Back in 1992, Guy Bower was a recent transplant to Wichita.
An Air Force pilot, Bower had moved here from Miami to take a job flying F-16s with the Kansas Air Guard. He brought with him a passion for wine that he’d developed growing up with restaurant-owner parents and traveling to countries such as Spain when he’d been on active duty.
But Wichita did not have much of a wine scene back then. Nor did it have much of a reputation as a place that had any hope of developing a wine scene.
“I called the national American Institute of Wine and Food in California and told them, ‘I’m in Wichita now, and I want to start a chapter,’ ” Bower said. “They laughed. To them, Kansas was a flyover state that was conservative and not that far removed from clubs and no alcohol and the fond memories of that gal with an ax tearing up bars during Prohibition.”
But they let Bower start the chapter, and he sold out his first event, a “Chardonnay Shootout” at the former Olive Tree in April 1992. Membership grew and grew. Soon, Wichita’s AIWF was the fastest-growing chapter in the history of the organization.
As it turned out, Wichita was just waiting for its wine scene.
Twenty years later, Bower is no longer in charge of AIWF. His wife, Beth, is now a chapter co-chairwoman.
But he’s still active in the organization, which pioneered a culture that today has resulted in a city full of wine experts, wine enthusiasts and weekly wine tastings at restaurants from east to west. (It’s also the organization that started the popular Midwest Winefest and Midwest Beerfest, annually anticipated events at Century II.)
The Wichita chapter of AIWF, whose active members and leaders through the years have included names such as H. Wayne Foster, Tony DiStefano, Elizabeth Sauer, Scott Hampel and Jay Cooper, is celebrating its 20th birthday this month with a gala that will feature samplings of wines plus appetizers and a live auction.
It’s the kind of event Wichita’s AIWF chapter is known for. The organization puts on monthly wine events that are fun but focused more on wine appreciation and education.
The chapter’s efforts also have resulted in culinary scholarships for several well-known Wichita chefs, including the Wichita Country Club’s Damian Lehman and the Wichita Marriott’s Peter Moretti.
Moretti, who used his scholarship money to take a seminar on wines at his alma mater, New York’s Culinary Institute of America, often helps the organization put on wine and beer dinners.
The organization has been key in enhancing and promoting Wichita’s dining scene through the years, he said.
“It gets people excited about food and celebrating food,” Moretti said. It brings people together, and it’s a great organization.”
Bower said he remembers suspecting back in 1992 that Wichita was full of wine and food enthusiasts like himself. But even he is surprised by how many the group has been able to find during the past two decades.
“In 1992, there was wine enthusiasm, but there were more people wanting to learn more and do more,” Bower said. “Today, Wichita has a more sophisticated community of wine consumers than ever before and more than anyone could have imagined having.”