TAMPA — Perhaps the 15th annual Bern's Winefest was a harbinger of good things to come. By noon on Sunday the VIPs had already taken a run through the new world wines of Tent One, and before they had strolled through SideBern's and Bern's Fine Wines & Spirits to the old world wines of Tent Two, Tampa's glamorous party people had arrived.
Even in the aftermath of heavy showers, there was no economic gloom in evidence among the throngs that made their way into the Champagne lounge. After all, it's always been one of Tampa's best parties.
Changing with the times, this year's Winefest, attended by more than 1,000, was fully represented in the social media world, with a Facebook page, a Twitter handle and a free Bern's app at the iTunes store with an interactive map of the festival. But even with the techno-trappings, the focus of the four-day event was the same: celebrating great wines while raising money for a cause. In addition to the Bern Laxer Scholarship through the James Beard Foundation, this year's take goes to support the Vincent Lecavalier Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.
After a gala dinner Friday and another soiree Saturday, Sunday's grand tasting brought together 200 wines with themed tastes from teams of Bern's and SideBern's chefs, as well as desserts, cheeses and a couple of non-wine novelties (a Belvedere vodka "lemon tea" or a Grand Marnier slushie that seemed to garner a lot of crowd enthusiasm).
Bern's pastry chef Kim Yelvington took center stage in this year's main tent, her stunning chocolate work and confections displayed wonderfully under bouquets of antique bottles in sunset colors of orange and pink. Around Yelvington's work at four corners of the room, teams of chefs duked it out for guests' highest praise.
According to Brent Hunt, 41, a sous chef at Bern's for six years and one of this year's team leaders, a series of brainstorming meetings with Bern's chef de cuisine Habteab Hamde and SideBern's executive chef Chad Johnson led to a game plan. This year's culinary teams chose themes — "A trip along U.S. Route 1," "Gastropub," "New Southern" and "Wild Harvest" — around which they'd build their tasting menus.
Hunt's, the geographically rangy Route 1, yielded a Latin-inspired grilled mahi with plantain and a mojito butter sauce, then looked further north for a fried green tomato with suckling pig, a tiny quail egg and a grain mustard Hollandaise sauce. From there his team offered a Carolina-tinged chicken and cornmeal waffle with a sweet tea peach glaze and candied pecans, and the Route ended in New England territory with a trio of seafood cakes with a lobster vinaigrette and fish and chips. The crowd didn't seem too focused on the tasting menu's regional nuances, but the little cones of herbed truffled fries had quite a following.
According to Brad Dixon, a sommelier at Bern's since 2003, the Winefest has seen a slow evolution since its inception in 1998. While the domestic tent is still the largest, he's seen a growing focus on international wines.
"I see people looking for more balance, for more food-friendly wines. They are steering away from some of the California and other new world wines with a lot of fruit and a lot of alcohol. Old world wines often show a little more balance and acidity."
With that, Dixon meandered through Tent Two, sampling several stunning white Burgundies before greeting friends and representatives at the Beaucastel and Tablas Creek Vineyard table, the Paso Robles partnership of Chateau de Beaucastel and Robert Haas, which produces estate-grown Rhone varietal wines and blends.
Fest-goers were comprised equally of notable Tampa chefs like BT Nguyen and Bryce Whittlesey as well as first-timers like Tampa residents Susan and Chris Viens (in attendance especially for Chilean and Italian wines). Newbie and pro alike spent the afternoon sipping and noting their favorites, then perhaps slipping away from the frenetic festival hubbub for a seminar session.
CADE and PlumpJack's dynamic winemaker Anthony Biagi led a short session that in some ways was emblematic of the Winefest's mission. A pioneer in the use of screwcaps for high-end wines, Biagi led the group through a tasting of wines, three bottled with screwcaps, three with cork. Which were better? As Biagi made clear, as with all wine, it all comes down to personal preference.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Brad Dixon is a sommelier at Bern's Steak House. His first name was incorrect in a story on Wednesday.