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Saratoga Wine & Food Festival

Party goers attending swanky functions like the one happening on Sept. 7-9 in Saratoga Springs, New York, are accustomed to the typical covered tent, dinner service, twinkling lights, house band and fellowshipping with like-minded attendees.

Event planner Colin Cowie
Event planner Colin Cowie

But this year, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center is kicking their primary fundraiser up a notch by partnering with event superstar Colin Cowie to produce the Saratoga Wine & Food Festival.

Cowie has produced events for the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Lopez, Kim Kardashian, Ryan Seacrest, Jennifer Aniston and Tom Cruise, so he has his pick of producing events in any city in the world. But he is eager to head to Saratoga Springs to infuse the SPAC fundraiser with his signature touch.

He’s also sharing insights into how—and why—he does what he does.

“I’m passionate about food and beverages and how they make us feel,” says Cowie. “I love the idea of taking something that has been there for years and injecting some style into it, and everything needs a little nip and tuck after a while.

The weekend will feature four events, including an Adirondack road tour and luncheon, a grill competition, a grand tasting, and Brunch with Colin Cowie, a new ticketed event hosted by the party planner himself that features a menu from award-winning chef Todd English and mixology from The Cocktail Architect Yusef Austin. Media personality Tricia Mitchell will emcee the event that also features co-sponsors Avion Tequila, Whispering Angel, Musgrave Gin, Double Cross Vodka and Cape Classics Wine.

English is eager to co-host the brunch.

“Brunch is such a great way to celebrate with friends and family,” English says, “and beautiful Saratoga Springs is an ideal location so this will be a fun, fabulous and delicious occasion.”

Chef Todd English
Chef Todd English

Pro Tip: When events bring together a number of restaurants, bars and food industry brands, the best calling card is a job well done.

Guests will notice quality and consistency, and talk about it. It’s how Cowie became involved in the SPAC event in the first place: After one of Cowie’s legendary weddings took place on the grounds, tales of the event retold reached new SPAC president and CEO Elizabeth Sobol, who had plans to revamp the long-running epicurean showcase.

“I heard about the wedding at SPAC that Colin did and knew he and his colleagues saw in this community connoisseurs of the arts, great food and wine,” Sobol says. “It was time to transform the festival into an international destination event.”

Sobol says she was looking for someone who could produce the festival at a world-class level.

“Quality and innovation are really important to us and this is a region where farm-to-table is part of our DNA with tons of makers and farmers and producers, so we are open to things that add to that experience, excellence and intrigue,” says Sobol. “We didn’t want the same-old, same-old, but someone who could bring something new.”

“We are always looking for ways to work on interesting projects and, rather than just be your typical food and wine festival.” – Colin Cowie


SPAC is the largest cultural instruction in all of Upstate New York, drawing about a hundred million dollars of economic growth for the state, with half a million people coming through the gates annually. Between classical music and ballet, SPAC hosts 25 to 30 pop and rock shows each season by the likes of Zac Brown, Kendrick Lamar and Ringo Starr.

Cowie recognized the potential for upgrading the annual festival right away.

“We are always looking for ways to work on interesting projects and, rather than just be your typical food and wine festival, we wanted it to become a curated journey with elements of surprise at all three events,” said Cowie. “I love the idea of being able to meet a whole new group of people, plus it’s fun to drink during the day. I practiced all day last weekend, started brunch at noon and finished at 6. At our SPAC brunch, after the Whispering Angels, hopefully we’ll all be screaming devils.”

Pro Tip: Make it about others.

Many elite events and VIP guests are able to come together with a common goal: supporting a worthy cause.

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As the primary fundraiser for educational programming, this includes Classical Kids, a collaborative program in which SPAC works with local schools to teach elementary and middle school-aged children about the classical performing arts.

When restaurateurs and chefs seek out avenues to participate or support an elite event, look at how it will benefit the community and go all in.

