For almost two decades, food and drink festivals have been a booming trend. It seems that now almost every city, town and village has its own version, providing an excuse for tourists and locals alike to swirl some wine, sip local liquors, sample bites from area restaurants and mingle.
In smaller towns, the events often function as trade shows, featuring tastings where local restaurants and wineries can show off their flavors in phyllo cups, disposable plates and short pours. In bigger cities like Charleston and Atlanta, the festivals sprawl on for days, offering panel discussions, spirited dinners and chefs visiting from far afield in an attempt to capture the culinary culture of an entire region.
After a decade of annual events, the Asheville Wine & Food Festival didn’t make its usual appearance this summer. Previously held indoors — mostly at the U.S. Cellular Center with a few years at the WNC Agricultural Center — last year’s festival transformed into an outdoor affair at Pack Square Park, with fewer restaurants represented and the Grand Tasting event spread out over two days instead of its usual one. The 2017 festival also happened to fall on the same day that local protesters, in the wake of the deadly Charlottesville, Va., Unite the Right rally, gathered at Pack Square Park to express opposition to its monuments to Robert E. Lee, Zebulon Vance and Confederate Col. John K. Connally.
Despite some reports earlier this year that the AWFF was finished for good, founder and director Bob Bowles says the rumors of the event’s death have been greatly exaggerated. “Not so much pulling the plug,” he says. “[It’s] just that the event space at the U.S. Cellular Center was not available this August due to major repairs, and the city park where we were at last year is still experiencing civic controversy, and we could not guarantee the safety of festival attendees.”
While the protests have not deterred other recent festivals from taking place in the shadow of the Vance obelisk, including LEAF Downtown, Asheville Yoga Fest, Vegan Fest and others, Bowles insists security was a critical concern. He points to arrests made for vandalism to park monuments the morning of the festival’s kickoff last year, adding that attempts have been made to relocate the event. “We were unsuccessful in finding another area that could accommodate the 5,000 festivalgoers and their parking needs either in the city or at the Ag Center, as we had done in the past,” he says.
There’s at least one event in its planning stages that won’t shy away from locating at Pack Square. On Aug. 29, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority awarded $75,000 from its event support budget to help launch a new food and beverage festival concept proposed by a group of local chefs, farmers and business owners operating under the incorporated name Asheville Culinary Festival.
The actual name for the event is still undecided, says organizer Katie Button, executive chef and co-owner of Cúrate and Nightbell, but tentative plans call for a September 2019 debut using Pack Square Park as the center of activity. “What we presented [to the TDA] was a hub-and-spokes setup, with Pack Square as the hub and conference rooms in surrounding hotels used for smaller educational components,” she explains. That Pack Square hub, she adds, would potentially include demonstration and food-tasting areas and a makers market, while offsite experiences would be hosted at local restaurants, farms and other locations.
The aim is to start off slowly with a goal of attracting 5,000 guests the first year, drawing from Charlotte, Charleston, Atlanta and other metro areas that Explore Asheville also targets with its media campaigns. “For year one, we’re keeping it small, and we’ll adjust that as we see what the demand is and how this grows,” says Button.
Along with Button, the board leading coordination of the event includes Meherwan Irani of the Chai Pani Restaurant Group, Asheville Independent Restaurants Executive Director Jane Anderson, Jael Rattigan of French Broad Chocolates, Peter Pollay of Posana restaurant and Mandara Hospitality Group, John Fleer of Rhubarb, Kevin Barnes of Ultimate Ice Cream, Dodie Stephens and Stephanie Pace Brown of Explore Asheville, Connie Matisse of East Fork Pottery, Aaron Grier of Gaining Ground Farm, Charlie Hodge of Sovereign Remedies and Jess Reiser of Burial Beer Co.
“We’re trying to create something that is uniquely Asheville,” says Button. “We all have different ideas about what that is, but when you bring all these different people together and listen to all their ideas, I think we’ll end up with something pretty fun and awesome and interesting. There are plenty of unique festivals out there, and I think Asheville has a lot of potential to create something different that is representative of Asheville and our values.”
The board plans to use the seed money from the TDA to develop branding and hire an event director. At press time, an oral agreement had been reached with Charleston Wine + Food Festival founder Angel Postell to fill that position.
It’s worth noting that of the brands working to coordinate the new festival, only French Broad Chocolates participated in last year’s AWFF. “I would be hesitant to say that what we are talking about is a replacement for the [Asheville] Wine & Food Festival,” says Button. “I think we all felt like there was plenty of room for more than one festival, and we wanted to do that. Food festivals are changing. They are becoming more hands-on and experiential, and we want to do our own that makes sense for the city that we are in.”
Hodge agrees. “People want more than chardonnay and crab cakes now,” he says, noting that the entire notion of a wine and food festival has evolved since such events became trendy. Which begs the question, has the idea played itself out?
Keeping it fresh
“I do think that festivals have lost a little oomph,” says Colleen Minton, who runs the TerraVita Food & Drink Festival in Chapel Hill, which is often referenced as one of the South’s most innovative culinary events. “The pop-up [model] kind of makes the festival look less necessary for people that are looking for delicious food, travel or adventure,” she says, noting that the recent boom in low-cost, inventive pop-up dining events has captured a lot of attention from the same audiences that would otherwise be buying high-priced tickets to food festivals.
In order to compete, keeping things fresh is imperative. “It’s important to make sure you have some aspect of reinvention every year, because people don’t want to just come back and see the same old thing every year,” she says. TerraVita’s four-day schedule of events features award-winning chefs and authors hosting classes that deal with deeper issues of culture and sustainability. Last year’s festival offered workshops that looked at topics such as social justice in the restaurant world, where our food really comes from — which dealt heavily with issues of race and class — and even an examination of how climate change is affecting the wine industry.
Minton, who has been consulting with the planners for Asheville’s forthcoming new festival, continues, “What I notice about the Charleston [Food & Wine Festival] and some of the bigger festivals, they try harder and harder every year to try to venture beyond the norm. So what can we do to attract the wanderlust crowd?”
Bowles says a reimagined version of the Asheville Wine & Food Festival will return next year. “We decided to take a year off and bring the festival back in 2019 with a fresh new footprint, new activities and a new location, which we are in the process of acquiring,” he explains.
He notes that the AWFF’s Elixir spirits event and Sweet & Savory dessert-focused event were held in 2018 and will be back in 2019 as well. And he expresses pride that the festival established Asheville Cocktail Week, which celebrated its third anniversary this spring.
“We are fortunate to live and work in a culturally diverse and a rich food shed in Western North Carolina,” he says. “In cooperation with such groups as Blue Ridge Food Ventures, Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, Slow Food Asheville, French Broad Vignerons, Asheville Independent Restaurants Association and the many breweries, wineries, distilleries and restaurants, we hope that we’ve in some small way contributed to the recognition of our community as a vital sustainable food resource for our region.”