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Lee Schrager Reveals Wine and Food Festival Future, Talks Brass Tacks

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I, Joshua David Stein recently chatted with former party boy Lee Brian Schrager, the one-man brand machine, and the director and founder of the New York City and South Beach Wine and Food Festivals. Schrager is also the VP of Public Communication for Southern Wine and Spirits, the largest distributor of alcoholic beverages in the world, which explains, partially, why he speaks in politic soundbites. Nevertheless, he says some interesting things.

Lee, you are a prodigious tweeter. You need to get your twittering under control. You have 3,044 tweets.
Wow, I didn't view my tweets as all that prodigious — thanks, I guess. No rhyme or reason to my tweets — sometime I do none for a few days and sometimes I have a few minutes (normally at the airport) where I will push out fifteen in a row.

What's the good word on NYWFF?
It looks like the Burger Bash, Meatball Madness, and Sweet are our classics. We're introducing a few new events this year including a taco and tequila event with Bobby Flay. We don't know the tequila yet. It will either be multiple tequilas or it will be one exclusive. We’re hoping it will be one exclusive. We are introducing a Cart in the Park party with great food trucks — Andrew Zimmern is going to host. And a Chopped party at Landmarc with all the judges from the television show. We are doing a great dinner at Dan Barber's Blue Hill with Gaston Acurio, the Peruvian chef.

Where do you draw the line between making it an orgy of marketing and an experience for the festival-goer that they don't feel that they are just part of a focus group?
Well, one of the differences from Pebble Beach or Aspen is that South Beach and New York are not-for-profits. Clearly the dollars come from sponsors. Listen, it's hard. We're cautious. We cut back significantly from what a lot of the sponsors want to do. It's a tough line but we get it. You know, no one likes to walk into an alphabet soup of sponsors but without them we couldn't produce what we do.

What was the most outrageous sponsor request has been?
[A long sigh] Ch-ch-ch-ch. I don't want to give specifics. We have a sponsor who is a sponsor of the Grand Tasting tents and they have a very prominent color associated with their logo and we just wouldn’t go for it and they wanted to paint the entire tent that one color. We didn’t go for it. A, it would have made the tent too hot to be painted that one color and B, we thought it was too much branding.

Was it going to be a bright orange ING tent?
It was not going to be a bright orange ING tent but that’s a good thought for future years.

[NB. My guess is it was either Food Network, in which case the tent would be tangerine, or Yellow Tail, in which the tent would be...yellow. But I don't think the Festival would turn down Food Network and Yellow Tail is sort of tasteless and might suggest a pee yellow tent...so...maybe it was Amex, a tent wholly in platinum? Schrager's right. That would be hottt.]

Does the festival make any money for Southern Wine and Spirits?
Southern doesn’t get any money back. Clearly their investment with product and labor and staffing is hundreds of thousands of dollars or maybe more than that. It is about giving back to the community. [NB. This, my friend, is the company line uttered to perfection.]

How much money was donated this year in South Beach to the Florida International University's School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, which Southern Wine endowed?
2.3 million dollars.

How much money was brought in total?
About 6 million bucks.

What is the manifest destiny of the Wine and Food Festival? Where to next?
We get hit up all the time. We got offers to do festivals in Cancun, in Cap Ferrat, in Portugal. But it just doesn’t make sense for us since we don’t distribute outside the US. In my mind I have one more Festival in me for sure and I think it will probably be in the next 18 months and I think it will probably be in Chicago or in LA.

What is the major difference between SoBE and New York?
I just realized what it is. When we send out our initial press release about South Beach we get a great response saying, “OMG, when do we get tickets.” When we sent out our initial press release in New York City, all of a sudden I get all these emails from all these groups wanting us to work with them to produce their events from Midtown Lunch to Dinner with the Band. It's great. I never would have thought of it.
So you’re saying in New York everyone is a bunch of self-promoters?
Well....[nervous laughter]

What’s the dinner with band going to be in New York?
We don’t know yet. It may be a BBQ, this might be a great way to bring in BBQ and add our twist to it.

Who in an ideal world would you like to have involved?
Whatever Dinner with Band were talking about. If I had a choice it would be Michael Bublé or Liza Minelli.

[Photographs: leebrianschrager.com]

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