Five years ago, Bob Bowles was searching desperately for parking in the River Arts District for 600 wine-festival attendees.
Today, Bowles, executive director of the Asheville Wine and Food Festival, has found a bigger venue — and the parking decks it entails. The event now fills the U.S. Cellular Center, Asheville’s largest venue.
This year, about 4,000 people will experience Asheville’s gustatory offerings at the Grand Tasting, the festival’s largest event, the culmination of five days of cooking contests and sampling sessions.
“They really get a chance to see and taste and find what they like,” Bowles says. “Then, after the festival, they get to spend the rest of the Saturday evening going to those places.”
By the numbers, the festival is remarkable. The regional standouts for this sort of event are the Charleston Wine & Food Festival, which represents about 85 vendors at its tasting tents, and the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, which can accommodate about 140 vendors at a time, according to their websites.
The Asheville Wine & Food Festival showcases about 180 restaurants, producers, vineyards, distilleries and nonprofits during the Grand Tasting.
“Look at the population size of Asheville, and compare that to the population size of Atlanta, or even Charleston; it’s really amazing,” says chef Katie Button, who has represented her family’s restaurant, Cúrate, at all three festivals. “Because we have such a strong community and such a strong food community, [we have] these things available in our small city that wouldn’t typically be available.”
How does an event of this magnitude come together? It’s not exactly easy.
The festival takes six to eight months to plan, says Kris Kraft, assistant director.
“I think this is a very large event for Asheville, especially for local Asheville,” she says. “Obviously, we get things like So Con [basketball tournament] and things like that, but those aren’t Asheville celebratory.”
The vendors are about 75 percent local, with a couple of national (and international) brands coming in to provide wine, beer, soda, cider and prepared goods.
“Our food providers, restaurants, anybody who’s local, uses local, supports local, we try to pull from those,” Kraft says. “It’s difficult to do that with wineries.”
By contrast 100 percent of the restaurants are local (assuming you count Farm Burger, which is based in Atlanta).
The chefs bring one- or two-bite samples for attendees to eat while balancing a plate in one hand and a wine glass in the other. Cúrate (which recently won Best Charcuterie, among other awards, in Xpress’ Best of WNC poll) will serve hand-sliced jamon Iberico de bellota, Spanish ham from black-footed, acorn-fed pigs, one of the restaurant’s specialties.
But in a town of hundreds of restaurants, only about 20 participate in the Grand Tasting. (Most of the food samples come from dry goods producers.)
The festival is inherently challenging for small restaurants, Kraft acknowledges. “We invite quite a few more restaurants and wineries than we actually get,” she says. “We find that it is difficult for people to pull away from not only their existing restaurant, but it’s also difficult to take a festival of this size on.”
While there’s no application fee for restaurants (or wineries), they must provide samples for the 4,000 attendees, cover food costs and send staff to work the event — and keep the actual restaurant going at the same time.
Tanya Triber, who owns The Junction with her husband, Charles, says she appreciates the festival but doesn’t attend the Grand Tasting. “As parents and also as owners of a young small business, it’s pretty hard to lift your head up sometimes,” she says. “It seems like it’s already in the works, and it’s [August] when I’m finding out that it’s even happening. It’s a little too late for us to make a decision.”
However, The Junction did go to the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival. That event, which has corporate sponsors, including Food & Wine magazine, covered The Junction’s travel costs and some food costs. Even with festival assistance, the restaurant had to close for a day so the chef could attend.
“We would definitely do the Atlanta one again,” Triber says. “It’s a neat way for restaurant owners and chefs and other people in the industry to connect and form relationships, to get exposed to new and different things.”
Asheville’s festival has yet to become a networking event for chefs, although acclaimed Southern cookbook author and TV star Nathalie Dupree will sign books at the Grand Tasting.
An increased culinary draw could encourage more locals to get involved.
Button says chefs from around the region attend the events in Atlanta and Charleston.“It’s about meeting and networking with other chefs and restaurant professionals,” Button says. “That is the No. 1 reason and what I get the most out of it.”
Still, Button isn’t sure that approach is right for Asheville. “If that’s what we want, it will come in time,” she says. “But for the moment, we’re still a city with a population of 80,000, and it’s impossible for us to really compare ourselves to those other, larger cities that have more resources.”
And by resources, she means money, she clarifies. Almost all of the sponsors of the Asheville event are local, including the Grove Park Inn and WNC Magazine. Charleston’s festival, on the other hand, is funded by the national bank, BB&T.
“We’ve stayed away from commercial sponsorship,” Bowles says. “The biggest challenge is how do we integrate all the wonderful things that are happening in Asheville as it grows and keep reflecting that character?”