By Harriet McLeod
Published March 10, 2014
The BB&T Charleston Wine and Food Festival is considered the Super Bowl for local chefs.
“The food scene in Charleston is just as relevant as in any of those heavy-hitting metro areas, Chicago and New York and LA,” said the new festival director, Gillian Trimboli-Zettler, who added that booking the festival “has become less of a call to action and more of finding a place to put all the chefs who want to come.”
The festival wrapped up its ninth annual long weekend of events with good crowds despite steady rain and cold on Thursday and Friday, its opening night and day, Trimboli-Zettler said.
The festival’s tasting tents were pitched in Marion Square, and events spread into restaurants and outdoor venues throughout Charleston. More than 100 of them participated this year, along with about 50 chefs from elsewhere.
A Long Island native, Trimboli-Zettler grew up in Vermont and came to Charleston by way of Clemson University and Greenville. This was her first Charleston festival.
“I was thrown into the frying pan,” she said. “We rolled out a really indestructible rain plan with temporary sidewalks so guests weren’t sloshing through the mud. And the tent was made toasty, so I think once people got inside no one was thinking about how nasty it was outside.”
Sold-out events included cooking demonstrations, pop-up luncheons, $175 “perfectly paired” five-course wine-tasting dinners at Charleston restaurants and a showcase of cookbook authors at the William Aiken House.
On Saturday afternoon in the brick courtyard of Zero George, Charleston’s new boutique hotel, Virginia chefs and food purveyors showcased their products to festivalgoers.
Rounded up by the Virginia Tourism Corp., they included three oyster farmers, a cider-maker, a cheese maker and a grass-fed lamb producer.
Selling oysters grown in cages in the Chesapeake Bay to the Lowcountry, which has its own salty wild oysters, might seem a stretch.
“Charleston Food and Wine Festival is like going to a high school reunion,” said Travis Croxton, owner of Rappahannock River Oysters in Topping, Va. “It’s less about selling product and more about being friends with everybody.”
But business is certainly done at the festival, said Jon Wehner, owner of Chatham Vineyards on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Wehner said he signed a Charleston-area distribution deal with Harry Root of Grassroots Wine Wholesalers over the weekend.
“There’s a tremendous market here,” said Tom Gallivan, owner of Shooting Point Oyster Co. in Franktown, Va. “Charleston is absolutely the pinnacle and the epicenter of Southern cuisine and culture.”
Attendance numbers for the festival won’t be available for several weeks. Last year’s festival drew about 23,000 people.
The festival employs seven full-time staff members, eight contract staffers for the six months bracketing the event and about 380 volunteers, Trimboli-Zettler said. The festival also has five directors, an eight-member board and a 19-member advisory council.