A SPECTACULAR WEEKEND:   The 25th Annual Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta (Santa Fe, NM)

I lived in Santa Fe for three years, then commuted in and out of the city for an additional four years between 1990 – 1997, when I worked with celebrity chef & author Mark Miller and directed the operations of his Coyote Cafes and associated food businesses.

It was then that Mark and fellow restaurateurs Gordon Heiss and Al Lucero had a conversation that would forever change the Santa Fe food scene and community.   Santa Fe’s tourism always experienced a seasonal slump during the second half of September.  And Santa Fe needed some kind of community event that celebrated its food scene.   The big idea?  Create an annual food and wine event that would eventually attract visitors from throughout the country!   Thus, the annual Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta was born.

I had the pleasure of participating on the event’s original board, and serving as president for its second and third years.  This past September 23-27 marked the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta’s 25th annual event … I knew I had to return and celebrate!

Funny thing looking back – In the early 90’s, the Santa Fe restaurant scene was exciting, but the sense of community among restaurants was challenging.   This has obviously changed over the years.   While there’s still intense competition for diners (with over 250 restaurants in a town with a population of just over 70,000), there’s also a sense of pride and camaraderie.  I’d like to believe that this fiesta, with its simple beginnings, helped to create that.  First year’s attendance was just over 300 people who enjoyed samples from Santa Fe restaurants and California & New Mexico wineries under a small tent in a downtown center parking lot.  The one-day tasting has now grown into a five-day event attracting thousands of out-of-towners who pack the city and sell-out its hotels.   (Attract visitors during the traditional seasonal slump?  Mission accomplished!)

I’d like to share the experiences of my recent visit with you.   We at IMPRINT Hospitality approach everything we do in a nontraditional manner.  In Santa Fe, that’s the everyday way of life.  There are many reasons why they call it “The City Different.”   I returned proud and inspired by what I saw and experienced …

Thursday

After a smooth flight from O’Hare, my partner and I landed at Albuquerque’s International Sunport Airport.   I became instantly hungry passing the unique food vendors in the airport.   (If you haven’t tried the famous green chile chicken soup served at this airport, you must!)  We grabbed our bags and rental car, then headed north for the 45-minute drive to Santa Fe.   But I couldn’t make it without my first New Mexico chile fix – it was lunchtime and I was craving the local grub!   So we pulled off I-25 and stopped at SADIE’S, an Albuquerque institution with multiple locations, where I enjoyed my classic New Mexican lunch combo with a crispy chile relleno, beef taco and chicken enchilada – all smothered “Christmas” style with both red and green chile.   Pillowy sopaipillas with local honey tempered the heat.   It was a great start to a great weekend of food and wine!

On to Santa Fe!   What always amazes me about the drive between Albuquerque and Santa Fe is the sky.  The sky is so BIG out there and surrounded by four visible mountain ranges – the Sangre de Christo, Ortiz, Jemez and Sandia ranges.  This truly is the Land of Enchantment.  The New Mexico landscape always raises my spirits and stirs my soul.   Autumn is especially beautiful with the sights of blooming yellow chamisa and golden aspen leaves, combined with the scent of chiles roasting in the air.

After checking into the rustic yet luxurious La Posada de Santa Fe, we strolled through the downtown plaza and collected our tickets for the weekend’s Wine & Chile Fiesta events that we planned to attend.

The first event was a VIP reception at the New Mexico Governor’s Mansion that was hosted by the Wine & Chile Fiesta committee for its sponsors and participating wineries.  High in the foothills above the city, the setting was perfect.  Ruinart Champagne, special reserve wines and tasty hors d’oeuvres were flowing.  This was the perfect opportunity to see and congratulate members of the committee who worked on this annual event – several of them for its entire 25-year history!  Santa Fe’s Mayor Javier Gonzales welcomed guests and read a special proclamation.

After the event, we invited local concierge and friend Inger to join us for light dinner at a restaurant of her choice.   She selected BISTRO 315 where we dined outside on the patio overlooking Old Santa Fe Trail.   Deciding to share everything, we started off with one of my autumn favorites – squash blossoms that were stuffed with goat cheese then lightly fried in a light tempura batter and served with tomato coulis.  The next course was a pot of steamed giant mussels in a delicious broth.  For our “cheese course”, we opted for fingerling potato raclette with pungent gruyere.   Of course everything tasted better with the locally-produced Gruet Blanc de Noir sparkling wine!   A chocolaty pot de crème completed the perfect al fresco dinner.

Friday

Upon waking, I needed a brisk walk to start my day!   At home in Chicago, 52 degrees would be coat weather.   In Santa Fe’s 7000-foot elevation, 52 degrees and sunny is perfect for outdoor activity.   I headed out towards the downtown plaza area, a few blocks from my hotel.   My first destination:  HOLY SPIRIT ESPRESSO, a tiny coffee bar located next door to the historic Lensic Theatre.  The tiny establishment is filled with postcards and travel memorabilia from all over the world – and the coffee rocks!   With a little caffeine in my system, I proceeded a few more blocks to my next stop – SANTA FE SCHOOL OF COOKING.   I’ve always been a fan of the school, but even more so now that they’ve relocated to their new digs on Guadalupe Street.  Owner Susan Curtis and her daughter Nicole have created the perfect space to learn about the region’s cuisines with a retail space, two kitchens, an impressive classroom that doubles as an event space, and a lovely outdoor patio.  After a tour and short visit, I returned to La Posada to hit the fitness center before a special lunch that was planned.   En route, feeling just a little hungry, I spotted Santa Fe’s Mayor Gonzales leaving a small bakery with a big bag in his hands – I knew it had to be good!  So I stopped by SWEET LILY BAKERY and enjoyed a slice of seasonal pumpkin bread.   (I’d like to return another time and enjoy a slice of one of the many pies they had on display!)

