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I'll never forget my first Charleston Wine + Food Festival. I was a very happy (and stuffed) attendee at last year’s first course, and I’ll definitely be back for the second round come March 1-4 this year.

As a long-time fan of Charleston’s food scene, I knew the city was a natural for this event. Combining Lowcountry cuisine and culture with a cornucopia of creative chefs and restaurants makes for a tasty menu. Last year’s successful premier proved the event is already destined to become a spring ritual for me and many others.

“We’ve added more events, more vendors, and more tasty details that will make this a world-class event, “ board of directors chair, Nathalie Dupree, recently told me. “The Festival is poised to present a truly unforgettable event that brings some of the nation‘s best chefs, winemakers, and literati together in this beautiful city.” My mouth-watering review of this year’s four-day schedule reveals that they’ve expanded and enhanced several signature events that I loved last year, while adding many new offerings sure to please any palate. I can’t wait.

Located in Marion Square, the Charleston Cooks! Culinary Village was the heart of last year’s event--and looks to be even better this year. The mostly open-air village (open March 3rd and 4th) will again feature more than 70 culinary-related businesses, including top restaurants, food purveyors (like Ted’s Butcherblock), wineries from around the world, culinary merchandise, and more. Visitors receive a commemorative glass for tastings and have access to many cooking demonstrations, author discussions, and the Charleston Cooks! tent, which features a large selection from the nearby culinary store and cooking school.

My wife, Cele, and I enjoyed a great Charleston Cooks! cooking class during last year's festival weekend. Part of the Maverick Southern Kitchens restaurant empire (including Slightly North of Broad, High Cotton, and Old Village Post House up in Mount Pleasant), Charleston Cooks! offers a variety of cooking classes year-round, as well as a retail shop for home cooks that is simply foodie heaven. Somehow, booking a cooking class during the festival seems really appropriate--we’re planning on checking out one called “Taste of the Lowcountry” this year.

Other “repeats” from last year of which I look forward to asking for seconds include: the opening reception; the "Restaurant Dine-Around"; Bubbles & Sweets; several “wine” events; and the "Gospel Brunch".

The opening reception, "Salute to Charleston Chefs: 2007" on March 1st will feature 24 of Charleston’s top chef preparing signature dishes in (hopefully) small portions that will allow me to sample a ton of good food. The dishes will be paired with wines presented by winemakers from around the country.

The hardest part about the "Restaurant Dine-Around" (March 2) will be choosing a restaurant. The events format features four-course meals (with wine pairings) prepared by the host chef and a guest celebrity chef. You definitely can’t go wrong with your choice, but I will say that one of our favorite New Orleans chefs, Susan Spicer, is joining Bob Wagonner at Charleston Grill.

The "Bubbles & Sweets" event is a great add-on after the March 2nd "Dine-Around" and features fine champagne and delectable desserts prepared by several area and nationally-known pastry chefs. This was another of my favorite events last year (and it‘s included with a "Dine-Around" ticket).

The "Gospel Brunch" (on Sunday) was a huge hit last year and the reprise will be even better. As church bells echo over the steeples, chef John Zucker from Cru Café and Catering will serve an inspired brunch accompanied by inspirational gospel music.

The weekend's wine-oriented events, many of which I enjoyed last year or will check out during this year’s version, include winemaker receptions in private historic homes, an "Art & Wine Reception" at the Gibbes Museum of Art, and a line-up of on- and off-site wine seminars covering a wide variety of topics and wines.

We don’t have children, but the Kid’s Village looks like fun for both kids and kids at heart. This new entrée will feature cooking classes and culinary-related activities for children under 12. Kids can make bread, churn butter, plant an herb garden, or make art out of food.

Here’s a quick rundown of other new possibilities during the long weekend: "Saturday Night Celebration" (a casual and lively Lowcountry party in the Historic Rice Mill Building); "BBQ Blues & Brews (southern barbeque, music by Chef Fatback and the Groove Band, and adult beverages); and "Food + Wine with a View" (a very exclusive--and pretty pricey--five-course dinner overlooking the entire city in Terri Henning’s private home).

Writing this has made me very hungry (and thirsty). Is it March yet?

More Information

Tickets and information are available online at www.charlestonfoodandwine.com. Single and multiple ticketing options for various events are available, including repeats of last year’s popular “Grand Weekend Pass“ (my personal recommendation) or the “Friends of the Festival VIP Donor Package.” Of course, Charleston has many convenient hotel options, including several of my favorites: Francis Marion Hotel and Holiday Inn Historic District (both adjacent to the Culinary Village); Orient Express Hotels’ Charleston Place; contemporary Market Pavilion Hotel or historic Planters Inn (both overlooking Charleston‘s market); Wentworth Mansion; and the three historic properties of Charming Inns of Charleston. General Charleston travel information can be found at www.charlestoncvb.com.