Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bern's Winefest-Grand Tasting

This past Sunday, Dr. Jeff, Capt. Dee, and I drove over to Tampa to attend what is billed as the "premier wine tasting experience in Central Florida" - the Grand Tasting at Bern's Steakhouse's Winefest. This was the 13th year of this 4 day festival that raises money for a variety of charities, including the Bern Laxer Scholarship Fund, which awards several scholarships each year through the James Beard Foundation in honor of the founder of Bern's Steakhouse.

The festival begins on Friday evening with a Winemaker's Dinner at Sidebern's (Bern's' Mediterranean-themed restaurant located just down the block from the Steakhouse) honoring one of the featured wineries from that year's festival, and builds through the Saturday Soiree, where Sidebern's is transformed into an upscale nightclub for the evening. The proceeds from this year's Soiree supported the recently opened Vincent Lecavalier Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders Center located at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.

For me, the weekend culminates with the Grand Tasting on Sunday, where the chefs from all of the Bern's' restaurants go all out to create fabulous small plates to pair with over 200 highly rated wines. We opt each year for the VIP Party, which affords a limited number (somewhere around 150) of patrons full access to the food and wines for an hour and a half prior to general admission. VIPs are also treated to a greeting wine - 2000 Dom Perignon - which flowed early and often.

The wines were organized by country/region of origin (including the United States, France, Italy, Spain, Germany/Austria, and the rather nebulous 'southern hemisphere') and spread out through two huge air-conditioned tents. Within each region, wines were further organized by color and "weight," and then co-located with chef's stations serving food meant to be paired with those wines.

In the past few years, the food has been the highlight with a few notable wines. This year, the organizers, distributors, and wineries picked it back up and the wines were back up to the food's level across the board. On the domestic side, wines such as the 2006 Dominus, 2006 Phelps Insignia, 2006 Kathryn Hall Cabernet, 2006 Domaine Serene 'Evenstad Reserve' Pinot Noir, 2005 Cain Five, and 2005 Silver Oak were being poured, along with notables from around the world such as 2006 Numanthia, 2005 Pio Cesare Barolo, 2004 Pertimali Brunello di Montalcino, 2006 Sassicaia, 2005 Jamet Cote Rotie, 2005 Chateau Certan de May, and 1999 Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron, among many others.

Dishes to be paired with the wines included crispy oxtail with pistachio, apricot and fennel, lobster and shrimp ravioli in a goat cheese tomato fondue, poulet rouge chicken with foie gras, wild mushrooms, and a lemon shallot cream, Rioja-braised rabbit stew, and curried fried pheasant with lentils, fennel and a tomato vinaigrette.

The VIP Party is very much a wine tasting - the guest has ample time to stroll through the event, picking out specific foods and wines to taste, interact with the knowledgeable people pouring the wines (who are often principals or regional representatives of the winery), as well as talk to the chefs at each of the food stations regarding their inspiration for their culinary creations and how the wines would complement/enhance the dish.

Once the general admission begins, the tasting rapidly morphs into a pouring, as you are joined by 400-500 of your closest friends, the space in front of the tables (and everywhere else for that matter) becomes crowded and loud, and you must pick and chose your targets carefully and force your way through.

Refuge may be found in one of the two wine seminars that occur throughout the afternoon (more on these in later posts), or in the silent auction area, where unique wines and other items have been donated by wineries from around the world. This year's lots included a 3-liter bottle of Quintessa, verticals of Pichon Baron, BV Latour, and large format wines (magnum, 3-liter, and 6-liter) from around the world.

The Winefest weekend ends with a final Winemaker's Dinner at Bern's Steakhouse on Monday evening, again highlighting the wines of one of the featured wineries. These wines are paired with a specifically-designed 5-course meal prepared by the Chef de Cuisine.

All in all, a fun time was had at the Bern's Grand Tasting, with some great food, fabulous wines, and good friends. Next year promises to be a great time as well - look into it.

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