodation.com), a 30-year-old private service with access to 95 percent the island's accommodations, including short stays in houses and cottages. They can book a room based on your requirements for a $15 charge. If you get an answering machine and are eager to book right away, you might try Nantucket Concierge for $12, run by Carolyn Hills, at tel. 508/228-8400.

Of the accommodations we recommend, only the Jared Coffin House is completely booked. Here are a few festival-week prices for our other top picks:

  • The Anchor Inn (tel. 508/228-0072; www.anchor-inn.net) still has rooms with a queen-sized bed and private bath for $95 to $105 midweek, or $175 to $195 weekends.
  • The Harbor House Village (tel. 866/325-9300 or 508/228-1500; www.harborhousevillage.com) has a few rooms with 2 queen beds for $170 midweek and $220 weekend.
  • The Pineapple Inn (tel. 508/228-9992; www.pineappleinn.com) has small queen-bed rooms for $175, a large queen room for $195, and larger king-bed rooms for $225.
  • The Union Street Inn (tel. 800/225-5116;www.unioninn.com) has exactly 3 rooms available (which you can view on their website): the #3 room, the "nicest room in the house" with a king-bed; #7 with a queen bed for $355; and #8, the smallest room with a "separate but private bath" for $215.
  • The White Elephant (tel. 800/445-6574 or 508/228-2500; www.whiteelephanthotel.com), the festival's homebase, has rooms with king-sized beds for $455, or $535 for a room with a balcony view of the harbor.

Getting There

Did we mention that you may have to take a plane about the size of a bobsled to get to this festival? Cape Air (tel. 800/352-0714; www.flycapeair.com) flies 9-passenger planes to Nantucket Memorial Airport (tel. 508/325-5300) from Boston ($250 round-trip), New Bedford ($162), Providence ($150), Martha's Vineyard ($93), and Hyannis ($91).

You can avoid the small plane if you're coming directly from Hyannis, MA, in which case you can take a ferry to Nantucket, either through the Steamship Authority (tel. 508/477-8600 in Hyannis; tel. 508/228-3274 in Nantucket; www.steamshipauthority.com) or Hy-Line (tel. 888/778-1132 or 508/778-2602; www.hy-linecruises.com. Both companies charge about $15, or $30 round-trip, for a 2-hour ride, and children pay half price. Both also offer high-speed 1-hour ferries for roughly double the price. Spaces fill up, so book in advance.

Otherwise, we found round-trip flights for May 17 through May 21 on Priceline.com for $393 from New York, $524 out of Los Angeles, and $301 out of Chicago (all flying through Boston, with a Cape Air leg to Nantucket).

If you're on the east coast and want to save money (since you'll be spending it on lobster-and-sweet-bread terrines and whatnot) you might take an Amtrak (tel. 800/872-7245; www.amtrak.com) train to Providence, as we did (paying $96 round-trip from New York). The downside is the $25 30-minute cab ride from the Hyannis train station to the Barnstable Municple Airport (tel. 508/778-7770). That brought our total cost, with the $150 Cape Air flight, to $271, the cheapest we've seen from New York.

We still couldn't avoid that bobsled flight, but it's actually a short and fairly smooth ride. You can even sit in the cockpit and chat with the pilot! Just hope you don't later catch him or her hiccupping under the tent at Jetties Beach.

For complete coverage of Nantucket, including taxi services and shuttle information, click here.