EIGHTY-SIXED: A Conversation With Gillian Zettler of Charleston Wine + Food

VinePair talks with the executive director of the Charleston Wine + Food festival to discuss the state of the hospitality industry, silver linings, and making the tough decision to cancel the 2021 event to focus on the future.

Since mid-March, we’ve barely had time to cap our pens before being forced to cross something else off our calendars, as both the personal (weddings, vacations, graduations) and the public (festivals, sporting events, conferences) continue to be cancelled and Covid-19 rolls on. While it’s surely disappointing — devastating, in some cases — there’s no denying the importance of making these difficult decisions as we all working together to be as realistic and responsible as possible.

It’s with this in mind — the safety and security of its guests, talent, staff, vendors and community, and the current struggles facing the hospitality industry — that Charleston Wine + Food has announced the cancellation of its 2021 festival and has, instead, begun planning for 2022.

We sat down to chat with executive director Gillian Zettler to discuss the decision — over Zoom, of course.

A Tough Call

Riding on the heels of the incredibly successful 2020 Charleston Wine + Food Festival, canceling 2021’s event was all the more painful, no matter how obvious the choice inevitably was.

Zettler posed a big question to her team: “What’s going to protect the longevity of this organization so that it can better our community and be strong when we’re able to produce events again?”

The organizers ultimately agreed that it was smarter to save their resources for 2022, rather than going through the motions of planning out an entire festival only to have to cancel it in the end.

But there was a larger community aspect at play, too, says Zettler. “When you’re looking at the [current] state of affairs for restaurants and hotels, most of these places are just trying to save their staff and keep the lights on at this point.” While making this tough call was bittersweet, Zettler is certain it was the right thing to do.

The In-Between

“What are we going to do to amplify and advocate in this in-between time?” asks Zettler. “The hope is to be able to offer a good amount of free content and work with some amazing partners to be able to give people things to do and focus on and get excited about.”

Charleston Wine + Food fosters a large community of incredibly talented industry professionals and bartenders. Photo by Arielle Simmons, courtesy of Charleston Wine + Food

The organization has big plans for the rest of this year and 2021. Over the next nine months, it will debut a combination of strategic community partnerships, digital content and live-streamed conversations and events, and continue to educate, connect and support those in the culinary and hospitality community — all while helping oenophiles and foodies in the Lowcountry (and beyond) get their fix.

“We Are More”

There’s no denying the positive impact the Charleston Wine + Food Festival has had on the city in its 15 years, and the impact made in 2020 was huge on both the economic and charitable fronts. With more than 28,000 attendees each spending at local restaurants and retail stores, the festival brought almost $20 million into the city of Charleston, and nearly 2,800 pounds of food was donated to One80 Place, a local organization fighting to end and prevent homelessness.

This speaks to Charleston Wine + Food’s commitment to the city, and according to Zettler, she and her team will use the time they would have spent going full-throttle on 2021 festival prep to figure out more ways to harness their expertise and experience to make a positive impact.

“Our creative campaign last year was ‘We are More,’” says Zettler. “We are more than a wine and food festival. I think this year will give us a beautiful blank slate to reflect. ‘OK, you say that you’re more than that? What does that look like? How do we leverage all of these things that we know about live event planning, and how can we use that expertise to help heal this industry?’”

One main objective is to create new opportunities for those who work in food and wine by continuing to grow what Zettler describes as the “festival within a festival” — the networking side of the event. “We want to be a catalyst for connections that inspire curiosity through thoughtful storytelling and meaningful experiences with a sense of place,” she says.

The Culinary Village is a core event during the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, and will be on the schedule for CHSWFF 2022. Photo by Kate Blohm, courtesy of Charleston Wine + Food

CHSWFF will also focus on forming strategic partnerships and finding new ways to explore and share what makes the city, its people, and its food scene so unique.

“Organizational advancement is also a huge part of it,” Zettler says. “Being able to do some really good work on diversity, equity, inclusion, authentic storytelling of the City of Charleston — and deepen opportunities for collaboration within the community, as well as with other national organizations, to allow for some really cool stories to be shared.”

A Vision For 2022

The next Charleston Wine + Food Festival is scheduled for March 2-6, 2022. The programming, which Zettler promises will be as engaging and relevant as ever, will be announced in late spring 2021.

If (and that’s a big if) there’s any silver lining to this incredibly difficult moment, Zettler says it might be the chance to take a pause to examine, discuss, and re-evaluate. “We’re using this time to just connect with a ton of people—because time is usually what we don’t have,” Zettler says. “I’m just really pumped to be able to listen, collaborate, and then hold space.”

No matter what classes, contests, panels and parties end up on the 2022 festival itinerary — and are rolled out digitally in the interim — one thing is certain: CHSWFF will continue to be a welcoming space for those with a passion for food and wine, offering opportunities to break bread, toast each other’s accomplishments and, eventually, celebrate what will feel more special than ever: just being together.

“Human connection. It’s just one of the most powerful forces on earth,” says Zettler. “That’s what people are yearning for.”

This article is sponsored by Charleston Wine + Food.