365 Things to Do in Memphis #121: The Beale Street Wine Race
The annual Beale Street Wine Race is one of the wildest, most debaucherous events on Beale Street that no one knows about. Assignment #121 in the 365 Things to Do in Memphis is to go (if you're over 18 – the Wine Race is no place for children).
The Wine Race, which bills itself as the unofficial start to Memphis in May, is sort of like an elementary school field day for the restaurant industry. The afternoon (always the last Sunday in April) starts with a parade into Handy Park where competitors are judged on their floats.
Then, there's the Queen of the Vine contest, in which female servers and bartenders compete in an ersatz beauty contest / dance off. Legend has it that one year, the Queen of the Vine contest was cancelled due to too much nudity the year before.
The contestants wear skimpy homemade costumes (many of them wine themed) and are judged on their dancing skills and ability to answer a Memphis-related trivia question in front of a raucous audience and three on-stage judges. This year's winner was the contestant from the Blind Bear – points to her for wearing knee-high furry boots in 85 degree weather.
Between the events (which also include a grape stomping contest), teams mill around Beale in their matching t-shirts and cheer on their co-workers and friends from other restaurants. There's an overwhelming sense of friendly competition and booze-fueled congeniality to the whole event.
The main event, though, is the actual wine race, in which four-person teams (some in costume) compete to see who can run a tray of full wine glasses the fastest without spilling.The block of Beale between Handy Circle and Fourth is blocked off and divided into three lanes (complete with low cinderblock and two-by-four hurdles). The race relay – at each end of the street, there are tables where the next runner has to uncork a bottle of wine, pour a glass and then run down the street to pass the tray to the next runner. The first runner runs with one bottle and glass on the tray, the last runner has four.
Since there are a ton of teams, the race is run in heats. In the first heat, the team from Spindini completely dominated – they had clearly practiced beforehand. As the races went on, though, there were a lot more spills, and some teams gave up and started drinking their wine.
The Beale Street Wine Race happens annually on the last Sunday in April and starts around 1 p.m. You do have to be on a restaurant team to compete, but anyone is welcome to watch.