Image provided by Albany Wine & Dine for the Arts 

Yono Purnomo and Marcus Pryor exchange knowing smiles in the back room of Yono’s at 25 Chapel Street in Albany as they reminisce about the early days of Albany’s Food & Wine for the Arts an event approaching its 11th year that Purnomo helped found and for which Pryor is now the board president. 

“I helped him inject a little color into his wardrobe,” says Pryor, former board chair of theRep theater in Albany. “I gave Dominic a little wardrobe advice as well,” he laughs, referring to Yono’s son, who like his father is a celebrated chef and restaurateur.   

The discussion leads back to before the founding of the festival when Purnomo Sr. arrived in Albany in the 1980s. It could be said that Purnomo helped add a little color to Albany’s stale culinary scene. “There was steak and spaghetti. That was all you could get,” he says. “I’m not kidding.” 

This year Albany Wine & Dine for the Arts will enter a new era. Purnomo and his wife, Donna, have stepped back as leaders, and the organization will see the introduction of several new features. Pryor says a new app will keep patrons connected to local artists and restaurants throughout the year. The three-day event itself, which includes tastings, contests, demonstrations and a gala, will feature far more art than ever before. All the chefs involved will create a dish that pays tribute to their native countries. 

“This year is shaping up to be more exciting than we first expected,” says Pryor. “I thought we would be focused on regrouping and continuing the festival into perpetuity while meeting the standards of the past. Now we are going to exceed them. The app is a game changer with the interactivity between the restaurants, beer and wine retailers, artists that we feature in our event year round.” 

The app and more details about the festival will be announced at an Oct. 15 press conference. 

The Albany Wine & Dine for the Arts festival was founded when the city was cutting funding to local arts organizations, including Capital Rep. The Purnomos, both patrons of the arts,  understand the symbiotic relationship between arts organizations that attract audiences to Albany’s downtown and the ability to maintain regular, reliable patronage of restaurants in the area. The event brings together celebrated chefs from around the region for three nights of tastings, banquets and an awards ceremony. Each year the festival has raised about $100,000 bringing its 10-year total to about $1 million raised for local arts organizations like theRep, Albany Center Gallery and Albany Barn. 

Over the festival’s 10 years of existence Albany’s food and arts scenes have evolved significantly. Just as Albany went from a “steak and spaghetti town” to something that sustains Yono’s adventurous cooking, the area has evolved with celebrated staples like Ric Orlando’s New World Bistro, Peck’s Arcade and 677 Prime. Arts organizations are thriving and the creative economy is now a major talking point in conversations about the region’s future. Local developers now routinely use the arts and arts organizations as ways to ingratiate themselves to the communities they are investing in and transforming with massive developments. 

“Donna and myself have been involved in the industry for 33 years. We got to the area around the same time,” says Margaret Carciobolo, owner of Nicole’s in Albany. “We watched the industry evolve and the arts grow. I don’t think some people understand that Albany is now a culinary force to be reckoned with.” 

Carciobolo says she thinks the Wine & Dine Festival has helped turn foodies on to the arts and artists on to local food. “It stimulates everyone to check out what the area has to offer.” 

As times have changed, so now will the Wine and Dine Festival, as the Purnomo family takes a step back and the festival is set to come alive with more actual art. 

“For 10 years, Donna and Yono have been the driving force behind this. That is a long run and now they are going to pass the torch,” says Ric Orlando. “But I don’t think for a minute they are won’t be involved. With Marcus involved I know there is a lot of enthusiasm about the future and how he will carry it forward.” 

Tony Iadicicco of Albany Center Gallery (ACG) says that the festival has always been important to the organization’s bottom line, but this year he is excited to play a larger role in the proceedings. “We’ll be there providing interactive art for the grand tasting. We’re working with the Maude Baum Company on a choreographed dance that will produce a work of art,” Iadicicco says. He doesn’t share all the details so the work will surprise the attendees. 

In addition to the funding and the performance, Iadicicco sees the festival as a chance to expose more people to ACG’s work. “We’re always trying to expand and to be able to reach someone who is there for the food and one of the 500-600 people who will be there over three days and say here are these artists, here is what is going on in the community, is really important.” 

Jeffrey Mirel of Albany Barn and executive vice president of property management and development firm Rosenblum Companies sees Albany Wine & Dine as a sort of “angel investor” that helped get Albany Barn off the ground. “They helped to launch us to the next phase of bringing on our first full-time employee. We could have sought it somewhere else but they really stepped up and said, “We believe in what you are doing for the Capital Region.” 

Mirel notes that the terms “creative economy” and “creative placemaking” were not popular at the time. But the folks behind the Food & Wine festival saw the potential of an artist incubator in Albany. “They understood what we were trying to do,” he says. 

The festival has faced criticism from the local food community, especially over the last few years. Deanna Fox penned a piece in 2016 taking organizers to task for not including more local establishments and utilizing more locally produced products. Steve Barnes of the Times Union wrote that getting dishes to plates before they turn cold has been a recurring issue. 

Pryor says that the festival’s sponsors dictate what brands and they feature. He points out that some locally made craft beverages will be featured this year. Just how much the festival has changed won’t really be clear until it takes place January 16-18, 2020. But more details will emerge on October 15. 

“We’ll be blowing a breath of fresh air into the events,” Carciobolo says. “Having art play more of a role in the events will make it more exciting. We are going to let people know this is a new event, we have a new face, new enthusiasm and it is truly exciting.”