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Wine, wine, wine and more wine

Sandestin Wine Festival is the place to go

© 2007 by Bonnie McKenna
All Rights Reserved

There is nothing in the world that sounds quite like the pop of a cork as it flies from a bottle of Champagne or the slow easy sound of the cork being pulling free from the neck of a bottle of wine. You can close your eyes, hear that sound and know exactly what is happening. That sound was music to my ears and the thousands of others who joined to gather recently at the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in Destin, Florida for the 2007 Sandestin Wine Festival.

I arrived at the resort a day early to visit this beautiful all-inclusive resort of 2,400 acres nestled between the Gulf of Mexico and the Choctawhatchee Bay. Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort is one of the premier resort destinations dotting the beaches of South Walton County. In addition to four championship golf courses, there are a myriad of other recreational activities for kids of all ages. For those interested in working on getting a tan, Sandestin also maintains more than seven miles of sugar white sand beaches. If you are hungry, there is no need to leave the resort; there are more than 20 restaurants on the grounds serving everything from pancakes to sushi.

The evening before the festival began; I was invited to join a group of wine enthusiasts at Finz Loft, one of the many elegant restaurants found on the resort grounds. While dining on modern American cuisine prepared by Chef Robert Treriot, Carolyn Wente of Wente Bros. vineyards in California presented a specially-selected wine to complement each course of our meal. Wente discussed each wine as it was being presented. She gave us an appreciation of the history of each grape, the soil and climate necessary for the best growing conditions, and the work of the winemaker who oversees the maturation and aging of the wine.

I was seated with Tim McNally past president of the New Orleans Wine Society and board member of the New Orleans chapter, Chaine des Rotisseurs, and his lovely wife Brenda Maitland, a wine and food writer. In the course of the evening conversation, McNally discussed how to best handle a wine tasting festival of this size and not embarrass yourself. His advice was to first decide what wines you are interested in tasting or choose several vintners that you are not familiar with.

“You never know when you might find a treasure,” he assured us. “When you get the taster’s guide, study it and highlight those wines or wine makers you want to learn about and stick to your plan. Take a small sip of the wine; savor it; if for any reason you do not like it, spit it out. There is no reason to swallow wine that does not suit your taste.”

The day of the Grand Wine Tasting dawned bright and hot. White tents dotted the walkways and courtyards of the resort’s Baytowne Wharf. Vintners and representatives from more than 80 vineyards began setting up their displays of featured wines and readied themselves to answer questions from wine enthusiasts of all levels. More than 600 bottles of wine from around the region, country and almost every corner of the globe were to be available for tasting.

By the time for the festival began at noon, a long line of people waiting to begin tasting wine, snaked out into the outer courtyard. Tickets could be purchased before the event or were available at the gate on the day of the festival. Despite having to pay a bit more, there was no shortage of folks in line to buy tickets. Upon entering the gate, volunteers were on hand to greet each participant, hand out a taster’s guide, a wine glass and to hang a wine glass holder around your neck.

I soon discovered just how necessary the wine glass holder was while trying to read the taster’s guide and write down what I thought of the wine I tasted. After studying the taster’s guide, I narrowed my choices to some reds and dessert wines. With a meal, I like reds, the Shiraz or Syrah, the Pinot Noirs, Zinfandels and Cabernets, in that order. After dinner, I love nothing more than savoring a good dessert wine with a selection of cheeses and fruit. I decided to go through the red wines first because the sweet wines can overwhelm the palate.

Because dessert wines are not usually found at wine tasting events, I was anxious to seek them out. There was not an abundance of these wines, but there were several ice wines and ports. Sadly, only one vintner displayed a sherry. One of the things that piqued my interest in trying the dessert wines was the number of vintners displaying wines made with the Muscat grape. Muscat grapes are reported to be the oldest domesticated grape variety. Muscat grapes are used in making a range of different wines giving it the identifiable “grapey” quality. After tasting the Muscat wines available at the wine tasting, I realized these often maligned wines, associated with cheap wines, had come a long way to join the better known wines in modern-day wine cellars.

As the first day of the Grand Wine Tasting came to a close, people were headed to the retail wine tent. All the wines featured at the festival were available for purchase at special discounted prices in the retail wine tent. Many restaurateurs and individuals took advantage of some great buys to stock and their wine cellars with some very nice wines.

The following morning I was invited to Bubbles and Brunch, a focused Champagne tasting event presented by Vicki McCain, owner of Kitchenique in The Market Shops of Sandestin. The event featured Spanish Cavas, French Champagnes, Italian Proseccos and California sparkling wines. Guests were treated to a full explanation of each wine by a sommelier or a representative of the vintner. We started with a Spanish cava that Wine Enthusiast rated as one of their top value wines of 2005. The Italian Proseccos were next. These wines have a clean nose, are somewhat fruity, but delicate. Banfi Cellas Rosa Regale another Italian sparkling wine that was featured, is known for being a wine that marries well with chocolate, especially dark or bitter chocolate. While pouring the French Champagnes, guests learned that the champagne glass should not be tipped while pouring; champagne needs to be poured straight into the glass to release the bubbles.

Tasting champagnes and sparkling wines is an exercise of smell, sight and taste. Before taking a sip, put your nose into the flute, close your eyes and savor the fine aromas. Look at the bubbles. Take small amount of wine into your mouth; allow the palate to notice the actions and flavors on the tongue and throat. Champagnes and sparkling wines bring to mind fun, happiness, special occasions and New Year’s celebrations.

Actually, it is a wine that should be savored all the time. If you are interested wines or have a growing wine cellar, now is the time to mark your calendars for next year’s wine festival. I would also suggest reserving a room for the weekend at the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort or one of the other fine hotels found along the beaches of South Walton. The festival dates are scheduled for April 10 – 13, 2008. For reservations and additional information about the Sandestin Wine Festival, visit www.sandestinwinefestival.com or call 850-267-8184 or 850-438-4015. bmckenna@ourtribune.com