By Greg O’Byrne

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 participating wineries. Forty tasting booths were lined along the perimeter of the L-shaped parking lot behind Sanbusco Center. In the front corner of the lot, a street vendor slowly turned the handle on his chile roaster, blistering a fresh batch of Hatch green chile, 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 from Topolobampo in Chicago and Stephan Pyles from Routh Street Cafe in Dallas – took turns demonstrating their techniques cooking with chiles.

That day I worked the Coyote Café booth, quickly flipping Miller’s signature griddled corn cakes and seared shrimp, then plating each with a dab of chipotle butter and a spoon of salsa fresca. My co-worker, Sarah, swapped our samples for coupons with the lively wine-sipping crowd of 300. Barely having time to look up from my hot flattop smoking under the clear high desert sky, when I did I had no way of knowing at the time that I was witnessing the birth of the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta—now going stronger than ever at age 27.

Josh Jensen, owner of Calera Wine Company and a California Pinot Noir pioneer, was one of the featured wineries at that first event. “In 1991 Calera was newly available in New Mexico,” Jensen recalled, “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 had known during 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. 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. 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.”

History 1991 to 1997

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 its inception in 1991, has always been and still is the Santa Fe restaurant community.

Miller, who opened Coyote Café in 1987 to national acclaim, remains a proponent for even more festivals in Santa Fe. Lucero, who sold Maria’s restaurant three years ago 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 beverage other than beer. Along with Heiss, all three wanted to create an event that would bridge the Santa Fe tourism gap between the 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 a one-day 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 on to his second term as New Mexico Secretary of Tourism. With Champagne Ruinart’s help, however, the Champagne and Dirty Boots event was revitalized two years ago 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 seminars. 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 2019

Over the next 18 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 made 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. 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 it’s totally 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.”

Still roasting and crushing 27 years later, the original one-day Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta has exploded into a eight-day epicurean extravaganza. The 27th rendition now features two nights of films, 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 Champagne Brunch at Four Seasons, a Gran Fondo bike ride to Truchas and the piece de resistance—still on the last Saturday in September—the Grand Tasting, with 100 world-class wineries serving tastes alongside 75 Santa Fe restaurants to 3500 food and wine enthusiasts on the grounds of The Santa Fe Opera facing the Sangre de Cristo Rocky Mountains in all their explosive golden fall glory.

Some Favorite Wine Seminars

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

Santa Fe Wine & Chile Presidents

  • 1991-1993 David Hoeman
  • 1994-1996 Al Lucero
  • 1997-1998 Brett Kemmerer
  • 1999-2001 Randy Randall
  • 2002-2003 Bert Leyva
  • 2004-2005 Carter Tague
  • 2006-2007 Kate Collins
  • 2008-2009 Tom Kerpon
  • 2010-2011 Emily Padon
  • 2012-2013 Marla Thompson
  • 2014-2015 Al Lucero
  • 2016-2017 Fernando Olea
  • 2018-2020 Michael Trujillo

A Sampling of Guest Chefs

  • Matthew Accarrino Spqr, San FranCiSCo
  • Jose Andres Jaleo, Washington D.C.
  • Rick Bayless Topolobampo, Chicago
  • David Burke New York
  • Michael Ginor Hudson Valley
  • Suzanne Goin LuCquES, Los Angeles
  • Paul Kahan Blackbird, Chicago
  • Deborah Madison Greens, San Francisco
  • Nancy Oakes Boulevard, San Francisco
  • Jean Louis Palladin Watergate, D.C.
  • Stephan Pyles Flora St. Cafe, Dallas
  • Cory Schreiber Wildwood, Portland
  • Julian Serrano Picasso, Las Vegas
  • Michael Tusk Quince, San Francisco

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
  • 2010 Paul Draper, Ridge Vineyards, Santa Cruz
  • 2011 Richard Sanford, Alma Rosa, 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, Napa
  • 2016 Ted Seghesio, Seghesio Family Vineyards
  • 2017 Violet Grgich, Grgich Hills Estate
  • 2018 David Ramey, Ramey Wine Cellars
  • 2019 Jason Haas, Tablas Creek

2017 Gallery