On a Sunday afternoon in February, in a hushed ballroom at Miami's Hotel InterContinental, Baron Eric de Rothschild led 200 wine lovers through a tasting of eight vintages of Château Lafite Rothschild, his famous and expensive first-growth Bordeaux.
Just a few miles away, thousands of people thronged enormous tents set up on Miami Beach, the Champagne flowing as acrobats and musicians performed, bikini-clad hostesses proffered rum-laced fruit ices and guests formed conga lines to indulge in the free food, wine and spirits.
In Miami, opposites attract, or at least live and let live. The city draws the young and the old, the rich and the poor, and many different ethnic groups. And thanks to the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, wine neophytes and connoisseurs alike can learn and enjoy the culture of wine.
This year, the fifth edition of the annual festival took place from Feb. 24—26 and drew 17,500 people. It raised an estimated $550,000 for Florida International University's School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. Wine auctions generated a considerable percentage of this total, led by a live auction that raised $250,000, up from last year's $227,000.
The highlight was a dinner honoring Ferran Adrià, Spain's adventurous, controversial chef. An all-star lineup of chefs featuring Emeril Lagasse, Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and José Andrés, among others, cooked for a sell-out crowd of 600; tickets were $600 each. The creative dishes, while not as extreme as those of the honored guest, reflected how influential Adrià's mix of playfulness and technology has become in today's culinary imagination.
Besides the Lafite tasting, serious wine lovers had plenty of reasons to avoid the beach. A full day of tasting seminars ranged from a world-wide survey of Syrah/Shiraz to a vertical tasting of classic Riojas from Marqués de Riscal. An evening event called "Best of the Best" presented two dozen wineries and 16 top chefs. The wineries included established stars such as Caymus Vineyards and Beaulieu Vineyard (pouring the 1995 Georges de Latour), and cult wines from Schrader Cellars and Loring Wine Company; the chefs included national celebrities such as Paul Bartolotta of Las Vegas, Michael Mina of San Francisco and Todd English of Boston, and local stalwarts such as Mark Militello and Dewey LoSasso. Both events were sponsored by Wine Spectator.
Those who were more interested in the sun and the scene flocked to the huge tents on the beach, which formed the Grand Tasting Village. Celebrity chefs such as Paula Deen and Rachael Ray drew enthusiastic crowds with cooking demonstrations and book signings. More than 80 restaurants served small plates of food, and hundreds of wineries and spirits companies offered pours to wash it all down.
By the end of a long afternoon, the combination of music and alcohol gave the Grand Tasting Village the feel of a major party. And as the sun set, the party simply moved a few blocks away, up the beach and into the bars.
The festival is hosted and organized principally by beverage distributor Southern Wine & Spirits of Florida. Next year's event is scheduled to take place Feb. 23—25.