I threw on a white shirt (bad move), a sports coat (bad move), lit a smoke (bad move) and hoofed it the nearly half mile from my apartment to SideBern's for Sunday's vaunted Winefest. I was running 15 minutes late, and my esteemed colleague Taylor Eason, Creative Loafing's wine editor and syndicated wine columnist, was waiting there with the highly coveted $100 ticket she scored for me. The annual event had sold out weeks in advance.
Upon arrival, I was sweating like an ice sculpture in the sun. The directory of 200 wines was too big to stuff in a pocket. A festival staffer handed me a nice piece of stemware, which left me without any way of holding the plastic food plates or my reporter's notebook. Taylor was completely in her element, and I was looking like a frazzled freshman on the first day of class. "That's the water you use for rinsing, and there's the bucket for dumping," Taylor said.
"I don't think I'll be doing much dumping today," I replied.
People bumped into me at every turn, and I felt a bit of the old claustrophobia. The tables of world-class wine and Bern's-prepared food were grouped geographically, and we started the day off in Germany. Taylor questioned me to get a sense of my palate. I did my best to answer without sounding like a rube. Being a connoisseur, she was able to nail exactly what I would enjoy despite my limited wine vocabulary. My first tasting of the day was a 2006 S.A. Prum Riesling Riesling Essence. I told Taylor I typically don't like Rieslings — too sweet and syrupy — but this one was different, drier, delicious.
I ate dishes called White Asparagus and Tarago River Mature ("crystalline aged cow milk cheese"), had a couple more wine pours, lost the bulky directory and finally stopped perspiring and feeling anxious about the close quarters.
We hit table after table of European wines. The well-heeled patrons resembled — both in their dress and banal chatter — the same folks you'd find on a Friday night at Hyde Park Cafe.
I followed Taylor around, and she told me more about wine than I'd ever been privy to in my life. I did my best to retain a bit of the info while devoting the bulk of my attention to not doing anything foolish — like guzzling my wine shot-style or spilling it on my white shirt.
I watched how long Taylor swished the wine after it was poured, paid attention to exactly how far to stick my nose in the glass and how large a swallow she took. I learned that after your get your pour, it's best to back away from the table. "See those people all crowded around like that?" she said with a smile. "We call them 'campers.'"
I behaved myself pretty well, but I did make one major blunder. Unlike Taylor, I'd been downing each of my samples rather than dumping the remains. In doing so, I had forgotten to rinse my glass in between wines.
"Well, I guess that'll make for a nice rosé," quipped the pourer after his sauvignon blanc had been reduced to a pink mess thanks to the shiraz I left in my glass.
"That's bad form, isn't it?" I sheepishly asked Taylor.
"Yeah," she said patiently, "that's why he made the 'rosé' crack. Next time, rinse out the glass first. Or try to start with whites and then go to reds."
After imbibing our way through Austria/Germany, Spain and France we visited the "Southern Hemisphere." I found my prize of the day at Table 24. "I think you're really going to like this one," Taylor said while leading me to a 2005 Veramonte Primus. After tasting, I praised it profusely, in my own primitive way, and then Taylor explained that Primus is a Chilean blend of carmenère, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Carmenère, a French grape now being grown in South America and formerly sold mistakenly as merlot, is known as "The Lost Bordeaux Grape," she added. Even better, the wine retails at $18.95 — hey, I can actually afford it — and like all the other Winefest selections, is available for purchase at the SideBern's wine shop. I made a mental note to stop by in the near future.
By day's end, I had caught a nice buzz (all those small sips add up), discovered a new favorite wine in my price range and gorged myself on tasty dishes like Tamarind Braised Rabbit, a meat I'd never before tried (yeah, it tastes like chicken, but better). Granted, the Winefest patrons weren't exactly my crowd — I've lived in Tampa most of my life and didn't recognize one person, except for a few of the Bern's servers who hang out at the Tiny Tap — but think I managed to assimilate, at least for a few hours. Next year, I'll make sure to arrive on time.
SideBern's, 2208 W. Morrison Ave., Tampa, 813-258-2233.