They say it’s the journey, not the destination. The Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta is certainly a journey: a six-day accumulation of wine and food experiences — some innovative and some surprising, as well as tasty.

Take the Champagne & Fried Chicken luncheon. Who knew how delicious this pairing could be? For one: Michael Bassler of North Berkeley Imports, a California-based company specializing in wine from France and Italy. Guest chef Allison Jenkins of Arroyo Vino prepares her notable fried chicken, and Bassler pours four grand crus and premier cru champagnes from Domaine Francis Orban and Domaine Petit & Bijan (noon to 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 25, at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center, 201 W. Marcy St.).

“We have a lot of people who still like the sit-down seminars or luncheons,” says executive director Greg O’Byrne of the line-up of events slated for this year’s incarnation of the festival, which is in its 29th year. “But we’ve also found that people enjoy these casual walk-around events,”

Recently dubbed the third best wine festival in the country by USA Today readers, The Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta brings 90 wineries and merchants (including much-lauded vintners like Silver Oak, Caymus, Ridge, Justin, and Stag’s Leap) and 75 Santa Fe restaurants (including award-winning spots like Geronimo, The Compound, Maria’s, L’Olivier, and Market Steer Steakhouse). The wine is featured in seminars, wine lunches and dinners, guest chef cooking demos, and a Reserve Tasting of often hard-to-find or high-end labels (4-6:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 27, at the convention center). The event’s apex is the Grand Tasting (1-4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28), which annually draws some 3,000 attendees to the have a little bite or a sip under the three titanic tents on the grounds of Santa Fe Opera (301 Opera Drive).

Half the fiesta-goers hail from out of state, O’Byrne says. The other half travel from within New Mexico, most coming from Santa Fe and Albuquerque. It’s the state’s largest foodie event, and it has gained national attention.

“There’s a lot of food and wine events around the country, but having 75 Santa Fe restaurants makes us unique,” O’Byrne says. “Our restaurant scene is unique because of our chile and our tricultural heritage, which not everyone uses but everyone is influenced by. Wineries want to be here because they love our Santa Fe restaurants, too. They’re not the highest volume placements, but they’re high profile placements because our restaurants are so good.”

The boutique nature of the organizers also sets the festival apart. A volunteer board runs the nonprofit event, unlike festivals such as the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, put on by Food & Wine magazine.

Beyond the many local chefs participating in the Grand Tasting, a handful will join in throughout the week. Chef Nathan Mayes, co-owner and chef of upscale Mexican restaurant Paloma, is participating for the first time. He’s joining Eduardo Rodriguez of Coyote Cafe, Josh Gerwin of Dr. Field Goods, and Fernando Ruiz of Chama Land & Cattle Co., in a wine-pairing battle with sommeliers Lindsey Geddes, Steve Geddes, Tim Gaiser, and Joe Spellman at the Master Sommelier Throwdown! (11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 25, at Coyote Cafe, 132 W. Water St.). Each chef will chose a wine to partner with his course, as will the sommelier. The guests will decide the best pairing.

Mayes is planning to highlight the state’s deep agricultural history in his ingredient selections with two taco dishes during the fiesta: a vegetable-forward, wild mushroom taco topped with a bone-marrow salsa for the throwdown, and a smoked Wagyu beef brisket taco topped with bright pickled vegetables for the Grand Tasting. “From the blue corn in the tortilla, to the meat, to the vegetables, all the ingredients will come from New Mexico,” he says.

“For me, as a younger chef, it’s cool to have a platform to put your food out and showcase what food is for you. … Using local ingredients and making things by scratch isn’t the easiest way to do things. I want people to recognize the chefs and restaurants who are doing more than running a restaurant, who are supporting local agriculture and the local economy. That’s the goal at Paloma and for my food: to have a closed-loop system where everyone benefits,” the 32-year-old says.

Local chefs will join out-of-state guests at the newly expanded Rosé All Day luncheon (noon to 2 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 27, at the convention center), a crowd favorite from last year’s festival. Five guest chefs will pair menu items with rosés from around the world, including Italy, Germany, Austria, France, Corsica, and Greece, as well as the United States.

First-time fiesta participant Neal Fraser is one of this year’s not-to-be-missed guest chefs. Fraser, along with his business partner and wife, Amy Knoll Fraser, owns and operates multiple restaurant concepts in Los Angeles, including the acclaimed Redbird. The menu at his flagship restaurant showcases Fraser’s refined yet approachable modern American cuisine that draws influences from the global city’s many cultures. The restaurant appeared on the Los Angeles Times’ 101 Best Restaurants list curated by Jonathan Gold. Fraser will cook for the Rosé All Day event and at a live auction and guest chef luncheon presented by Enterprise Bank & Trust (11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26, at Eldorado Hotel & Spa, 309 W. San Francisco St.).

The all-star lineup at both of those events will also include another inaugural contributor: Ravi Kapur of San Francisco’s Liholiho Yacht Club. Kapur was born in Hawaii to a Hawaiian/Chinese mother and an Indian father, and his flavors capture the diverse food cultures of his heritage and upbringing. His culinary prowess earned him a Best New Chef designation from Food & Wine in 2016, among other honors.

The luncheons are great opportunities to meet these chefs, O’Byrne says. Attendees will also have the opportunity to meet Jason Haas, a member of the founding family of Tablas Creek Vineyard, the 2019 Honorary Winery of the Year.

O’Byrne says the fiesta is honoring Tablas Creek to recognize the vineyard’s longtime support of the festival. Vineyard co-founder Robert Haas, who died in 2018, began participating in the fiesta in the 1990s. Tablas Creek has also been a Rhône varietal pioneer in the Paso Robles wine region since Robert Haas and the brothers Jean-Pierre and François Perrin planted their first California vines. Tablas Creek wines will pour throughout the festival, and the vineyard stars during a dedicated wine seminar (10:30 to 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 26, at the convention center). Owner Jason Haas will be on hand to present four varietals from Tablas Creek and share a run of five vintages (dating from 2000 to 2017) inspired by the vineyard’s partnership with Château de Beaucastel (run by the Perrin family since the early 20th century). This year marks the winery’s 30th anniversary.

Champagne of the Year winner Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte will be featured at three events throughout the fiesta: the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Film Fiesta (5 to 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22, at Violet Crown, 1606 Alcaldesa St.), the live auction and guest chef luncheon, and the reserve tasting. The Nicolas Feuillatte label is made up of 82 winemaking cooperatives representing more than 4,500 vineyards.

Artist of the Year Ramona Sakiestewa, a contemporary Hopi artist who lives and works in Santa Fe and creates tapestry, works on paper, and painting, will be on hand to sign the 2019 poster at the Reserve Tasting and Grand Tasting.

Next year’s event will mark the first in decades when the Grand Tasting won’t be held at the Santa Fe Opera grounds. Although a new site has been chosen yet, O’Byrne isn’t concerned that relocating the signature event will decrease its cache.

“The opera has lent us a great backdrop for 20 years. They’ve been a big part of our identity,” he says. “However, I think the unique identity of the event comes from the restaurants themselves. This is a great opportunity to explore a new venue.” O’Byrne hopes the selected space will be near downtown, allowing guests to walk to the tasting.

“I think after 30 years, it’s time to do something new, to recreate who we are, and bring the event back to the city of Santa Fe. I think it will be to the advantage of both the restaurants and the consumers.” ◀

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