Communities put on events for many reasons. To increase tourism. To build a sense of neighborliness. To celebrate a significant event in their history. To plain old celebrate. Taos in July has rapidly become the time for a festival that combines food, wine, art and culture for a good cause: the Toast of Taos, a fundraiser for the area's only hospital, Holy Cross.
The media (including this publication) has started to take note, too. "There's a lot more interest in the event," says Holy Cross Hospital Foundation Director Sally Trigg, organizer of the weeklong shindig. "We've gotten sponsorships from the Albuquerque Journal, 5280 Magazine, Southwest Art, and next year we're looking to attract major corporate sponsorship. A large national auctioneer who focuses on wine events is involved for our auction. Bon Appetit even contacted us about putting something in the magazine!"
The Toast of Taos is only in its third year, yet it has attracted the attention of major national publications that cover the gamut of interests-lifestyle, art and food-an impressive start. How did it all begin?
The New Mexico Vine & Wine Society, the group that created the Southwest Wine competition, approached the hospital foundation. It wanted a non-profit organization to take over the competition, which brings together vintners from the five southwestern states (Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas) for tastings and judging of the best of the winemakers' art. This year, there will be more than 200 wines entered by more than 40 wineries in the region.
By coincidence, the hospital foundation was looking for a major event to raise money. The marriage of wine and fundraising seemed natural, but organizers felt they needed more-something locals and tourists alike could hang their plans on and entice them to hang around a few days. Adding wine dinners at local restaurants, a gallery stroll where those same restaurants would provide nibbles and the wineries could display their wares, wine classes, entertainment and a culminating auction of wine and art, turned a two-day competition of mild interest to oenophiles into a festival that draws art lovers, foodies and tourists enjoying the summer in a small mountain town.
The previous years' Toast of Taos festivals were met with great enthusiasm from local businesses and city tourism officials, Trigg says. "This event is an ideal showcase for the art and cuisine that are unique to the Southwest, set against the splendor of the mountains of northern New Mexico."
Each year, more wineries have pledged to enter their wines in this distinctive event. There is no other competition that focuses exclusively on the southwest region, limiting entries to selections made with a minimum of 75 percent grapes grown in the five states.
The friendly battle of vintners allows participants to compare apples to apples-or in this case, grapes to grapes-instead of juxtaposing California wines with regional varieties. "If you haven't tried regional wines in a while, the Toast of Taos becomes a voyage of discovery. We're helping people make the discovery that our wines are just as good, and sometimes better, than those in other areas of the country," Trigg says.
What really jazzes many of the participants is the opportunity, in an informal setting, to meet the people who make the wines. Questions fly, glasses clink. Winemakers are social beings, adds Trigg, who believes that being able to talk to the vintners gives a whole new dimension to the experience of wine.
The Toast of Taos, with its strong focus on pairing wine with food, also introduces new audiences to the Taos food scene. The experience of fine dining in Taos is a novel one for some. Unless you live in New Mexico, you don't necessarily realize just how good the restaurants here can be-at last count we've got seven AAA four diamond eateries, two of them in Taos. "A lot of people don't realize the caliber of restaurants in Taos, which routinely win top awards in the state. For a very small town, it's great for business," Trigg says.
Jo Ann Carolla-Polt, owner of Bravo! Fine Wines and Spirits, one of the restaurants participating in the wine dinners and gallery stroll, became involved with the festival for several reasons. "It's a great event for Taos, an opportunity for the town to share art as well as local wine. And for vintners from around the five state area, it gives them the opportunity to see what's out there in terms of competition. Colorado has something like 65 wineries, New Mexico has a bunch, and New Mexico is the oldest region for growing wine grapes in the U.S. We couldn't pass up the opportunity for Bravo! to host these great wineries," she says.
Bravo! will pair a couple of different wineries with a special menu designed to highlight both the beverages and the food during a wine dinner on July 5. Some 20 restaurants are participating in the Art D'Vine Gallery Tour on July 11, where each restaurant is paired with an art venue for an evening of noshing, strolling and imbibing. "People get to taste wine and food and see great local art. As we've gotten more restaurants and wineries involved, this has turned into a really fun event," Carolla-Polt continues, pointing to the trolley that shuttles people around the circuit. The conveyance adds a festive air to an already festive evening.
Bravo's wine shop sells many New Mexico offerings, and has brought in several Colorado wineries like Sutcliffe Winery, as a result of the exposure that the festival has given it. That same exposure works to the benefit of local art galleries, too, says Robert Nightingale, owner of Wilder Nightingale Fine Art. "If people enjoy themselves and buy art, that's a plus. But if not, it's still good exposure for us," says Nightingale.
Nightingale has been involved with the festival since its inception three years ago. The community experience draws Taose-os as well as tourists, which is good for his business after the visitors depart. "Santa Fe has certain events where galleries participate. When Toast of Taos came up, I was behind it all the way. People plan on it now, especially the gallery tour, going from place to place, sampling wines, eating appetizers from great restaurants. Locals come out, many of whom have never been to the galleries before. This community experience is very social."
This year 25 galleries will open their doors for the tour. To spotlight the art component, organizers call for local artists to create the annual poster image. This year's winner is Patty Sheehan for her painting "Adobe and Wine." Patty's painting won a narrow victory over 11 competing entries from such well-known Taos artists as Stephen Kilborn, Kit Lynch, B.J. Briner, Bob Cooley, Ed Sandoval, and Inger Jirby.
The poster image conveys the beauty, color, life, celebration, and the spirit of Taos. That spirit also flows freely through the volunteers without whom the event couldn't happen.
Beatriz Gonzales, one of the over 100 selfless souls who coordinate everything from spit buckets at the gallery tastings to ticket sales to running supplies all over town, is one of the Foundation's core volunteers. The 70-year-old has been volunteering for the hospital for decades, and especially appreciates the chance to give back to an important community institution.
"I remember the hospital when buckets caught the rain leaking through the roof. I like the fact that the hospital has improved over the years. Many caring people work there. Some of them cared for my grandmother when she was sick. Since the renovation and with all the new equipment, it's going in the right direction. But we still have lot to do to serve the needs in the community," says Gonzales.
With folks like Beatriz and Robert and Jo Ann pitching in to do their part for their hospital and their town we would like to raise our glass and say this event is a toast to Taos.
The Toast of Taos celebration kicks off on the Fourth of July with events sailing right through the 12th. See their ad in this issue or go to their website at www.toastoftaos.com.