The Charleston Wine + Food Festival's executive director opening generated interest from across the country, but the festival's search committee ultimately chose three South Carolinians, including two from the Lowcountry, as finalists for the position.

Candidates now under consideration are Doug Warner, development director for Darkness to Light, a Charleston-based non-profit dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse; Pennie Bingham, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce's senior vice president for business advancement; and Gillian Trimboli-Zettler, director of Euphoria Greenville, an annual food and wine festival.

Trimboli-Zettler Monday met with stakeholder groups convened by the search committee, concluding the weeks-long finalist interview process. The committee plans to make a hiring recommendation to the full board Nov. 5.

Interim Director Rick Jerue said “some (national) candidates” made it through the initial rounds of interviews, but he and board Chairman John Wallace speculated that the posted salary range of $80,000 to $110,000 ultimately deterred applicants from larger markets. “We had some people say, 'Do you have any wiggle room?' ” Wallace said, pointing out that the festival's staffing budget doesn't measure up to those of splashy food festivals in Aspen and Miami.

Although Jerue and Wallace didn't make an explicit connection between the finalists' geographic distribution and the board's hiring priorities, Jerue listed “an appreciation of Charleston, and the importance of the festival in supporting that” among the search committee's top criteria. Additionally, Jerue said, “I think in Doug and Pennie's case, they're very well known in Charleston, which is a big plus.”

The committee's foremost concern was candidates' financial acumen.

“We wanted people with business backgrounds who could create and operate under budgets,” Wallace said, adding that all three finalists have staged major events.

Beyond the food world

Of the three finalists, only Trimboli-Zettler is directly involved in the food-and-beverage industry. Jerue said culinary experience could serve as a deciding factor in the case of two otherwise equal candidates, but search committee members feel staffers can supplement an executive director's passion with their knowledge of the subject matter.

“I was really sensitive to the (candidates') ability to fit into the festival's culture at a staff level,” Jerue said.

Staff members were included in the “listening tour” that hiring consultant Jack Hoey conducted before drafting the job posting, released in July, three months after founding Director Angel Postell resigned. Jerue and Wallace defended the pace of the process, saying it wouldn't have been productive to begin interviewing this summer, when staffers were in the thick of planning the 2014 festival. “I expected six months,” Wallace said. “Anything else would have seemed rushed.”

The search committee — which consisted of Wallace, Dick Elliott (Maverick Southern Kitchens), Rick Widman (Circa 1886), Helen Hill (Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau), Frank McMahon (Hank's Seafood Restaurant) and philanthropist Bill Hewitt — started last month interviewing eight top candidates, and selected three finalists. The festival initially was reluctant to disclose the finalists' names, citing privacy concerns.

“If one of them did not get the job, it's going to negatively impact on their reputation and credibility,” Jerue said of the board's thinking.

All three finalists are held in high regard within their communities, Jerue said.

Meet the candidates

Warner, 48, an Elizabethtown, N.C., native and popular charitable auctioneer, is the grandson of farmers and of a Piggly-Wiggly owner. After a brief career in banking, he joined the Chamber of Commerce as director of sales. He stayed with the chamber for 11 years, leaving in 2000 to concentrate on real estate. He conducted a fundraising workshop for Darkness to Light in 2010, and now serves as the organization's development director.

“He is one of the most energetic and positive people I've ever had the opportunity to work with,” Hill told The Post and Courier this year.

Trimboli-Zettler identifies herself on her Twitter feed as “a mom to the most amazing kid ever and lover of amazing shoes.” After graduating from Clemson University in 2006, Trimboli-Zettler worked in radio promotions, taking the Euphoria director's job in 2011. Charlestonians who have found their way to the September festival “think it's exceptional,” Jerue said.

“(Down-home) is such a trend right now and it's hip and young and fresh, and we want to start to cater to that young professional audience that is into where their food is coming from,” Trimboli-Zettler told The Greenville News this year, explaining why she had chosen to cultivate a more casual vibe at Euphoria by emphasizing rustic suppers, food trucks and craft beer.

Bingham studied business administration at Florida International University. Her resume includes stints with Ryder Truck Rental in Miami and the village of Huntington Bay, N.Y. She joined the Chamber in 2004, and is now responsible for encouraging entrepreneurship and business expansion in Charleston.

Jerue said he feels all three candidates have an equal shot at the position, and the board hopes to have the new director in place by year's end. The exact date depends on arrangements the winning applicant makes with his or her employer.

“I don't think it's a done deal at all,” he said, brushing off rumors that the search committee has already zeroed in on a favorite. “My sense is it's pretty wide open.”

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.