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An Interview with Greg O’Byrne, Executive Director of Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta since 1994; Kate Collins,
Board Member, Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta; and Michael Trujillo, President of Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta
Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta Board, photo courtesy of SFWCF.
The Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta is an annual five-day weekend of events featuring the culinary artistry found in Santa Fe’s many excellent restaurants coupled with wines from international wineries. By bringing a hundred international wineries to Santa Fe to partner with seventy-five of Santa Fe’s best restaurants, the five-day fiesta features cooking demos, wine seminars, winery luncheons, and dinners. The weekend culminates with the Grand Tasting at the Santa Fe Opera, where all participating restaurants and wineries serve samples of their best food and wine.
What is Santa Fe Wine & Chile’s backstory?
O’Byrne: On a bright and slightly cool afternoon in the Santa Fe Railyard on the last Saturday of September 1991, a one-day food and wine event took place. For ten dollars, you could buy a coupon book with ten chits, each one redeemable for either a taste from one of the twenty participating Santa Fe restaurants or a sip from one of twenty California wineries. Forty tasting booths were lined along the perimeter of the L-shaped parking lot behind Sanbusco Center. In the front corner, a street vendor slowly turned the handle on his chile roaster, blistering a fresh batch of Hatch green, the smoke wafting into the crisp fall air. In a smallish tent on the opposite corner, Mark Miller of Coyote Café in Santa Fe, Rick Bayless from Tompolobampo in Chicago, and Stephen Pyles from Routh Street Cafe in Dallas took turns demonstrating their techniques cooking with chiles. The SFWCF was the 1991 brainchild of Mark Miller, Al Lucero, and Gordon Heiss. While other national food and wine events focus on globetrotting celebrity guest chefs, national magazine advertisers, or Food Network stars (some of whom have never worked in a restaurant), the identity of the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, since its inception, has always been about the Santa Fe restaurant community.
Collins: In early July 1991, I received a phone call from Gordon Heiss, manager of La Casa Sena, asking for my help on a project he and Mark Miller of Coyote Café had come up with. I was just one year into owning Little Canyon Wines wholesale distribution company and was eager to please two important customers. Gordon laid out their ideas, asked me to help procure wineries, owners (preferably), and reps to come support and participate. Of course I said yes, and then asked if he was planning this for next year in September. “Oh, no, nine weeks from now.” I told him I would do my best. Luckily I was able to bring seven wineries to our first “Santa Fe Chile & Wine Fiesta.” Yes, that was its first name, switched by the second year. Now in its twenty-eighth year and with ninety wineries, there is great pride, and nostalgia, looking back at how it all began with big idea people and all those who helped to produce it.
How does the festival help keep Santa Fe on the map as a world-class culinary destination?
O’Byrne: We simply promote what our unique and amazing culinary community does. Though not a large market for wineries, the highly visible Santa Fe restaurant scene attracts nearly one hundred wineries a year to the event, all of whom want to showcase their wine alongside our restaurants. Relationships between restaurants and wineries are fostered, restaurants become more wine-savvy, events take place year round—it’s a win-win for consumers, wineries, and restaurants alike.
Collins: It was Mark Miller’s and Gordon Heiss’s vision to create an event to spotlight the quality and diversity of the culinary scene here in Santa Fe, even then. Both were terrific promoters and marketers, touring around the United States lauding Santa Fe. From the very beginning, SFWCF invited notable chefs to come to Santa Fe and work alongside our local chefs and restaurants to showcase Santa Fe as truly a culinary destination. We have continued to accomplish that every year. Just look at the list of guest chefs we’ve had over these many years. All of them excited to come and do what they do best.
What are the biggest challenges coordinating such a large, multi-day event?
O’Byrne: Permits and ice.
Collins: We are a board with a very strong bond that holds us together, with terrific help, in so many ways, including our executive director, Greg [O’Byrne], now celebrating his twenty-fifth year. In addition is Katherine Wright, our ticketing director, and all the contacts and businesses that we’ve worked with. SFWCF is a well-oiled machine with hard-working, dedicated people to help run it right. It is not a competition, and everyone works for the same purpose: To make our guests really glad that they’ve come to Santa Fe.
Trujillo: In my opinion, coordination is the key to any event. You have to remember this isn’t something that we start in the month of May and say okay we’re going to have a big party in September. This event is planned and worked on all year long. We have timelines that are set and we must be able to follow through with that to make sure that the customers are happy.
The event pairs seventy-five local restaurants with a hundred international wineries; how do New Mexico wines stack up against wines from across the country and world?
O’Byrne: Vivác, Gruet, Don Quixote, Black Mesa, Casa Rondeña, and other New Mexico wineries have been featured every year at the fiesta, and for good reason. Guests are impressed with the local wines tasted alongside wines from around the world.
Collins: We are thrilled to have our New Mexico wineries participate. Gruet is our shining star. It has been our sponsor champagne house with the Gruet family from France here to help us celebrate. The quality of our New Mexico wineries is impressive and quite historic. Our guests so enjoy the opportunity to taste them.
Trujillo: I am proud to say New Mexico wines are a big part of Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta.
What is your favorite memory from a past event?
O’Byrne: So many great experiences, hard to say—Joe Heitz hosting a vertical of his Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet; Paul Draper pouring eight vintages of Ridge Monte Bello; Win Wilson pouring a horizontal of Domaine Dujac and Domaine Romanée Conti; Robert Mondavi silencing a room of a thousand guests when he walked into the Reserve Tasting; Veronique Drouhin as our first Honorary Vintner of the Year; working with Rick Bayless, Stephan Pyles, Mark Miller, John Sedlar, Nancy Oakes, Suzanne Goin—gosh, I don’t know where to begin, really. But if I had to pick one experience it would be hanging with Jean Louis Palladin and smoking Gauloise cigarettes and sipping wine with him after his events.
Collins: The first year our Grand Tasting was set up at the Santa Fe Opera. Driving north that Saturday morning, coming over the last hill and seeing the huge bright white tents filling up my view. It was breathtaking and so exciting. You could just feel that we had arrived!
Trujillo: As wonderful and nice as this event is, we do not rest on our laurels. The board challenges us to make sure that every year’s event is better than the year before.
Which Wine & Chile events are you most excited about this year?
O’Byrne: Our Friday Rosé All Day event on the patio with four guest chefs—John Tesar from Dallas, Michael Ginor from Hudson Valley Foie Gras, Matthew Accarrino from SPQR in San Francisco, and Gabriel Rucker from Le Pigeon in Portland—serving tastes with four rosé wine stations showing rosé wines from around the world.
Collins: Hands down, all of them!
Trujillo: I think one of the things that excites me most this year is the reserve tasting. We have been working to make that a dynamic event and I think we’re finally reaching the point where it is one of the best in the country.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with edible readers?
O’Byrne: It’s not what you drink, but who you drink it with that counts.
Collins: Come enjoy Santa Fe’s very best week of hospitality. You won’t be disappointed!
Trujillo: The commitment at the board is absolutely incredible. We put an enormous amount of time as board members into this being a great success, and I would like to thank the dedicated board members as well as our fantastic executive director for this team effort.