Who Benefits When Food and Wine Festivals Come to Town? | Wine Enthusiast
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Who Benefits When Food and Wine Festivals Come to Town?

After a pandemic-induced hiatus, many wine, spirits and food festivals have returned in 2022 for in-person celebrations. Several of these events were founded as nonprofits with the noble goals of promoting the cultures and culinary scenes of their host cities or communities and providing them with economic benefits. 

However, the actual impacts of these events go much deeper, in ways that many feel are both positive and negative.

“We have participated in a few festivals… and were always among very few Black participants,” Subrina Collier, who co-owns Leah & Louise in Charlotte, North Carolina with her husband, Greg, told Resy in August 2021. The Colliers also noted the high price of tickets for guests and cost for participants, which can create an “elitist” culture of participation. 

“As chefs trying to make a name, we need to participate in events, but often, it was at our expense, literally,” Collier told Wine Enthusiast earlier this month. “We’d be coming out of pocket to cover a portion of travel, or more often, to cover the cost of the food we’d be serving.”

In a bid to rectify inequality and inaccessibility, in 2021, the Colliers launched their own culinary event, the three-day BayHaven Food & Wine Festival in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“The BayHaven Food & Wine Festival was launched specifically to celebrate and lift up Black culinarians, creators and beverage industry experts,” says Collier. “And it was incredibly well received, even in our first year out. More than 60 Black chefs and hospitality folks came out, and our inaugural three-day festival at Camp North End in Charlotte was attended by more than 2,000 people from across the United States.”

Bay Haven Food and Wine Festival's "Black Stork Wine Dinner" guests doing cheers with wine glasses.
Bay Haven Food and Wine Festival’s Black Stork Wine Dinner / Alvin C. Jacobs Jr.

Other food and beverage festivals have faced criticisms about compensation and community impact. In a 2019 Los Angeles Times article, “The Festival Industrial Complex,” chefs complained about bearing the financial burden of participation in the Charleston Wine + Food festival, despite rising ticket prices and more than $3 million in reported revenue. 

Alyssa Maute-Smith, the festival’s Marketing and Communications Director, contested the characterization, asking the author of that article, Hanna Raskin, to swap the word “revenue” for “gross receipts.” The author declined to make that change.

“She referenced numbers from our 2019 990 report, which can be found online,” says Maute-Smith of the financial form all nonprofits must make public. “The biggest misconception of that piece is that she presented the revenue number as what the festival ‘made,’ but this number is simply gross revenue and does not take into account the cost of actually producing the event.” 

“As chefs trying to make a name, we need to participate in events, but often, it was at our expense, literally.” —Subrina Collier, co-owner, Leah & Louise

The festival organizers listened to criticisms and shared an annual report from 2021 which noted “listening sessions” with chefs and the beverage community to help “break down barriers to festival participation,” says Maute-Smith. 

Listening turned into action for this year’s event, which took place March 2–6, 2022. 

“In 2022, we covered the food costs for all our participating talent,” says Maute-Smith. “Our culinary team managed the food product for every single chef that participated, and we covered the travel and accommodation for all our visiting talent. Additionally, this year we increased the per-head stipends we pay the host restaurants for our Signature Dinner, Brunch and Lunch series to help offset the rising cost of food products. We did everything in our power to make sure everyone was taken care of and felt supported.”

Charleston Wine and Food Festival's "Night Bazaar"
Night Bazaar at Charleston Wine and Food Festival / Courtesy Charleston Wine and Food Festival

Some locals believe the festival has driven valuable attention and income to the city’s culinary scene as well.

In 2005, Charleston Wine + Food was founded by a group of community leaders who coalesced around a “vision of creating an event promote and elevate Charleston’s culinary brand,” according to the mission statement on its website. 

“When the festival started, it was history that drew people here, to see the houses south of Broad and get a taste of the Old South,” says Mickey Bakst, general manager of the Charleston Grill from 2004–2020. “Nobody thought of Charleston as a culinary destination.” 

During the last decade, buzz around the festival grew. New York City chefs and critics started showing up, as did national sommeliers and winemakers.

“We had Andrew Carmellini, Michael Anthony from Gramercy Tavern, Danny Meyer, Ruth Reichl, Eric Asimov,” says Bakst. “All of them came to Charleston as a direct result of the festival.” Charleston’s hospitality community and population grew as a result of “people who had fallen in love with the city during the festival.” 

International Pinot Noir Celebration Grand Dinner night
International Pinot Noir Celebration Grand Dinner / Chelsey Nichol

Of course, not all Charlestonians favor outsiders headlining events meant to showcase local prowess. This concern is especially poignant for chefs who lack the resources to participate yet need exposure the most.

In 2019, Charleston native and certified sommelier Brooke Warden opened Pink Cactus, a laid-back, Oaxacan-style restaurant. She was invited to participate in the Charleston Wine + Food Festival this year, she says, but the math didn’t work in her favor. 

“As much as I love the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, we weren’t able to participate due to staffing concerns and costs associated with the event,” says Warden. “We are a smaller business and being still in the height of the staffing crisis, we just couldn’t swing it. But, we hope to be able to participate in 2023.”

The 2022 festival sold 50% of its tickets on launch day and 75% within the first two weeks of release. The list of local talent ran long, with names like Mike Lata of Fig, Tia Clark of Casual Crabbing, Aaron Siegel of Home Team BBQ, Jeremiah Bacon of Oak Steakhouse, Nikko Cagalanan of Mansueta’s Filipino Food, and BJ Dennis, a private chef who preserves the culinary heritage of the Gullah Geechee.  At the festival, April Dove of Tha Community and Lindsey Williams of Charleston Wine Co. led tastings, seminars and programming like Soul Stroll, Exploring Black Spirituality through Food, Craft for the Culture and Island Hopping, which touched on Charleston’s rum history. The festival’s beverage director, Cha McCoy, led a dinner and tasting focused on Madeira called The Communion: Reclamation Through Madeira, in which she traced the legacy of today’s Black sommeliers to early social drinking clubs.

