A decade of decadence is one way to describe the Charleston Wine + Food Festival's past 10 years. What began in 2006 as a local culinary gathering has grown into a huge, nationally recognized four-day feast. We wanted to know how we got here, so we asked festival insiders to give us the oral history scoop.
In 2005, Circa 1886 Chef Marc Collins dreamed up the idea. "In Texas there was Hill Country Wine and Food," he says. "I thought this city was ripe for it's own festival." Collins floated the idea past by publicist Angel Postell, then they reached out to a group of local leaders and invited them to a brainstorming meeting. Shockingly, everyone invited came.
"Mayor Riley, Nathalie Dupree, Marion Sullivan, and Hank Holliday, everybody who was important was there," says Postell. More importantly, everyone was willing to throw on an apron and get to work. The group divided up into committees and began to meet at cookbook author Dupree's house each month and the Distinctively Charleston Food + Wine Festival was born. (The fest name would later be changed to the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival in 2009 due to trademark issues with AmEx who, incredibly, trademarked all forms of the phrase "food and wine.")
"The influence of Nathalie and Marion in those early years was so important," says Postell. The the opinionated food writer and program specialist at the Culinary Institute of Charleston became the naive 29-year-old festival director's guides. "I have a book of all of Nathalie's emails," Postell says. "She'd send things at really weird points at night and misspell everyone's names." But Dupree's advice and pull was unquestionable, especially when she lured her friend R.W. Apple, The New York Times' food critic, to attend the fest's small 2006 inaugural year.
"I knew we needed a kick off in the Times," recalls Dupree. The well-connected author had met Apple before so she says she felt comfortable calling him. "He'd written about Charleston because his wife was from here," Dupree says. And Apple agreed to attend. He made the rounds to Hominy, FIG, Peninsula, and Charleston Grill, and next thing you know, two weeks later Charleston was on the front page of the New York Times food section with Apple's "A Southern Star Rises in the Lowcountry."
"I was in France and Hank Holliday called me and says, 'This put Charleston on the map. It's worth millions of dollars to us.' And it was." says Dupree. "You forget the power of the Times."
But times they were a-changing. Like a shaky sophomore album release, the festival's second year was rough. Scratch that, it was mess. "Everything went wrong. It was our bad year," remembers Postell. "We oversold everything, there were massive crowds, and someone called the fire marshal on us."
City Paper's-then food critic Jeff Allen remembers the chaos. "Stephanie [Barna] and I were in the tent and the layout was horrible." Allen says. A thousand people or more were smashed into an polypropylene tent in the middle of Marion Square. "It was like being at one of those parties where you're trying to walk with a glass of wine and food in your hand and you're shuffling sideways. It must have been 95 degrees," he says. "So we find this crack in the tent and get this rush of fresh cold air, and I look over and there's the damn fire guy. He looks at us sweating and stuff, then walked straight in there and threatened the close to whole festival down."
Did we mention there was also a huge storm? Yeah, that happened too.
"That was the year we learned the importance of having a floor," says Randi Weinstein, the festival's long-time director of events. "It was a mosh pit for the opening night party." Even worse, the festival was hosting all of the events from one venue so when it began to pour, there was nowhere to escape.
"It was horrible weather and I remember going to prep kitchen," says Weinstein. "I'd set everything up and there was all this broken Le Crueset from the winds whipping through. All the shelving had blown over."
"It was nonstop panic mode," says Postell. "We didn't know what we were doing."
And the city and its citizens let them hear about it afterward. Post & Courier food editor Teresa Taylor's coverage of year two laid the chaos bare:
"Bill and Jane Staines of Columbia and friends were trying for a second time to get into the vendors tent. They were a little more than halfway in the line and had been waiting 40 minutes. "We haven't had anything to eat or drink and it's been more than two hours," she said. "Nobody's happy yet."
As for Barna and Allen, after being boxed out from covering marquee events and witnessing the high cost of tickets, the City Paper writers called the event out for being too exclusive. "We were sort of ignored," Barna says.
"Mitchell Crosby sent this scathing letter to the editor back to Stephanie," remembers Allen. "It was one of the greatest responses ever."
We couldn't unearth the original copy, but Crosby, owner of event planning company JMC Charleston, summarizes with this: "My response to City Paper was that the average Joe has no problem standing in line and paying $100 for a Led Zeppelin ticket at the North Charleston Coliseum. But given an opportunity for something non-blue collar, the City Paper decides this position that it's only going to be for elite Charlestonians downtown."
Since then, prices have remained high. For example, in 2009 Dine Around dinners were $150 per person. Today the equivalent Signature Dinners are $175 per person.
Although year two was a near disaster, Postell and her team weren't going to let a little bad press ruin a good thing. They made a "what if" plan for every possible scenario.
"What if someone gets food poisoning? What if someone dies? Whatever may be," Postell says. "We got it together." And it wasn't all bad news. The second year, likely due to the overselling of tickets, was a financial win. Postell hired staff and then she says things started to jibe.
