Best of the Wine Festival Circuit

2004 Florida Food & Wine Fests

When spring arrives in these parts, food and wine fests pop up like weeds after a pelting rain. They are so plentiful you need waders to get through the crappy ones. But some are worth the rising prices, and many benefit charities. Nothing wrong with drinking on a good conscience. Here's a not-so-comprehensive list of those you might consider attending, even if it requires a flight or a tank of gas.

2004 South Beach Food & Wine Festival or 305-FIU-WINE
March 5-7
Various Locations on South Beach, Miami

Heavy on the hoity-toity crowd, but navigable nonetheless. It's quite the Who's Who in food and wine. Wine pros like Andrea Immer and celebrity chef darlings like Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse and Alain Ducasse bless this year's roster at SoBe Wine Fest. Throughout the weekend, they'll be showing off their savoir-faire at cooking demonstrations, wine and food pairing seminars, and at wine dinners. Friday night brings a performance by Willie Nelson, and both Saturday and Sunday have big Grand Tastings. Tickets range from the reasonable to the ridiculous, but definitely worth the trip, if only to check out this year's new spring fashions on the attendees. Net proceeds benefit the FIU School of Hospitality & Tourism Management Teaching Restaurant.

First Coast Wine Experience or 904-940-4133
March 13-14
Various locations in St. Augustine

In its 21st year, this fundraiser for the World Golf Hall of Fame, located in St. Augustine, Fla., pours more than 500 wines, champagnes and ports at the Sunday Grand Tasting, featuring wine seminars (one hosted by yours truly) and a silent auction. The wine dinner on Saturday night showcases Ben Groshell of Marker 32 and David Ready from Murphy Goode Winery. All net proceeds benefit the World Golf Hall of Fame, a nonprofit organization. Tickets range from $40 to $100.

2004 Abilities Wine Tasting & Auction or 727-538-7370
March 27
Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg

A huge good time benefiting the Abilities Foundation, a private charitable organization that supports the needs of Floridians with disabilities. Unlike many other benefits, virtually every dollar raised goes to the charity. The event always entertains more than 3,000 people at this enormous wine and food tasting, with more than 50 top-notch Bay area restaurants such as Salt Rock Grill, Roy's and Armani's, and 400-plus premium wines. Also features a huge silent auction. Weekly Planet readers (and critics) have voted this event "Best Food and Wine Event to Benefit a Charity" for years. Tickets range from $65 to $150 for the VIP reception.

Florida Winefest & Auction or 877-FLA-WINE
April 13-15
The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota

Sarasota's Winefest, now in its 13th year, is the creme de la creme of wine fests in our area. Plenty of our local rich folk arrive in splendor, pay boatloads of money for sellout, in-home winemaker dinners (prepared by local celebrity chefs and poured by winemakers), and to hang out at food and wine seminars. The event is well organized and never disappointing, and raises money for nonprofit agencies with programs benefiting disadvantaged children in Sarasota and Manatee counties. Tickets range from $15 to $600.

2004 Bern's Fine Wines & Spirits Winefest or 813-253-0358
April 16-19

SideBern's and Bern's Steakhouse, Tampa

Now in its seventh year, the Bern's Winefest still evolves. Each year they add something new and cool, albeit expensive. This year, it's a VIP tasting before the normal Grand Tasting on Sunday. If you've never been to a big, fancy wine tasting and have the extra cash, put this one on your calendar. Bern's bring in winemakers from all over the world to pour their favorite wines, and have winemaker dinners with Jeannie Pierola's fabulous food. Tickets range from $75 to $200. Some proceeds benefit the Bern's Scholarship Fund and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

18th Annual Sandestin Wine Festival or 850-267-8092
April 22-25
The Market Shops at Sandestin

Sandestin Beach and Golf Resort is on the panhandle, located between Pensacola and Panama City, near Destin. A darling of many in the wine trade, this festival attracts attendees from all over to sip, slurp and swirl. It lends you the opportunity to taste, learn about — and this doesn't happen too often — purchase more than 500 domestic and international wines. One of the cheapest wine fest deals in the state, at only $40 a head for the Grand Tasting.

Biltmore International Food & Wine Weekend or 305-273-6015
April 30-May 2
The Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables

In its seventh year, the Biltmore fest honors the women in wine and food. Five female celebrity chefs from across the country will be central to the weekend's festivities. This is another hoity tasting, featuring a golf tournament, a Grand Tasting, comedy by Margaret Cho, and a wine dinner. Tickets for various events range from $75 to $295. Proceeds will benefit The University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Epcot Food & Wine Festival
Oct. 1—Nov. 14
Walt Disney World's Epcot

Damn, I love me some Epcot Food & Wine Fest. So much so, I haven't missed it in five years. You walk around the "world" area of the park, sampling appetizer-size portions of specially prepared world cuisine (not just those countries permanently represented in the park), with wines to match. There are more than 125 national and Disney chefs doing culinary demonstrations throughout the festival's duration, wine pros hosting wine seminars and tastings, special dinners, and live entertainment. The festival is included in the price of Epcot admission ($52), but food and wine samplings cost $2-$5 extra, and various special dinners and events cost $25-$135 additional.

Third Annual Miami International Wine Fair or 877-577-WINE
Oct. 2-4
James L. Knight Center and other locations, Miami

At this wine fair, some 400 wines from 18 different countries descend upon the Miami area to get noticed in the Florida market, now the second largest in the country. Attended by both wine trade folk and consumers, Miami International is an efficient way to gain exposure. Also features food sampling, wine education seminars and guided tasting tours. Tickets range from $45 to $235. Net proceeds benefit Camillus House, a Christian-based organization helping the needs of the poor and homeless in South Florida.

Contact Wine Editor Taylor Eason at 813-248-8888, ext. 162, or [email protected].

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