Beginning on April 27, Florida Winefest & Auction will celebrate its 16th year with four intoxicating days of connoisseurs and casual drinkers mixing at The Ritz-Carlton in search of the next great grape-and the cuisine to go with it. At the end of the festivities, Winefest will have added a considerable amount to the $5 million it has already donated to children's charities in Sarasota, which has made it the singe largest fund raiser for our city's disadvantaged youth.
But it's not only a good cause, it's a great time, with events, experiences and flavors to suit every palate-and purse. Organizers deliberately make this an inclusive, communitywide celebration, and guests range from big-league investors who fly in for the chance to bid on rare vintages and deluxe travel packages to those who are just learning that tannins have nothing to do with Florida's UV index. It doesn't matter if you can't tell a cab from cuvée; the real challenge is sorting through all the choices to find the events and experiences you'll most enjoy.
To help you, we asked longtime fans and some well-placed insiders for their personal bests and favorite fun at the festival. Here's a quick course in getting the most out of this year's festival, themed "The Gifts of the Vine."
AT FIRST BLUSH
Winefest is really a series of events, including winemaker dinners, a wine-tasting brunch, food and wine seminars, a gala dinner and a fabulous charity auction. This year, 65 vintners from as far away as Australia will be pouring their wines for some 6,000 guests. Last year, 700 people attended the five-course Friday gala dinner and dance. The Saturday tasting lunch-featuring a world of wines and food from top restaurants around the state, in booths spread throughout the hotel-and the afternoon charity auction drew 800.
Tickets for these events run from $65 to as high as $500 per person-which is what guests will pay this year for dinner at the Lakewood Ranch home of Joan and Walt Flowers, where wines from their Flowers Vineyard in California will accompany a multicourse extravaganza prepared by star chef Jeffrey Strauss of San Diego's ultra-hot Pamplemousse.
But the most popular event is the least expensive. According to executive director Sandy Loevner, who's been with Winefest since its inception in 1990, 2,000 people attended last year's leisurely alfresco wine tasting on St. Armands Circle, known as Sip & Shop. Tickets cost a mere $15 per person.
And guess how it all started? Some sought-after wines do run out during the Friday and Saturday events, but there's always lots of good stuff that isn't consumed. "Whatever's left is what we have at Sip & Shop," says Loevner. "That's why that event was invented-to save the vintners return trips to ship the wines back home."
In recent years, Winefest has become a nationally known event that draws lots of out-of-town visitors. "Last year I didn't see a familiar face in the crowd," says Sarasota food and style writer Marsha Fottler.
She may be exaggerating, but the out-of-town contingent is definitely growing. They come from Chicago, Dallas, Washington and beyond, says Loevner. Some may have a Sarasota home or friends here, but others learn about the event from such publications as Wine Spectator or Wine News, which donate big ads to the event each year. The highest bidder at last year's auction was a Canadian, and no one at the festival office had ever met him before.
Look for more visitors this year. "We market it to outside people to make it a destination event," says Loevner. "We fill every hotel room in town. Restaurants fill up, houses are bought, condos are bought."
When guests come from far away, Loevner and her staff make it a point to keep them happy. "Hours and hours are spent on seating [for the gala dinner]," she explains. If a man from New Jersey orders a ticket, for example, staff will call him to learn more about his background and interests. "Maybe he has a second home on Longboat, so we'll make sure he sits with people from Longboat Key," she says.
DINNERS TO SAVOR
By far the hottest tickets at Winefest are the 30 or so winemaker dinners on Thursday night. At these events, a well-known vintner selects and pours the wines, and top local chefs create a menu to match them. Many of the dinners take place in top local restaurants; others are hosted by local luminaries in their homes-Stanley and Janet Kane's Siesta Key residence or Vern and Sandy Buchanan's Longboat home, for example. But such high-profile dinners sell out quickly-usually within 24 hours. Indeed, competition for the vintner dinners is so intense that you have to indicate your first, second and third choice when you sign up.
So how do you get the dinner you want? Loevner says there's no inside track. "Order early," she urges. "Tickets go on sale online at the Winefest Web site usually by the first of February. It's first come, first served." That won't help you this year, but make a note for 2007.
"Michael's On East always hosts a topnotch winemaker, and the dinners are divine-no one knows wine better than [restaurant owner] Michael Klauber," says Kristine Nickel, food and wine editor for SARASOTA Magazine. "But the interesting venues offer novel opportunities, too. Last year we did the dinner on the beach at the Ritz Beach Club. The food was fab and the wine OK, but dancing in the sand under a full moon was grand."
There is one other way to get a line on a winemaker dinner. Every year, a volunteer army of 400 and a 22-person board work to make Winefest happen (only two people are paid-even Loevner is a volunteer, toiling all year long for the event). Volunteers often have advance knowledge of who's coming, so although they don't get preferential treatment, they're ready to pounce the second tickets go on sale.
