Sobe Wine and Food Festival’s Wayne Chaplin & Lee Brian Schrager

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 This festival would not be where it is today if it weren’t for three things: being on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world in the dead of winter, having amazing support from amazing sponsors, and being fortunate enough to have the access to and support from the greatest food personalities, chefs and wine makers in the world.

The mogul and the visionary behind the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival celebrate ten years of perfecting the art of consumption, in good company, and for the cultivation of the talent of tomorrow.

When you’re driving the wine and spirits parade as the leading beverage alcohol distributor in the world, you’re sure to have a stellar team behind the wheel. In the case of Southern Wine and Spirits the talents in question are President and COO, Wayne Chaplin and Vice President of Corporate Communications,  Lee Brian Schrager. And aside from being at the helm of this monster corporation, the duo head up a series of events that have changed the face of the industry, entirely. The star of this lineup? The SoBe Wine and Food Festival, which celebrates its ten-year anniversary this year, and currently includes a star-studded list of supporters from culinary heavy hitters to celebrities and gourmands the world over. Haute Living caught up with the two gentlemen to talk about the journey, how the festival’s success birthed spin-off festivals across the country, and how they work to benefit the greater good.

“We never had long-term plans for the festival,” recalls  Schrager. “It’s not like we sat at the table and created a 3 year plan, a 5 year plan or a 10 year plan, it just kind of happened naturally, organically, it’s kind of home-grown.” An interesting way to describe the festival, which despite the initial lack of expectations has grown, albeit organically, into an experience of massive proportions by way of massive support. Southern Wine and Spirits not only reigns supreme as the host of the festival, but their unrivaled list of affiliated brands practically doubles as the event’s sponsor list. “Our brands are the biggest sponsors of the festival, boasts  Schrager.” “And then there are our title sponsor and presenting sponsors, The Food Network and Food and Wine magazine”—both leaders in the epicurean and wine industries and both very powerful names. “Having those names on top of your logo is pretty important…it brings incredible attention to us.” Similarly, attention to the festival comes by way of intense celebrity involvement through events and personal appearances; a nod to Chaplin, Schrager, and Southern Wine for their ability to collect such powerful entities and bring them together in the name of the festival.

And while everyone enjoys a uniting for cook-offs and cook-outs, tastings and the like, the sheer bliss that comes with knowing every dollar raised goes to a cause is sublime. The festival was originally created to create awareness for the Southern Wine and Spirits Beverage Management Center at Florida International University, but ten years and $12 million later, much has happened. Wayne Chaplin proudly shoots through a small list of what they’ve been able to create: “The Beverage Management school is unique, but we’ve also created great scholarship programs, endowed a chair in the name of my father, Harvey Chaplin, and next we’re going to build a teaching restaurant.” Southern Wine and Spirits’ commitment to the school and their students is phenomenal, and, as Schrager explains, the students are involved in the festival in a big way as well, “All of the events involve the students because there are over one thousand students involved in the planning and working of the festival that weekend…It’s a required program from the university; every student has to participate in the festival in some way shape or form.”

Aside from what it does for the school, the festival also does a lot for the city of Miami, which wasn’t necessarily a culinary destination when the festival started. “Emeril [Lagasse] says it’s spring break for chefs, but I think it’s the super bowl of the food world,” says Schrager. “Although certainly we can’t take any credit for the rising food scene in the last decade, I can tell you that we’re proud to be part of it and think that we’ve been a big boost to the food world by bringing down all the media and all the celebrity chefs who have helped profile these great local restaurants.” But a humble Schrager won’t take full credit, he goes on to explain what it has taken to make this festival what it is today. “We don’t take anything for granted, we are so appreciative…This festival would not be where it is today if it weren’t for three things: being on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world in the dead of winter, having amazing support from amazing sponsors, and being fortunate enough to have the access to and support from the greatest food personalities, chefs and wine makers in the world. South Beach has become a must-be place for those people every year…It’s on their calendar now.

Thanks to Chaplin, Schrager and Southern Wine and Spirits, South Beach isn’t the only Wine and Food festival marking calendars these days. The group created another festival; only this time, in New York City. The New York festival, which is gearing up to celebrate four years, was created to meet similar goals as its South Beach predecessor. “It was always about creating something that we considered to be first class and that was not only entertaining, but educational and could raise funds.”

The New York festival benefits Food Bank for New York City and Share our Strengths—two hunger organizations in the city and appropriate beneficiaries of a culinary festival, for sure. And west-coasters should fret not, next on the agenda is the launch of the soon-to-be Los Angeles Wine and Food Festival and one that will be similarly stellar, no doubt.

For those that haven’t had the pleasure of attending either of the existing festivals, Schrager co-penned a cookbook to give you the tiniest taste of what you might expect. The Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival Cookbook: Recipes and Behind-the-Scenes Stories from America’s Hottest Chefs is just that: “We wanted to do it to commemorate 10 years, but also so that if you haven’t been to the festival you can get a bird’s eye view of what it’s like, taking you behind the scenes of the nations largest wine and food festival. And if you have been, it’s very commemorative—great behind the scenes photos, stories, and recipes from one hundred of the greatest chefs who have participated in the festival.” In fact, Schrager urges this year’s visitors to pick up a copy and collect the John Hancock’s of as many of the hundred chefs as you can find.

As for the future of these festivals, Chaplin comments with sincere intentions: “We just want to make the experience better, and better for the visitors.”

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