Florida uncorks a new year of wine events, and with celebrity chefs

Two of Europe's remaining crowned heads, a platoon of celebrity chefs and a gaggle of gregarious winemakers headline food and wine festivals from Safety Harbor to Miami's South Beach in the coming months. Some will set your wallet on fire and others are easy on the budget. All share, in various configurations, a passion for food, cooking, wine and spirits. Some of the highlights:

Their Majesties King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia of Spain will reign over a celebration of their country's culinary and winemaking excellence on opening night of the very big deal Food Network South Beach Food & Wine Festival (Feb. 19-22). You can join them for a princely $1,000 per person or take the kids out for a Sunday romp at the Kellogg's Kidz Kitchen for a mere $20 a pop. In between, you'll find events featuring such powerhouse chefs/restaurateurs as Mario Batali (Babbo, New York), Charlie Trotter (Charlie Trotter's Restaurant, Chicago) and Michael Mina (Michael Mina, San Francisco).

Strictly for the deep pockets among us is a long weekend (Feb. 6-8) of pure indulgence known as the Naples Winter Wine Festival. Big spenders will drop $7,500 per couple for tickets and be expected to pony up large at the festival's fabulous wine auction, but it's all for charity. Last year's blowout raised $14-million for the Naples Children and Education Foundation. A cadre of 17 chefs worshipped by every foodie in the world will prepare intimate wine dinners in 17 private homes, and winemakers from Aubert de Villaine of the iconic Burgundian house of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (Vosne-Romanee, France) to Ann and Dick Grace of cult wine fave Grace Family Vineyards (St. Helena, Calif.) will be on hand to brag about their babies.

April brings two more highlights of the wine celebration season to the Tampa Bay area. From the 17th through the 20th, Bern's Wine- fest festoons its turf in Tampa's SoHo district with big white tents and turns SideBern's, Bern's Fine Wines and Bern's Steakhouse into wine lover central. Winemaker dinners anchor Winefest, with parties and a grand tasting in between. These dinners feature Cakebread Cellars, one of Napa Valley's most distinguished wineries, at SideBern's on the 17th, and Antinori, known worldwide for fine wines from its estates in Tuscany and Umbria, at Bern's on the 20th.

South of the bay, Sarasota hosts the 19th annual Florida Winefest & Auction from April 23-26, the weekend after Bern's folds its tents. Another major fundraiser for children's charities and the arts, this one is headquartered at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, which hosts the festival's showcase tasting, a dinner dance and the event's centerpiece, a grand brunch and wine auction. Winemaker dinners are scheduled in local restaurants and private homes. The list of exhibiting wineries is as long as your arm, including some renowned names and some yet to make their mark, but the auction block will have some real stunners. Our favorite lot this year is the Parker 100 Case, 12 different wines, each one rated a perfect 100 by Robert M. Parker Jr., Wine Advocate's palate-in-chief and one of the world's most influential wine critics.

A roundup of wine and food events both grand and humble follows. Don't worry if you're not rolling in dough. There's an event for every wallet.

Feb. 6-8: Naples Winter Wine Festival. Emeril Lagasse as chef de cuisine leads this year's roster of 17 top chefs, including John Bush of Restaurant August in New Orleans, David Waltuck of Chanterelle in New York City and Michael Tusk of Quince in San Francisco. These chefs will prepare intimate dinners in private homes for some 600 well-heeled oenophiles. A truly fabulous wine auction will raise lots and lots of money for local children's charities. Details: napleswinefestival.com; toll-free 1-888-837-4919 .

Feb. 21: Einstein on Wine. Food and wine tasting and auction in the thick of the exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa to benefit the museum. Details: mosi.org; (813) 987-6000.

Feb. 19-22: Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival. The indefatigable Mario Batali will lead a parade of celebrity chefs, royalty and bold-face names through three days overflowing with dinners, tastings, parties and seminars. Details: sobewineandfoodfest.com.

March 7: Abilities Wine Tasting and Silent Auction. Tropicana Field hosts a food and wine tasting and auction from meals to original art to benefit Abilities. Details: abilitiesfoundation.com; (727) 538-7370.

March 28: International Rum Festival. Distillers, blenders and importers from around the world will pour out rum, ron, rhum, Brazilian cachaca and various other cane spirits at the Ritz Ybor located in Ybor City. Details: polishedpalate.com.

April 4: Taste the Best of Tampa Bay. Dozens of local restaurants and caterers headline an al fresco food and wine tasting on the Riverwalk near the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Also featured will be live music and a silent auction. Proceeds benefit TBPAC. Details: tbpac.org.

April 17-20: Bern's Winefest. The steakhouse long known for its 15-pound wine list and gargantuan cellar hosts four days of dinners, parties and a grand tasting at both Bern's and SideBern's and under tents near Bern's wine store. Details: bernsfinewines.com; (813) 250-9463.

April 23-26: Sarasota's Florida Winefest & Auction. Wineries from all over will strut their stuff during four days of tastings, winemaker dinners, parties, seminars and an auction of notable wines. Event benefits children's charities and the arts. Details: floridawinefest.com; toll-free 1-800-216-6199.

April 25: Sea Grapes Wine Tasting. Wine and food pairings in the finny environs of the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, live jazz, an auction and a VIP room with catering by Armani's will raise money for the aquarium's youth education and conservation programs. Details: flaquarium.org; (813) 273-4030.

May 15-16: Tampa Bay Wine & Food Festival. Southern Wine and Spirits sponsors two days of dinners, tastings, parties and chef competitions at the Don CeSar Resort in St. Pete Beach. Proceeds benefit the Abilities Foundation and H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center. Details: tampabaywineandfoodfestival.com.

Sept. 25-Nov. 9: Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. Dozens of wineries and celebrity chefs come to the Orlando theme park for more than a month of elaborate dinners, tastings and parties. Tickets go on sale in midsummer and sell out fast. Details: wdwinfo.com.

Nov. 7: Safety Harbor Wine Festival. Wine shops, wineries, food vendors and tasters line up starting at the Safety Harbor Spa and stretching down eight blocks of Main Street. Details: cityofsafetyharbor.com; (727) 724-1572.

Nov.12-15: Colony Stone Crab Festival. The beach and tennis resort on Longboat Key marks the 20th anniversary of its celebration of Florida's signature shellfish with a special alumni edition. All the celebrity chefs and personalities hosting casual parties, cooking classes and grand dinners will be stars from previous years. Details: colonybeachresort.com; toll-free 1-800-282-1138.

John Bancroft is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel.

Florida uncorks a new year of wine events, and with celebrity chefs 01/20/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 20, 2009 3:30am]

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