|By Elaine Walker, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 23, 2011--Ten years ago Miami was no culinary capital and the sands of South Beach hardly seemed like a match for fine wine and gourmet food.
Fast forward to this weekend. More than 52,000 South Florida foodies and tourists from around the world will converge here for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, a weekend of partying and rubbing elbows with their idols in the food world. The lineup reads like an industry Who's Who. Food Network headlines the event with all its top personalities: Bobby Flay, Paula Dean, Rachael Ray, Giada De Laurentiis, Guy Fieri and more. Also on hand will be many of the industry's top chefs like Alain Ducasse, Charlie Trotter, Todd English and Nobu Matsuhisa.
The festival, which kicks off on Thursday, is now considered among the top one or two events of its kind in the country and has helped put South Florida on the culinary map. Chef Emeril Lagasse dubbed it "Spring Break for Chefs." Chef Daniel Boulud calls it the "Woodstock of Cooking."
"I think South Beach at the end of February is sort of everybody's dream place to be," said Dana Cowin, editor of Food & Wine magazine, a sponsor since the second year. "You are surrounded by some of the truly great talent in food. We are giving access to a little piece of three-dimensional heaven."
It's a far cry from when Southern Wine & Spirits started the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in 2001, trying to elevate a small event previously run off the Florida International University campus. Initially, Festival Director Lee Schrager used the connections of friends like China Grill's Jeffrey Chodorow and Books & Books's Mitchell Kaplan to help lure the top names in the food industry. Schrager's goal was to model an event after the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, but with a South Beach spin.
"I knew in year one that we were on to something," said Schrager, vice president of corporate communications at Southern Wine. "Only in year five did we recognize the true potential. We had everything going for us: the time of year, a beautiful beach and the rise of the food culture. Few things in the last 10 years have grown as much as food and wine."
When Food Network signed on as a sponsor in year five it really put the festival on the map. Reaching more than 96 million households, the network's fan base and the festival's have become interchangeable.
The success in South Beach lead Southern Wine and Food Network to partner on a second festival in New York City and there's already talk of another, in Southern California.
"Fans love the talent so much, it's like they're meeting Santa Claus for the first time," said Susie Fogelson, senior vice president of marketing and brand strategy. "You have Bobby Flay serving you burgers at the Burger Bash. Not only do you get to eat his food, but you can shake his hand and if you're lucky get a picture with him. It's the wholly grail of food experiences."
One of the perennial crowd favorites, Paula Dean admits she came the first couple of years to South Beach because of how much she liked Schrager, despite the objections of her agent.
"He didn't see the value in it, but it's certainly not that way any more," Dean said. "Anytime I have the opportunity to connect with thousands of people that like my work and like my product, it's good for my brand."
As the festival has grown, so has its importance to South Florida.
Tourism officials and hoteliers say the event ranks up there with top tourism draws like Art Basel Miami Beach, the Miami International Boat Show and the Super Bowl because it attracts similar high-end demographics. The festival estimates it will fill more than 2,100 hotel rooms with a combination of visiting talent and festival goers.
Hotel occupancy during the festival weekend is expected to be more than 88 percent, roughly 10 percentage points higher than last year, said Rolando Aedo, senior vice president for marketing at the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau..
The 790-room Loews Miami Beach Hotel, which hosts several events as well as celebrity chefs in hotel rooms and in the kitchen during the festival, has sold out for the weekend, said Shawn Hauver, managing director.
"In the early years, we didn't even really fill hotel rooms with the festival," Hauver said. "In my view, it's really transformed from a local festival to a nationally, possibly internationally, known festival."
Festival organizers estimate that about 30 percent of last year's ticket purchasers come from outside South Florida. They draw from 44 states, Canada, the Caribbean and beyond. The biggest concentration comes from New York, New Jersey, Illinois, California and Georgia.
While those visitors are coming for the festival, they're also checking out the local food scene.
Miami chef Michelle Bernstein looks forward to the festival every year. She's one of only two chefs that have participated each of the 10 years and the only one whose participation dates back to the FIU event. The attention from the festival challenges Bernstein to raise her game and introduce new, more adventurous menu items to appeal to the foodie crowd.
"I think it lit a fire under a lot of our behinds because we know we have to get better," Bernstein said. "We were never revered on any level in the culinary world. We were laughed at before. It was the Mango Gang and that was it. Finally we are arriving."
Chef Daniel Boulud, who opened his first restaurant db Bistro Moderne in Miami last year, believes the festival and Miami's reputation as a food destination have grown up simultaneously.
