The Cincinnati International Wine Festival was founded in 1991 by industry legend and wine enthusiast Russ Wiles, President of Heidelberg Distributing. It was his vision to create an event to bring thousands of people together through the wondrous world of wine with the proceeds benefiting local charities. With the help from founding partner and first beneficiary WGUC, the Cincinnati International Wine Festival was created. Today, the mission of the wine festival is to raise funds and distribute grants to arts, education and health and human services charities in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, while promoting the wine industry.
In 1991, the first wine festival was held at the Omni Netherland Plaza featuring two grand tastings and pouring about two hundred wines for 800 attendees. Now the wine festival has expanded to a wine competition, honorary chair dinner, trade tasting, grand and special tastings, education sessions, winery dinners, golf outing, check presentation, and more than fifty charities supported.
Follow the story of how Russ Wiles’ dream flourished and how the Cincinnati Wine Festival became the success that it is today.
The second wine festival promised cooking classes, dinners, seminars, and more wines. This was the very first year the wine festival conducted a competition, where the wines were judged by local and regional wine experts. To celebrate the competition, a “Taste the Gold” event was held, to taste all the medal-winning wines! Additionally, the very popular Thursday winemaker dinners began, later to be known as The Winery Dinner Series. The following day consisted of a grand tasting, and Saturday followed with a Cooking with Wine Seminar, Live Wine Auction, and a grand tasting. The Live Wine Auction is reminiscent of the Charity Auction and Luncheon we have today, and featured trips to California and Italian Wine Country.
1993 brought more cooking classes, dinners, seminars, and plenty more wine. The three-day festival consisted of the Annual Festival Judging. Eleven “Cooking with Wine” Seminars were conducted including “More Cooking with Marilyn”! by current board member Marilyn Harris. Wine Seminars carried on throughout the day, with topics ranging from the “ABC’s of Wine” to “Robert Mondavi Component Tasting”. The number of attendees doubled from 1992 bringing together more than 1,600 people to enjoy the wine- and food-filled weekend.
The wine festival outgrew the Omni Netherland Plaza and moved to the Cincinnati Convention Center, known today as the Duke Energy Convention Center, where the festival is still held today. Grand Tastings, seminars and cooking classes continued to grow, and more events were added. A Post-Grand Tasting Party, Elegant Buffet and Wine Auction and lastly, a Winemaker Tribute Lunch all were held during the festival weekend.
The Cincinnati International Wine School began in 1995 as an introductory training program for servers and retailers who want to enhance their wine knowledge. The same events continued, and the festival grew even more. The wine festival donated more than $750,000 to five charities, whom we still provide grants to today! These include WGUC 90.9, Cancer Family Care, The Linton Music Series, The Freestore Foodbank and CISE (Catholic Inner-City Schools Education Fund).
The wine festival flourished for several years and became a popular Cincinnati event. In 1999, the Cincinnati International Wine Festival debuted a private labeled wine exclusive to the Cincinnati area. These wines included the Wente Vineyard’s Chardonnay and Merlot, who still participate today! In 2000, Russ Wiles stated, “People fly in from all over. The word’s out that this is the best buy for the buck.”
The Cincinnati International Wine Festival hosted their first-ever golf tournament in 2001, which is known as The Russ Wiles Memorial Golf Tournament today. The golf tournament quickly became “a tournament like no other”, with food and wine stations throughout the course, contests, wonderful tee gifts, and a closing reception.
In 2002, $124,000 was granted to 11 local charities, totaling more than $1,000,000 to date.
Sadly, in 2003, at age 64, Russ Wiles passed away after a two-year bout with cancer. “Russ had a true passion for all aspects of the wine business,” said Al Vontz III, co-chairman of Heidelberg. “His rapport with both suppliers and customers is legendary.”
Connie Wiles, Russ’s wife of 16 years became the Board President and took on the role of growing the festival in his honor.
In 2006, $265,000 was granted to 25 charities, totaling more than $2,000,000 to date.
2009 became a transformative year, as it established the format that we have today. Three main events comprised the weekend with Winery Dinners on Thursdays, Grand Tastings and Special Tastings on Friday and Saturday, and the Charity Auction and Luncheon held on Saturday morning. In 2010 the wine festival surpassed the total donation amount of $3,000,000 to local charities to more than 30 Charities!
2011 marked a milestone for the wine festival as it was the 20th anniversary with honorary chairs Gina Gallo and Jean Charles Boisset.
In 2012, The International Festivals & Events Association honored the wine festival during their 57th Annual IFEA Conference with six prestigious Pinnacle Awards, including three gold for Best Promotional Brochure, Best Outdoor Billboard and Best Supplement for the Cincinnati Magazine Tasting Guide.
The wine festival celebrated the 25th anniversary in 2015 by reaching a total donation of more than $4,000,000 granted to local charities! In 2016, the wine festival was honored to receive the Faith in Education Award from the Catholic Inner-City Schools Education Fund (CISE), which is given to those who have provided outstanding support for the advancement of CISE. The latest milestone of the wine festival was in 2017 when we exceeded more than $5,300,000 granted to more than 50 charities in the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area.
2018 was yet another amazing year of the wine festival, donating more than $400,000 to 35 local charities. This was also a very special year for the wine industry, as the California Wildfires spread all throughout Napa and Sonoma County. This devastation affected so many wineries and families close to the wine festival. To give back to those who have given the wine festival so much, an additional $60,000 was donated through a Community Matching Gift Challenge to the Napa and Sonoma Community Relief Efforts.
Today, the wine festival has established itself as one of the premier wine events in the country. More than 6,000 people from more than 35 states helped contribute to this year’s donation of $406,000, helping us reach the landmark of over $6,000,000 granted to our local beneficiaries!