New Festival Focuses on Tennessee Food and Wine

University of Tennessee's Carol Costello hopes to start something big with this year's first-ever state food and wine festival

Carol Costello doesn't believe you can't be a hero in your own home state—just that it takes a little extra publicity. Costello, the director of the University of Tennessee's Culinary's Wine and Beer Program, has long thought Tennessee-produced foods and wines were underappreciated, even by Tennesseans, but only because the general public doesn't know what's available. This year, she approached UT's Conference and Non-Credit Programs division with an idea to do something about it, and the result is a foodie's dream: the first-ever Tennessee Food and Wine Festival at the Knoxville Convention Center Oct. 21-22.

The event is first and foremost a showcase of comestibles and wines of the Volunteer State, with more than 100 booths featuring foods from Ron Reed's Signature Barbecue Sauce to the less-expected Walker Creek Toffee and Alfresco Pasta, and many, many more. With two weeks to go, exhibit space is sold out. "This is great exposure for the small Tennessee food and wine producers that do not have an opportunity to have their products distributed nationally or even across the entire state," says Costello.

As a professor in UT's Hotel, Restaurant, and Tourism school, Costello sees another benefit: "We will have more than 125 hotel, restaurant, and tourism management students who will work the event and learn the ropes," she says.

Costello also brought to bear the school's creativity, professionalism, and event planning acumen—even in its first time out, the festival has some big fun planned that will appeal to the most jaded food festival fan. There's a Moonshine Tasting Saturday, for example, and wine and brew appreciations dotted across the calendar. Local chefs will be on hand for demonstrations, and Chef Darrin McGrady, once personal chef to Princess Diana, will do two food demonstrations and also cook his heart out for Saturday evening's $100-ticket "Fit for Royalty" dinner.

Another emphasis is involving kids in the culinary experience, and during the festival (with separate fees), there will be four classes for middle and high schoolers, like Friday evening's Middle School Moves to Italy and a Jr. BBQ Pitmaster class on Saturday.

Another win-win: the festival is tied to the UT-sponsored Wines of the South competition, and it's no coincidence that this is Costello's first year managing that event, too. She assumed the reins after the retirement of Dr. Bill Morris, who directed the competition for nine years, and wants the festival and competition to succeed together.

WOS, which draws entrants from 14 Southern states, was held Sept. 30-Oct. 1 at the UT Conference center, and the "best of" winners will participate in wine tastings throughout the event, along with a few seminars being hosted by WOS judges like Dennis Perkins, the retail wine manager at Smoky Mountain Wine and Spirits. "It's amazing that there are good wines made in the South," he says. "When I find a Seyval Blanc that tastes like a white burgundy or a riesling that is a dead ringer for a Mosel, then I get a little happy."

No one's trying to say regional wines are uniformly on par with other global offerings, says Perkins, who's been a judge for the competition five times, but attention at the festival will serve as encouragement. "Maybe these wines aren't perfect, but they're close to home and warrant a little attention. After all, if we don't encourage and support them, how will they ever be good enough to offer wine lovers a locavore option?"

Costello feels the same way about the festival—that along with celebrating the fine products that are already made in Tennessee, such exposure might encourage more of them, and offer the area a new opportunity for success, in the increasingly popular arena of foodie festivals. "I can completely envision this festival developing into a regional event that could increase tourism to Knoxville. It could become a really big deal."

To purchase tickets online and see a complete schedule, visit TNfestival.com. More information about Wines of the South, along with a list of festival participants, can be found at conferencesandnoncreditprograms.utk.edu/winesouth.