There will be two wine festivals this April in South Walton — the 27th annual Sandestin Wine Festival and the new South Walton Beaches Wine and Food Festival.

Irreconcilable differences will bode well for wine lovers in South Walton and from out of town.

There will be two wine festivals this April in South Walton — the 27th annual Sandestin Wine Festival and the new South Walton Beaches Wine and Food Festival.

Citing a need to expand, Chan Cox, a founder of the Sandestin Wine Festival, separated from Sandestin and will partner with Keith Howard of The Howard Group, as well as the Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation to bring the inaugural five-day wine, food and entertainment extravaganza to Grand Boulevard.

“It’s the first year in a sense,” said Chan Cox, owner of Chan’s Wine World. “It’s basically the same event that I’ve been doing for 26 years, I’m just moving it from Baytowne Wharf to Grand Boulevard. I’m taking the distributors with me.”

A grant in the amount of $35,000 was pulled from the Sandestin event and reallocated to the new festival, a decision put forth by the TDC advisory board and Dawn Moliterno and approved at the Tuesday Board of County Commissioners meeting.

The grant, as one of Visit South Walton’s Signature Events grants, was designated in April to be used by Sandestin for the 27th annual event, which is often called the premier wine festival of the Southeast.

Signature events are outlined as events of more than three days for which the TDC expends more than $10,000 in grant funds.

“Both of those parties … collaborated in the previous years, going back 27 years,” said the TDC’s Jon Ervin. “This year, those two parties divorced.”


A Signature endowment

When the TDC caught on to the fact that its two-partner grantee would be split, the TDC Advisory Board called for new grant applications from the heads of both festivals.

The TDC was advised that because one of the components of the original partnership had left, it was necessary to revisit the grant. The panel reviewed each summary thoroughly and awarded points based on six criteria ranging from quality and uniqueness to commitment to the expansion of the shoulder season.

It all came down to numbers in the case of the grant money distribution to either festival.

“The scores were very good,” said Ervin. “Grand Boulevard scored slightly better.”

The advisory board brought this item to the table at its regularly scheduled meeting this past Tuesday morning for public comment. The board told those gathered that they were faced with either upholding the results of the scorecards or giving it to neither party. The TDC decided to stick with numbers and align themselves with the new festival.

Sandestin officials were not thrilled to lose the grant, but they appeared content that the money will be used next door.

“You need to give the money to somebody, and if it’s not us, it’s fine,” said Claude Comtois, executive director of The Village of Baytowne Wharf neighborhood association. “The $35,000 is important but if we don’t have it, we are still going to have an event.”


A growing popularity

Twenty-six years ago, Chan Cox partnered with Keith Howard, then with the Sandestin Market Shops, to bring a wine festival to South Walton. In its first 19 years, the festival took place at the Market Shops.

With wine, food, and merriment, it was no wonder the popular event outgrew its original location.

So, seven years ago, the festival was moved into Baytowne, which was then seen as a larger and downright charming setting to hold a wine festival.

But, Cox says he is ready to grow it further to meet the demand of festival-goers.

“We had more interest than we had space,” he said of last year’s festival.

He added that the new venue of Grand Boulevard will provide the space necessary to bring in more wine enthusiasts, as well as draw in passersby.

“It just has a wonderful facility with 2,500 parking spaces. It’s right on the highway and has great visibility. It’s logistically a much bigger, nicer space,” Cox said.

Last year, the Sandestin Wine Festival sold 3,100 tickets, 2,700 of which were in presales. Due to restrictions of space, the venue could not accommodate every wine enthusiast who wanted to attend.

“We had to turn people away,” said Comtois.


Not enough room at the Inn

One of Sandestin’s looming limitations was the business conference lodging schedule. A multi-year contract for a business conference had been booked concurrent with the traditional Wine Festival weekend during John Russell’s time as the Senior Vice President of Operations for Sandestin. Since then Russell has taken the post of executive director of the Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation.

“The conference business at Sandestin is always going to be a cap on the business,” said Russell, who said the conferences are important money generators for the resort. “Is (the wine festival) ever going to reach South Beach numbers? Who knows. But it would never reach those numbers in the Village.”

The conference-goers were set to descend on the resort the fourth weekend of April, the traditional weekend of the Sandestin Wine Festival. So, Sandestin decided that for the festival to have enough space, it would need to be moved to the third weekend in April.

This did not sit well with Cox.

“ ‘I would love to have always the same weekend,’ ” Comtois recalled Cox saying. Comtois added, “I agree with him. But the festival finds its way to grow every year.”

Upon learning there may be a potential problem, Tom Becnel assigned Kitty Whitney, a board member for the Baytowne association and executive director of Sandestin Real Estate, to the task of rearranging the weekend schedule to find room to accommodate everyone’s needs. Within a few days, she returned to Cox with news that the festival could have its weekend and that it could expand to the Baytowne Marina.

But the decision had already been made and two events were set, one on the third weekend at Baytowne and one on the fourth at Grand Boulevard.

“We’re splitting the baby,” Whitney said.


A tale of two festivals

In the split, Cox took with him the wine distributors. Sandestin kept its venue and corps of staff. And though things will be different, both parties seem positive going forward.

“They’ve added some components, we’ve added some components,” said Whitney. “We’re going to make two cool events.”

Though in years past the distributors donated their wine to Sandestin, this year they will donate more than 2,400 bottles to the 2013 South Walton Beaches festival. Sandestin says this won’t deter them.

Formerly, Sandestin donated lodging to celebrity vintners and the Linkside Conference Center to be used for the auction, as well as food at cost and a portion of the festival proceeds to DCWAF, which was held concurrent with, but not in connection to, the festival. This was a package, according to Whitney, that if sold would amount to around $140,000. So, part of that money will be used to buy wine outright from the distributors.

“It is $38,000 to buy that wine,” said Whitney. “We’re going to buy that wine … and keep moving.”

The Sandestin Wine Festival will remain at Baytowne, but will add a spirits, in the form of vodka, and caviar tasting at the marina. They will also employ the skills of local young adult culinary students and add a component to aid military families. They also plan to continue to donate a portion of the profits to local charities, though the beneficiaries have yet to be set.

The Sandestin Wine Festival will be held at Baytowne April 18-20. Tickets are available for sale now at

For the South Walton Beaches Wine and Food Festival, the most notable change from years past, according to Cox, will be the incorporation of the Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation.

“One hundred percent of the proceeds from the festival are going to the Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation,” said Cox, a key founding member of the DCWAF.

A 500-plus seat, air-conditioned tent will be erected on Grand Boulevard’s green space to accommodate the auction dinner.

“We’ll be a much more integral part, which will benefit us,” said Russell. “It’s huge for us.”

The South Walton Beaches Wine and Food festival will be held April 24-28.

Tickets will be available soon.

“There are three things this event’s about one, charity; two, community; and three, industry … It’s all about a way of life,” said Cox.