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Cornucopia festival has a few growing pains

I've been attending the Whistler Cornucopia food and wine festival for 12 years and have imbibed at my fair share of all-night parties. In fact, I can recall several occasions – blurrily – when I did not go to bed until 7 a.m. I'm not boasting, but I'm not exaggerating either.

This year, I actually jumped out of bed one morning at 7 a.m. – bright eyed and bushy tailed – for an early yoga class, part of the festival's new health and wellness program. It is nice to think that Cornucopia and I have matured in tandem.

Okay, maybe I'm just old and there is as much debauchery at the annual mountain-resort bacchanalia as ever. But if the festival has not grown up, it certainly has grown longer. Held Nov. 7 to 17, the 2013 edition doubled in size, up from five days last year.

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While perusing the schedule, it looked like the first weekend would be more traditional, with a serious focus on wine. The second weekend had a new emphasis on cocktails, craft beer and – dare I say? – fun. The hedonists were being corralled! Naturally, I signed up for the latter.

Herewith: some critical observations and lessons learned.

Yoga and cocktails do not mix

At least not when the yoga starts at 8 a.m. Yes, I went to one of these daily sessions. But I missed two before that. And I didn't make it to the 7 a.m. meditation at all. The new Nourish program was extremely well run and hugely enlightening. Since attending a seminar on edible skin care from the pantry, I've been cleansing my face with jojoba oil every day (and haven't yet broken out in a volcano field of pimples). I totally believe in balance. Yet this new series, hosted in the Fairmont Chateau, felt strangely sequestered from the prime events, mostly in and or around the Whistler Conference Centre. Organizers say ticket-buyer crossover was decent. Still, it could be better integrated. And pity us poor cocktail lovers – the yoga classes could be a little later in the day.

Like vermouth, a double-sized festival requires fortification

I was lucky. The seminars for which I signed up were relatively well-attended and entertaining. I particularly enjoyed Grapes in Cocktails (Cocchi Americano is the new Lillet for all you 007 vesper martini fans). And who would have guessed that white wine (Miopasso Fiano) paired so well with pizza? Barbarian Pizza Party: Matching Wine with Pie was one of the hottest events of the second weekend – next to Whiskey: An American Tale, filled with an unusual plethora of longhaired, leather-jacketed ZZ Top types.

But I do have a friend who was seriously distressed because our pre-booked winery dinner with Painted Rock at Sidecut in the Four Seasons was cancelled at the 11th hour (wineries should never double date – their dinner at Hy's the first weekend was a sellout); her Bitter Bastards seminar was scratched three weeks prior (although no one told her); and the tapas cooking demo by Elements restaurant digressed into a basic 101 on French toast (ticket buyers were all refunded). It sucked to be her.

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Poured, the cornerstone event of the second week, was billed as a "tasting experience of wine, cider, craft beer and food." But the evening graze was mostly about beer, and not a whole lot of it either. Chalk it up to growing pains. If Cornucopia wants to make two weekends viable, the latter needs tighter organization and a bigger showpiece.

How about a cocktail-pairing dinner?

It seems like an obvious match, especially for Alta Bistro restaurant, which presented the mid-week Cornucopia Cocktail Challenge and hosted The Muddle, a winery dinner with the competitors later that night. I guess bartenders like to drink wine too. But this was a missed opportunity.

All bartenders get the shakes

So says Chris Hoy, bar manager at the Bearfoot Bistro, who was kind enough to give me a play-by-play after competing in the mid-week cocktail challenge. Some contestants (like winner Scot Curry from Alta Bisto) charmed the audience. Others made us dizzy with their jittery pours and countdown to overtime. It was totally intense – and much more exciting than the Whistler Chef Challenge, which I was there to judge earlier in the week. I couldn't believe there were only two of us on the judging panel. How unfair to the contestants. Luckily, the other judge (Kelly Marion, from the Vancouver Observer) and I agreed on most things. But what if we hadn't? Watch for changes next year.

Monster is no Masquerave

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Masquerave is the Bearfoot Bistro's infamous party. Filled with naked, spray-painted ladies, it has been an on-again, off-again sideshow to the festival for years. At one time, the free-pour bacchanalia was so popular it threatened to overshadow the main event. (Which probably had a lot to do with why its special-occasion licence was revoked for several years.) The masquerave was supposed to rise again this year, but did not. There were problems with sponsorship. Instead, Monster Energy Drinks took over the space and hosted its own event. It was fun, but not the same. Let's hope Masquerave is resurrected next year. It would make the festival's second weekend an instant hit.

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