As the host of the LA Food And Wine Kickoff for the past four years, and the “Dawn McCoy Experience” at both Pebble Beach Food and Wine and Four Seasons Maui Wine and Food Classic, you could say our editor-at-large Dawn McCoy is a food and wine expert. With our own Music City Food and Wine right around the corner, Dawn shares her top tips for navigating the best food and wine festivals around the country. 

The first time I attended Music City Food and Wine Festival back in 2017, it was nothing like I had expected (in the best possible of ways). With the Kings of Leon at the helm, I knew it was going to be cool, but what I didn’t know is how both sophisticated and down-home a festival could feel at the same time. In fact, I often refer to the spirit of it when talking to people about the uniqueness of all of the different food and wine festivals around the country, explaining that MCFW is the only one of its kind where the culinary and music industries marry in a happy chorus.

But, with all of the food and wine festivals I’ve attended or been a part of, there are some common denominators that unite them all, and some basic tools that can help turn just “going to a food and wine festival” into being a part of a food and wine experience for the attendee.

Go Early

Perhaps this seems like a no-brainer, but honestly, this is the best advice that any F&W pro would give you. Go early and you get to stroll in and not only miss the lines but set the tone for your whole experience each day. Just getting there right when the doors open allows you to take your time, have a glass of bubbly to start, take a stroll around the venue and get an overview (perhaps by then, your second beverage of choice already in hand), and plot out your tasting course. This ensures that you not only get to taste all of your faves, but also get to explore some new-to-you delights that just might tantalize your tastebuds and surprise your soul.

And, Stay Late

If you leave early, I can pretty much guarantee you’re gonna miss something magical. Unlike that adage from high school where “nothing good ever happens after midnight,” I can tell you that the most magical moments happen at the end of the day of the last day of any food and wine festival. Case in point? Back in 2017, when the Kings of Leon took the stage at a rainy, muddy MCFW, pouring shots from the stage while the crowd erupted into one epic, seemingly never-ending dance party.

Go in With an Open Mind… and, an Open Palate

When looking at the lay of the land, it may be tempting to hit the chefs, restaurants and wineries you love, but save those for the end. You know you like those, so why not spend the bulk of your time exploring those tastes that are new to you? This is your chance to discover a new, unique culinary creation, your new favorite restaurant, or scout out the perfect wine for your upcoming wedding or event!

Splurge for the VIP, All-Inclusive Ticket

Speaking of maximizing your time, the only complaint I really ever hear from any of the guests at any food and wine festival I’ve been a part of is that they wish they hadn’t missed something – a chef’s demonstration or a special tasting hosted by their favorite chef, or a particular dish at an event that they missed out on due to not purchasing the all-in or VIP ticket. So, if there’s a chef-hosted luncheon that appeals to you or a Gospel Brunch that inspires, why not upgrade your experience? Does this mean you’ll have a less-than-amazing time if you can’t afford to splurge? Heck, no. But if you want the ultimate food and wine experience, consider splurging for the whole shebang.

Talk to Strangers

Contrary to what your parents might have taught you, talking to strangers is the key to extra fun at any festival. You never know where talking to a stranger might lead you. Swapping stories of favorite dishes from the day with a fellow guest could lead you to a post-festival foie gras sharing at the epic firepits at Pebble Beach Food & Wine. Striking up a friendship with a sommelier could lead to a secret sommelier tasting–like it did for me at Four Seasons Maui Wine & Food Classic. Or, sharing a burger with a chef could gain your admittance to an epic all-night progressive dining and dance party after a certain Los Angeles Food and Wine fest.

Consider It “Adult Camp”

The key, at the root of it all, is to view each food and wine festival as “adult camp” – in fact, that’s how I refer to it to guests when I host a kickoff. After all, how many opportunities do we have as adults to hang out with other adults who share a common passion for a whole weekend? Over the course of just a few days, we get to deepen friendships with old friends, discover new friendships and possibly even make business contacts or fall in love. Seriously. With both of those last ones, I’ve seen it happen on more than one occasion. And, that’s the real beauty of a food and wine festival – you never know who you’ll meet or what can happen!