About Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta

What started one afternoon in the Santa Fe Railyard on the last Saturday of September 1991 as a one-day food and wine event with 20 restaurants and 20 wineries, has become more than thirty years later an annual five-day event celebrating the best Santa Fe has to offer with over 60 participating restaurants and 90 winery partners.   Over 3,500 guests arrive in Santa Fe each September for this one-of-a-kind Fiesta.


What started one afternoon in the Santa Fe Railyard on the last Saturday of September 1991 as a one-day food and wine event with 20 restaurants and 20 wineries, has become more than thirty years later an annual five-day event celebrating the best Santa Fe has to offer with over 60 participating restaurants and 90 winery partners.   Over 3,500 guests arrive in Santa Fe each September for this one-of-a-kind Fiesta.


To promote Santa Fe as a world-class culinary destination and to educate people about Santa Fe restaurants and wine, to support the food, wine and service education of Santa Fe restaurant staff and the food education of local children (by SF chefs) in serving, cooking, and eating healthy foods so these groups have the chance to become future culinary leaders.

The SFWCF was the 1991 brainchild of Mark Miller, Al Lucero, and Gordon Heiss.

The Formative Years

The Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta was the 1991 brainchild of Mark Miller, Al Lucero, and Gordon Heiss. Miller opened Coyote Café in 1987 to national acclaim. Lucero, who sold Maria’s restaurant a few years ago, after owning and running it with his wife Laurie for 28 years, was a wine enthusiast who wanted to prove New Mexican cuisine was worthy of a beverage other than beer or Margaritas. Heiss was GM of La Casa Sena.  Along with Heiss, all three wanted to create an event that would let the world know that: A) not every restaurant in Santa Fe only served tacos and enchiladas; B) wine does, indeed, go with New Mexican food; and C) there are outstanding wine selections at most restaurants in Santa Fe.  They timed the event (the last Saturday in September) to bridge the Santa Fe tourism gap between the Labor Day Weekend and the October International Balloon Fiesta, with the philosophy that “full hotels mean full restaurants”. 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 wineries.  The prerequisite for the participating restaurants was that they include some type of chile in their tasting portions at the event, reasoning that all cultures use some peppers in their cooking. Later that year, on a bright and slightly cool afternoon in back of the, now defunct, Sanbusco Mall, 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 sixteen participating Santa Fe restaurants or a taste of wine being served by local distributors. Sixteen tasting booths were lined along the perimeter of the L-shaped parking lot behind the former Sanbusco Center. In a tent on the western side of parking lot a couple of local wine distributors poured tastes of several dozen wines, mostly from California. About 350 people attended. A Chile and Wine Committee was formed and the following year, the event moved to what was then the courtyard of the Eldorado Hotel.  It became more organized and offered seminars on New Mexico chile and several different varietals of old and new world wines.  The “Chile Doctor” from New Mexico State University (which is world renowned for its study of chile peppers), as well as a couple of Master Sommeliers and wine makers presented educational lectures. One of the committee members offered to pay a church group to do clean up after the event, promising a contribution to the church they represented.  Aftershock: there was no money to pay the church group, and Santa Fe Chile and Wine found itself ten-grand in debt that was created by the second Grand Tasting!  The question was, do we continue, or do we throw in the towel?  “Hey, we can borrow the money from a bank – after all, we had over 500 people show up and we can make it bigger and better next year.”  The local Sunwest bank loaned the group the $10,000, but only if someone in the group would personally guarantee the note.  One of the three stepped up and signed the note, the bank loaned the money.  The church group was paid!

