34th Annual Florida Winefest & Auction

Goes to Bat for Local Disadvantaged Children

By Fred Bollaci

This past St. Patrick’s Weekend, Florida Winefest & Auction was in full swing with a great lineup of top local chefs and wineries in attendance. Celebrating it’s 34th year, Winefest has raised nearly $10 million for local disadvantaged youth, supporting 87 deserving organizations in Sarasota and Manatee Counties.

The festivities started out Thursday March 14th with an exclusive wine dinner at Sage SRQ, pairing cuisine by acclaimed local Chef Chris Covelli with Williamson Wines, a favorite from Sonoma County, hosted by winemaker Sam Williamson. The evening began on the rooftop with cocktails to welcome friends who drove and flew in for the weekend’s events. It couldn’t have been a more perfectly beautiful, balmy evening. Guests soon made their way to a private alcove on the second floor of the historic Times Building, where we were greeted by Sam and Chef Chris and enjoyed an array of hors d’oeuvres paired with Williamson Sparkling Shiraz, a total surprise—the deep purple color and thoughts of Shiraz evaporate upon the first sip—this is a light, easy drinking wine, perfect by the pool—don’t let the hue fool you. Sam and his parents, founders of Williamson Wines, Bill and Dawn Williamson, who hail from Australia, wanted to develop a wine that paid homage to their native land, where Shiraz (Syrah) is a venerable grape, while offering something deep purple that could be enjoyed during the holidays poolside in Australia, where 105 degrees F is not out of the question at Christmastime. The wine was a great way to start, I’ll be stockingup for my summer pool party or next boating day.

The next course included Pan Seared Scallops with Roasted Cauliflower and Amourette Montrachet Style Chardonnay, which after a few sips, several guests at our table were filling out order forms! Everyone enjoyed the Wild Mushroom Puff Pastry Pillow with Truffle Cream Sauce, paired with Cherish Mélange Chateau Cheval Blanc, followed by Roasted Lamb Loin over Vegetable Risotto, paired with Inspire Cabernet Sauvignon, an homage to Chateau Lafite Rothschild. Dessert was a Chocolate Mousse paired with Ravish Mélange, an homage to Chateau Petrus. Williamson’s personal goal is to make French style wines with the power of high-quality California fruit that, by design, do not need to be aged but will actually continue to improve for seven to ten years as their flavor profiles mature.

On Friday night, March 15th, we all gathered for the Napa/Sonoma Boutique Wine Dinner at Café Barbosso, which I helped organize. Chef Joe DiMaggio, Jr. was in rare form entertaining our guests with his humor and delicious food, while three top vintners were pouring a variety of wines, while mingling with guests during the welcome hour on the terrace. The evening couldn’t have been more perfect—temperatures in the 70’s with a refreshing breeze off the nearby Gulf of Mexico, and strings of lights in the shrubbery surrounding the patio. This was the exact kind of fête that Sarasota and Winefest lovers have needed, since things ground to a halt during COVID and are now starting to pick back up. Café Barbosso’s live music outside on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings which paired perfectly with our event, which began outside on the patio near the band, with an array of gourmet pizzas from the kitchen in the spirit of the famed Banquet on the Block Winefest is famous for, and progressed to inside the screened-in porch, where guests savored a delectable 5-course menu that I designed with Chef Joe and the vintners.

In attendance were Geoff and Duff Bedrosian, of Domaine de la Rivière in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley (winner Best of Class Pinot Noir at the 2024 American Fine Wine Competition), David Harmon of Carneros della Notte in Napa (David founded wine.com and also Own a Napa Vineyard, where folks can purchase a vine, have their own label, and attend a special annual harvest party), and Dana Von Sternberg of Vokel Cellars, a boutique producer also in Sonoma County.

The seated dinner began with Chef Joe’s famous French Toast Blini’s with Ossetra Caviar and lemon crème fraiche, followed by a choice of salad, including the house “Bosso” Salad with sun dried cranberries, gorgonzola, and raspberry vinaigrette, paired with 2020 Domaine de la Rivière Flora Marie Chardonnay (Sonoma), and 2022 Vokel Cellars Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay (Sonoma). A master of pasta, Chef Joe served a choice of Spaghetti with Pesto, or Lobster Ravioli with Saffron Cream Sauce, paired with 2020 Vokel Cellars Sonoma Valley Merlot or 2020 Carneros della Notte Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley). Main Courses included a choice of Filet of Sole Francese, Veal Marsala, or The “Ultimate” 10-Layer Eggplant Parmigiana with Bechamel, tomato, and mozzarella, all were excellent, a testament to Chef’s New York Italian-American upbringing. The entrees were paired with 2021 Vokel Cellars Chalk Hill Abouriou (a French varietal) or 2020 Domaine de la Rivière Middle Reach Vineyards Pinot Noir or 2020 Carneros della Notte Reserve Cabernet (Napa Valley). For dessert, we had to decide between Chef Joe’s signature Amaretto Tiramisu, or housemade Vanilla Gelato with Amarena Cherries, paired with 2020 Carneros della Notte Moscato or 2020 Vokel Cellars late harvest Sauvignon Blanc. The variety of wines and foods made for a truly fun, lively, and memorable evening, it felt like a lovely garden party! In addition to the food and fun, there was a silent auction—Chef Joe donated one of his famous “Chef’s Table” experiences for a group of 16 lucky guests—a value of $3,000, which ended up being sold for $5,000, money that goes straight to helping our local kids in need!

When top local chefs, winemakers, and members of our community come together for a good cause, the result is a home run for everyone involved! Thank you to everyone who participated.

For more information about Florida
Winefest & Auction, and their upcoming events, please visit: www.floridawinefest.org