There’s a reason why wine comes before food in the name of Asheville’s Wine & Food Festival, scheduled for August 22-24 this year.
With more than 120 wineries and the most visited winery in the country at The Biltmore, Asheville, North Carolina, has become a destination for sipping, pairing and tasting wine. Asheville Wine & Food Festival and the month of August itself are the perfect time to experience the city’s viticultural side. White grapes are being harvested at wineries around the area right now, just in time for a festival that’s grown up a lot in just four years.
Asheville’s Wine & Food Festival doesn’t officially kick off until August 22, but the culinary fun begins this week with the festival’s first pairing dinner at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall on August 15. Festival Director Bob Bowles says the pairing dinners are a way to involve more restaurants and more foodies in the festival. Dinners continue August 17 and 18 leading up to the start of the festival.
After its founding in 2009, Asheville Wine & Food has grown from a couple of local restaurants, farms and wineries to three days of cocktails, desserts, wines, craft beer, spirits and, of course, the best cuisine Asheville has to offer. Bowles, who has lived in the city for over 40 years, says the festival developed out of the Slow Food Movement, in addition to serving as a response to the city’s notoriety for brewing. He says that while Asheville was becoming known for its beer, vineyards and farms were also popping up in vast numbers. “Asheville was just growing with wonderful chefs, restaurants and food traditions,” he says. “It was time to introduce people to what they had around them, but more than that help them to appreciate what they were tasting.”
That first year, there were less than 1,000 people attending and about 20 wineries. Five years later, the number of wineries has tripled, with the festival offering more than 400 varieties to sample, and an estimated 3,000 tasters. A new venue has also come with expansion, and the Grand Tasting is now held at the air-conditioned U.S. Cellular Center. While the tasting, held on Saturday, is the main event, several new events this year expand the festival’s culinary and liquid offerings.
Elixir on Thursday night is a high-spirited bartenders’ brawl taking place at The Venue on Market Street. Guests can imbibe as the best local mixologists compete to create the most inspired craft cocktail. “We’ll see which drinks become the drink of choice for Asheville over the next year,” says Bowles. The Elixir event will also highlight the state’s growing number of distilleries, from Troy & Sons Moonshine to Top of the Hill, and Bowles promises plenty of sampling. “We can accommodate about 400 folks to sample all the whiskeys and spirits, gins, vodka, monshine and rum from all of the new distilleries,” he says.
Following Elixir is SWEET on Friday night to satisfy even the most pronounced sweet tooth. A smorgasbord of luscious desserts and confections, sparkling and dessert wines and specialty cocktails and spirits will take over The Grove Arcade. The cherry on top is a chocolate competition featuring edible works of art from top local bakers and pastry chefs. Bowles promises five chocolatiers and plenty of cupcakes, cake balls, sparkling wines and even a few distilleries serving gin and tonics or local Carriage House Apple Brandy. “It’s going to be a wonderful evening of going from vendor to vendor and trying all new flavors in desserts, with jazz music playing in the background,” he says.
And that’s just leading up to the main event on Saturday, with “multi levels to taste great wines, food from the best local restaurants, looking out over the beautiful mountains,” describes Bowles. General admission of $55 from noon-5 p.m. includes sampling of all food and wine, cooking demonstrations, booksignings by local authors and chefs and the Amateur Winemaker Competition. For $75, guests can enjoy a VIP hour from noon-1 p.m. with access to a VIP lounge hosted by Biltmore Wines. Wine can also be purchased by the bottle or case during the festival, and a special storage area on site will hold purchases until tasters are done.
Closing out the list of festival events is the the Western North Carolina Chefs’ Challenge, which actually started back in February. Weekly for 12 weeks, diners and a panel of judges have been sampling dishes from some of the region’s top chefs, like Daniel Wright at Tomato Jam Cafe and Michael Fisera of Lexington Avenue Brewery. The Final Four will compete at Pack’s Tavern August 20 and 21, with the finale held during the Grand Tasting.
Whether you start celebrating this week with a wine pairing dinner or wait until the Grand Tasting, the Asheville Wine & Food Festival has something for every foodie at every price point. Not able to attend this year? Then Bowles encourages you to to partake in Asheville’s food and wine scene any night of the week by visiting a local winery, brewery or distillery, attending a popup dinner, tailgate market or just having dinner somewhere like Marketplace, the city’s longest standing farm-to-table restaurant.
Tickets for Asheville Wine & Food Festival events, presented by Edison at The Grove Park Inn, are available online. Pairing dinners range in price from $50-$85. Chefs challenge events will be held August 20 and 21 at a cost of $49. Finale tickets during the Grand Tasting are $100. Tickets for Elixir on August 22 are $45; tickets for Sweet on August 23 are also $45. General admission for the Grand Tasting on August 24 are $55, with VIP tickets priced at $75. A Festival Package that includes Elixir, Sweet and the Grand Tasting is available for $145.