"The festival does contribute to Miami's reputation for food," said Boulud, who is expecting a crowd at his new restaurant this weekend. "That's not to mean that every chef who comes to the festival is going to open a restaurant in Miami. But it's definitely brought huge exposure. Miami has grown to become a food destination."
By far the biggest winner in the event is Florida International University's School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, the festival's charitable beneficiary. The university has received $12 million over the festival's last decade. That money has gone to fund scholarships for students and the upcoming renovation and expansion of the teaching restaurant. About 1,000 students each year volunteer to work on the festival, earning practical experience and connections that help lead to future jobs.
"Our students get to be engaged in something that's real," said Mike Hampton, dean of the school. "It has been phenomenal for our students to have that kind of exposure."
What makes the South Beach festival unique is that guests can design their own experience from a wide-range of price points and different types of events. Prices range from $20 for Fun and Fit as a Family at Jungle Island to $500 for the tribute dinner honoring Ducasse at the Loew's Hotel. The serious wine aficionado can attend intimate wine tasting seminars, while the hipsters can enjoy late night parties.
By comparison, the Aspen festival sells only one weekend pass to the event for $1,185 and because of the location can only accommodate 5,000 people.
Even as some South Beach ticket prices have more than doubled over the years -- now $350 for Bubble Q, $200 for Burger Bash and $225 for Grand Tasting -- that hasn't done anything to lighten demand. Rachel Ray's Burger Bash sold out the second day tickets went on sale. Tickets for most of the top events were gone by January.
Just days before the festival's kick-off Thursday night, there is very limited ticket availability. It's mainly one of the Grand Tastings, Fun & Fit as a Family at Jungle Island, some small wine seminars and Guy Fieri's closing party. Last year, the festival sold more than $4 million in tickets and this year that number is expected to exceed $4.3 million.
Neil Rodin is kicking himself that he sold his tickets to the Best of the Best Friday night at the Fontainbleau Hotel on Miami Beach because he thought he wasn't going to be in town. Now, he's hunting for tickets on Craigslist and hoping to find someone willing to trade him Miami Heat tickets so he can pay face value or less. A festival regular since 2004, Rodin still loves the events, but he's grown frustrated with the rising prices and increasing crowds.
"The Best of the Best is a little more intimate," said Rodin, 42, who lives in Downtown Miami. "Where else are you going to get 50 of the top chefs preparing food for you," said Rodin, 42, who lives in downtown Miami. "It's a great event to celebrate food. It's truly the best of the best. The rock stars of the Food Network are all in one place. But you have to budget yourself with these events and make sure you're getting the most value."
Tickets for some of the most popular events are being offered for considerably more than face value on Craigslist, ebay and StubHub.
But Mauricio Ponce can no longer afford even the festival's face value tickets. He's trying to buy a pass on Craigslist for the Friday trade tasting. He's willing to pay $50 a ticket. The tickets are given out free to the industry.
"The prices got too steep for me," said Ponce, 31, who lives in Plantation. and used to buy consumer tickets until the prices increased. "This way is just as good and it's more inexpensive."
Balancing the cost of the ticket prices against the price of producing a $7.6 million event is a constant struggle, Schrager said. The festival raises about $3.3 million in sponsorships.
All the brands showcased at the festival are those that are distributed by Southern Wine & Spirits.
"It's a great way to demystify wine," said Wayne Chaplin, president and chief operating officer of Southern.
Luxury brands like MoÃ«t Hennessy USA like the opportunity to get their portfolio in front of high net worth individuals. They'll offer different products at different events to target the right clientele such as Krug Champagne at Best of the Best dinner and a new brand MoÃ«t Chandon Ice Imperial at the Let them Eat Cake anniversary party.
"What's unique about the festival is you get serious wine consumers and more casual consumers," said Gene Robinson, senior vice president of the southeast region for MoÃ«t. "Clearly in Miami and the Southeast this is one of the top events of the year."
But when MoÃ«t dropped its sponsorship of the Bubble Q event a few years ago, Pernod Ricard jumped on it as a chance to feature Perrier JouÃ«t in a unique setting on the sand with barbecue.
"It reminds people that champagne can be part of any event, not just the holidays," said Lauren Simkin, general manager of Pernod Ricard wines and champagnes. "The best way to sell our brand is to get liquid on lips."
Pernod will have to find a new venue next year because this year will be the last for the signature Bubble Q event.
"I don't want to it be like Cher," Schrager said. "It's the event that put us on the map and I don't want anyone saying it's tired. I would rather reinvent it in a few years. Maybe it will be something with red meat and red wine. Or a paella bash? We've never done anything focusing on Latin and Caribbean cuisine. I keep thinking we should."
Miami Herald Staff Writer Hannah Sampson contributed to this report.
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