FOLLOW YOUR NOSE
If you want to learn more about wine, you can't do better than Winefest. Every year, the festival invites top experts in the industry to lead teaching and tasting seminars. Last year more than 1,000 people took advantage of those learning opportunities. This year you can learn about wine and chocolate from Fred's chef Mario Martinez, study "hot and spicy," the year's top food trend, with Culinary Institute of America's chef James Heywood, learn how to create your own wine through the art of blending from David Ready Jr. of Murphy-Goode Estate Winery, and much more.
"Look for national sommeliers," says Judi Gallagher, host of local TV show Gulf Coast Cooking. "They'll tell you what the best wines are to actually invest in." That's why Gallagher, who consults for Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, which is known for its outstanding cellar, is especially excited about the seminar that will feature Fleming's national wine director.
Above all, be adventurous. "You never learn it all," says Michael Klauber. "You never finish your education. My suggestion is to be open to exploring new varietals."
OVER THE RHINE
The festival culminates in a charity wine auction that includes a wealth of culinary and travel experiences. In 1997 the Far Niente Winery donated a piano case stacked with six differently sized bottles of its chardonnay. (We'd love to tell you what they went for, but Loevner says those records are locked away in pre-computer-age storage.) That same year, a lucky bidder won a trip to champagne-maker Perrier-Jouet's chateau in France. The most expensive item ever was a trip for four to Portugal with a stay in Paris. Naturally, it included wine and a host of amenities. Winning bid: $100,000. The most money raised on a wine lot was $40,000 for three double magnums from Napa's Staglin Family Vineyard.
Longtime followers of Winefest get downright misty recalling their favorite festival. "I'd probably say the very first one at the Ringling Museum," says Fottler. "The setting was magical. It rained; no one cared. Tables and wineries were stationed in the loggia and food was in the sunken Italianate garden."
"The Friday night event [for that first Winefest] featured Mel Tormé, and he was sensational," recalls Nickel. "He played in a tent on the bayside of the back courtyard wall. There was a downpour and the lightning and thunder were tremendous. I think at one point it seemed clear we might all be electrocuted, but with Mel singing-it would have been so cool."
"All the auction items were displayed in the museum, beautifully lit beneath all that wonderful art," adds Klauber. "We raised $15,000 on a bottle of wine that night, which was really big back then."
For a number of years after the Ringling events, the festival took place under a big tent on the grounds of the Longboat Key Club. Since 2002, Winefest has resided at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, which, Fottler says, is beautiful and much more convenient for the organizers, volunteers and participants. "But I can't help thinking that now it's more like a glamorous trade show than a wine festival," she adds. "I loved it being outside."
THE NEXT BIG THING
You can never tell which wine will catch fire at Winefest. "Last year it was blind luck that we planned a seminar on pinot noir right behind the movie Sideways," says Loevner. Klauber has his own way of scoring the next big wine: "I don't like it, I like it, or I like it a lot," he says. Those he likes a lot that will be poured at this year's Winefest include Anderson's Conn Valley ("Their cabernets are amazing"), Roessler Cellars ("Great, great pinot noir"), T-Vine Cellars ("This is a very exciting, small winery") and Verget ("They have some of the greatest white Burgundy in France").
PICK YOUR PARTY
Which party is for you? For singles, the Saturday lunch and auction is like a gigantic cocktail party, with lots of mingling and interaction; people get up and move around during the auction, too, so you're not stuck with the same group of people throughout the event. Foodies and wine enthusiasts shouldn't miss a vintner dinner, where they'll enjoy outstanding cuisine, drink top-quality wines and meet others who share those interests. And anyone who wants to learn more about food and wine should take a seminar or two; how often do you get to meet industry leaders up close and personal to talk about their passion? If you want to impress your date (or your clients), the black-tie gala on Friday will do the job, and you'll definitely see the local power crowd on display. Want something more casual? The golf tournament and gourmet barbecue dinner at the Founders Club, new this year, fits the bill-and gives you some playing time on one of Sarasota's new ultra-luxurious courses.
A FINE FINISH
Beyond the marketing, the beaches and the glamorous setting, what really draws people to Winefest is the conviviality associated with wine. "The great thing about wine is being with family and friends," says Klauber. "It's not about saving it."
Gallagher concurs: "Wine becomes a very intimate experience, even if you're with strangers." She recounts one year at Winefest when Spanish-born Pablo Alvarez, owner of Vega Sicilia wines, decanted a bottle while his interpreter explained the ritual. As the rich, burgundy liquid swirled into its cavernous glass container, few words were spoken among those waiting to taste its pleasures. But Gallagher says at that point, language didn't matter anymore. "I believe at that moment, it became the universal language of wine," she says. "And it was the best conversation in the world."
THE 2006 SCHEDULE
Thursday, April 27
Winemaker dinners, venues throughout town
Golf tournament, The Founders Club
Friday, April 28
Suncoast Showcase Brunch Tasting, The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
Food and Wine Seminars, various locations around Sarasota
Gala Dinner and Dance, The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
Saturday, April 29
Showcase Lunch Tasting and Charity Auction, The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
Sunday, April 30
Sip & Shop, St. Armands Circle