Charlotte's every-other-year wine festival doesn't start until the last weekend in April.
But organizers have already held one event, the first-ever Charlotte Cru wine competition, and five vintner dinners have already sold out.
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The Charlotte Wine & Food Weekend started in 1989, when members of Cru Bourgeois, a local wine club, held a wine auction to raise money for Junior Achievement, a scholastic charity. The auction was repeated in 1992, this time lead by legendary wine critic Robert Parker Jr.
In the years since, the festival has grown into a three-day event, with more than 20 wine dinners at local restaurants, a packed calendar of events including tutored tastings, wine classes, a blues night, and a roster of well-known winemakers. Plenty of other big names have joined in too, such as Kevin Zraly of the Windows on the World Wine Course, who returns this year.
But the mission has stayed the same, to raise money for local charities. This year's focus is children, with money raised going to Children's Theatre of Charlotte, Council for Children's Rights, Johnson & Wales University, Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina and Crisis Assistance Ministry's W.I.S.H. Program.
Through the years, the weekend has held on to its tradition of offering events for both the wine connoisseur and the beginner. On the high-ticket side this year, there are Sommelier, Connoisseur and Enthusiast Tastings at the Ritz-Carlton, with themes such as premier cru Burgundies, Southern Rhones and Pinot Noir. Zraly will lead some of those, including "Almost Perfect," a look at 10 wines that received 98 points or higher from wine critics.
For the wine fan who isn't quite ready for a $150 tasting, there's the Vintner Tasting, one of the great bargain events. For $35, you can try almost all the wines featured during the weekend, most poured by the winemakers who make them - and love to talk about them. There also are several $50 classes, covering Spanish wine, Italian wine and beer.
Even the wine dinners aimed for price variety this year. While most are $125 to $175, there's a beer dinner this year at The Liberty Gastropub for $65 that features Bell's Brewery and Flying Dog.
One more new feature: The festival's first wine competition was held earlier Feb. 6, when 50 volunteers tasted about 50 wines that will be featured this year, awarding silver and gold medals.
Many of the wines will be available in local wine shops, and the list of winners, including categories below and above $50, is posted on the festival Web site.