South Beach Wine & Food Festival: We Came, We Gorged, We Gawked

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So much wine (and food), so little time.

How else to explain the bacchanalian bash that is the 7-year-old South Beach Wine & Food Festival? Over the course of four days, the event, which concluded Sunday, showcased some 200 wine and spirits makers and 75-plus restaurants, plus an assortment of exhibitors promoting everything from pasta sauces to chef-inspired footwear.

This isn't a trade show: It's a huge party, with a budget of around $5 million, that has arguably become the most prominent culinary festival in the country. (The closest competitor is the Aspen Food & Wine Classic.)

There's the sex and sizzle of its Miami Beach oceanfront setting -- the festival's "Grand Tasting Village" sits literally on the beach, just steps from the Atlantic. But the festival has also benefitted from the TV factor: Because of its partnership with the Food Network, the festival now features just about every major celebrity chef, often in one-of-a-kind events.

And so, Rachael Ray had her "Burger Bash," in which restaurateurs from around the country competed for the honors of best burger. Giada De Laurentiis had her BubbleQ, as in bubbles (Champagne) and barbecue (from more than 20 star chefs). Emeril Lagasse had his "Sugar Shack," showcasing some of his signature desserts. And Paula Deen had "Paula's Poker Party," featuring Southern food, courtesy of James Beard award-winning cookbook authors Matt and Ted Lee, and gambling galore (with play money).

Not that there isn't a more serious and educational side to South Beach. For starters, the festival serves as a fundraiser for Florida International University's School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, bringing in $2 million this year alone. It's also something of an open classroom -- students at the school do much of the behind-the-scenes cooking and prep work.

Plus, the festival's programs aren't all so party-minded. This year, South Beach incorporated a family expo emphasizing healthy eating and fitness -- perhaps something of a contradictory message at a bash where foie gras constitutes its own food group, but an important one just the same.

Lest you think that all that alcohol is being poured in the name of inebriation, the festival had plenty to offer connoisseurs -- from a tasting of Pomerol, the Bordeaux appellation behind some of the world's most legendary wines (think Petrus), to a tequila sampling hosted by high-end brand Patrón.

On the food side, there was a $500-a-plate tribute dinner honoring innovative chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, owner of 17 restaurants across the globe.

Speaking of price, nothing comes cheap at South Beach: Admission to the Tasting Village alone ran $187.50 (wine glass and goodie bag included, however). Yet, most events sold out months in advance -- little wonder there were scalpers hanging out near the box office -- bringing the total attendance this year to well above 30,000. I'll be reporting on some of the individual chefs I met at the festival in the coming days.

In the meanwhile, here's something to chew on -- a highly subjective list of five South Beach offerings that caught my attention.

Meatballs à la Danny. As in, Danny DeVito, the actor-turned-restaurant proprietor. With South Florida restaurant veteran David Manero, he's opened a place in South Beach -- called DeVito South Beach -- where the lowly meatball is given all its fun, glorious due in the form of meatball "sliders."

DeVito was serving the not-so-mini mini sandwiches himself to festival-goers on Saturday afternoon at the Tasting Village. The restaurant also hosted a festival-connected Saturday evening bash headed by celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Jamie Oliver.

Shoes à la Mario. What does footwear have to do with cooking? Plenty, if you're Mario Batali, who made the Crocs (CROX) brand famous by wearing it on the sets of his television programs. Batali liked Crocs for their sheer comfort, but the shoes also took off as a fashion statement. Now, Batali is promoting his own "Edition Bistro" version of the shoes, with extra slip resistance for those slippery kitchen floors. They're available for $39.99.

Alas, Batali wasn't manning the Crocs booth at the Tasting Village, but the shoes were still commanding plenty of attention from chefs and would-be chefs.

Cuban Rum. The premium rum category has gotten plenty crowded of late, with a variety of imports making their way to the American market. A newcomer featured at the Tasting Village was Vizcaya VSOP (priced at around $35 to $40). It's not made in Cuba, but the company behind it boasts that it's produced following the "Cuban formula." The result is a rum of extraordinary smoothness with subtle notes of sweetness, from coconut to caramel.

Chinese Wine. Now, you can add wine to the list of gazillion things made in China and imported to the U.S. ChangYu, a century-old Chinese winemaker, is bringing its red and white wines to America. The company's U.S. distributor touts the fact that ChangYu's location -- in Yantai -- compares with Northern California, making it an ideal grape-growing spot. I can't say that the value-priced Chardonnay (around $10) I had at the Tasting Village was real competition for anything out of Napa, but the label offers higher-end wines as well. And the distributor did pass out free fortune cookies at its festival booth.

The Perfect Margarita. You read that right: the perfect margarita, bar none (no pun intended). It came courtesy of well-known mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim, who showcased the cocktail at the aforementioned Patrón seminar. The trick? Abou-Ganim uses both lemons and limes to give his margarita some tarty depth (see the recipe below). It's so good you don't even need to rim the glass with salt for added flavor.

Tony Abou-Ganim's Primo Margarita

  • 2 oz. Patrón Silver tequila
  • 0.75 oz Patrón Citronage
  • Juice of one small lime, hand-extracted (approximately 1 oz.)
  • 2 oz. fresh lemon sour (2 parts fresh, filtered lemon juice to 1 part simple syrup)

In an ice-filled mixing glass, add above ingredients. Shake until well-blended. Strain into an ice-filled 14 oz. goblet. Garnish with a wedge of lime.

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