While other national food and wine events focus on globetrotting celebrity guest chefs, national magazine advertisers or Food Network stars (some of whom have never worked in a restaurant), the identity of The Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, since its inception in 1991, has always been and still is the Santa Fe restaurant community.
On a bright and slightly cool afternoon in the Santa Fe railyard on the last Saturday of September 1991, a one-day food and wine event took place where, for $10, you could buy a coupon book with 10 chits, each one redeemable for either a taste from one of the 20 participating Santa Fe restaurants or a sip from one of 20 California wineries. Forty tasting booths were lined along the perimeter of the L-shaped parking lot behind the Sanbusco Market Center. In the front corner, a street vendor slowly turned the handle on his chile roaster, blistering a fresh batch of Hatch green, the smoke wafting into the crisp fall air.
In a smallish tent on the opposite corner, three of the founders of modern Southwestern cuisine—Mark Miller of Coyote Café in Santa Fe, Rick Bayless of Topolobampo in Chicago and Stephan Pyles of Routh Street Cafe in Dallas—took turns demonstrating their chile-cooking techniques.
That day, I worked the Coyote Café booth, quickly flipping griddled corn cakes and seared shrimp, then plating each with a smidge of chipotle butter and a spoon of salsa fresca. My co-worker, Sarah, swapped our samples for coupons with the lively wine-supping crowd of 300. Looking up from my hot flattop under the clear high-desert sky, I had no way of knowing that I was witnessing the birth of the inaugural Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, now going stronger than ever at age 25.
Josh Jensen, owner of Calera Wine Company and a California Pinot Noir pioneer, was one of the featured guests at that first event. “In 1991, Calera was newly available in New Mexico.” Jensen recalls, “So I happily agreed to be on a panel Saturday morning about harmonizing the flavors of fine wines and chiles, and to pour our wines at the Saturday afternoon tasting for consumers. Mark Miller, who I’d known from his Berkeley restaurant days before he moved to Santa Fe to open Coyote Café, was the moderator of the panel, which basically meant that the rest of us didn’t have to open our mouths; Mark has never met a microphone he didn’t like.”
Although Jensen was more than happy to participate, he doubted the event would be more than a one-off affair. “To the organizers of that initial Fiesta I shared my opinion that their event would never make the grade unless they moved it to a different time of year; the last week of September is absolutely smack in the middle of California’s—and much of the rest of the world’s—grape harvest,” Jensen explains. “Wineries, or at least winemakers, wouldn’t leave their wineries in any numbers at that time of year.”
Twenty-two years later, in 2013, and again in 2014, Jensen returned to the Fiesta—not only eating samples from the dozens of featured Fiesta restaurants, but a little bit of crow as well. “There was a cast of thousands, raising enormous sums every year for worthy New Mexican charities,” Jensen says. “All the hotels and fine restaurants in and around Santa Fe booked up months in advance. Foodies from across all spectrums were beating a path to Santa Fe every September. I guess that shows I’m not great at predicting the future. ”
Still roasting and crushing 25 years later, the original one-day Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta has exploded into a five-day epicurean extravaganza. The 25th rendition will feature eight cooking demonstrations at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, eight wine seminars hosted by four master sommeliers, six guest-chef winery luncheons, 40 wine-pairing dinners at Santa Fe restaurants, a reserve wine tasting, a live auction, a Ruinart champagne brunch at Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado, a Gran Fondo bike ride to Truchas and the pièce de résistance—still on the last Saturday in September—the Grand Tasting, with 100 world-class wineries serving tastes alongside 80 Santa Fe restaurants to 3,500 food and wine enthusiasts on the grounds of The Santa Fe Opera, overlooking the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in all their explosive, golden fall glory.
25th Annual Wine and Chile Fiesta, September 23-27, 505.438.8060. Visit santafewineandchile.org for events, times, locations and tickets.