The First Five Years….Pioneers!

The SFWC was the 1991 brainchild of Mark Miller, Al Lucero, and Gordon Heiss. 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 it’s inception in 1991, has always been and still is the Santa Fe restaurant community.

Miller, who opened Coyote Café in 1987 to national acclaim, was and remains a proponent for even more festivals in Santa Fe. Lucero, who sold Maria’s restaurant last year after owning and running it with his wife Laurie for 27 years, was a wine enthusiast who wanted to prove New Mexican cuisine was worthy of a cultured beverage other than beer. Along with Heiss, all three wanted to create an event that would bridge the Santa Fe tourism gap between the early September Spanish Market and the October International Balloon Fiesta.

Over dinner and three bottles of Joseph Phelps 1985 Insignia on the patio at La Casa Sena, the three concocted Santa Fe Chile & Wine Fiesta, planning an afternoon bacchanal that would feature Santa Fe’s top restaurants serving tastes, alongside world-class wine.

From its inception the event has attracted world-class wineries. Beth Novak Milliken, the CEO and President of Spottswoode Winery, one of Napa Valley’s “First Growths,” was a participant at the 1991 inaugural event and a regular attendee in recent years. “The Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta has, in my view, really evolved alongside the restaurant scene in Santa Fe,” she said. “As I recall, when the Fiesta first started in 1991, Mark Miller’s Coyote Cafe was getting a lot of buzz and helped to put Santa Fe on the fine dining map. There were other good restaurants in town, too, and all likely improved and ‎got more notoriety as a result of the buzz generated by Coyote Cafe.”

Like so many of the distinguished “regulars” who grace the affair with their culinary and wine knowledge, Milliken has had a front-row seat during the evolution of the event. “The Wine & Chile Fiesta has come a long way since the first year, and what I find so compelling is that the restaurateurs really support it and participate enthusiastically, making it a true community event among local restaurants and people, wineries from all around, and those who love to visit Santa Fe.”

The second and third year of the event moved the Grand Tasting to the courtyard of the Eldorado Hotel where then General Manager Paul Margetson welcomed the extra business the event attracted. In 1993, Michael Cerletti, working as General Manager at Betty Eagan’s Rancho Encantado, hosted a Sunday event in the resort’s horse barn named Champagne and Dirty Boots. The event was successful but disappeared when Cerletti went onto to his second term as New Mexico Secretary of Tourism. With Champagne Ruinart’s help, however, the Champagne and Dirty Boots event was revitalized last year with chef Andrew Cooper (a James Beard best chef of the Southwest semi-finalist this year) and the new Four Seasons management team at Rancho Encantado.

In 1989, shortly after moving to Santa Fe from San Francisco, I met Al Lucero while waiting tables at Santacafe. I had heard that Lucero was the king of margaritas and was surprised when he ordered a bottle of Dom Perignon for his guests. I quickly discovered that Al and I shared a passion for wine and we became fast friends. In 1991, I started working at Coyote Café with chef Mark Kiffin (owner of The Compound Restaurant) who, for over 25 years, has skillfully and generously added to what Mark Miller started.

By 1994 the SFWC Fiesta was gaining some traction and growing, but Miller was busy getting ready to open Coyote Cafes in Austin and Las Vegas with Chef Kiffin, so Lucero and Heiss needed someone to handle the logistics of the event. I interviewed with Lucero and was hired as the event’s executive director. The first thing we did was visit Max Meyers at Sunwest Bank to ask for a loan as seed money for the 4th annual Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta.

From 1994 – 1997 we held the Grand Tasting on an increasingly longer tent on the back lot of the Hilton of Santa Fe, adding a series of wine. One of the highlights of those years was having Joe Heitz, the founding legend of Heitz Wine Cellars, host a vertical tasting of his iconic Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.

1998 through 2014

Over the next 17 years of the SFWC Fiesta, events were added and the number of days increased. A series of cooking demonstrations with visiting and local chefs was added to the schedule in 1999. In 2000 the first Friday Reserve Tasting took place, and a Trade Tasting on Wednesday extended the event to five days in 2001. In 2004, as a fund-raising effort for Santa Fe’s Cooking with Kids, a Live Auction Luncheon was added to the schedule, with five guest chefs each doing a course, paired with wines from a Winery Honoree of the Year.

Winery Honorees in the early years included Veronique Drouhin of Willamette Valley, Georg Riedel and Robert Mondavi. In 1997, during the boisterous Reserve Tasting in Eldorado Pavilion, Robert Mondavi walked in with his wife, Margit Biever. The 100 winery principals stopped pouring and a silent hush filled the room. Master Sommelier Robert Bath, pouring Shafter Hillside Select, turned to me and whispered, “My god, it’s Robert Mondavi. Without him and what he did for California wine, none of us would be standing here right now.”

Thankfully, we are still here, and still evolving. One of the biggest and best changes over these years was the 1998 move of the Grand Tasting to the Santa Fe Opera grounds. Overall, the time of year and the location combined with the preponderance of great Santa Fe restaurant participants sparks an enthusiastic and acclaimed winery participation which translates to a win-win for the eclectic and international crowd of consumers who attend every year.

Jason Haas, head of the small, family-owned Tablas Creek Winery in Paso Robles, rarely attends large wine events, but SFWC is an exception. “We love the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta for how totally it’s integrated into the culinary scene there.  Nearly every great restaurant in Santa Fe (and there are a lot) participates, and not just in a token way.  The result is that everyone involved, from wineries to sommeliers to consumers, wants to come back each year. And not just to show off what they’re doing that’s new, but to reconnect with old friends and to enjoy the unique richness of the town’s great food & wine scene.”

Top 5 Guest Chef Participants Southwest

Stephen Pyles
Mark Miller
John Sedlar
Mark Kiffin
Rick Bayless

Top 5 Guest Chef Participants

Jean Louis Palladin – The Watergate, Washington D.C.
Jose Andreas — Café Atlantico
Nancy Oakes – Boulevard, San Francisco
Matthew Accarrino – SPQR, San Francisco
Julian Serrano – Picasso, Las Vegas

Top 5 Wine Seminars

Win Wilson – Horizontal 1996 DRC & Domaine Dujac
John Shafer – Vertical Shafer Hillside
Paul Draper – Vertical Ridge Monte Bello
Veronique Drouhin – Domaine Drouhin Oregon
Joe Heitz – Vertical of Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet

Winery Honorees of the Year

2004 Veronique Drouhin, Domaine Drouhin Oregon
2005 John Shafer, Shafer Vineyards, Napa
2006 Robert Mondavi
2007 Georg Riedel
2008 Tom Shelton, Joseph Phelps Vineyards, Napa
2009 Dick and Nancy Ponzi, Ponzi Vineyards, Willamette Valley
2010 Paul Draper, Ridge Vineyards
2011 Richard Sanford, Alma Roas, Santa Barbara
2012 Beth Novak Milliken, Spottswoode Vineyards, Napa
2013 Kathleen Heitz, Heitz Wine Cellars, Napa
2014 Laurent Gruet, Gruet Winery, New Mexico
2015 Tim Duncan, Silver Oak 

Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta Presidents

1991-1993 David Hoeman
1994-1996 Al Lucero
1997-1998 Brett Kemmerer
1999-2001 Randy Randall
2002-2003 Bert Leyva
2004-2005 Cater Tague
2006-2007 Kate Collins
2008-2009 Tom Kerpon
2010-2011 Emily Padon
2012-2013 Marla Thompson
2014-2015 Al Lucero


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