The first Midwest Winefest was staged in the then-Airport Hilton in 1996.
The brainchild of several wine lovers, the tasting was an immediate success, so much so that all the people wanting to bid on the top-shelf bottles of wine and vacations to Napa Valley in the event’s silent auction couldn’t squeeze into the room where it was happening.
Two years later, organizers moved the Winefest to Century II. Four years later, in 2002, they added a Thursday-night Walkabout, an Old Town food and wine event that sells out within hours each year.
Now, the Midwest Winefest is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and organizers say that in two decades, it’s made a big difference in Wichita – not only by educating locals about fine wine but also by raising more than $4 million for its charity of choice, the Guadalupe Clinic, which provides medical care to poor and uninsured patients.
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“Twenty years is a great thing,” said Guy Bower, who was among the group of wine enthusiasts that conceptualized the first event. “Think of the millions of dollars that have been raised, which have turned an abandoned elementary school-turned-clinic into a first-class medical facility for those in need.”
The three-day event, which included Thursday night’s sold-out Walkabout and four Friday night wine dinners that also are largely sold out, will culminate on Saturday with the Grand Tasting at Century II.
That tasting will feature samples of more than 250 wines from around the world and will operate much as it always has, but with a few 20th anniversary enhancements.
For one, the glass that attendees will get for the Grand Tasting will be full-sized, not the usual tiny glass that doesn’t serve much purpose once the festival is over.
Also, organizers have signed up 30 local restaurants to serve samples of food at the Winefest, the biggest collection of restaurants in years. The list includes Sweet Basil, the about-to-reopen restaurant that will have its first outing since a fire last year closed it down, as well as newcomers including Fork & Fennel and Meddys. (A full list of restaurants can be found at http://midwestwinefest.org.)
Organizers also are trying to up the social media ante at this year’s Winefest and are putting together a “selfie station,” where attendees will be encouraged to snap and then upload photos of themselves enjoying the event.
“There’s a huge focus on social media this year, and you’ll be able to have a photo taken with celebrities underneath a giant simulated wineglass that looks like it’s spilling on you,” said David Gear, executive director of Guadalupe Clinic. Celebrities include local personalities like Bower and radio and television hosts Brett Harris and Sierra Scott.
The tasting will again have a “Bubble Room,” an area where attendees can sample champagne and other bubbly beverages. That area also will offer chocolate and other sweet treats from vendors including Cafe Maurice, Monica’s Bundt Cake, J. Rae’s and The Fresh Market.
The live auction, one of the event’s biggest revenue grabbers, will again include several lots of wine and trips to wine-friendly destinations.
Organizers also have worked to expand the types of wines available for sampling, said Rita Faires, director of corporate development for Standard Beverage. The company has been the distributor for the Winefest for all 20 of its years.
This year, wine lovers will find more wines from countries including Italy, Portugal and Germany alongside those from California, she said.
“It’s three hours of wining and dining,” Faires said. “Who wouldn’t want to come?”
If you go
Midwest Winefest’s Grand Tasting
What: A wine-sampling event featuring more than 250 different wines
When: 6-9 p.m. Saturday
Where: Century II Exhibition Hall, 225 W. Douglas
How much: Tickets, which include a souvenir glass, 1-ounce pours of wine, food and a goodie bag, are $66 at the door or in advance at 316-219-4849, at the Century II box office or at www.wichitatix.com.
Designated drivers: Those who fear they might overdo it can bring a designated driver along for $16.50. Taxi rides also will be available for the usual fees.