Each year, more than 50,000 people attend the South Beach Wine & Food Festival's various seminars, dinners, and parties. Most events sell out far in advance despite the usual complaints of high ticket prices, next-to-impossible parking, and long lines to get a bite of food.
People rave about eating celebrity meat (in the form of burgers and barbecue) and watching the antics of their favorite Food Network stars as they kibitz in the tents.
This year's SoBeWFF saw a blend of classic festival events (Burger Bash, Grand Tasting Village) and new offerings (A Red Hot Night, Garden to Glass), with mixed results.
From parking woes to stellar food, here's our list of the good and the bad.
Toasting to Cocktails
This year, the festival took note of the growing classic cocktail movement with several events revolving around spirits (and one nod to beer). Tony Abou-Ganim, the Modern Mixologist, hosted a seminar on stocking your home bar and cohosted a vodka and caviar pairing seminar with Dome restaurant. Earlier in the week, the mixologist led a master class on vodka for some of the best bartenders in the nation.
Garden to Glass, hosted by the Broken Shaker's Gabriel Orta and Elad Zvi and celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, showed how innovative and fresh a good cocktail can be, while Beer Tasting With Spiegelau proved there's more to life than red Solo cups. Bonus: All of these events were priced under $100.
Eating and Drinking Decadently
Bringing the world's best chefs together in one place can work for or against you. Let's face it -- is there any one space large enough to house all of those giant egos? Fortunately, the ballroom of the Fontainebleau Miami Beach is a large venue. This annual event is slightly mind-boggling and a little overcrowded. But where else can you drink nothing but wines that are rated 90 points and over by Wine Spectator magazine and eat seemingly endless amounts of truffles, certified Angus beef, and porchetta?
Though the Q and Burger Bash get the lion's share of media attention, we must pay tribute to the humble seminar series hosted by Bank of America. For less than $100, you generally get a meal, some good wine or booze, and an education, all in about an hour. You could bake with Hedy Goldsmith, slurp oysters with Skip Bennett, or listen to Khong River House's Chef Bee tell the stories behind his Thai food. Serious about wine? The Wine Spectator Seminars were more in-depth (and slightly pricier) but were priceless for oenophiles.
We love, love, love the trend toward welcoming free satellite events to the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Though many were unofficial events, we hope the SoBeWFF people take note of the added value these happenings bring to the festival. This past weekend's freebies included the following:
For the Let's Get Spiked celebrity volleyball tournament, chef Spike Mendelsohn and friends played beach volleyball for charity. The James Royal Palm Hotel graciously set out lounge chairs for spectators, who cooled off with drinks while Andrew Zimmern, Todd Erickson, Johnny Iuzzini, and Curtis Stone, among other, ate sand and talked trash.
Dapper chef Geoffrey Zakarian taped a broadcast of his Sirius radio show, Food Talk, poolside at the James Royal Palm. Zakarian's guests included Guy Fieri, Anne Burrell, Scott Conant, Sunny Anderson, Curtis Stone, Al Roker, and Marc Murphy. Attendees were treated to all of these celebs and others talking about how they got their start in the biz (we didn't know Fieri began by selling pretzels as a kid). Best part: The celebs were relaxed and up close and personal.
The Big Gay Ice Cream Social, hosted by chef Art Smith and the Big Gay Ice Cream Guys, saw a serious subject -- marriage equality -- given a fun and positive spin. After all, who doesn't like free ice cream? And who doesn't want everyone in this country to be given a shot at finding happiness with a life partner and being recognized for that?
Ending the Weekend With a Live Concert
Ziggy Marley, fresh off his knockout Grammy tribute to his father, was nothing short of brilliant at this fun, electric, and amazing finale to the big event. Pairing Marley with Guy Fieri, the best Caribbean food, and a river of rum was inspired. We hope this is the start of a yearly closing concert on the sand. Oh, and in the spirit of love for free stuff: We suggest moving the concert stage to a place where all attendees can enjoy the concert.
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What Didn't Work
Sponsors That Didn't Let You Forget It Was Their Event
We understand that pretty much everything has a title sponsor attached to it. There's the ING Miami Marathon, Sun Life Stadium, the American Airlines Arena.
But then Target insisted on serving its own food and drink at the event. Which means people paid good money to drink boxed wine and eat frozen turkey meatballs and egg rolls.
Solution: If Target wants to heavily brand an event, make it a freebie. Give out tickets through a lottery or through local media for crowd control, and Target could serve anything it likes. Goodwill for everyone!
Sure, we love the food and the wine, but let's face it -- we go to these events to not only eat a dozen sliders but also get a picture with Anthony Bourdain or Paula Deen to post on Twitter. Many celebrities, such as Guy Fieri and Geoffrey Zakarian, were accessible and friendly, posing for pictures and chatting with fans. But some celebs (ahem, Rachael Ray and Paula Deen) hung out in mostly VIP areas during the parties they hosted. And Hugh Acheson tweeted he was leaving the Southern Brunch early because he ran out of food. Couldn't he have just stayed and shaken a few hands?
Solution: Just like at the Grand Tasting Village, if a celebrity is hosting an event, he or she should remain at a station for an hour to pose with fans or get onstage and do a demo or a talk for 20 minutes. And yes, we know a PBR is calling their names at the Deuce, but they really should stay a bit longer -- attendees really came to see them.
Parking and Traffic Nightmares
South Beach traffic sucks. Always. Even on a day when nothing is going on. Add tens of thousands of people converging for an event, and it becomes a nightmare. Municipal lots fill up before noon, and private lots price-gouge. After sitting in traffic from the mainland, we now have to spend 45 minutes looking for parking. On Friday night, we looked for a metered spot (or even a parking lot) for an hour before giving in to valet parking -- only to be told the hotel's valet lot was filled. We weren't happy, not one bit.
Solution: When we went to Diamond Dishes, we were greeted with free parking inside the gigantic garage at Marlins Park. We had an idea: free shuttle service from Marlins Park to the Beach! Free shuttles from Metromover to the Beach! This idea cuts down on parking headaches, and locals can use public transportation after spending a few hours drinking.
No Love for Vegetarians
Short Order has pointed out two years running that non-meat eaters get the shaft at SoBeWFF. Look, organizers, it's the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, not the South Beach Wine & Flesh Festival (that's another, very different event).
Solution: Offer non-meat options where they make sense. If we don't like meat, we promise we won't go to the next Carnivorous Dinner. But it is only fair to offer meatless alternatives at pasta and dessert events. If Nobu and Martha Stewart can get on the meatless wagon, that's something to take note of.