2001-2011: Miami’s SoBe Wine & Food Fest Grows in Size, Notoriety

By Mitra Sorrells August 11, 2011, 1:30 PM EDT

Photo: Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival

Here’s one indicator of the success of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival: For 2007, the Food Network signed on as title sponsor. Attendance at the event, which had seen steady growth since it began in 2002, spiked by more than 40 percent that year, to 30,000, in large part due to participation of the network’s popular celebrity chefs and hosts, such as Bobby Flay, Paula Deen, and Rachael Ray. An optimal mix of returning and new events each year has also helped the festival continue to grow, making it one of the largest food and wine celebrations in the nation, drawing nearly 60,000 fans for its 10th iteration in February.

At the helm of the four-day fete is founder Lee Brian Schrager, vice president of corporate communications and events for Southern Wine & Spirits, and a colorful ringmaster of celebrity chefs. “The [Food Network] has brought food into everyone’s home, and even kids are watching it. My seven-year-old niece and nephew are watching the Food Network. We didn’t have that when I was young—it was Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet,” Schrager said, explaining why stars like Deen and Guy Fieri appeal to more than just foodies.

The centerpiece of the festival has always been the beachfront Grand Tasting Village, which has nearly quadrupled in size over the years, from 40,000 square feet in 2002 to more than 150,000 square feet in 2011. The village is filled with food and beverage tasting stations, chef demos, culinary competitions, book signings, sponsor giveaways—and more food. From Jeep to Verizon to Publix to Target, year after year the Grand Tasting Village has attracted brand sponsors eager to connect with the large crowd.

Barbecue and Champagne may not sound like a natural pair, but they were a recipe for success for 10 years at the festival. BubbleQ, sponsored by Moët & Chandon through 2008 and Perrier-Jouet for the last three years, attracted thousands of people to fine bubbly and plenty of creative barbecue from chefs such as Norman Van Aken, Tom Colicchio, and even Al Roker. The setting on the sands outside the Delano skewed toward Champagne tastes, with rentals from Panache and management by Logistics Management Group. Next year, Schrager is replacing BubbleQ with a wine-driven event called “Red, White, and Q” that will be hosted by Fieri and Emeril Lagasse.

Other events continue into the festival’s second decade. Wine Spectator’s Best of the Best began with a dozen chefs in 2005 and grew to more than 40 in 2011. Since the first one in 2007, Amstel Light’s Burger Bash, hosted by Rachael Ray on the sand behind the Ritz-Carlton South Beach, has elevated the humble burger to gourmet status.

The festival has always been a benefit for Florida International University’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. Soon the school will break ground on Southern Wine & Spirits Teaching Restaurant, thanks in part to $14 million the festival raised in the past 10 years.

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