Off and Running

The following year, the event was bigger and better.  In conjunction with the event at the Eldorado, three superstars and founders of the 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.  This started a continuing feature of presenting rock-star chefs invited to attend each year, with a roster of some of the most famous chefs in the world attending.  In addition, major wine makers were invited and most held seminars and demonstrations of their product – that line-up includes Joseph Heitz, Robert Mondavi, David Ramey, and on and on.The crowd became too large for the Eldorado courtyard, and Paul Margetson, GM of the Eldorado met with Lucero and Heiss and said they no longer could host the event.  The group was now $15,000 in debt (counting the $10,000 borrowed the year before).  The bank loaned the group the $15K, paying off the $10K from the year before.Mark Miller offered the services of his Coyote Café General Manager, Dave Hoemann, to help Lucero and Heiss.  That winter the committee became a Board of Directors and Mr. Hoemann was chosen as the Chairman of the Board.  The Board hired a part-time director, Tom Fishera, who was on board for about a year, when he left Santa Fe to take on the General Manager’s position at a fashionable San Francisco restaurant.  At that point the Board hired Greg O’Byrne to replace Tom as part-time Executive Director.A former assistant to Mark Miller, Greg, at the time, was Food and Beverage Director at Las Campanas in Santa Fe.  With Greg’s help, the Event moved to the Hilton Hotel parking lot across the street from the Eldorado, where a tent was erected along the entire Alameda Street side of the parking lot.  The Grand Tasting that fourth year was a smash hit, with lines of people more than a block long waiting to get in.That success led to the next year’s tenting of the entire Hilton Parking lot (in an “L” shape).The fifth year Santa Fe Chile and Wine (at the Hilton) was even better than the year before.  All debts were paid, and the group hired Greg O’Byrne as the full-time Executive Director.  Santa Fe Chile and Wine was off and running!A SFW&C Fiesta poster was created in the second year, from art work by local artists, including one year featuring a Georgia O’Keeffe painting.  Other than the O’Keeffe, most of the original poster art was auctioned off in a live auction which morphed into a major auction-luncheon event every Thursday noon at the Fiesta in which thousands of dollars are raised for charity and event expenses.  A “Wine-Maker” of the year presentation was added to the agenda at the live-auction luncheon with a special trophy presented to the honoree with their in-person acceptance.At one point, early on, someone asked, “Why are you holding a ‘Chilean Wine Festival’ in Santa Fe?”  (Say it fast, “Santa Fe Chile and Wine Fiesta” – get it?).  So came the name, Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta!

The Opera Years Begin

Year Six needed more space than was available at the Hilton.  The Board was scrambling to find a suitable location and lo-and-behold, Kate Collins, a member of the board and local wine distributor said the folks from the Santa Fe Opera wanted to talk to us about using their huge parking lot for our Grand Tasting Event.  The Board agreed to a five-year agreement with the Opera that would have the Event donating cash to the Opera for the purpose of helping to pay for the repaving of their parking lot.  After the five-years went by, the event came to a financial arrangement with the Opera and continued to use that venue for over 20 years. In its more than twenty-year span at the Santa Fe Opera, SFWCF saw more evolution with events like  film nights, cooking demonstrations at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, events including the Trade and Reserve Tastings were established in the early 2000s and as mentioned before, the Guest Chef Live Auction Luncheon. Another example, in 1993, Michael Cerletti, and a couple of partners bought Betty Eagan’s Rancho Encantado (which has since been totally razed and replaced with what is now the Four Seasons Encantado Resort and Spa).  Cerletti, a board member, allowed the Fiesta to use the resort’s covered outdoor dance and event venue to host a new Sunday Event, Champagne and Dirty Boots a brunch featuring great food and the Champagne of the Year which was Moet et Chandon for the first several years.  When the Cerletti group sold, this event went away, but was re-invented in 2012, when Four Seasons took over the management of the venue.  Champagne & Dirty Boots is one of the first events of the SFW&C to sell out each year.  These events have created the fabric of the Fiesta along with the piece de resistance on the last Saturday in September—the Grand Tasting, with 100 world-class wineries serving tastes alongside 75 Santa Fe restaurants to over 2,500 food and wine enthusiasts.  Music was added with a live band adding a soundtrack to the festive afternoon.  In addition to the paying attendees, about a thousand volunteers, winery reps and restauranteurs working the event, brought the crowd up to over thirty-five hundred food and wine lovers for the Saturday Grand Event.

