Who wouldn’t love a chance to travel through Europe to indulge in decadent fineries, while dancing to live music and shopping until their heart’s content? Patrons of Wilmington’s Wine and Chocolate Festival can experience this journey of taste without the expense of a plane ticket. The festival returns on Friday, January 30 for its fourth annual, three-day event, which began as an effort to raise funds for the Volunteer Older Citizens Action League (VOCAL). Since its debut, it has grown into one of Wilmington’s most cherished winter traditions.
In 2003 the New Hanover County Senior Resource Center experienced a significant cut in their budget, which left them the harrowing to eliminate essential services from their program. Fortunately, a social worker at the center, Gayle Ginsberg, used her experience in chocolate-making as inspiration for coordinating a unique fundraiser, then titled “The Chocolate Fantasy Adventure.” They wanted the festival—held at the senior center—to help save services, such as medical and nutritional counseling, home-delivered meals and transportation needs. Though organizers only suspected 200 people to attend, nearly 1,200 made their way through the festival’s doors. Since their first-year success, demand has grown immensely. In 2007 they expanded with a special wine tasting.
“When the evening was over, the wineries met with us and asked if they could stay through the weekend,” event coordinator Marianna Stacy says. “Everyone that came loved being able to taste the wine with the chocolate, so we let them stay. It was the first union of wine and chocolate at our festival.”
In 2012 they officially renamed it “The Wilmington Wine and Chocolate Festival.” Finding a venue with more space than the senior center became crucial, as attendance soared to 7,000 over the course of the weekend. While the growing capacity seemed overwhelming, coordinators strove to provide ample parking and space for their guests by holding the festival at the Coastline Conference and Event Center. With over 10,150 square feet, the conference center proved to be much more accommodating. “We also reduced the number of vendors, widened the aisles and placed more patrols around the venue,” Stacy adds.
For 2015 guests will meander among 50 vendors. European-style dry wines will be provided by several wineries of the Yadkin Valley, including Shadow Springs Vineyard, Windsor Run Cellars, Stephen’s Vineyard and Winery, Duplin Winery, and last year’s Best in Show for Wine winner, Flint Hill Vineyards. Guests will find other local favorites among the chocolate vendors include last year’s “Best in Show for Chocolate” winner, Black Mountain Chocolate, The Little Dipper, Choco Geo, and many more.
On Friday the festival’s main attraction, the Grand Tasting, will take place in the conference center’s Grand Exhibit Hall. “When guests make their way through the vendors in the Grand Exhibit Hall, they will feel like they are entering different areas of Europe,” co-coordinator Charlotte Rosenberg reveals. “England will be represented, complete with a 15-foot fresco painting of Big Ben, as well as Italy with a fresco painting of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”
Tastings of wine and chocolate will be offered, as well as other food prepared by chefs at each European-style serving station. Wine by the glass, bottle and case may also be purchased from each of the wineries. Guests also can purchase package deals that include chocolate, too.
Returning this year as the presenting sponsor and caterer will be the Lawler family, operating under Catering Thyme. They will be serving heavy hors d’oeuvre for The Grand Tasting, such as their award-winning shrimp and grits, savory crab cakes and more.
Back by popular demand will be The Schoolboys, a group of musicians made up of UNCW professors. Guests can dance under an illuminated, 30-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower in the center of the hall. Adjacent to the hall is the Riverview Room where the festival will be hosting a Greek-themed beer, cigar and comedy lounge. Headlining entertainment will be internationally renowned comedian Basile, who will perform his hit show, “A Pinch of Basile.” The comedian will have products for purchase available from his own spice line throughout the entire weekend, too. Two outdoor smoking bars will be provided—one overlooking the riverfront, the other in clear view of the adjacent hotel.
After Friday evening’s events, guests are encouraged to return on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. to enjoy the festival marketplace. A variety of talented musicians will perform at intervals throughout the day. Guests will be able to explore products available for purchase. There even will be a gift-wrapping station for those wanting to get a headstart on finding the perfect Valentine’s Day gifts.
Several special prizes will be up for raffle, including a deep-sea fishing trip. While Friday night will be geared more toward adults, there will be plenty of age-appropriate activities offered for children on Saturday and Sunday in the Upstairs Kid Korner, above the Riverview Room. Children can partake in activities such as story time, cooking demonstrations, as well as Valentine’s Day-themed arts and crafts.
Tickets for the Grand Tasting will be available in advance for $45 for adults online and through supporting companies, including Harris Teeter grocery stores. The tickets will be $50 at the door. Marketplace tickets will be $15 in advance and $20 at the door. For senior citizens, military veterans, and students, tickets will be $10 in advance and $15 at the door (must show ID with ticket). Children under age 5 will be admitted free of charge.
“This is a wonderful event that you don’t want to miss!” Stacy says. “The Wilmington Wine and Chocolate Festival is perfect for any date night or family night, and proceeds go toward providing wonderful services for our seniors in the community.
Wilmington Wine and Chocolate Festival
Coastline Conference and Event Center
501 Nutt Street • Tickets: $10-$50