A Tasty Tradition

By staff April 1, 2003

One of the little differences between me and Albert Einstein is that he spent his spare time figuring out the theory of relativity, while I'm usually thinking about what to have for dinner. I can't remember much about most cultural sites I've toured, but ask me what I ordered in the MOMA cafeteria or at that funky little café down the road from Monticello, and a course-by-course description will come tripping off my tongue.

Not that I don't identify with the great explorers. Remember how Keats wrote that Cortez and his men "looked at each other with a wild surmise" when they first sighted the Pacific? I know just what he meant; it's the same thrill I felt the first time I saw sushi for sale in a grocery store, 10 years or so ago in San Francisco, or when we pulled up in front of a tiny place called "Buster's" outside Austin, Texas, and had the world's best barbecue served to us on a picnic table out back-washed down with some beer the governor had left in the cooler the night before.

Whether it's nature or nurture, my son shares my obsession with food and drink. He and I spent hours on the phone last summer planning what spices to pack for a trip to the woods of northern Michigan, and when he recently cooked Christmas dinner for his girlfriend and roommates, his play-by-play description held me enthralled. (Faultless as his cooking technique sounded, his menu planning left some room for improvement: The Gen X-ers dined on nachos, vegetarian lasagna, stuffing, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.)

"You're the only people I've ever met," my boyfriend insists, "who start discussing your next meal before you've even finished the first." He's wrong, of course, as I rediscover every year when we work on this food and wine annual. Sarasota is full of fellow food and wine freaks, and their appreciation for great cooking, restaurants and special events makes this one of the tastiest towns on earth.

The biggest and best of those special events, the Florida Winefest & Auction, runs this month from April 24-27 at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. This 13-year-old event is now the fifth-largest wine festival in the country, both in the number of people it attracts-between 6,000 and 7,000, many from other states and countries, are expected this year-and in the amount it raises for charity-$3.7 million to date.

A multi-faceted celebration that includes 40 different events, from a trade show and seminars to elegant vintner dinners and parties, the festival is designed "to offer something for everybody," says executive director Sandy Loevner. For $150, you can attend the live auction, sample wines from 75 vintners and 10 restaurants and bid on choice wine lots and dream trips (the all-time record bid was $100,000, for a trip for four to Portugal). Or for $10, you can get a souvenir glass and a Sunday afternoon of sipping, tasting and live jazz on St. Armands.

In contrast, another Southwest Florida food-and-wine event, the Naples Winter Wine Festival, has become one of the top food-and-wine events in the world in just three years by inviting a small and glittering audience to enjoy pricey "cult" wines and food prepared by celebrity chefs. About 450 guests pay $5,000 per couple; vintners-and many guests-fly in on private jets and the three-day weekend kicks off with dazzling dinners in gorgeous private homes. This January, I attended one in a Port Royal mansion, where the towering centerpieces matched the billowing pink and spring-green silk drapes. Rocco DiSpirito, owner of Manhattan's Union Pacific, Food Network host and People's "Sexiest Chef Alive," served us six courses, each accompanied by two wines, from France's legendary Maison Louis Jadot and Napa Valley's much-vaunted Pillar Rock.

The next afternoon, the auction-a high-spirited party overflowing with wine, testosterone and generosity-raised a mind-boggling $5.4 million, more than any other U.S. auction except the enormous and long-established Napa Valley event. (Bids included $180,000 for a six-bottle wine lot and $380,000 for a week on the Mediterranean aboard an ultra-luxury yacht.) In all, the festival has raised more than $11 million, all for local children's charities.

That event works perfectly in Naples, which in the last decade has become one of the wealthiest cities in the country and the vacation home of successful executives, entrepreneurs and connoisseurs, while the Sarasota event succeeds in reaching our city's larger and more multi-faceted population. Yet different as they are, the festivals share the same life-affirming mission: celebrating great food, great wine and great generosity. Along with every glass of wine, they pour good will and good works into their communities. By providing delicious experiences for many and help to those in desperate need, they're building a nourishing Southwest Florida tradition. Long may they live and prosper!

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