Back to the Future

After the 2019 event on the Opera parking lot, the management of the opera chose to discontinue the relationship with SFW&C, so a new venue was selected, Fort Marcy Park!  In 2020, the event was scheduled to move to Fort Marcy Park in downtown Santa Fe, however, the last couple of years have brought challenge to our industry but also an opportunity for change.  In 2020, SFWCF was able to redirect its efforts and execute a virtual festival with a series of winery dinners, cooking demos, and tastings along with robust online live and silent auctions.   The Fiesta demonstrated its brand power and commitment to the hospitality community during this trying time which allowed for even bigger changes in 2021. In 2021 Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta Grand Tasting returned to downtown Santa Fe with not one, but two Grand Tastings on the grassy lawn of Magers Field at Fort Marcy Park. Each of the two Grand Tastings featured over 90 world-class wineries and 35 Santa Fe restaurants serving samples of their signature cuisine each day.  Grand Tasting crowds were limited to half the size as in the previous renditions, providing more space to move about and shorter lines in consideration of our patron’s health and safety.   The Fort Marcy venue was a smashing success, receiving rave reviews. As an event whose mission is to market the Santa Fe restaurant community as a world-class destination, we are thrilled to be able to host our signature events in downtown Sant Fe once again this year. Magers Field at Fort Marcy Park is a historic venue that offers plenty of beautiful grassy space, outdoor views of the clear New Mexico blue sky and easy walking distance to the downtown area.

SFWCF in the 21st Century

In 2022 the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta returned to its original one-day food and wine Grand Tasting on Saturday afternoon (with between 2,000 and 2,500 tickets up for sale) while also marking an important evolution with the creation of “Chile Friday.”  After 30 plus years it was time to recognize our roots as central to the Fiesta, with an event that features the great New Mexican foods made with New Mexico grown Chile.  Of course, New Mexican cuisine requires refreshment with local craft-beers (served by a dozen-plus Santa Fe and New Mexico Breweries), craft / top shelf margaritas and a few New Mexican wines that have red or green chile as an ingredient.  Chile Friday was the surprise hit of the 2022 Fiesta and was even better in 2023. With the pandemic behind us, 2022 & 2023 also experienced great strides in other key parts of the SFWCF.  Sponsorship increased dramatically; and as we headed into 2023 and it allowed us to not only broaden our support of Cooking with Kids but also bring back an educational component of the Fiesta.  In the fall of 2023, we supported 50 of Santa Fe’s emerging wine sommeliers with the Level 1 Court of Master Sommelier class that certifies a solid level of international fine wine credential so critical in restaurant service today. In keeping with this strong support of wine service & education, the 2023 SFWCF also saw a solid surge of the Restaurant Winery Dinners that make up the evenings throughout the Fiesta.  Our events and programming during the day inspire guests to go out and try the wine and food pairings at the featured participating restaurants.  It’s a perfect synergy. Finally, the auction component of the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta moved into the 21st Century.  In addition to the main event, our Live Auction & Guest Chef Luncheon, we expanded our auction item offerings in the Silent, Super Silent and On-Line formats.  Across these auction formats guests had a chance to bid on incredible wines and winery / travel experiences and one of a kind local experiences.   With a festive coda to 2023, SFWCF launched a small Red & Green (Christmas) online auction in December that was great success. All of this lifted our charitable capacity to enable our mission of supporting the Santa Fe restaurant community as a world class destination along with providing education to the hospitality community and supporting the food education of local children.  Still roasting and crushing 33 years later, the original one-day Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta has exploded into a five-day epicurean extravaganza, and we look forward to welcoming you to this one-of-a-kind event.