At most food and beverage festivals, the drinks play second fiddle. Not so at Charleston Wine + Food where, explains the festival’s head of beverage Cha McCoy, “the wine comes first; it’s wine and food, not the other way around.” That’s readily apparent in the event name, and the fest, happening March 1-5, 2023 (tickets are on sale Oct. 20), features a broad range of programming that puts all manner of drinks — wine, cocktails, beer, even kombucha — squarely in the spotlight.
While many details of the 2023 festival are still in the works, the non-profit organization’s mission of educating visitors about the culinary scene of Charleston and the Lowcountry at large is always at the forefront. McCoy gave VinePair a glimpse of several events to whet attendees’ collective appetites (or, rather, sate their thirsts).
“Our main event is always the Culinary Village, or CV, where you have samples of drinks and food plus activities,” McCoy says. But similarities to other festivals stop there. “At a lot of festivals, that’s it — that is the festival. But for Charleston Wine + Food, the CV is one of 105 total events that we program throughout the city and throughout the municipalities surrounding Charleston.” High-energy, high-stakes cocktail, and cooking competitions can be expected, as can events like Bubbles + Buckets, a bubbles-forward activation pairing sparkling wine with brunch: think Proseccos, cavas, and Champagnes amid an atmosphere that McCoy describes as a “dreamy bubble wonderland.” Visitors can expect the presence of big-name brands like Moët & Chandon, but it’s equally important for McCoy as a sommelier and educator to bring in more niche programming. For 2023, that means an encore of a popular 2022 event on natural wines.
“Natural wine isn’t usually tied to big brands, so it’s almost immediately cutting out the [most well-known players],” McCoy says. “My goal is for the fest to have events for everyone to play, so we all feel better. We can put on events for larger brands, but we also want to be sure the smaller distributors and winemakers have an event they can enjoy where they’re around like-minded folks.” This year’s iteration will likely focus on fermentation, McCoy shares, and include funky, low-intervention wines, unfiltered wines, sake, and kombucha paired with fermented foods.
The fest also includes The Beverage Hub, the educational arm of Charleston Wine + Food where “I get to conspire,” says McCoy, laughing. The Hub brings in beverage industry heavy hitters for masterclasses and one-on-one experiences with winemakers, brewers, sommeliers, farmers, and more. McCoy says she’s particularly excited about a masterclass she’s developing on orange wines and another about the Martini’s recent renaissance, featuring VinePair co-founder Adam Teeter.
Although any worries surrounding Covid-19 have largely subsided, with the Culinary Village moving to spacious Riverfront Park in North Charleston as an added bonus for anyone wary of large crowds, the specter of the global pandemic is still fresh on McCoy’s mind. “We were able to activate in the first week of March 2020,” she recalls. “For so many people, it was the last high they experienced before the whole world closed. A lot of people were loving and missing the festival at large, but we took the time to listen to the feedback we received.” (The festival returned after a one-year hiatus in 2022.)
In addition to the pandemic, McCoy explains that the civil uprising following the death of George Floyd created a ripple effect on the beverage industry. McCoy curated events to unite local South Carolina breweries with Black beer lovers. Hip Hops, a part of the signature event series, will be making a return for the 2023 festival with a special musical guest.
“Even though wine is in our name, we’re in the Carolinas, which is known for great breweries,” McCoy says. The event is a great way to add homegrown flavor both literally and figuratively, pairing regional brews with music, a DJ battle, a dance party, and live graffiti with the larger goal of inclusivity. “The absence of Black brewers in the conversation and the false idea of Black people not drinking beer inspired the event — we drink beer, too. The lumberjack shirts and long beards and stereotypes of brewers, maybe we don’t see ourselves in it as people of color,” says McCoy, who is Black. “Hip Hops was an answer to me. It was my way of birthing something to connect two things: the Carolina breweries and the fact there are a lot of people of color in the South. I hope attendees feel like they can meet the brewer, have a seat at the table, taste the beer, and love the beer,” she says. A flight to Napa or Tuscany is one thing, but “these people are already in the community next door to one another, and I love making that connection.”
And while the restaurant industry undoubtedly suffered heavily during the pandemic, McCoy can’t help but acknowledge real, quick growth, something she attributes to entrepreneurship. “People who came in as talent for a previous year’s festival are now opening their own restaurants and their own bars,” she says (McCoy herself has that same entrepreneurial spirit, too: her traveling wine-tasting pop-up, The Communion, just opened a permanent brick-and-mortar outpost in Syracuse, N.Y.).
To borrow a line from Charleston Wine + Food’s own mission statement, contrast creates flavor. In a city with marquee restaurants and brand-new startups alike, and with culinary influences spanning continents and centuries, diversity leads to an enriching, palate-opening experience. It’s one that’s best tasted in March.
For more information and to get your tickets, click here.
This article is sponsored by Charleston Wine + Food.