Highlights from the Grand Tasting Village

My favorite part of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival is the Grand Tasting Village.  It’s an entire day (or weekend) of sipping wines, spirits and beer, sampling small bites from local restaurants, hotels and specialty food stores and interacting with famous chefs and Food Network personalities, all with a gorgeous ocean backdrop.

This year’s Grand Tasting featured an impressive array of spirits — vodka, rum, tequila, absinthe, whisky, brandy and more.  With the popularity of caipirinhas exploding in Miami, it was great to sample a variety of cachaça (I found out I liked Sagatiba the best).

Inside the white tents I had a great time revisiting old favorites and discovering new wines.  It was great to sip the reds from Cosentino Winery in Napa, Dry Creek Vineyards in Sonoma and Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington’s Columbia Valley (I also liked a couple of their Rieslings).  And boy did Conundrum taste good when I was sipping it in the sun!

Another wine that fit in perfectly with the setting was a Rosé from KracherI’m a huge fan of the Austrian winery’s sweet wines so I was excited to try something new from them (though I still enjoyed tasting their three sweet offerings — a 2007 Auslese, 2007 Beerenauslese and a 2005 Trockenbeerenauslese).

The 2008 Illmitz is 100% Zweigelt, the most widely-grown red wine grape of Austria.  The wine is a lovely light pink color.  It has aromas of strawberries and raspberries, with light and refreshing flavors of red berries and cherries on the palate.  It’s elegant and lively with soft acidity and a clean finish.  It’s a nice wine to take to the beach or enjoy as an aperitif on a warm afternoon.

I also enjoyed tasting a variety of California Pinot Noir from Pali Wine Company, Roessler Cellars and A.P. Vin.  I have yet to taste a wine I don’t like from Pali, though with an average price of $50 a bottle I don’t get to drink them too often.  My favorite from the Grand Tasting was the 2007 Santa Barbara County Cargasacchi Jalama Vineyard ($55) which has big plum and cherry flavors with earthy and herbal notes.

New to me were the wines from Roessler Cellars, made with Pinot Noir from the Central Coast and Sonoma.  It was neat to taste all four wines to see how the terroir can make the same grape taste so different.  I especially liked the 2007 La Brisa ($33) from the Sonoma Coast with its complex dark cherry and spice notes, as well as the 2007 Peregrine ($38) from Santa Rita Hills which has ripe flavors of black cherry and plum with earth and pepper.

A.P. Vin offered four delicious Pinot Noirs as well.  Though it was hard to choose one favorite, I couldn’t get enough of the 2008 Kanzler Vineyard ($50), with its rich and full red berry flavors, elegant oak and long finish.

Returning after a year absence was an entire tent dedicated to France, complete with “Le Tasting Bar,” a selection of cheeses, Champagne and a variety of reds, whites and rosés.  One exciting discovery I made inside was a liquor called Chartreuse.  It’s a potent herbal elixir, created in the 18th century by monks.  If you like your spirits with a healthy dose of sinus stimulating menthol, licorice and spice, you’ll want to try Chartreuse.

Yellow Chartreuse is almost unnatural neon yellow in color.  It’s made from 130 herbs, plants and flowers gathered in the French Alps.  The mixture is macerated with a neutral alcohol spirit and distilled, then aged in oak for about 5 years.  It has floral aromas with hints of sweet lemon and intense spices.  On the palate are thick honey and blood orange flavors with an array of exotic spices including saffron, anise and cloves, with bitter leaf and licorice on the finish.  The combination of flavors and the high alcohol (40%) make you say ‘whoah’ after your sip.  I was intrigued; it made me a fan.

The stronger tasting Green Chartreuse (55% alcohol) is vibrant green in color.  It’s made with the same secret formula as Yellow Chartreuse but aged longer in oak.  A wide variety of flavors including herbs, mint, orange rind, leather, licorice, basil and flowers make it quite the unique digestif.  Both spirits can be enjoyed on their own or mixed in cocktails.

Throughout the Sunday Grand Tasting I popped in and out of demonstrations by Michael Chiarello, Marcus Samuelsson, Sandra Lee, Michael Symon and Tony Abou-Ganim.  One of my favorites was Paula Deen, who shared stories and chatted with audience members instead of cooking (after all, people see her cook on TV all the time).

As a butter and fat-conscious home cook I feel like I gain 5 pounds just thinking about Paula’s cooking style.  But in person I found Paula to be a hoot!  Joined by her husband Michael and her assistant Brandon, Paula shared a slew of raunchy stories.  One involved Brandon putting on her clothes and a wig and getting into bed with Michael — let’s just say that Michael was none too pleased.  Paula loved telling the audience about her husband’s male fan base.  Apparently he has quite a following, including his own Facebook page.

The highlight of the Grand Tasting was a friendly cook-off between Chefs Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain.  Click here to read my interview with Eric Ripert. The challenge: prepare a tuna dish and a mussel dish in 20 minutes, in the style of each other’s restaurants (Les Halles for Eric and Le Bernardin for Tony).  Tony, perhaps rusty in the kitchen because of his gastronomic adventures around the world, called the cook-off one of the dumbest things he’d ever agreed to (add in a couple of curse words for his phrasing).  However he did get more excited when he discovered the refrigerator was stocked with beer.

The chefs had access to a beautiful piece of yellowfin tuna that had been prepared by Chef Masaharu Morimoto.

Click the video below to watch the chefs discuss their dishes

As the clock ticked down Eric looked at ease preparing his dishes, pouring white wine into a pot and then taking a swig from the bottle as the audience cheered.  “Nothing people like more than an alcoholism joke,” remarked Tony, who traded jokes and jabs with his competitor.

When it was time to judge the dishes the chefs invited Guy Fieri and Dinner Impossible’s Robert Irvine on stage to taste the food — maybe an unfair disadvantage for Tony, who has been vocal about his dislike of Guy’s cooking style.  But the food spoke for itself.  The winner hands down was Eric, whose seared tuna in a creamy pepper sauce made me salivate.  He served it alongside mussels in a white wine sauce and what he called Caesar salad gratin (pieces of lettuce brushed with Caesar dressing and placed in the oven on high heat for several minutes).  As Guy told Tony, “he kicked your ass big time.” 

Click the video below to watch the judges announce the winner

After the cook-off the chefs took questions from the audience.  The two talked about sipping tequila together and shared their favorite beers (Dos Equis for Eric, Guinness for Tony but only in Dublin).  One piece of information Tony refused to divulge was his favorite restaurant in the world, for fear it would become overrun with tourists.  He only disclosed its location: San Sebastian, Spain.  Don’t worry about not being in on the secret; Eric says Tony won’t even tell him!

More articles from the 2010 South Beach Wine & Food Festival:
Beach, Bubbly and Barbecue at BubbleQ
Something Sweet: Dessert and Fortified Wines