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The 70th annual Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival gets under way Thursday. I mean seventh — it just feels longer because the whole shebang has gotten so big so fast. In fact it was only in 2002 that Lee Brian Schrager, director of special events and media relations at Southern Wine & Spirits, took what had been a Florida International University campus event known as Florida Extravaganza, brought it to South Beach, renamed and rebranded it, and attracted 7,000 guests. The next year drew 10,000, the year after 20,000. In 2007, the Food Network added its name and clout, and the number of attendees rose to 3.2 million. All right, I'm exaggerating again — but honestly, there were so many damn people! Point is, foodie folks are pouring in from across the land, and the burgundy carpet has been unfurled for a mix of chefs and food celebs such as Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Paula Deen, Rachael Ray, Anthony Bourdain, Alice Waters, Wylie Dufresne, Masaharu Morimoto, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Coming in through the back door, probably on linoleum, are event manager Randy Fisher and FIU professor Barry Gump.
Fine wines aplenty will be uncorked over the next few days, but Amstel Light will be the beverage of choice at the Burger Bash, which takes place Thursday at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach. About 12,000 people are expected to attend, and yet, as Randy Fisher explains, "for the first time in the festival's history, the Burger Bash sold out all its tickets on the first day." That's at $150 a pop, and as much as I love burgers, while Fisher is talking, I'm wondering how much I might be able to get by scalping my tickets.
Fisher has spent the past 12 months organizing what he calls "the quintessential burger contest." He and his assistants combed the country, and with the help of food writers and a public more than willing to contribute opinions, they attempted to find the best burgers in America. "We're not looking for hoity-toity, just an outrageous, delicious, memorable burger experience. They range from the fanciest, like DB Bistro, to what we consider the 'classic' burger, like the one from Shake Shack in New York City, which was the winner last year." He cites as the most challenging aspect of his festival job the fact "that there are 15,000 burgers to serve."
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This year's patty battle will feature 18 burger-meisters from across America. Miami's participants are Prime One Twelve, Joe Allen's, and Morton's, while Le Tub and Johnny V represent Fort Lauderdale. Amstel serves as sponsor, Rachael Ray plays host, and Allen Brothers, one of the nation's finest beef purveyors, supplies the meat (for this event as well as all others at the fest). Cuts requested for the burgers include sirloin, chuck, Wagyu, and brisket, as well as some applewood-smoked bacon for the fixin's.
I should have said Allen Brothers offers each contestant its product, because some choose to bring their own. Some also arrive with produce from California, some with buns prepared at select bakeries, and "a lot of special secret sauces get shipped in," says Fisher. "The chefs are very particular about their ingredients, as well they should be. It's what makes their burgers signature."
My advice to guests attending is to save room for dessert, which will include treats from "the world's largest s'more station" (by Dylan's Candy Bar company) and Graeter's Ice Cream from Cincinnati, Ohio, which Fisher raves about in near-ecstatic fashion. "It's a 138-year-old family-owned firm that serves absolutely sensational ice cream, sold only in the Midwest. People in South Florida have never had this kind of ice cream." On second thought, maybe I won't scalp after all.
"We brought a 55-gallon drum of frozen Merlot juice and three 55-gallon drums of frozen Merlot muss," says Barry Gump, FIU professor of beverage management. "We ended up bottling and corking 10 cases of red Merlot. It is a very tasty wine, an un-oaked, off-dry version that shows tremendous fruit and gorgeous color. And the white Merlot is a beautiful light pink. Amazing acid." That's his assessment of the two wines he and his FIU students helped produce in time to be served at the school's hospitality tent at the festival. It is a co-op venture that also includes Vinovation, a northern California-based company with a vineyard that grows only Bordeaux varietals; and Schnebly Redland's Winery in Homestead, known for producing superior fruit wines from tropical nectars such as mango, passion fruit, and litchi.
Gump has written numerous studies about wine and wine sensory evaluation. He is associate editor of the Journal of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture and is the first holder of the Harvey R. Chaplin Eminent Scholar's Chair in Beverage Management at FIU's School of Hospitality. (They were going to give him a medal saying so, but there were too many words.) He just began his tenure here, after 40 years at Cal State University in Fresno. "My home department there was chemistry. I'm an analytical chemist. I was asked to do food and wine analysis, and once I did that, I was essentially captured," he laughs.
Vinovation secured and processed the fruit and paid for cold storage. It was then shipped to Schnebly, where workers processed the juice and muss into wine. Gump and students from his Food and Wines of the World class drove down to Homestead and helped with the tasting, bottling, and labeling. Half of the red was restarted rather than bottled. "We'll attempt to get that dry and then oak it. So we'll have two styles of Merlot from essentially the same barrel. The oaked will be poured at next year's festival, and people will be able to see what we can do out here."
I offered Professor Gump my observation that in comparing wines, the pictures on labels are of utmost importance. I mentioned that animals, for instance, sell very well — especially among females. (I'm not making this up. Studies have been done.) "One of the students designed the label," he replied, seemingly not all that impressed with my laborious research. "It uses 'FIU' as a combination of a corkscrew, a bottle, and a wine glass." Now I was the one who wasn't all that impressed; I am certain Knut the polar bear or my cute cat Yani would have been better. I withheld my opinion and moved onto the names. Said Gump: "For the red Merlot, I'm going to use 'Brilliante.' On the back label, we'll list the students in the class." The white will be called "Don Rose" — "a parody of rosé."
I don't think Mr. Gump would disagree with the assessment that there will be better wines to drink at the festival. The Grand Tasting Village on Saturday and Sunday offers more sampling than anyone can manage, and 40 of the world's top wineries will pour their finest reserves at the Best of the Best affair Friday evening at the American Airlines Arena (presumably there will be more room now that Shaq has left). Wine Spectator seminars at the Miami Beach Convention Center are also worthwhile for enophiles, and this year the convention center will be hosting a Gekkeikan Sake seminar as well as "Grappology: Getting to Grips with Grappa." Still, my picks for best bets are the vertical tastings of Dominus Estate and "7 Top Pomerol Wines," and "Opus One: Past, Present, and Future." From Amstel to Opus — gotta be fun.