Spirits event crowd with woman laughing in middle.
Indie Spirits That Rock at Tales of the Cocktail / Bryan Tarnowski

Several years ago, Tales of the Cocktail (TOTC) faced its own slew of complaints. Like many of its counterparts, TOTC started small. The first iteration, in 2002, comprised a walking tour of historic New Orleans bars. As it grew, attendees came to view the five-day conference filled with seminars, tastings, competitions and networking as the industry’s premier event. It also aimed to boost New Orleans’ tourism economy during the sultry summer off-season.

“At its peak, the number of people that it brought into the French Quarter was around 30,000,” says Prairie Rose, a cocktail writer, author and commerce editor for Liquor.com. “That’s a lot of business…and these are hospitality folks, so they go out and spend money and document their visits on social media.”

Around 30,000 people attended in 2016, just before scandals erupted around festival founders Ann and Paul Tuennerman in 2017. Issues ranged from Ms. Tuennerman donning blackface, to the founding duo paying themselves $844,760 each in “professional fees,” to rising participation costs, to pressuring bartenders to blackball brands that don’t formally participate, to lack of meaningful acknowledgement of a death at an official event.

Marching band on the streets of New Orleans
Marching band at Tales of the Cocktail / Randy Schmidt

“What has festered within Tales of the Cocktail as a, quite frankly, abusive organization with a blatant disregard for the community it claims to support, had been taking place for years,” Amanda Schuster wrote in Alcohol Professor. She, like many other former festival goers, quit attending.

This turmoil led to the event’s sale. In February 2018, the Solomon family, with the active support of New Orleans bar owner Neal Bodenheimer, purchased the trademarks for Tales of the Cocktail. New leadership committed to a mission of education, support and advancement of the industry. 

“When Tales of the Cocktail Foundation was founded in 2018, we knew that we needed to demonstrate to our community that we were prepared to listen, collaborate and build meaningful programming initiatives and events together,” says CEO Eileen Wayner.

They established an Education and Grants committee, Beyond the Bar, for resources like mental and physical wellness, substance use and sexual harassment support. They also hired external experts to advise on the creation of a Code of Conduct policy.

“When I wrote that piece in 2017, it had become clear TOTC had lost the plot, favoring sponsorship and profit over the sense of community that had helped build it up,” Schuster tells Wine Enthusiast. “I was gobsmacked last year when I was invited to be a media judge for the Spirited Awards, but I gladly accepted because that invitation only proves how much of a sense of inclusion has returned to the heart of the conference.” 

This year marks the festival’s 20th anniversary. The theme is “Progress.” 

Food and wine festivals bottles

Oregon’s premier wine event, the International Pinot Noir Conference (IPNC), debuted in 1987. A roundtable of U.S. winemakers lured Burgundians to their quiet slice of wine country with the promise of a great party. 

“Top names such as Roumier, Dujac and Lafon showed up,” says Amy Wesselman, executive director of IPNC. That first year, 300 tickets were sold for $195. Tickets for the three-day event scheduled for July 2022 cost $1,395. 

Kitri McGuire, marketing director for Visit McMinnville, believes IPNC “helped put Oregon as a wine region on the map.” When it started in the ‘80s, McMinnville had a population of 10,000 and one fine-dining restaurant, Nick’s Italian Café. Winemakers would congregate there to socialize, share tips and devise ways to promote brand Oregon. 

Today, the town has expanded to more than 34,000 residents and continues to grow. Ancillary businesses have launched and sustained themselves following the festival. 

“My very first day in the wine industry was working the IPNC Thursday night dinner at Domaine Serene in 2002,” says Courtney Cunningham, who fell in love with the area after she worked the event. “They were hosting Henriot for the pre-IPNC dinner that year. That was the experience that made me want to move to the valley and be in the wine industry.”

She now co-owns two local restaurants: Community Plate, a beloved daytime spot, and Pizza Capo, which serves Neapolitan-style pies. 

Chef Jamie Barns prepping for festival dinner.
Chef Jamie Barns at Bay Haven Food and Wine festival / Clay Williams

The festival also inspired some winemakers to move to Oregon. Thomas Savre, a native of France who completed an internship at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, first attended IPNC in 2014. While there, he met Larry Stone, MS, who offered him a job as the first winemaker and first employee to make the first vintage from Stone’s vineyard. He remains with the brand, Lingua Franca, today.

Alexandrine Roy, fourth generation winemaker at Domaine Marc Roy, met Robert Morus, president of Phelps Creek Vineyards, in 2007. “My team was ecstatic over the opportunity to greet true Burgundians on our estate,” Morus says.

Morus seized the moment and made an offer to Roy. “I suggested she join our team following her harvest in Gevrey-Chambertin,” he says. “Late in the evening, to the glowing embers of the salmon bake, Alexandrine accepted my proposal.”  

The 2017 Grand Seminar at IPNC featured a panel of five Burgundians who made wine annually in both Burgundy and Oregon. Roy was one of the panelists. 

“To 600 guests, she presented our 2013 and 2014 Phelps Creek Cuveé Alexandrine Pinot Noirs, Columbia Gorge,” says Morus. “The 2017 event was extra special for Alexandrine and me because it marked the 10th anniversary of our collaboration.” 

To McGuire, the festival is special. She calls it “the social heart of the industry. Lots of winemakers and owners and cellar folk live around here, and it all comes down to the early wine pioneers who dreamed up IPNC.”

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