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Food, wine, and sunshine at Savannah’s inaugural Food and Wine Festival

Sold-out event a big success in its first year

The sunny skies and seventy-degree weather made it hard to remember it was the middle of November this past weekend at Savannah’s inaugural Food and Wine Festival. Thousands gathered in the city’s Ellis Square for Saturday’s “Taste of Savannah,” an event that marked the culmination of a weeklong festival. In total, an estimated 7,500 people attended the festival, half of whom came from out of town.

James Beard award-winner Elizabeth Terry—who founded (and later sold) Elizabeth on 37th but remains a Savannah culinary icon—jumpstarted the festivities with a wine dinner last Monday. A movie screening of “Somm,” a celebrity chef wine dinner, an auction, and a cooking class followed through the week. The festival kicked into high gear on Friday with cooking demos and classes during the day and a wine stroll and riverboat wine and dinner cruise in the late evening. Come Saturday, hordes flocked to the square to sample fare from local restaurants like 45 Bistro, Leopold’s Ice Cream, Garibaldi’s Cafe, and Lady and Sons as well as various wines and spirits.

Fearful of endless lines, mediocre food, and cheap wine, I tend to avoid these events, but Savannah was proof that such large-scale festivals can be delicious, enjoyable, and even personal. Call it Southern hospitality as vendors and festival-goers alike were sincere and talkative. Wait times were often as short as seconds. The wine was, in many cases, shockingly high in quality.

Various celebrity chefs participated in the festival, but one in particular was noticeably absent: Paula Deen. While her son, Bobby, showed up to sign autographs and her restaurant, Lady and Sons, dished out superb fried chicken, the buttery queen herself was missing. It’s been a long, tumultuous few months for the chef who has brought Savannah so much business. Sources say that she was invited but chose to lay low.

But even in her absence, the festival had another culinary giant to showcase: winemaker Robert Mondavi Jr., who was involved in the festival’s planning from the beginning. No doubt his support was integral to the event’s success. Late Saturday night, Mondavi hosted a private wine dinner where he guided a room of nearly 200 diners through top wines from his cellar. The highlight of the night was Mondavi’s birth-year wine brought from his personal cellar: a 1971 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon that had a heady nose like port and intense notes of black currant.

By all accounts, Savannah’s first foray into a food and wine festival was a thrilling success. Every planned event sold out, and volunteers I spoke with said that the behind-the-scenes was almost as smooth as what we all experienced on the front.

One memory will forever stick with me: After Mondavi gave his speech at the dinner, he walked across the room and sat down in an empty chair beside me to greet the table. Shocked, nervous, and confused, we were lost for words. What exactly does one say to the man whose family established Napa Valley as a serious wine region back in 1966, a time when the world believed only the French were capable of greatness.

Mondavi would go on to greet every table in the room and chat with anyone willing to engage him. The man was personal, accessible, and lighthearted, and if the 2014 festival aspires for that same vibe, I’ll be the first to buy tickets.