Event planner Colin Cowie
Event planner Colin Cowie

Pro Tip: No one is too good to help clear tables or prep in a participating kitchen, or volunteer to fill flower vases.

“I’ll be there the whole weekend and look forward to learning how to do better next time,” says Cowie. “In the hospitality business, everyone is experiencing a diluting of the market and there is always a Susie Smith with a pop-up laptop and new business cards, so you stand out by being innovative.”

Pro Tip: Become familiar with the event ahead of time.

Cowie says getting ahead is all about forging an emotional connection with the consumer in a crowded space. James Beard Award-winning chef David Burke, who is also headlining the festival, says that should begin with becoming a regular at events like this.

“Buy a ticket and go so you can see what it’s all about and introduce yourself to organizers, enter the food competitions. Just join in wherever you can,  get a group together and get a table or even volunteer to serve food,” says Burke. “The cooking part is good, but you’ve got to be able to mingle and engage and if you are cooking, make standout dishes.”

Burke concedes that while it can be a financial sacrifice for a restaurant, the exposure is an added benefit.

“You’ve got to pick and choose the ones you can afford and it is time consuming to leave your restaurant to participate, but consider having a small staff on those event days, close or stretch it out and hire people to help out,” he says. “It’s well worth it if you utilize it the right way.”

Chef David Burke
Chef David Burke

Above all, plan to offer your help well in advance.

“See what we do this year and get in line early next year,” advises Cowie.

Pro Tip: Create a beginning, middle and end.

Cowie is known for his signature five senses approach, which means guests will smell, touch, taste, see and hear the DNA of an event. In this case, joining forces with the Saratoga Automobile Museum is part of the full experience.

“Thanks to our partners at the Saratoga Automobile Museum, guests will see a dazzling show of Bugatti collector cars set against our reflecting pools, in addition to displays of Ferrari, Maserati and Porsche automobiles to name a few,” said Sobol of the International Bugatti Tour converging at the festival. “This is a once in a lifetime event for car lovers.”

The timing of the schedule is also critical. Cowie builds events with a beginning, middle and end.

“The kick-off to the weekend’s events at SPAC will be sexy and fun, a sizzling barbecue cookout starring David Burke and David Ortiz on Friday night where regional chefs will battle it out for the winning title,” says Cowie of the evening that is also slated to include music, exotic performers, craft beers, wines and spirits, and an exclusive VIP nightclub.

I love the idea of taking something that has been there for years and injecting some style into it, and everything needs a little nip and tuck after a while.

Even though the Saratoga Food and Wine Festival is full of a variety of different events and activations, Burke notes that not every event has to be complicated. Burke himself is known for hosting lively celebrations, but he is also spearheading a casual after party for the festival.

“We’ll have a little barbecue with a roasted pig outdoors on an open fire and clambake in a paint can to keep it simple and not so expensive after the main event for our local friends,” he says. “We’ll have a microphone and Q&A with the chefs and hopefully everyone who is still standing will be there.”  

To follow along with the Saratoga Wine & Food Festival event or purchase tickets to attend, visit www.spac.org.

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Written by   |  
Kelly Merritt has been specializing in freelance culinary travel writing since 1999. Her work has appeared in Southern Living, Forbes Travel, Plate Magazine, OpenTable, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, South Magazine and Florida Weekly. She is the author of "The Everything Family Guide to Budget Travel" (Simon and Schuster) and the novel "FLIGHT" about the adventures of fictitious travel writer Kate Carrington. In her career Kelly has written about many famous faces including Oscar de la Renta, Larry King, Tim Tebow, Kenny Chesney, Titanic discoverer Robert Ballard, design superstar Colin Cowie, celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and bestselling authors Heather Graham, Kathy Reichs and Sandra Brown, among numerous others. Kelly curates a partial collection of her articles which number in the thousands at PotluckLife.com along with her author website, KellyMerrittBooks.com.
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