Lunch was at THE COMPOUND restaurant, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.   The restaurant enjoys a beautiful location on Canyon Road amidst dozens of art galleries.  A special guest chef luncheon featuring Stephan Pyles (Stephan Pyles Restaurant, Dallas) featured four courses paired with wines from two wineries, Lioco and Ehlers Estate.  Compound chef-owner Mark Kiffin and his team supported Chef Pyles in an absolutely knock-out lunch!  First course was Panzanella with poached baby heirlooms, kale, gazpacho water and jamon Iberico ice cream!  Next came Confit of Steelhead Salmon with hojo santa, vanilla-poached apples & chayote and black garlic.   Course three was Roast Lamb Loin with cashew hummus, field pea tabouli and harissa carrots.   Dessert was Meyer Lemon Curd with devil’s food, huckleberries, white chocolate-bergamot foam and basil pop rocks!   The accompanying wines were great, especially Ehler Estates’ Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc (2014) and Cabernet Sauvignon (2012).

The Wine & Chile Fiesta activities continued that afternoon with the Reserve Tasting & Big Bottle Auction held at the Santa Fe Convention Center.   The massive tasting room with over 100 wineries represented offered tastes of some of the world’s best wines.

Later that evening, we joined good friends and local residents Michael and Ellie for dinner.   When they suggested a relatively new restaurant located at Ten Thousand Waves, I wondered why?   Ten Thousand Waves is the ultimate Japanese style spa located high in the mountains on the road to the Santa Fe Ski Basin.  While we’ve visited Ten Thousand Waves many times for their wonderful hot tubs and amazing massage treatments, I’d never thought of it as a place to dine.   Was I ever wrong!   The relatively new IZANAMI, an upscale izakaya style restaurant, opened there a couple years ago.  Executive Chef David Padberg and his team churn out a Japanese small plates menu in an absolutely stunning building with awesome views.   We thoroughly enjoyed the multi-course omakase menu.   This dining experience reminded me of how global the dining scene is in Santa Fe.   While best known for the local New Mexican food and upscale Southwestern cuisine, Santa Fe has attracted restaurateurs and chefs from all around the world.   I can’t think of a global cuisine that’s not represented in this small city of 70,000!

After-dinner diversions in The City Different?   There are many choices.  I had to return to my old stomping grounds of Coyote Café to check out partner Quinn Stephenson’s new swanky cocktail lounge, the HIGH NOTE, located on street level directly below the café.   The drinks are creatively crafted, décor is “uptown” and seating is comfortable.   They also feature an eclectic line-up of live music and late-night desserts … the perfect ending to a perfect day.

Saturday

After connecting with long-time friend and original fiesta board member Diana (who had just flown in from Wichita), we headed out to the world famous Santa Fe Opera where the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta’s BIG EVENT is now held each year.  It was a perfect sunny day with temperatures in the low 80’s.

The Big Event was just that.   Several thousand attendees were treated to tastings from over 80 Santa Fe restaurants and 100 world-class wineries set-up under four giant tents on the opera grounds.   When the Fiesta first began, all restaurants were required to include New Mexico chile (red or green) in the items they served.   This has since changed and they have the freedom to feature any specialties that are seasonal.   The next three hours were filled with amazing tastes and the opportunity to greet old friends and meet new ones.   We met attendees who had flown in from all parts of the country.   Who served the best tastes?   I’ll never say!  The event isn’t about identifying “the best of” … it’s about experiencing the diversity of cuisines and flavors that Santa Fe has to offer.   It was apparent that all the restaurants took great pride in preparing their items and decorating their booths.   The sense of community was strong as they were all having fun together!   (Remember the fiesta founders’ other original intent — Create a sense of community and celebrate the city’s cuisine?   Mission accomplished!)  I’m proud that the dream we had 25 years ago is alive and thriving today.   Kudos to the leadership and volunteers over the years that kept this fiesta relevant and better than each previous year!

We departed the big event in a food coma, so a late afternoon nap was in order.   Later that evening, we enjoyed dinner at SAZON, a new upscale Mexican restaurant.   Chef-owner Fernando Olea is known for his creative mole sauces.   The special New Mexican mole that he created to celebrate Santa Fe’s 400th birthday did not disappoint when paired with fresh halibut.   Another item, a shrimp enchilada with squash blossom sauce, was equally delicious.   The restaurant has an interesting drink list with a focus on mezcal.

Sunday

We had one more meal to enjoy before heading back to the Albuquerque airport.   So we met up with friends Honey and Sandy for brunch at an adorable little French bistro that we passed several times – CHEZ MAMOU.   I felt like we’d been transported to a European city while dining on their patio.   A comforting croque madame with seasonal greens was the perfect antidote for all the spicy food and wine consumed the previous day.   And sadly, the weekend was coming to a close.

If you haven’t had the opportunity to experience Santa Fe, please do so … you’ll be surprised in so many ways.   With so many great dining choices, you’ll leave wanting to return to try more of them.  It truly is the best small food city in the country.   Santa Fe is also a “best in class” example of what happens when a community comes together to create something special … then unselfishly promotes itself as a whole.   It’s just smart business.   And everyone wins.

Ahhh Santa Fe … how I love you and always will!    Food for the soul experienced through all seven senses.  

-DAVE

(For more information about the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, visit www.santafewineandchile.org )