Fall festival is a taste bud workout 

Wine tasting and parties make covering Cornucopia more fun than work

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By the end of the day on Saturday I experienced something new. Never in my life have I felt palate fatigue.

This Cornucopia weekend was a huge revelation for me as I recalled going into the weekend that, while I didn't drink excessive amounts of alcohol last year, I felt like it might be well advised to reduce consumption this year. One key difference was the fact that my plans didn't include an overnight stay in Whistler this year, meaning I would be driving between Squamish and Whistler over the course of the festival.

Friday evening I attended the five-course winemaker dinner at the Nita Lake Lodge where Michael Guy and his kitchen team served up a meal that was even more impressive than the one put on last year by the hotel's previous kitchen staff under a different ownership group. The food was paired with wines from Tinhorn Creek Winery in Oliver. The Tinhorn tasting got my taste buds primed for the big day to follow.

Saturday started with the seminar called Winners at Every Price Range presented by Iain and Barbara Philip. More than 12 hours later my day ended at Eau de Vie in the Fifty Two 80 Bistro and Bar.

The Philips have a world of knowledge individually so you can imagine them working the seminar as a team.

The seminar's premise was simple —demystify the factors that affect the relative pricing of wines. Through blind tasting, my fellow seminar participants tried to guess whether the wine was a $10, $20, $30, $40 or $50 bottle. We evaluated five whites, one being champagne, representing each price point, and then we did the same with five reds. It quickly becomes apparent that taste is a very individual thing, as the most expensive wines didn't always come out on top as the favourite.

"Sometimes it isn't worth it to spend $50 or more for a bottle of wine," says Barbara Philip.

The seminar wines chosen by the seminar leaders were specifically picked because Barbara and Iain feel each bottle represents a great value at its price point. Many of the wines tasted are reportedly on the cusp of moving up a price bracket.

My own favourite of the seminar was the 2010 Fuse Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. At $39.99 this is a bottle best reserved for particularly special occasions.

Here's a fact I picked up that I found interesting about wines from Austria and other landlocked wine producing nations. Getting wine out of countries like Austria is really expensive and those costs have a big impact on the price of the product. If you fall in love with a wine from a country that has to ship its bottles a long distance over land to get it to port, you are paying for that transport. A similar wine from a coastal country might offer better value.

While my next seminar was the next day, the wine sampling continued Saturday night at the Top 25 Reception, Crush, then Wines that Rock at the Longhorn and the final stop of the day was the upscale Eau de Vie cocktail party at the Four Seasons.

My education continued Sunday with the sushi demonstration presented by Sushi Village at the Whistler Conference Centre. That seminar highlighted sake and plum wine while chef Kame-san delivered a very entertaining lesson about Japanese cooking techniques.

The take home from that seminar includes a realization that sushi isn't as hard to prepare at home as I think it is. The experts at Sushi Village make it look super easy so the next time my daughter and I are the only ones at home for dinner, we'll plan for homemade sushi while the other two members of our family, who rarely to never eat fish, are away.

My only Cornucopia regret is not making it to the Asian Night Market to wrap up the festival. The havoc on Highway 99 between Function Junction and the village Sunday evening kept me from making the trip into the village after spending from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. mostly parked on the highway trying to get to the Pique office following a fascinating interview with Chef's Challenge winner Jeff Park at Araxi (see Chef's Choice column). By 6:30 p.m. vehicles with summer tires and bald all-season radials were still reportedly having trouble navigating the hills between Spring Creek and Alta Vista so I reluctantly took a pass on what I have heard was a really fun wrap-up event.

Over the course of the year ahead I will be doing some palate training to prepare for the 2013 edition of Cornucopia. My starting point is the top 25 Cornucopia wines led by Marchese Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva 2006 and Blue Mountain Vineyard and Cellars Chardonnay 2011. The Italian red might be difficult to get my hands on so I'll work down the list and sample the ones I can find in anticipation of the 2013 edition of the fall festival, which will be an endurance event over the course of at least 10 and possibly up to 11 days.

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