Fine Wining & Wining

What I learned from attending the twentieth annual Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen: Festivals can make for some terrific all-inclusive minivacations. Once you pay for your travel expenses, lodging, and tickets to the events, you're pretty much guaranteed no additional costs, simply because you'll be so well-sated by the abundance of food, drink, and built-in entertainment that you'll have no need to go anywhere else, as in out to dinner or even to the movies.

What I learned from attending the inaugural South Beach Wine & Food Festival: It's better to be a local. All the vino, none of the jet lag. Plus the option of driving home to your own pillow-top king-size mattress -- okay, double futon -- or staying near or even on the festival grounds and preventing the possible DUI court and lawyer expenses.

What I learned from reading recent press releases, direct mailings, Websites, invites, and other enticing copy: Get on a program of Vitamin E and Aricept, pronto -- the next three months will bring us four such brain cell-slaughtering opportunities.

Of course when we talk about such festivals, we're not discussing how flat the Bud in our paper cups is while we gnaw on deep-fried turkey legs. We're pondering the bouquet of a New World Cabernet Sauvignon and how it might pair with a filet mignon stuffed with Maytag blue cheese and napped with a morel demi-glace. We're appreciating the residual sugar in an Alsatian Riesling and the lift it gives to Pacific Rim cuisine. We're evaluating a vertical tasting of Krug and following it up with a discussion on whether the Deutz-owned sparkler from its New Zealand acquisition has any merit. And that's all before our breakfast coffee.

Actually beer is not out of the question (though I'll take a pass on post-Thanksgiving, surplus turkey legs), especially considering that the first event to hit the South Florida sands -- quite literally, as it turns out -- is the Miami Beach International World of Beer Festival 2003. From January 31 until February 2, on the Ocean Drive beachfront between Seventh and Eighth streets, "more than 300 imported and domestic ales, pilsners, bocks, stouts, and microbrews" will be available for sampling in the "beer village" and the "real ale" tent. If you intend to try them all, particularly the 100 or so cask-conditioned concoctions shipped in from Britain, you're looking at an average of 100 beers a day. Say you take only a sip of each. That's at least equivalent to a liquid lunch. My advice: Call the Loews Miami Beach for room rates.

Not that you'd want to skip meals any more than you'd want to grind the gears of your stick shift. As with its carnival and theme-park counterparts, the uppity festival fun includes eating as much as you drink. The World of Beer actually kicks off on January 30 with a gourmet brewski dinner at Smith & Wollensky and wraps up with a full English beer breakfast at Finnegan's Way, followed by more gatherings in the village, which will also be offering signature dishes from area restaurants. In between attendees can duck into a full-scale replica of Murphy's Irish pub, which will be serving authentic pub fare, and attend seminars on pairing beer with food and cooking with beer. The World of Beer Festival ends at 6:00 p.m. on Sunday; the hangover begins at 6:00 a.m. Monday.

Unless, that is, you do as I do and head straight to Islamorada for recuperative reasons: the First Annual Cheeca Lodge & Spa Food & Wine Festival 2003, which launches Monday, February 3 and runs till Wednesday, February 5. This event will differ a bit in format for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the festival will only be operative at night. And since it is co-sponsored by a single resort, it's possible to book a room in the thick of the action and enjoy the spa facilities during the day like any other guest, as long as you bring along the Pepto-Bismol.

Indeed you might need the pharmaceuticals if you construe the first night's party, the "Wine & Stone Crab Feast," literally. I certainly intend to, though I know from experience that, while tasty, stone crabs don't do much in the way of alcohol absorption. Then there's the second evening's plan -- the "Gala Tasting," where a host of wineries will be pitching their wares, and the concluding "Grand Finale," five courses of haute cuisine matched with ideal vintages, served in the freshly redesigned Atlantic Edge restaurant. Ah, well. Suffering is an art, and I am an artist.

I'm also not stupid. I plan on lingering in the Keys to sweat out the alcohol in the sun, then head back to Miami for the second annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival, which is being presented this year by Food & Wine magazine and sponsored by Wine Spectator. Note the arrangement of words in the event's title: Wine comes first. As in, it makes an initial appearance in the form of Moët & Chandon at the Delano Hotel's Bubble Q on Friday, February 28. Last year this beachfront barbecue was a sparkler, and this year it promises to be a whole new world of fireworks -- Norman Van Aken is doing the honors, along with buddies such as Bobby Flay and Douglas Rodriguez.

You might as well pass out -- I mean, sleep -- on the beach, since the following day brings a full program of wine seminars and tastings, and the evening offers a unique Sub-Zero/Wolf-sponsored Dinner Series: Nearly twenty different restaurants, ranging from Azul to Wish, will be hosting guest chefs and winemakers. It'd take up too much copy to list every attending celebrity chef, but here's a clue -- turn on the Food Network, write down everybody that comes on within a 24-hour time span, and you've pretty much got the lineup. The sad part about the dinner series, naturally, is that you can probably only manage to down (or pay for) one dinner, so choose carefully. But don't dwell on what you're not eating and drinking. Gluttony will rear its godly head on Sunday, when the Grand Tasting village is an encore to the Tribute Brunch.

Overindulgence leads directly to prayer, at least in my book. Not to mention Boca's book. And the Bacchus worshipper's datebook. The Boca Bacchanal, labeled "the biggest food and wine celebration since Caesar ruled Rome," reigns March 21-23, and I intend to pay homage. The events, which center around a world-class wine auction, benefit the Boca Raton Community Hospital and the Boca Raton Historical Society.

No one deserves to be so blessed.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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