The tasting tents at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, which wrapped up earlier this month, aren't just popular with patrons who thrill to the prospect of getting their fill of food and drink from the South's top talents. According to festival CEO and co-founder Dominique Love, they're a favorite of event planners tasked with putting together culinary tents.

"We've had a lot of festivals calling and asking 'how do you make it less commercial?'," says Love, who's created a consultancy to help answer that question. "We try to tell a story in our tents."

Like all tasting tents, the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival tents sometimes feel stuffy and crowded: This year, the threat of a thunderstorm at one point drove most of the crowd into one area, defying the organizers' carefully rehearsed scenarios.

But it's a testament to the tents' high quality that the vast majority of festivalgoers ignored the inconvenience, focusing instead on the dynamic lineup of talent, which mixed newcomers with established names. What apparently unified all of the 160 exhibitors was an eagerness to impress, whether they were serving peach sliders, dill pickle chicken rinds, Indian pancakes or sesame lamb ribs.

"Chef (Frank Lee) found the Tasting Tents to be a great value for the guests," the Maverick Southern Kitchens blog solemnly reported this week. (Having run into Lee at the tents, I can confirm he's an unabashed fan of the set-up.)

According to Love, the tents are the result of a highly selective process.

"We say no to a lot of people," she says. "We've very picky. Across the board, we require people to submit menu items."

No matter how prestigious the restaurant, it can't get away with serving plain roast chicken, Love says.

"We turned down one restaurant this year because there was no wow," she says. "You didn't feel the excitement."

Perhaps the most critical "no" came in the festival's first year, when it declined a six-figure check from a major corporation. Although representatives from Delta, Buick and Coca-Cola are stationed alongside the "tasting trail," which connects tents grouping chefs preparing seafood, chicken, vegetables and sweets, the sales pitches don't feel central to the experience.

"It would have made it too commercial," Love says of the rejected money. "These are painful things, but the right things."

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.