'I'm an optimist at heart," says Ken Loyst, president of the San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival. "I think there are enough people out there who like wine and good food and who would come to an event like this." The Festival, which took place for the first time from November 10 to 13, was four days of wine dinners at local restaurants, cooking classes, wine classes and wine tastings, capped off by a Grand Event and Live Auction held under white tents along Embarcadero Park North.
Loyst, who once published the magazines Discover Diving and Diving Report, has been running events with his partner for over 20 years, first in San Diego, then in Atlanta, Santa Clara, and Dallas. It started with diving and adventure travel, but "after I sold my magazine to Peterson Publishing, we became part of the team that started the Gravity Games." Then he took over a large trade show dedicated to diving and travel.
Ten years ago, a friend invited him to Santa Fe, where he attended the city's Wine & Chile Festival. "They have about 3,000 people who come from all over the place. They sell out every year in advance. Every year they have about 60-70 restaurants and 90 wineries." The wheels started turning. If Santa Fe could do it, why not San Diego? "San Diego has enough culinary experiences, and obviously a big enough marketplace for the wineries to be interested." Loyst started attending distributor tastings, asking vendors if they'd be interested in promoting their product in San Diego.
Overwhelmingly, the answer was yes. Despite the region's stubbornly low profile among gourmands, "I found that the wineries believe this is an extremely important market for them. The notion that San Diego is a second city when it comes to wine and food is definitely something we're trying to take on." At this year's Festival, 140 wineries came in and poured their wines. "Santa Fe, in their first year, had 20."
Loyst attended similar events in Aspen and Miami Beach, and found them respectively too expensive and too tied to a single distributor. Santa Fe proved the model he was looking for, not least because it brought in plenty of out-of-towners along with the locals. "I think this event will be good for San Diego," he says, his optimism showing. "I think the city needs one big event that people from around the country can come to and say, 'Wow!' We want to have 50 percent of the attendees come from out of town." November seemed the perfect time, with fine weather while much of the country is getting chilly. (The Grand Event survived a rainy-morning scare and took place under a cloudless afternoon sky.) November is downtime at most wineries, coming between the rush of harvest and the event tastings of January, and a slower month for San Diego tourism in general.
Given the potential benefit to the region, Loyst was surprised he didn't get more support "from the city or from the port or somebody. We're promoting the city!" The Port District, while happy to host the event, deemed it too pricey to merit assistance. Loyst argues that, at $85 for the Grand Event, it's cheaper than Santa Fe, Miami, and Aspen. Further, "I'm a season ticket holder with the Padres," recipients of more than a little public funding for their new ballpark. "I said, 'I know some tickets that, per seat, are more expensive than this event. I don't see why ticket price has anything to do with it.' And the Convention Center would not only not negotiate with us, they hardly ever returned our calls. I think this would have been a fun event to do up in the sail area of the Convention Center. Oh, well."
The Westgate Hotel, on the other hand, "was very easy to work with. They do their World of Wine thing for the month of November, and so they kind of opened their arms to us and had us be part of their event." The hotel provided space for the Festival's tasting classes, as well as the Friday night reserve tasting and silent auction, which benefited the American Institute of Wine and Food.
(Another auction was held during Saturday's main event; proceeds went toward the establishment of a culinary scholarship. Vendors were given a discount if they donated, and I was tempted by the magnum of 1980 Chappellet Cabernet being shown as I moseyed past the auction stage. "A lot of the vendors really stepped up to the plate," says Loyst. "I think the Chappellet went for $800-$900, and I think it was worth a lot more than that.")
Loyst also had trouble getting local wineries to participate. Orfila, always game to pour with the big boys from up north, was there, as were Wilson Creek, Falkner, and Stuart Cellars from Temecula. But it might have been fun to taste a Witch Creek Mourvedre up against the Tablas Creek Cote du Tablas Rouge, or a Mon Lis Pinot against one from Windward Vineyard. "You've got all these big names that are going to draw people in -- Paoletti and Conn Valley and Grgich and Duckhorn. What better opportunity to get your wine in front of people?"
Still, more went right than wrong, especially for a first-year event. "The restaurants really put on a show" at the Grand Event. El Bizcocho was there, serving little cups of Jerusalem artichoke soup. The Westgate's Le Fountainbleu had a table, as did Peohe's and Dick's Last Resort and a host of others. Sam Adams and Rogue Ale poured beer. And Loyst brought in an idea of his own to supplement the standard wine-and-food extravaganza. "We wanted to add gourmet food companies and culinary-related exhibits. We had Maple Leaf Sausage and Harvest Ranch Market; Legacy gourmet nuts; Rock Melon Distributors, who did all the rubbing spices. We had Apex Wine Cellars, winefurnishings.com, and a pottery vendor. I think those things add a little bit more interest to a thing like this. Our intent is to grow that."
And to grow the event in general. "We were shooting for 1,000 people, and we had just under 650. But for a first year, it was absolutely a success. I think it's going to double in size next year. I have a waiting list of 45 to 50 wineries. ...Some said they didn't do first-year events, but would do the second year; others said they had a conflict with the dates but would keep them open for next year. I haven't had anybody say they don't want to come back."