Drive Yourself To Drink

Southeast food & wine fests that are worth the trip

When spring comes to these parts, food and wine fests pop up like weeds after a pelting rain. They are so plentiful, in fact, that you need a machete to cut through the crappy ones. But there are some that are worth planting into your schedule and even buying a plane ticket for. Here are my choices for your wine fest fun this spring.

FLORIDA

Abilities Wine Tasting & Auction

I frequent this event every year since it offers everything you'd want under one roof: 400-plus wines, 40-plus great restaurants, a silent auction you'd actually want to browse, and about 3,000 of your closest friends. Well ... if they aren't close friends at the beginning of the night, they will be at the end. Planet readers have voted this event "Best Food and Wine Event to Benefit a Charity" for umpteen years. Tickets range from $65 to $150. All proceeds benefit the Abilities Foundation. March 12, Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg; abilitiesfoundation.com or 727-538-7370.

Florida Winefest & Auction

Florida Winefest, turning 15 this year, is THE fancy-schmancy fest in central Florida. Plenty of rich folk arrive in grandeur, pay boatloads for in-home winemaker dinners (prepared by local celebrity chefs and poured by winemakers), and hang out at celebrity-hosted food and wine seminars. Although I can't afford the full purebred splendor, the event feels oh so refined. Proceeds benefit disadvantaged children in local counties. Tickets start at $15 and go up hundreds from there. April 21-24, The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota; floridawinefest.com or 800-216-6199.

Bern's Winefest

Now in its eighth year, Bern's Winefest - hosted by legendary Bern's Steakhouse - never ceases to amaze. Dozens of winemakers freely pour their best stuff and the fantastic cuisine pours from the kitchen, so your money is well spent. Stay the weekend and taste the winemaker dinners, too. Tickets range from $75 to $200. Net proceeds benefit the Bern's Scholarship Fund. April 24, SideBern's and Bern's Steakhouse, Tampa; bernswinefest.com or 813-253-0358.

Biltmore International Food & Wine Weekend

In its ninth ab-fab year, the Biltmore fest celebrates internationally acclaimed Spanish chefs. This is a hoity-toity, highbrow event, featuring 25 South Florida fine dining restaurants and over 30 upper echelon wineries like Mer Soleil, Caymus, Grgich Hills and Antinori. Events include a two-hour grand tasting, comedy by Robert Klein and the Spanish chefs' wine dinner. Tickets start at $40. Proceeds benefit South Florida charities. April 29-May 1, The Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables; biltmorewineweekend.com or 305-445-8066, ext. 2095.

GEORGIA

High Museum of Art and Wine Auction

THE best and brightest of Atlanta's wine festivals, it boasts over 120 first-class wineries, with first-class winemaker dinners and fantastic educational seminars. The amount of money flying at the live auction will make you nauseous, but you should really see it once. Tickets start at $50 and go way up from there. Proceeds benefit the High Museum of Art. March 31-April 2, Lenox Square and various locations in Atlanta; atlanta-wineauction.org or 404-733-5335.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Hilton Head Island WineFest

Twenty years and still counting. Meet the largest outdoor, tented wine tasting on the East Coast, with more than 1,500 domestic and international wines and gourmet fare from Hilton Head Island's best restaurants. Tickets are a measly $30. Scenery is pretty damn nice too. March 12, Shelter Cove Community Park, Hilton Head; hiltonheadhospitalityassociation.com or 800-424-3387.

NORTH CAROLINA

North Carolina Wine Festival

With an expected turnout of 30 wineries from the Yadkin Valley AVA, you can taste the native Muscadine grape as well as traditional European varieties like merlot and chardonnay. Best choices are Shelton, Childress, Westbend, Rockhouse and RagApple wineries. Ticket prices haven't been announced, but last year they were $14. June 11, Tanglewood Park in Clemmons; ncwinefestival.com or 336-733-5825.

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