Is This Epic Annual Event a Best-Kept Secret in Downtown San Diego?

The San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival is a national hit, but too many downtowners don't know what they're missing in their own backyard

A COUNTRY FULL OF foodies knows and loves the annual San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival.

The mega-event gets national accolades (and is beloved locally) but do downtown residents know enough about this national treasure right in our bayside backyard?

I’m not so sure. So take heed.

Embarcadero Marina Park North is home to the Grand Tasting. (SDWFF courtesy photo)

Anchored annually on Embarcadero Marina Park North since 2004 (excluding 2020), this year’s multi-site festival runs from November 9-13.

The event started as a two-day affair that immediately attracted 2,000 attendees. The focal point, The Grand Tasting, initially featured 30 restaurants and some 60 wine vendors set up in booths in the scenic bayside park.

It quickly grew. Pre-COVID, the festival ran a 10-day schedule and included dozens of activities held all over the city.

The 2022 version is building back to pre-pandemic levels. Co-founder Michelle Metter expects a whopping 60 restaurants and 200 winery, brewery and spirits companies to be on hand for this year’s Grand Tasting. (Don’t miss Metter’s backstory Q&A at the end of this article.)

Including non-food-and-beverage related booths, there will be roughly 300 tents, tables or booths catering toward gourmands.

Chef Bernard Guillas steaks his claim. (SDBWWF courtesy photo)

Preceding the festival is SommCom, a mini-conference for wine enthusiasts.

The Wine & Food Festival kicks off with several foodie “expeditions,” including a chartered bus trek to the Guadalupe Valle in Mexico.

During the fest there are winemaker dinners, mixology classes and appearances in the past by celebrity chefs such as Chad White, Jason McLeod, Javier Plascencia, Drew Deckman, Bernard Guillas and more.

The itinerary includes a Grand Decant, the infamous and spectacular Grand Tasting (November 12 this year), and the Grand Fiesta, which caps the party with a Taco TKO competition.

Just under 6,000 attendees can fit onto Embarcadero Marina Park North for the Grand Tasting.

Total attendance for this year’s five days of programming is expected to be 14,000.

Say cheese! (SDBWFF courtesy photo)

Having attended at least half a dozen Grand Tastings, I offer this educated opinion: This is the GOAT of Greater San Diego events.

I’m shocked when I gush about the festival to downtown neighbors who haven’t heard that culinary nirvana visits the city once a year.

Wake up and smell the duck carnitas. The prime brisket. The smoked-beet-and-mushroom tacos.

It’s a bold, three-hour experience (four hours if you buy a VIP ticket) that creates epic memories.

I’ve been there to watch local chef-célèbre Amy diBiase roast mouth-watering cedar-planked salmon; swooned over bites of Raclette cheese fire-melted onto fresh Röckenwagner bread; listened with a tear in my eye while a Central Coast winemaker told a heartrending story about a small-batch red blend named after his young son, taken by cancer.

You’ll never be able to consume everything The Grand Tasting has to offer.

It’s a casual chic outdoor buffet of culinary cool, with epic activations and live music. It’s full of flavors, aromas, personality and passion. The cuisine is diverse–both domestic and international. It’s an approachable event, but also serious fun for foodies.

Drink it all in. Be prepared to exit the party a little bit tipsy, and counting the days until it returns.

Ticket prices vary. The Grand Tasting is $150. Events can be packaged or tickets can be purchased separately.

Warning: Events do sell out. Here’s a link to ticket information.

The Festival Backstory

SDBWFF co-creator Michelle Metter.

I sat down with festival co-creator Michelle Metter on Embarcadero Marina Park North to get insight on the event’s backstory…

San Diego Sun: What’s the origin story of the San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival?

Michelle Metter: My now-business partner, Ken Loyst, and I were working in the recreational scuba diving industry. He’s a huge wine collector. We’d go to wine-and-food events across the country. He said, “At some point, San Diego is going to be ready for an event like this–these great destination experiences.” When we decided to start a business together, that’s what we did.

What research did you do?

Oh, it was horrible (laughs). We researched in Napa Valley. We had to meet with lots of wineries, and lots of chefs. But seriously, we did our homework. We met with the city’s people. Hoteliers. The hotel association and the restaurant association. We wanted to make sure San Diego would want this. And that it could evolve into something like what we saw in other cities. The Port has been a phenomenal partner.

Was downtown always the focus of where you would do the festival?

From the beginning, Ken and I wanted to create something that was super iconic for the city. We wanted a waterfront event. Something that was picturesque, that really told the story of our city. Embarcadero Park was a natural fit for us.

This sweet tee sums up the festival ethos.

So it was originally designed to attract people from out of town, right?

We started it as a tourism-based event. And, we wanted to create something that locals would be proud of, and would have longevity.

Are downtown residents coming to this festival?

Without pulling ZIP Code numbers, I’d say we are getting a good percentage. We can always do better. We saturate the downtown market pretty heavily to let people know we’re here. But, there are probably also a lot of downtown residents who have no idea this incredible event is happening within steps of their front doors.

What do you remember about that first year?

It was 2004. It was so vastly different. We were a two-day event and everything was grassroots. I remember a lot of late nights, stuffing packets, literally doing everything by hand. It was a labor of love. Event planning is stressful. So we wondered, ‘Are they going to like us?’ But we had a really good turnout that first year.

And now the festival gets national recognition?

We were named the number-two Best Wine Festival in the latest USA Today 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards. We got number-one in 2019. [An editorial board picks its Top 20 list in different categories and readers vote for the the Top 10.] We would love the support to get back to number-one!

The festival is also regularly in the annual BizBash Media List of Southern California’s Top 100 Events (including all categories), and in the top three for Biz Bash’s Food Wine & Hospitality Events.

Camp Cohn: a party-within-the-party. (SDBWFF courtesy photo)

What are some of your highlight memories from over the years?

There are definitely moments that have touched me in different way:

  • “Camp Cohn” was awesome. Cohn Restaurant Group wanted to show the story behind all their different places. They’re such a staple in the local community. They created an adult food camp for the Grand Tasting. Counselors had whistles. There was a circular fire pit. And a teepee. It was like a place where adults would go away to camp.
  • Gail Gand on a catamaran was a highlight. She’s on Food Network and is an amazing, James Beard-award winning chef. We did a birthday brunch for her in the afternoon with amazing chefs out on the water. She was very touched and it was such a San Diego moment.
  • One year, the US Grant hotel was celebrating its 100th anniversary. We gave the hotel’s original menu to a handful of chefs, and they redid it in a contemporary way. Katsuya Fukushima participated. So did the late Anthony Sinsay, who we miss dearly.
  • There was one survival moment. Locals know how great our weather is year-round. One year, there was a torrential downpour dumping on us in the morning during set-up. We wondered if attendees or even vendors would show up. Well, they all did. It was raining when we opened, but 45 minutes later the sun came out. There was a massive roar from more than 5,000 people. And it was a great afternoon.
  • A few years back, Monkey Shoulder whisky company did one of my favorite activations at the Grand Tasting. Right next our bathrooms area, they created their own row of Porta Potties. Only, one Porta Potty door was orange. When you went in that door it led to a speakeasy. There was a DJ playing and Monkey Shoulder was serving its whisky. There was no marketing on it, but once word got out there was a huge line.

The secret Monkey Shoulder speakeasy. (SDBWFF courtesy photo)

For more information on festival events, go to SDSun

November to Remember: It’ll be a festive month on Embarcadero Marina Park North. The weekend after the San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival, the Wonderfront Music & Arts Festival takes over the park for three days (November 18-20).


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