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Wine South will leave Gwinnett for Atlanta venue

Dan Thompson, founder of the Wine South festival, is a Gwinnett resident who has tried for years to bring some grown-up culture to the suburbs with the annual upscale wine and food festival.

But after five years, he's given up on creating a county of wine connoisseurs.

The festival will leave the Convention Center at Gwinnett Center for new digs at Atlanta's Georgia World Congress Center in 2007, organizers announced this week. The festival is scheduled to run Sept. 28-30.

"We've tried a great deal up there to make it work," Thompson said.

Despite the event's pedigree - it boasted as many as 700 wines, food from more than 40 local restaurants and visitors from 25 different states - Wine South couldn't draw people from inside the perimeter out to Gwinnett, Thompson said. Those coveted residents of Buckhead, midtown and downtown are the wine retailers' core customer base, he said.

"It's been a culmination of the rapid growth of Gwinnett County. The residents are gridlocked in traffic constantly, and there's been some bad press on Gwinnett and the I-85 corridor," Thompson said. "We're seeing less and less people wanting to venture up into Gwinnett County."

Convention Center spokeswoman Cheryl Gee insisted Wine South isn't leaving on bad terms.

"We're not mad at them, and they're not mad at us," Gee said. "We hope one day they'll come back."

Thompson blamed the decision to switch venues on several factors. He and other organizers had hoped holding the wine festival in Gwinnett might help the county attract more upscale restaurants, wine shops and other wine-related businesses, but that hasn't

happened.

The county's lack of public transportation was also an issue. Organizers said they'd love to offer guests who plan to indulge in sampling wine the option to not drive home, but Gwinnett's bus system schedule doesn't offer frequent enough stops on the weekends to make that a possibility.

Thompson also cited Gwinnett's "archaic" health regulations as a reason behind the move. The county charged much more for individual health permits for exhibitors than similar venues in DeKalb or Fulton counties charge, he said.

The festival has attracted about 4,000 to 5,000 people each year while in Gwinnett, a number organizers are happy with, though attendance hasn't grown much.

And though Thompson said he's sad to see Wine South leave Gwinnett, he's excited to see the event grow at its new location. The Georgia World Congress Center's proximity to other Atlanta attractions, such as the Georgia Aquarium, should lend for new partnerships, he said.

Wine South began in 2000. That first year's festival, held in the outdoor DeKalb venue Villa Christina, drew about 3,000 people.

The annual wine festival has been one of the biggest annual events held at Gwinnett's Convention Center. The center also draws big crowds during annual sewing and quilt shows, home and garden shows, the Taste of Home cooking shows, scrapbooking seminars and three annual bridal shows, Gee said.

"Our public events are quite varied," Gee said. "But (Wine South) was the only one of its kind we had."

Thompson said he hopes Gwinnett restaurants and residents will still support the festival after it moves to Atlanta.

"We'd still love to see everyone from Gwinnett come down here this year," Thompson said. "The parking's a little more expensive, but at least you can take MARTA."