A week ago, Courtni Thomas had never heard of the Charleston Wine + Food Festival.
The event hit her radar when a friend offered Thomas a ticket to the festival’s sold-out Culinary Village.
“I looked it up online and it looked like a really nice thing to go to,” the 28-year-old Tennessee native, who has lived in Charleston for two years, said.
Just half an hour into her visit to the Village in Marion Square on Saturday, Thomas said her theory proved true.
“We haven’t been here that long, and there’s so much to try,” she said, noting that one of her favorite bites so far was a bowl of jambalaya. “Now that I’m here, I’m ecstatic to be here.”
Attendees had plenty to taste on the second day of the three-day sampling fair, which anchors Charleston Wine + Food’s lineup of over 100 events.
Groups wandered from the Rosé Garden to take photos with a pink camel statue etched with the words, “Save Water, Drink Rose,” and braved lines for snacks such as a Whiskey Carolina Cream Praline from Grits and Groceries of Belton, or a blended smash burger from Parcel 32. Others walked around wearing full glasses of wine — and, in some cases, soft pretzels — around their neck via wine yokes.
A crowd concentrated around the Main Stage when Gail Simmons, who is most known from her longtime role as a judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” led a cooking demo with Al Roker, of NBC’s “Today.”
Onlookers lounged on picnic tables and bean bag chairs while the pair prepared what Simmons call a “lazy shrimp pie.” Among those in the audience was Allison Woods, who got her friends to yell, “Hey, Al,” in unison. She was happy to report that Roker waved back.
Woods and her friend, Mary Beth Collier, who both live in Charleston, said they tune into “Today” most mornings.
“It’s fun to get to see someone you see on TV in person like this,” Collier said. “It’s not something you normally get to see.”
Later, a long line formed for a meet-and-greet with Roker.
Plenty of people filling Marion Square on Saturday traveled from afar to attend the 14th annual Charleston Wine + Food Festival. About half of the 29,072 people that attended last year’s festival — and helped set the event’s attendance record — were from out of town. Those numbers translated to a $15 million economic impact for the Charleston area, according to the College of Charleston’s Office of Tourism Analysis.
Wearing a veil, sash and T-shirt etched with the words, “Bride to be,” Amanda Crowley, of Greenville, said she landed on Charleston for her bachelorette party weekend destination because of the Wine + Food Festival.
“We love a chill day event versus getting crazy at night,” Crowley said as she sipped a whiskey cocktail out of her festival-provided wine glass.
Her sister/maid of honor suggested the group of seven women get tickets to the Village to celebrate Crowley’s April wedding.
“I lived here for 10 years and have never come to this,” Melanie Quick, who now lives in Augusta, Ga., said. “I love it. There’s a little something for everyone.”
A group of women from Florida traveled to Charleston for the festival in honor of their friend’s 40th birthday party. The crew, which included Stacy West and Julie Waples, wore black T-shirts adorned with the hashtag “girlsweekend2019.”
“It’s an excuse to get away and enjoy good food and wine and beer,” Waples said. “All the good things.”
“It’s nice, because some of us like beer and some of us like wine or whiskey more,” her friend added. “Whatever you like, everyone has their own thing to try here.”
As they said, the Village’s drink offerings showcased much more than wine, as evidenced by a row of tents representing distilleries such as Knob Creek, Old Forester, Castle and Key and Maker’s Mark.
Entering one of two beer gardens, longtime volunteer PJ Hall handed out tasting glasses and pointed people in the direction of local beer options such as those from Baystreet Biergarten and Holy City Brewing as well as chances to sample brews from breweries based in Austin, Texas, and beyond.
“People are happy when they’re here,” Hall, who moved here in 2006, said. “That’s what makes it fun.”