The man who has orchestrated the South Beach Wine and Food Festival for the last decade is close to finalizing plans for a West Coast version. But after that, future expansion will be someone else's job.
Lee Schrager, director of the event that some call the "Super Bowl of the food world," said Friday that a deal could be signed as early as next week bringing together various partners for a Los Angeles festival. That event would be held in September, a month before the New York Wine and Food Festival, another Schrager event which now is entering its fourth year.
"We're an ink away," he said during the fourth in a series of Associated Press interviews at the South Beach festival.
Schrager, vice president of Southern Wine and Spirits of America Inc., said his role in Los Angeles will be more of a consultant rather than the director position he holds in Florida. Though he once said he hoped to see similar festivals across the company, he said he won't take on that task.
"The L.A. one will kind of round me out," he said. "Let someone else do it."
The South Beach festival started as a small, one-day event on the campus of Florida International University and has grown from attracting about 600 people to an estimated 53,000 this year. Since then, it has been easier to persuade food celebrities to attend, Schrager said, but he still gets turned down on occasion.
Chef Thomas Keller of Napa Valley's The French Laundry restaurant, for example, hasn't been back since attending the festival's fifth anniversary, Schrager said.
"We probably scared him away. I think we've become in his mind very commercial, and very associated with the (Food) Network and I don't think he views that as his audience," he said.
Though he never envisioned himself in the role he plays in coordinating such a large event, Schrager said he's always been an organizer at heart, from as early as his days as a Boy Scout.
"I'm a Blackberry, a book of connections, a networker, a schmoozer who puts people together," he said. "And that's what this festival is built on _ relationships, and giving your word and living up to it."
J.M. Hirsch is food editor of The Associated Press. To see all of the videos from AP's coverage of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, go to: http://bit.ly/f4lFT6