Today I had a pretty amazing and once-in-an-early-20s opportunity, thanks to my aunt, to attend the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, specifically the Grand Tasting Village. It was a pretty phenomenal experience and one I am still enjoying the effects of (both in excitement and in fullness).
The Wine and Food Festival has two main components- hundreds of tastings from vendors and then demonstrations by some of the Food Network’s top cooks- all spread out under two main tents and a few smaller ones on the beach. When you arrive you receive a wristband for entrance, a wine glass filled with wine (the first glass of many!) plus a wine-glass holder necklace (sounds a bit weird I know, but man did it come in handy!), a gift bag full of plenty of food and merchandise goodies, and a pretty substantial program.
Once you enter the village you have options farther than the eye can see, literally. The tastings are divided into roughly three categories- wine/liquor, restaurants/caterers, and then companies’ products (mainly split between food and juices).
I would estimate that the wine and liquor might have been over 50% of the tastings- numerous varieties of wine and several types of hard liquor (vodka, tequila, rum, port, sangria). There is certainly enough to have a good time. It’d be risky to try and attempt to taste all of them though! I took this opportunity to enjoy a lot of good wine and try some new varieties. I’d say that if you’re a wine connoisseur or expert you’d really enjoy yourself and could spend a lot more time than I did tasting and finding favorites.
Some of the best restaurants in Miami had tastings at the Festival, as well as some of the best caterers. If you’re someone who wants to put together a list of restaurants to try (like me) or someone who is looking for a caterer it’s a great place to try a lot in one location. For food lovers it’s awesome just all around with all the delicious food. It’s like taking the best features of a tapas restaurant, but with tons of restaurants all in one place. The most common offerings were seafood (especially ceviche!) and red meat (ribs, meatballs, various little sandies with briskett, pulled pork, meatloaf, etc). For gluten-frees it was very easy to ask about ingredients and all the vendors were super friendly and willing to make a plate without the bun. Some of my favorites (that I can remember there were tons of things to try honestly!) were the beef brisket at the City Hall the Restaurant stand (already one of my favorite restaurants), the sausage from Market 17 (restaurant in Fort Lauderdale), the deviled eggs from Eggwhites Catering, and the panna cotta from Whole Foods.
The companies showcasing their products roughly fell into two groups- juices and food. My favorite juices were definitely It Tastes Raaw and VitaCoco. It Tastes Raw was delicious, but more importantly it just tasted super fresh and pure (I had the raspberry lemongrass flavor). I’m pretty good at drinking just water, but will definitely look for this when I’m looking for some added flavor and refreshment. I already was a big fan of VitaCoco (for full disclosure: due to a very good friend who works for them) because it also tastes very fresh and natural. I also have noticed though its really good hydrating effects after a workout and didn’t mind making a small, probably not very effective, attempt to counterbalance the dehydrating alcohol with a stop at the VitaCoco stand. My favorite food products were Valrhona chocolates and Ginny Bakes cookies. All of Valrhona’s chocolates (dark and milk) tasted very smooth and options like the chocolate orange peel was just the right amount of flavor to complement the chocolate. Ginny Bakes cookies (which gluten-frees can guess are gluten free since I was eating them!) were great to try also. They reminded me of a lot of gluten-free products you can find in stores or order online, but despite having the gluten-free taste they were at the higher end of taste and texture and I certainly enjoyed them.
In addition to the tastings there were a variety of little tents for products like Pepsi, Figi water, Jelly Belly, and Cape Cod potato chips- less unique and less gourmet but still good (and nice to stock up the goodie bags- not even just food but sunglasses and mini-fans!).
The second component of the Festival are the cooking demonstrations by the top Food Network chefs. We only stopped to see one of them- Paula Deen- who was my favorite on the list (no Giada there unfortunately) and it turned out to be pretty much the biggest highlight of the Festival. We saw her after we had gone through all the tastings, so I was already really enjoying myself, but she was just awesome! So funny and such a hoot. To be honest there wasn’t much cooking demonstrations (she basically had her husband and Food Network chef Robert Irvine make a jambalaya and strawberry margarita mousse behind her), but that was totally fine because her just up on stage talking (pretty much just like a comedy act), was hilarious! I’ve enjoyed her shows before, but plan on watching them more often, and it definitely was a great way to finish up our Festival experience.
It took us a little over two hours to go through both main tasting tents and that was with skipping all the seafood (dietary restrictions for both of us) and skipping a lot of the alcohol (skipped several wine stations and a lot of the hard liquor). We then enjoyed Paula’s comedy show for about 45 minutes to an hour. This certainly was a Festival you could extend your time far more though (the Tasting Village runs from 11 AM-6 PM).
A few things to note is that you should definitely head in with a lot of patience. Lines can get long sometimes for certain vendors and not everyone gets in line as they should (what you see on the roads and in the grocery stores in Miami is what you should expect in lines). Of course there is plenty of booze and it’s a great atmosphere so you can really enjoy yourself if you relax and practice patience! My recommendation would be to go with a small group of maybe 4-6 people and take your time sampling the alcohol and food. If you have the time to devote to it you certainly can rest your stomachs and go back for more (of the food I hope! Even one round of all the alcohol would be a feat!)
One downside is that there aren’t really any spaces within the two main tents to sit, rest, and relax with the food (why the wine glass holder came so in handy!- when you’re juggling all those plates of food). There are several lounge seating areas in between the tents and many rows of chairs in the demonstration tents, but it would have been great if there were some of those tall tables with no chairs in the middle of the tasting tents I’ve seen at other food and beer/wine festivals (granted there isn’t room if they kept the same size of tents, but a possible improvement). Separating yourself away from the food and liquor might be a great way to rally for Round 2 however!
I obviously had a blast sampling food from some of the best restaurants in Miami and trying wine from some great vineyards (and Paula was so enjoyable!). Due to the amount of high quality food you could eat (if you really want to get stuffed) and wine and liquor you could drink (if you really wanted to enjoy yourself), plus the added experience of see the chefs’ demonstrations, I definitely think it’s the worth the price of the tickets. However I am mindful that I’m saying that when I went for it free (for me). However I know it’s something I enjoyed immensely and I certainly think it’s something down the road I’d pay for if finances allow. Like I said I think my best recommendation would be to go in a small group of friends of 4-6 people and really enjoy yourself together sampling the food and having a lot of drinks- that could make the price a whole lot more worth it.
Food Network’s South Beach Wine and Food Festival (In February on the Beach. Tasting Village tickets start at $225).