And a huge part of making the event work was securing reliable volunteers. People like Fred and Patti Leslie began helping out in year one. The retired couple began as Marion Square day volunteers, but quickly were promoted to captains tasked with managing specific events. For the past few years that's meant the Leslies have been in charge of the Vineyard Voyage harbor wine tour, this year called the Coastal Cuvée. Like a lot of festival volunteers, the Leslies have taken ownership of not just their event, but the festival itself.
"We had one experience on the boat with sideways rain. People were lined up waiting to get in," remembers Patti. "I said to Fred, 'Grab their tickets and get them on board!'" In fact, the festival has become such a part of the Leslies' lives, it nearly impacted their daughter's wedding. When their daughter floated the idea of winter nuptials, Frank told her, "You gotta change the date. It's too close to the festival."
But an army of dedicated volunteers wasn't the only change. Wine + Food organizers felt the event needed to make a bigger statement. So for year three, they lured in a ringer, Food Network darling Bobby Flay.
"At that time, we needed to be on a national level. We needed that kick after year two," says Postell. But Flay didn't come cheap.
"He wanted $100,000. We got him down to $75,000."
While that number may sound outrageous, Postell says Flay made it worth the festival's money and Crosby agrees.
"Here's Bobby Flay, he had just come out with his book Grill It!, and he went to every station and tasted the food before it went out to guests," remembers Crosby of Flay's Executive Chef Compete event. The chef showman wasn't a hit with everyone though. Looking back, Jeff Allen says, "The festival used to have a small-city camaraderie, now it's more centered around national media attention. I blame Bobby Flay." But love him or hate him, there's no arguing Flay-vor Flay was good for business.
"That year the festival got covered in People magazine," says Postell. And Flay's appearance lead to numerous other big name additions over the years.
TV chef and Greenville native Tyler Florence came in 2010. "There were some ladies who insisted on saving seats for his demo," remembers Dupree. "Tyler wouldn't tell them they had to go, so I had to be the bad guy. They really pouted." But even with the occasional frustrations caused by marquee chefs and their entourages, bringing in the big guns became a festival standard.
"I had my wow moments," says Weinstein, namely when she met Danny Meyer, millionaire and Union Square Hospitality Group CEO (owner of New York City's Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, and, of course, Shake Shack). "That was a major moment for me. I stopped everything I was doing to talk to this man. When I found him later at the FIG after-party, he was like, 'Hey Randi. How are you?' I was like, 'Oh my God, you remember my name?'"
Then there was the fifth anniversary year when Daniel Boulud headlined. The owner of his eponymous Daniel, six other restaurants, and arguably one of the most respected chefs in the country, Boulud could have justifiably arrived with an attitude. Instead, Postell says, "He was the nicest, most sincere person." In fact, her favorite memory is of seeing the French chef in a pedicab calling out, "I love Charleston!"
If you wanted more than a passing wave from some of the top chefs in the nation however, flush festival guests forked over anywhere from $500 to $1,000 to attend philanthropist Terri Henning's rooftop dinner parties. From Henning's People's Building pied-à-terre, she hosted eight Dinner with a View festival events. Each time, 68 guests joined the likes of such people as Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl, Prune owner and chef Gabrielle Hamilton, TV personality and chef Tom Colicchio, Top Chef semi-finalist Sam Talbot, multi-restaurant owner and chef Frank Stitt, Top Chef judge Hugh Acheson, our own Sean Brock and Mike Lata, and multi-restaurantuers Andrew Carmellini and Marc Vetri, to name a few.
"I'm a pretty lucky girl," Henning says. But she was never so lucky then on the night her close friend, Boston restaurateur Barbara Lynch, decided to crash Boulud's Dinner with a View party.
"I'd met her a couple years earlier and she and Daniel have this strong connection. They're great friends," Henning recalls. "So while having some libations together the night before, we decided to have Barbara include a surprise course at the Friday night dinner." Guests were not only treated to Lynch's sudden appearance but also to the chef's prune-stuffed gnocchi topped with foie gras. Rooftop table dancing into the wee hours then ensued.
Of course, there were some less impressive chef moments. Barna recalls an after-party at Charleston Grill where she meet British chef Paul Liebrandt. The prodigy had made a name for himself at age 24 when he earned New York City's Atlas restaurant three stars in the New York Times. Liebrandt, who by this point had developed a reputation as an eccentric and often difficult chef, came to the festival in 2010 to cook a dinner with Sean Brock.
"He was this rock star chef, he got two Michelin stars off the rip, and he was here after falling from his perch," says Barna. At the time the editor's son Jack was star struck with the cuisine scene — the boy had his ninth birthday dinner at McCrady's — and so Barna told Liebrandt all about her son's interest in food. "He was like, 'Why would you want to do this? You shouldn't encourage this,'" she says deflated. Luckily, other chef encounters proved more positive, like the time Barna found herself in the same room with Richard Blais and other Top Chef contestants, along with Kevin Young, a poet involved in Southern Foodways Alliance, and professional forager Tyler Grey.
"It was this collection of super-interesting people," says Barna. "It showed that food is more than just food. There's a deeper meaning and resonance to it.
