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Confession: I’m generally suspicious of food festivals. Great ones do exist, but having attended several events labeled as such that involved expensive tickets, inordinately long lines, and mere “bites” of dishes lackluster in flavor, I can say that not all food festivals are created equal.

And after attending the 2015 Charleston Food & Wine Festival, I can also say that this culinary festival is among the best of its kind in the country.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the location, idyllic Charleston, South Carolina, will charm the pants off the most ardent of curmudgeons. The historic Georgian architecture, pedestrian-friendly streets, hipster cocktail bars, modern boutiques, and lingering scent of barbeque and grits in the air makes this not-so-sleepy southern town a feast for the senses. One could easily be entertained noon through night in Charleston without the festival; however, its presence adds a certain magical energy to the city. Maybe because virtually everyone in attendance is punch – (and sometimes, literally) drunk on the incredible fare, libations, and local products on hand from hundreds of restaurants, bakeries, and liquor vendors.

Held roughly over four days in early March, the Charleston Food & Wine Festival kicked off this year with a festive Wednesday night gala at the Art Institute of Charleston. While the gala was the place to be that evening, from that point forward deciding which dinner, cooking class, tour, tasting, or demonstration to attend was far from obvious. It all looked so great, damnit.

Highlights of the diverse schedule of events included a fabulous three-course lunchtime cooking class led by Houston’s own James Beard award-winning chef Chris Shepherd, a Saturday morning seminar on Charleston’s rye history, the sophisticated Southern Betty Brunch with sweet potato foie gras biscuits and a world-premiere debut of a Southern Foodways Alliance documentary, and an upscale dim sum dinner at local favorite Xiao Bao Biscuit.

The major, not-to-missed feature of the festival was no doubt the the Culinary Village open approximately from noon to 6pm each full day of the festival. Upon entering the Village, friendly volunteers (all clad in too-cute festival aprons) greeted you and handed you a wine glass. Yes, that’s a great sign. First stop for me (and I recommend for all visitors) was the Williams-Sonoma culinary “bookstore” tent with its rotating schedule of book signings by nationally acclaimed chefs and noted gourmands, such as wine critic Eric Asimov of the New York Times. Lines moved quickly even for the most popular of authors (ahem, James Beard-winner Sean Brock) and food samples inspired by the featured food were on hand for all participants.

Next stop was the Grand Tasting Tent, appropriately named for the dozens of wineries, distilleries, cheesemongers, butchers, and restaurants offering (generous) pours, cocktails, samples, and small plates (low-country bouillabaisse! cinnamon grilled cheese! white chocolate baguettes! pork belly & grits!) to an increasingly boisterous, well-heeled crowd of locals and visitors. Many of the wares on offer were available for sale at the Culinary Marketplace located a hop, skip, and a jump across Marion Square. En route, attendees were encouraged to take a photo with a friends (or even a passing stranger) in a ball pit akin to those found at Chuck-E-Chee’s. Playful but still classy. The Marketplace offered more samples of regional favorites such as Smith Island cake, bourbon mustard, and pecan brittle, plus locally-produced cheese, oils, and charcuterie.

By the final event of the festival, “Toasted.” luxurious, relaxing low-country feast of fried chicken, sausage, simmering stews, and plenty of whiskey and beer, I and many other attendees could be, um, described as such. “Tired,” however, we were not, but rather inspired by the astoundingly diverse array of tastes, textures, and flavors we had encountered that weekend. My first night in Charleston, a gregarious bartender at the Francis Marion Hotel, told me as I sipped the signature “Swamp Fox” cocktail that once I attended the Charleston Food & Wine Festival I’d want to come back every year.

By God, he was right. See you next March, Charleston.

Joanna O'Leary

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