Food + Dining Main

HOT DISH: Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest

BY March 11, 2015


There was plenty to cheer about Saturday at the seventh annual Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest’s live auction. After the intimate Friday night vintner dinners featuring multicourse meals prepared by the area’s most talented chefs—and paired with some of the country’s best wines—patrons hardly needed the help of the Baltimore Ravens cheerleaders (a fun addition early on that has withstood the test of time) to get the crowd excited for an afternoon of gourmet eats, fine wines, extravagant prizes and, most importantly, the chance to help out local children’s charities.


With the day’s total amounting to $3,353,000, the auction was a record-setter. The fund-a-need alone raised $600,000 for pediatric intensive care at the Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida. Another fund-a-need of sorts, a piece of art by a child from the hospital, earned $500,000. There was not a dry eye in the Miromar Lakes Beach Club as leukemia patient Sophia Black described her drawing that will be displayed in the hospital’s children’s gallery—bidders who pledged support would have their names recognized on a plaque hanging alongside it. This tradition, which started at the first festival in 2009 with Jace Eddy (now healthy and there on Saturday, offering words of encouragement to young Sophia), has become an endearing and enduring highlight of the festival.

With all of the feel-good philanthropy, it is almost easy to skip over a huge portion of the weekend: the wine and food! But to do that would be a huge disservice to the dozens of local chefs and Napa Valley vintners who nothing short of dazzled gourmands and oenophiles.


Although it is one of the most exclusive epicurean festivals (the fourth-ranked charity wine auction in the United States, according to Wine Spectator), the Saturday afternoon portion was surprisingly accessible. To attend the entire weekend, tickets were $1,500. For just $500, you could participate in the auction and the Grand Tasting—an elegant outdoor luncheon that’s like a midday cocktail hour on steroids. Some of Napa Valley’s best vintners, like BRAND, Benovia and Dakota Shy, were there keeping glasses full, and in the name of good journalism, I put myself to the task of sampling every small plate on offer, which wound up proving challenging in the two-hour window of opportunity. There were 16 eateries participating, mostly from Lee County, that presented a beautiful cross-section of Southwest Florida cuisine: The Veranda, Angelina’s, The Bay House, Cru, Blu Sushi at the Gulf Coast Town Center, Norman Love and SS Hookers (its owner, Sandy Stilwell, is next year’s festival co-chair, along with Andie Vogt), to name a few.


The Miromar Lakes Beach Club’s executive chef, Michael Madsen, was the first to greet guests as they entered the tent, and he set the stage with one of the most impressive displays. His king crab shooters with a yuzu espuma and caviar topped with edible blooms were both pretty and memorable. In fact, every bite prepared was memorable. To say all the chefs put their best Crocs (or, please, this is Southwest Florida—Italian loafers) forward is an understatement.


One of the only Collier participants (there were three), Brent Moore from Tiburon at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples also earned points for presentation. His Nueske bacon slider featured one of the biggest, most decadently thick slices of bacon imaginable (see them crisping up on the giant outdoor griddle?) with a tomato aioli, a juicy round tomato slice and shredded romaine lettuce. The brownie points went to the golf-tee toothpick holding it all together (the tee is chopped off in my photo above—sorry, folks).


Because of the outdoor setting, there was more than a fair share of crudos. A standout was Roy’s of Bonita Springs’ ahi tuna with the slightest hint of basil (from a sprig of microgreens) and a touch of aioli that brought out the full flavor of the meat. Of the heftier dishes, Pagelli’s veal-stuffed invention was memorable: cannelloini—a long tube-like cannelloni with crimped edges like ravioli—topped with a thick ragu and surrounded by a saffron crema and a sprinkling of microgreens and Parmesan. Pint-sized artist Sophia, whom I caught up with during the tasting, went back for seconds.

The overachievers of the afternoon were the chefs from the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa. They put forth not one but four different nibbles. And for the most unlikely yet divine pairing of the day, there was a slice of a mooshu pork wrap offset by piquant house-made Korean kimchi (all smartly plated on an eco-friendly bamboo dish). Two pretty tasting spoons of ceviche were also on offer: mahi mahi laced with sweet corn kernels and a vegetarian heart-of-palm concoction in a gingered carrot juice. Let’s just say I’ll be going there for dinner sometime soon.


It was hard enough to eat through nearly two dozen small plates, but I can’t forget to mention the undeniable allure of the various vintages. It’s not every day you can try both the Brio and BRAND cabernets (retailing upward of $100 a bottle), Myriad and Quivet cabernets, and a Williams Selyem pinot, so, again, in the name of good research, I indulged. The Quivet was a delightful surprise. The second-level wine from the festival’s signature vintner, Myriad (owned by a charming couple, the Smiths, who were at the festival in their fifth year of support), the Quivet at only $50 a bottle was robust, full-bodied and a great complement to the single-estate (and therefore more pricey) Myriad. Williams Selyem, a Healdsburg pinot powerhouse, was making its debut as a vintner for the festival—supplying wine for the Grand Tasting, a vintner dinner and an auction lot—and it was announced that it will be the honored vintner for next year’s festival.

“When Joe Anderson calls and asks you to be a part of something, you answer,” says Mark Malpiede, vice president of marketing for Williams Selyem. He was speaking of Joe Anderson, owner of Benovia and a Sonoma powerhouse himself. He had been on vacation in Southwest Florida a few years back when a sudden heart attack left him in Lee Memorial Hospital—and he pledged to do what he could to help give back. Countless cases of wine, millions of dollars later and support beyond description, he’s carried through on that promise, giving the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest crowd even more to cheer about. 


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