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UNLVino pops cork on wine, food festival’s 45th year

Thursday had a 21-cork salute of Dom Perignon. Friday had martial arts and a 250-pound tuna. And Saturday offered an Elvis impersonator and go-go dancers. More important than those, however, was the team of UNLV students who labored to make this year’s UNLVino a reality.

“A lot of people don’t know that it’s a credited course,” Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits’ director of marketing and special events Michael Severino noted Friday, poolside at Red Rock Resort. “These students have taken the last three to four months preparing for this. And they’re graded on it.”

This year marked the 45th anniversary of the festival, which was first held for UNLV College of Hospitality students in a Southern Wine and Spirits warehouse.

“It started with education about how to treat wine,” Severino explained. “And 45 years later, here we are.”

After condensing the festival to a single evening last year, it returned this year to a three-night series of events spread throughout the valley. In true fine-dining style, the party started with a bit of bubbly. On Thursday evening, the Keep Memory Alive Event Center in Symphony Park hosted Bubble-Licious, a celebration of Champagne and other effervescent elixirs. Those included 1,974 bottles of Dom Perignon, as well as sparkling vintages from over 20 other producers.

Celebrated wineries from around the world and top local chefs shared their creations at stations inside the Frank Gehry-designed building and in its sprawling outdoor garden. On the main stage, Caesars Entertainment’s vice president of catering, conventions and events Don Ross was presented with one of the weekend’s three Dom Perignon Awards of Excellence by Severino and Southern Glazer’s senior managing director Larry Ruvo. Ross also received an autographed chef’s coat from UNLV students and a drawing of himself in a New York Yankees uniform presented by five-time all-star Jason Giambi, before the evening was officially launched with that salute of popping corks.

Friday evening’s Sake Fever was at the Red Rock Resort pool. The weekend’s only all-outdoor event began with a procession of drummers, samurai sword-wielding martial artists and cheerleaders that circled the casino floor before leading the crowd outside. There, they were greeted by bartenders pouring sake, Japanese whiskey and other spirits, and a selection of food that was heavy on sushi, bao and other Asian offerings.

Thanks to beautiful if slightly chilly weather, the pool was packed with revelers, despite the Golden Knights game that got underway at about the same time. Hockey was clearly on people’s minds, however, as fans could be heard updating one another on the quickly-changing score throughout the first period while waiting on the often long lines for food.

For entertainment, attendees witnessed a demonstration of sword skills by a team of martial artists and one of knife skills in the breakdown of a whole Mexican tuna into sashimi by the team of chefs at Naked Fish. And Hae Un Lee, aka Mr. Lee, of Lee’s Liquors received the second of the weekend’s Dom Perignon Awards.

Despite the hangover and fatigue that often follow two solid nights of partying in Las Vegas, UNLVino rallied with the largest of the weekend’s events, the Grand Tasting, on Saturday at the Mirage Events Center. The evening had a retro Las Vegas theme in honor of the 45th anniversary, and boasted the largest selection of food, wine and spirits of all three days.

The Grand Tasting also was the setting for the final, and most emotional, Dom Perignon Award of Excellence presentation to Nicole Brisson. The chef, who is preparing to move off-Strip after heading Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s Las Vegas operations and then opening the local Eataly, seemed to tear up a bit standing off stage with her mother. A few moments later, still visibly moved, Brisson took the stage to receive her award and was asked to offer a few words by Severino.

“Thank you so much, this is such an honor,” she told him before shaking her head and making a quick conclusion.

“I’m, I’m speechless. Thank you.”

More than 5,000 people attended UNLVino over its three nights, with proceeds from ticket sales and the live and silent auctions going towards hospitality scholarships.

“It’s a wonderful, wonderful collaboration between the community and local businesses,” Severino said.

Contact Al Mancini at amancini@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlManciniVegas on Twitter.

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