Santa Fe: Heat, Drink, and Merry

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by Paul Ross   

The Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta

Heat, Drink & Be Merry:
The Secret of the Success of
The Santa Fe Wine and Chile
Fiesta’s “Grand Tasting” Party 2001


How do you get 2,000 people to shell out $75 apiece for an event with nary a pop star nor a politician in sight? The annual Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta’s “Grand Tasting” has been doing that for more than a decade. The featured attractions are good food, fine wine, and a sprinkling of superstar chefs including Santa Fe’s own Mark Miller (Coyote Café), Martin Rios (The Old House), Fernando Olea (El Encanto), and Eric DiStefano (Geronimo) in addition to chefs and wine experts from New York, San Francisco, England, Italy, Germany, France, and Australia.

Held under massive tents on the grounds of the Santa Fe Opera, the Grand Tasting is the most popular event at a week-long festival of cooking demonstrations and classes, wine tastings and dinners, and even a winery-sponsored golf classic. It’s an amazing success for something that began as a trade publicity gathering in a parking lot.

“Now we have to turn away a couple hundred people,” said the festival’s executive director Greg O’Byrne, adding, “It’s more than a sell out event.” That’s really impressive when you consider that the Wine & Chile Fiesta relies principally on word-of-mouth to attract an audience. (They also maintain a mailing list and do a little “selective advertising.”) Jennifer Rios, director of publicity, concurs: “The majority of people who attend the Grand Tasting are locals with the remainder coming from the Southwest–mainly neighboring Texas but also Arizona, Colorado, and California.”

Café Pasqual’sfestive booth and staff


Café Pasqual’s
festive booth and staff


To facilitate handling the crowd, parking is off-site (but convenient) and shuttle buses ferry folk to the location. According to O’Byrne, another added security feature is that admission is guaranteed via highly-visible “hospital ID-type disposable plastic bracelets.”

As for beverage and food-serving participants, Rios said that they were drawn from “an invitation list of every restaurant in Santa Fe county that has a wine license.” Sixty of the best participated this year along with committee-selected representatives of 100 national wineries and distributors. Dishes served ranged from Shrimp & Scallop Ceviche to Chipotle Chicken to green chile cheese grits to a “Santa Fe Gumbo.” Vintages poured represented just about every major wine-producing region in the world.

The booth of La Casa Sena Restaurant


The booth of
La Casa Sena Restaurant



President of the host organization and fiesta participant (as co-owner of The Compound restaurant), Brett Kemmerer is in a unique position to understand all aspects of the Grand Tasting event. He makes every effort to be gustatorially-memorable as well as entertaining. He outdid his previous year’s offering (foie gras corn dogs –really!) with unabashed piggyness: to be specific, Porchetta. A squad of whole suckling pigs was lined-up on long grills waiting to be carved by lively snout-wearing chefs who served them up with Mascarpone Polenta accompanied by sautéed wild mushrooms in a Spanish sherry sauce with green chile. Both the dish and the presentation were highly talked-about at the event, and the restaurant has already seen a boost in business from new clientele. “During the Fiesta, we hold private dinners for fellow restaurateurs,” said Kammerer, “but at the Grand Tasting we cater to wine and food enthusiasts–and party folk.” He said each participant should plan to serve approximately 1,000 tastes, or enough for about forty percent of the overall attendees. He candidly admits that at the Grand Tasting, he spends “between $1,000 and $2,000 on labor” but is gratified by the result. “This year’s event was the best I’ve ever seen,” he beams, and it generated “the most positive feedback in the history of the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta.” A side benefit is that it’s not officially a charity event, but attendance at fiesta activities netted $35,000, which will be donated to a variety of good causes.

Meetings held during the up-coming months will shape next year’s proceedings. Personally, Kammerer would like to have a permanent building dedicated to the fiesta. As it now stands, The Grand Tasting will again be held the last weekend in September under tents at the opera and tickets should be in the same price range. Some have already been sold!

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