The San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival debuted in 2004, the brainchild of veteran local event planners Ken Loyst and Michelle Metter. The two were also veteran foodies -- both longtime attendees at Wine and Food festivals across America, both wine collectors, and both on the board of the local chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food. Says Metter, "It was just really surprising to us that nothing had been launched in San Diego." Eventually, "It seemed to make sense to blend our core expertise with what we really loved to do." That first year, the festival's Grand Event -- the Saturday food and wine tasting on the Embarcadero -- drew some 800 people. Not bad at all, but I wondered what the future would bring -- whether Metter was right in thinking that "the city was ready for it."
It seems I can stop wondering; Metter reports that this year's festival drew just over 4000 people. It's gotten to the point where Metter and Loyst are having to consider ways of controlling the growth in order to preserve the charm. "We don't want it to be so crowded that people can't get up to the winemakers and talk to them, or to the chefs. I think that's what's fun about these events -- people who are actually creating the products are there, and it's an opportunity to be tactile with them." And not only creators. This year's series of events included a class at the Macy's School of Cooking, hosted by contestants from the first three seasons of Bravo's Top Chef. "That sold out," says Metter. "It speaks to the reality-TV craze, and also to the accessibility of people we might watch on the Food Network. If you're a foodie, you tune in to that kind of stuff. The opportunity to be entertained by them in close proximity is something special. It's fun."
The Top Chef stars helped put the "celebrity" in this year's festival tagline, which advised folks to "Pucker Up! for lip smacking, glass clinking, celebrity watching, swishing, swirling, mouth watering kind of fun!" I'd been reading that line for the better part of a year -- it was impossible to miss the full-page ads in Saveur, which splashed the line next to a painting of three wine bottles, each bearing a label featuring a generously belipped woman in full pucker. The painting was the work of "a very talented young designer named Cynthia Colis," says Metter. "I remembered seeing her art on the wall years ago at an agency I used to work for. She was an artist at ArtWalk, and that's how we found her. We always try to keep in mind that the creative is collectible for a lot of people. They want to take home the event poster, or the point-of-sale poster that has all the sponsors on it. We want whatever we produce to be attractive on a wall. So we look for artists in the community who are doing something in the food and wine scene and base the marketing campaign around the work of the artist we select. This one adds a bit of a playful note -- food and wine are fun, and we wanted to make sure the campaign embodied that."
The ads themselves were the result of symbiosis. The festival gets advertised in a premiere food magazine; the magazine gets a presence at the festival. "This year, we're much more integrated in term of executing some of what Saveur would like to achieve at the event. We've got their wine editor, Paul Lukacs, coming out to teach a panel on Zinfandel producers. And they're integrating some of their brand partners, like Kerry Gold, into different parts of the event." Everybody wins.
"We were looking to build things up," explains Metter, "and we knew that having a national media partner was essential. And we wanted to make sure that the media partner we aligned ourselves with really fit the aesthetic for the event, both in terms of what we were visually creating at the festival and in terms of what the reader would respond to within the publication. We went out into the community and asked a lot of chefs and a lot of foodies in our circle (the AIWF), 'What magazine appeals to you?' Saveur was a common thread, and they seemed to be a really good fit. We find that the articles are in-depth; they really focus on the foodie lifestyle. And we consider it a little more boutique than some other publications. We consider ourselves a kind of boutique event; that's part of the fun. There are definitely mainstream brands involved in our festival, but if you look at the wineries involved, you see that we have so many fresh faces: family winemakers, small producers, people who are making wonderful wines but who just don't have the brand recognition of some of the larger houses. And if you're a wine enthusiast, you want to try as many different wines as you can; discovery is part of the appeal."
The national exposure has paid off, for the festival and for the wineries. "I think we've started attracting a lot of tourists," says Metter, "foodies coming here specifically for the event." And not just foodies. "A lot of the wineries don't have immediate distribution in San Diego, so we also feel like we're performing a sales function, both to the consumer and to the distribution channels. We have a really good number of trade attendees who come to look for new wines. We have wine buyers coming in from Vegas, from Arizona, from Orange County, even from Northern California. They know they're going to see a lot of wineries that might not have the budget to do big sales calls." That fondness for the little guy is why the festival takes its wines on a first-come, first-served basis. "We want everyone to have a fighting chance to get exposure."
Of course, it's not entirely about the little guy -- when it comes to sponsors, it helps to have a few big boys on your list. Cox Communications helps provide media attention, as does Clear Channel, which sponsors the annual Wine Rave. The W Hotel and the Ivy both host events. "We have a program through Orbitz where certain San Diego hotels can offer tickets as a premium to some of their guests. And we have a program with Southwest to offer discounts to people coming into the city." Plus, she adds, "We've had incredible support from the community -- the Port, the City, the California Restaurant Association."
Gratitude for that support from the restaurants led to this year's big addition: the Chef of the Fest award. "All these chefs come out, and it's definitely a drain on their resources -- an event like ours takes a lot of staff, and a lot of product. We wanted to thank them, so we thought, 'Why not have a nice award for the chefs who excel at the Grand Event? It started as a small idea, and it just snowballed. It was amazing to see the number of sponsors who came on board. Gary Thompson of Viejas Casino won this year for his grilled tequila marinated shrimp with spicy tomato gazpacho. He'll take home a trip for two to Turtle Island, Fiji; a professional range from U.S. Food Service, $3000; 12 live lobsters, an entire steer, and more. It's just total abundance."