There will be top-flight wines poured by expert sommeliers, savory bites prepared by star chefs, a wine-blending competition guided by local winemakers — and, if all goes according to plan, about 3,000 visitors at the second annual Epicurience Virginia food and wine festival in Loudoun’s wine country this weekend.

Event organizers with Visit Loudoun are aiming to double last year’s attendance at the upscale festival, a three-day showcase of Virginia wine and cuisine that kicks off Friday evening. The highlight of the event will be an afternoon-long “grand tasting” at Morven Park in Leesburg on Saturday, but a flurry of affiliated events — including an opening reception in downtown Leesburg, a brunch at Salamander Resort and Spa in Middleburg and a 1940s-themed party at Oatlands Plantation in Leesburg — will be available throughout the holiday weekend to encourage out-of-town visitors to stay a while.

Planners say that feedback from people who attended last year’s festival guided tweaks and improvements this year. The changes include lower prices, improved transportation options and more opportunities to interact with culinary experts from across Virginia and the District, said Beth Erickson, president and chief executive of Visit Loudoun, the county’s tourism agency.

“That was one of the really strong comments that came out of last year, that the people who attended the festival felt that they had an unparalleled experience of talking to and engaging with chefs and winemakers,” Erickson said. “They wanted more of that, so that’s a really great opportunity for us to build on.”

This year’s event offers local wine aficionados a chance to compete in a wine-blending competition to create “the ultimate glass of Loudoun County wine,” Erickson said. Local winemakers will work with teams of attendees, she said, and members of the winning team will become winemakers for a year. They will have the opportunity to work with a local winery to harvest, bottle, and create a label for a wine to be featured at next year’s festival.

“We know that anybody who goes to this festival, they truly want to have that level of engagement and the opportunity to work with some of the finest winemakers in the country,” Erickson said. “And to actually have the opportunity to have their
fingerprints on the whole process, that’s really a dynamite thing, and that’s what separates this event from others.”

Festivals such as Epicurience Virginia have the potential to transform an area’s culinary community, said chef Nathalie Dupree, a renowned master of Southern cooking and the founding chairman of the annual Charleston Food and Wine Festival. Dupree plans to attend Epicurience Virginia’s opening reception and will present a cooking demonstration during Saturday’s grand tasting.

Festivals such as Epicurience Virginia “get the community working together, and that’s an important thing — and they up the ante, the chefs are all on their mark,” Dupree said. “I don’t think anybody ever thought of Charleston necessarily as a top food town, until the food and wine festival. They thought we had some good restaurants, but we now have three James Beard winners in less than 10 years, so I think it kind of put us on the map.”

Dupree said she is also pleased to see Southern wines gaining recognition and popularity.

“We were always told that we couldn’t grow wine because Thomas Jefferson tried it and he was smarter than the rest of us — which is true — but wine has changed and grapes have changed, and knowledge changed,” she said.

At Saturday’s event, Dupree said, she will teach attendees how to prepare sausage biscuits and scones. She will also talk about her latest book, “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking.”

“I’m going to try to make it smell as good as I can in there,” she said with laugh.

With a heightened emphasis on audience engagement, Erickson said, she hopes that even more people will be drawn to this year’s event after a smaller-than-expected turnout last year. When tourism officials first described their vision for Epicurience Virginia to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors early last year, their projections included an ambitious attendance goal of 10,000 people. That number was later scaled back to 5,000, with about 1,200 people ultimately buying tickets to the inaugural festival.

But organizers said they weren’t discouraged by the turnout, pointing out that it was a brand-new event scheduled over a holiday weekend, when many people are out of town. Festival-goers nonetheless spent nearly $500,000 in Loudoun, and a survey sent to attendees showed that most were very pleased and intended to return, organizers said.

“We’d like to see our numbers go up,” Erickson said. “So far, we’re seeing a deep engagement in both the community and stakeholders within the culinary fields here in Virginia.”

As of last week, ticket sales were 70 percent ahead of where they were at the same time last year, Erickson said. Organizers hope good weather will help double last year’s attendance, drawing between 2,400 and 3,000.

A successful second year would bring the festival closer to its ultimate ambition: to become a top destination for food and wine connoisseurs throughout the East Coast.

“We’re not losing sight of what is hot and happening here in Loudoun County, but this is an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the commonwealth as a whole, to bring in some of the finest culinary trends from throughout Virginia,” Erickson said. “This festival is quickly becoming the culinary highlight for the state.”

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