Life’s a Beach

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Especially during this four-day wine and food festival on Florida’s Gulf Coast
andrew-raifaisen-of-flora-springs-winery-vineyardsEach event has its own distinct flavor, its own fingerprint; something unique that sets it apart from all others and adds that certain “ah” factor. Well, in Destin that certain something is the undeniably peaceful and picturesque, naturally beautiful venue called the beach.
Twice every year, this lovely, easygoing town is invaded by wine lovers from throughout the region in search of fine wines and tasty indigenous cuisine set against the gentle breeze, beach aromas and crashing waves that define the Florida Gulf Coast. Taste of the Beach is a four-day celebration that features premium wine tastings, winemaker dinners and a wine and food tasting/charity auction. I had the good fortune to attend this fun-filled event in November, and in addition to discovering several fabulous wines and an array of culinary delights, I found that despite being surrounded by much revelry, wine, food, music and excitement, the beach has an overwhelming tranquil effect that lends itself to calmness. For someone who finds relaxing a challenge, this serene existence was thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated.
My travel mate and I stayed at the Watercolor Inn and Resort, a sprawling luxury destination situated along the beaches of South Walton overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Ideally positioned a stone’s throw away from Seaside, where the Seeing Red Wine Festival was held, this premier resort offers dining, shopping, golf, tennis, biking, several pools (including an adults-only option), fishing charters and of course access to the fine, white sand beach just out the door. While the good-size rooms were comfortable, and the complimentary breakfast was fine, what most impressed me was the incredibly friendly and accommodating staff that went above and beyond to make our stay memorable. Watercolor is a wonderful place for a romantic weekend getaway or a summertime trip with the kids, as there’s plenty to do for everyone.
Kicking Off in Style
The festival’s kickoff event was held on Thursday at Emerald Grande, one of the newer full-service resort properties in the area, overlooking Destin Harbor. Called Taste of the Destin Harbor, the wine tasting showcased well-known brands, including Caymus, Ferrari Carano, BV, Domaine Chandon and Sterling among others, and food from area restaurants, including Commander’s Palace. The next night offered two tasting options: Taste of Bay Wine & Food Experience, held at Pier Park, which showcased more than 100 wines, food from local restaurants and live entertainment, and the premium event titled Al Fresco Reserve Tasting in Ruskin Place. Held at Seaside, it featured reserve and allocated bottles such as BV Georges de Latour, Rodney Strong Symmetry, Beringer Private Reserve and Veuve Clicquot, sushi, hors d’oeuvres and live chamber music. For wine aficionados and collectors, the reserve tasting is the must-attend event of the festival.
Saturday’s Red Wine Festival
Saturday afternoon, the Seaside Amphitheater, lined with charming boutiques, galleries and cafés, was the setting for the 19th annual Seeing Red Wine Festival. Wine loving guests casually sauntered with glass in hand as they sipped offerings from nearly 50 tasting booths and enjoyed the live musical entertainment. This tasting extravaganza showcased nearly 300 wines, and in the center of it all, a culinary pavilion was packed with gourmet cheeses, imported sliced meats and specialty chocolates paired with several top wines. For four pleasurable, sun-filled hours, I sipped, snacked and shopped my way around this classic American beach town, all the while thinking, “Life is good!” What these folks do, that I’ve not encountered before, is set up a large sales tent whereby all the wines that were sampled are then available for sale. What a smart idea, and judging by the number of case-toting wine buyers packed into the makeshift shop, I would safely say it was a successful idea.
Sunday’s Taste of the Beach
After a long, satisfying and much-needed bike ride on Sunday morning, we headed off to Taste of the Beach & Charity Auction that took place poolside at the Sandestin Hilton overlooking the beach. The grand finale showcased an impressive selection of world-class wines, including several tête de cuvées and a smorgasbord of outstanding culinary creations from some of the best restaurants in the area. A silent auction that Anna Ouchley, Brian Koziol and Teresa Romig benefited local children’s charities was also held. As expected, we came across several wine and food fans from the New Orleans area, but the connection did not stop there. Guests tapped their toes to the jazzy and familiar sounds of the Joe Simon Jazz Trio, the same group that we’ve all enjoyed at Commander’s Palace during its renowned Sunday brunch. In addition, chef Carl Schaubhut of Fire, the same chef who headed the restaurant of the same name when it was located in New Orleans, created one of the best dishes of the afternoon. (Fire owner Brenda Darr relocated the casual eatery–and some of its staff including Schaubhut–to Grayton Beach after Katrina, and while she and chef Carl both miss New Orleans, they admit to having adjusted quite well to the laid-back beach lifestyle.)

Springtime in Sandestin
While this trip is merely a fond memory now, I’m looking ahead to my next visit, when I head to Destin to judge wines for the upcoming Sandestin Wine Festival. Held at Baytowne Wharf from April 22 to 25, the event promises to be one of the largest wine festivals in the Southeast, with three days of wine, spirits and culinary events. The springtime festival kicks off on Friday with a series of educational seminars, from cheese to whiskey and Winemakers and Shakers, a pre-dinner tasting. What looks really cool and interesting is the Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation’s Patron Dinners, which take place in some of the area’s most exquisite private homes. Saturday will be action packed with both the Grand Wine Tasting & Culinary Pavilion and the Destin Charity Wine Auction & Walkabout taking place. The event concludes on that Sunday with a second Grand Wine Tasting, offering more than 600 domestic and international wines. Stay tuned!
For more information about the upcoming Sandestin Wine Festival, visit www.sandestinwinefestival.com