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south beach wine and food fest is at the top (with a little help from southern, fiu, bruce sanderson, larry stone, and jeff mcbride)

by Monty and Sara Preiser

It is generally well advertised that the famed South Beach Wine and Food Festival is the function of a partnership between Southern Wine & Spirits of Florida, a division of the country's largest beverage distributor, and Florida International University. The annual event serves as a fundraiser in support of FIU’s Teaching Restaurant Program, as well as the Southern Wine & Spirits Beverage Management Center, both located on FIU's Biscayne Bay Campus in North Miami.

And what an event it is. Attracting some of the world’s finest chefs, best wineries, hottest spirits, and most knowledgeable enophiles, one can spend the day hopping from specialty seminar to seminar, attending an evening reserved for the best wines and restaurants, smoking cigars with those so inclined, reveling in a BBQ affair, tasting the exhibited wines in a tent on the ocean, or attending popular pairing dinners. One of the country’s more outstanding educational affairs is sponsored by the Wine Spectator as they coordinate unique educational classes featuring the world’s crème de la crème vintners and wines.

This year emceed by one of the Spectator’s best writers and palates (not to mention one of their most affable top people), Bruce Sanderson, we attended a half day of programs, though we have enjoyed two full days in the past. But let us just tell you what we experienced in three hours (and it is not so easy to impress us – but impressed we were on this day).

On the dais with Bruce for the first program was Jeff McBride, Vice President and General Manager of the famed Stag's Leap Wine Cellars (with the apostrophe before the “s” and all four of the stag’s feet on the ground). It is hardly news that this winery has been iconic since the Paris tasting of 1976 and Warren Winiarski’s stunning win over some of the best the French had to offer. What is news is how magnificent these wines are aging – something we learned that day as we tasted the 1995 and 2005 Fay Estate Cab, S.L.V. Estate Cab, and Cask 23. Yes, the 2005s are as great as the hype about this vintage, but if we have tasted any better 14 year old Cabs, we don’t know about it. We believe there are some still in the library that may be for sale. If you are a collector of the best, you may well want to consider a purchase.

Our next tasting featured the Marques de Grinon, Carlos Falco, who spoke about his pioneering work with French varietals in his Dominio de Valdepusa Estate in the mountains near Toledo, Spain. The Marques is widely accepted as one of the leaders of the modernization of wines in Spain. While most of us still look for Tempranillo to form the basis of Spain’s great reds, we were simply floored by the array of Spanish grown vitis vinifera (common grape vine) varietals we sipped that day.

Our last class found highly honored and super knowledgeable master sommelier Larry Stone showing off the wines of Francis Ford Coppola’s Rubicon, where Larry is the General Manager in charge of all things. Our settings included the 1996, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2004, and 2005 vintages of the Rubicon, as well as the RC 2004 Reserve Syrah. The wines were superb.

We are sure you get the point – these classes sponsored by the Wine Spectator are perhaps the best wine seminars you will find anywhere in the United States during the year. If you are interested in knowing some of those we did not attend, they would include a vertical of six Dolce vintages, a vertical of Rudd’s Oakville Estate, a vertical of Perrier-Jouet Fleur de Champagne Brut, and (last, but certainly not its expensive least) a vertical of Screaming Eagle. All the tastings were accompanied by well informed winery representatives who imparted interesting and useful information as well.

There is another event at the South beach Food and Wine Festival that has always brought high praise, and that is the “Best of the Best,” where wineries that are represented by Southern Wine and Spirits (which, as we said, sponsors the event and thus limits participation to their clients) pour their top of the line products while great chefs from around the country offer foods to pair. Unfortunately, this year the room was too small (and thus too crowded to get to some of the wine and food tables), and a number of wineries did not bring enough wine and thus were out with almost a third of the event still to go. From our standpoint, there is no excuse for a festival with the longevity of South Beach to allow this to happen, especially when they are charging a hefty price for the ticket. It has always been good before and we hope the staff will fix the problems.

Of course, there is a grand wine tasting for the public and trade that really is a lot of fun if you don’t care that it is on the beach under a tent, and that it is hot. There are lots of wines (more in the mainstream than those poured at “Best of the Best), hordes of people, popular spirits, new lifestyle products, and (it is in South Beach after all) more than any event’s share of pretty people. This is a proverbial happening we heartily recommend for the novice and the partier.

South Beach also offers a myriad of other programs that are in fact of great interest to all wine and food professionals and aficionados. It may not be rivaled in the scope of these presentations by any event other than the Aspen Food and Wine Festival.

One of the more interesting back stage (if you will) happenings at the event is the participation of the Florida International University students under the tutelage of chef-instructor Michael Moran. As chef and culinary coordinator he has rubbed elbows with some of the biggest names in the industry. It is his own students, however, that Moran considers critical to success.

“It really is about finding a core of people who have this tremendous passion,” Moran says of the hundreds or so undergraduates who sign on for his course in “quantity food production.” In addition to other chores, they take direct responsibility for pre preparation of 2,000 pounds of ribs, 700 pounds of pork, 1,000 portions of beef filet and 1,200 quail; concocting 150 gallons of gourmet grilling and dipping sauces; and turning out several hundred pounds of nouveau potato salad and other side dishes for one of the festival's most popular attractions (though we don’t know why): the Friday night champagne-drenched barbecue for 1,100.

Overall, some 700 Hospitality majors - most with excellent internship experience already under their belts - work in a variety of key capacities before and during the festival, from fulfilling thousands of ticket orders to meeting and greeting guests at a myriad of activities throughout the long weekend. Though they will learn their way around the kitchen with Chef Moran, he is also conscious that FIU is a business school and, for the most part, he is educating not would-be chefs, but the future managers of restaurant groups, hotel chains, cruise lines and related companies.

Speaking of the School of Hospitality (and perhaps more to those in south Florida for the moment), the school’s dining room is one of those best-kept-secrets-kind-of-places that make you feel as if you actually live in the city you call home.

Front of the house students greet you with a glass of punch. Service is provided by yet another eager-to-please student, who presents a daily changing menu planned and coordinated by the Advanced Food Production Management class. Entrees might include Duck Confit with Dirty Rice, Orange Gastrique or Baked Red Snapper, Grilled Veal Chop with Wild Mushroom Ragout, Thai Curry Chicken with Jasmine Rice, or Steamed Black Bass. Not bad for $15, especially when you are further informed that lunch includes a glass of wine, homemade bread, an appetizer (like a spiced calamari salad dressed with Balsamic reduction), and a dessert (homemade pistachio panna-cotta).

Much like any good restaurant, attention had been given to coordination of linens, to flower arrangements, to proper table settings, to a balanced menu, and even to appropriate music. It is a wonderful showcase for the school, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the diner forgot for a moment that s/he was not at a South Beach hot spot, but on the lovely Biscayne Bay campus of FIU.

This is a nice experience, especially when you consider the price. You will probably want reservations, which can be made by calling Paula Wright at 305-919-4500. Ask about parking as well.

Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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