Shining a light on the deeper meanings of food, especially that of the Lowcountry, has arguably been the festival's biggest gift to Charleston. Jeff Allen points to events like his own brainchild, the Soul Food Shuffle. For the event, guests were bussed to area soul food restaurants like Bertha's Kitchen and Martha Lou's Kitchen to taste the historic flavors of the city.
"You can tell someone about croker and mullet all day long, but they don't get the full understanding," he says. Instead Allen wanted visitors to really witness how Gullah-Geechee culture is struggling to survive here.
For Crosby, a Charlestonian by birth, finding ways to give guests an authentic Holy City experience was equally important. In 2010, Crosby and co-event producer Denise Barto designed the Gullah Tribute Luncheon. Area chefs like Charlotte Jenkins of Gullah Cuisine (which closed last year) were paired up with national chefs like Louisiana native chef Donald Link, owner of Herbsaint and Cochon of New Orleans.
"Watching them standing together — a black and white cook. It worked beautifully and I was happy to have seen that," says Crosby. "That was the a-ha moment."
For others, the $300 per person Ultimate Critics Dinner on Fort Sumter was the end-all, be-all. The historical landmark had not seen such a logistical challenge since the Confederates evacuated during the late unpleasantness. But event producer Randi Weinstein was undeterred. She built a maritime kitchen, and through cruddy weather, raced the boat to the island in advance of the dinner. Somehow, when the Spirit of the Lowcountry pulled up with the guests, the sky was clear, the mosquitoes gone, and a soft breeze blowing. In keeping with the location, each chef served Civil War-inspired dishes — Sean Brock dished up flounder with summer vegetables, hardtack, and salt pork; Mike Lata created pickled brown shrimp with vermillion snapper roe, and heirloom peppers; and pastry chef Emily Cookson ended the night with a sorghum trifle with fig preserve. "That was a pinch-me moment," says Postell.
But as anyone who has chugged a cold PBR on a hot summer day will tell you, a good time doesn't have to cost a lot. As it turns out, some of the best Wine + Food Festival events have been on the fringe.
"We've been shut down very nicely and we've been shutdown with blue lights flashing." That's how Craig Rogers, owner of Virginia's Border Springs lamb farm, describes his festival fringe affairs — the beloved after-the-after party Lambs & Clams. Today a fest-sanctioned gathering, the event began as a covert operation.
"We'd tweet that we were down at the Battery," says Rogers. Then, once the eater cognoscenti arrived, Travis Croxton from Rappahannock River Oysters would shuck bivalves while Rogers handed out lamb hot dogs and jerky to all the chefs, media, and guests who were awake enough to make the trek.
"It always appeared at some point in time that Charleston's finest would stumble upon us and suggest other venues that would be more appropriate for lambs and clams," says Rogers.
Barna remembers her own hasty departure one year. Leaving the Battery around 1:30 a.m. with the Rappahanock guys, their golf cart gave out. "We were coming to Lockwood and we ran out of juice," she says. "We pulled it into the gas station and found a plug to recharge." But it wasn't enough to get the vehicle going, so she called her white knight, husband and City Paper's advertising director Blair Barna, out of bed to rescue her.
There have been numerous other fringes functions since — City Paper counted at least 17 last year — but Lambs & Clams in all it's illegal glory will likely go down as one of the best.
Rogers can't promise a new fringe feast will happen this year, but he strongly suggests all interested parties follow him on Twitter just to be sure. Barring that, he says, "My golf cart with a shepherds crook on it traveling down the street late at night seems to be a dead giveaway."
Fringe or feast, there's no way to tabulate how many tons of food or gallons of wine have been enjoyed over Wine + Food's past 10 years. And honestly, we'd probably be sick if we tried. The truth is, the culinary smorgasbord is a heady mix of gluttony, celebrity money, and charm. But decadence and doing good aren't mutually exclusive. It's equally impossible to tabulate the economic impact the festival has had on the city. No, not the numbers crunched each year post-fest. Sure the event has brought in $31 million to the city in its 10-year history, according to the Post & Courier. But who can count the revenue from reservations made at a restaurant because someone met a chef in the culinary village one year? Or a vacation booked because a man in Milwaukee read R.W.'s Apple's 2006 story? Or the impact made from donations to nonprofits by the 501(c)(3)? Or a student who decided to attend the Culinary Institute of Charleston because they wanted to volunteer with the fest? And surely a James Beard nomination or four could be at least partially attributed to the assistance of masses of media penning in-depth reports on area chefs during a fest visit. Which is to say, you can argue ticket prices and event styles all day, but if you love food in this town, you have to give some credit to the Charleston Wine + Food Festival and the people behind it.
"This thing would not happen without the kindness of a lot of local people, especially in the first few years" says Crosby. "People like Chef Fred Neuville, who was at that time executive chef at Rue. He didn't have to come out and bring freezers and extension cords and he did. Holly Herrick and Callie White, they didn't have to volunteer and cut up cheese and run the kitchens and they did. And they did it well. I think that the heart, and one of the reasons the festival is successful, is that people care about our culinary community."
As for the festival's future, Marion Sullivan summarizes with this: "A baby crawls, walks, goes to school, and is now on the cusp of the exciting years as a teenager."