FOOD & WINE FESTIVAL roars through Key West
The dust has hardly settled after November’s WINEDINE Key West festival, for which Mr. Certonio worked around the clock to turn our kooky little island into a restaurant-week destination to rival neighboring Miami Spice. Now he’s back at it again, promoting the return of the eighth annual Key West Food & Wine Festival, for which he serves as event director. The festival runs Jan. 25-29 and is composed of close to 40 wine and dining events, ranging from the prestigious (including seminars on global wineries and Henry Flagler’s Welcome Party at the Casa Marina) to the downright quirky (Friday’s Bad Ass Brunch Series: “Bubbles & Brunch”).
Considered the premiere culinary festival of the Florida Keys, the annual Key West Food & Wine Festival, which Certonio has chosen to market via the cinematic tag line “78 Degrees, 30 Events, One Tiny Island — Flip Flops Required,” has grown dramatically each year. Recent press coverage of the event has included national outlets such as the Travel Channel and Forbes magazine, the latter recently dubbing Key West “a paradise for serious foodies.”
Mr. Certonio, a longtime believer in Key West’s potential to be a top destination for food and wine lovers, is adamant that a town once synonymous with frozen daiquiris and fried conch fritters is fast undergoing a culinary metamorphosis. “I believe we are turning the corner to be a premier food destination,” he says, estimating that about 40 percent of this year’s Key West Food & Wine Festival ticket holders are returning guests. And the numbers do seem to add up: Most of the festival’s intimate dinners, laid-back brunches, neighborhood wine strolls and oenophile-friendly seminars are already close to being sold out, while sponsorship from global heavyweights such as Tesla and Celebrity Cruises prove the festival is making waves worldwide.
Mr. Certonio estimates that a large number of this year’s festival attendees will arrive in Key West by way of far-flung and often freezing places, pairing their discerning palates with a desire to thaw out, glass of Pinot Noir in hand, in sunny Key West. The festival’s winemaker dinners in particular are usually a big hit with ticket holders, he says, during which master sommeliers and winery owners host events such as Friday’s “Riesling Revolution” and “Old Town Uncorked,” as well as exclusive, multi-course dinners spread across the island, casual beach parties, stargazing cruises, and plenty of boozy brunches.
The festival can be attended a la carte, with tickets for individual events available through the official website, but if money’s not an issue, go wild and opt for the truly indulgent VIP Connoisseur Experience, which includes multiple private receptions, on-call concierge and transportation services, dedicated lounge areas and a goodie bag.
The festival technically kicked off the evening of Jan. 24 with “Girls Night Out,” a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception at the Marker Resort reserved for only the female half of this year’s festival goers. But things get coed and crazy the following morning. Beginning at 10 a.m., the event’s official welcome center at the Casa Marina opens its doors to the public, inviting those who are curious about the event, or who have yet to buy tickets, to come inside, taste a few wines, make new friends and get in line for the chance to test drive a Tesla.
On Thursday, Jan. 26, offers ticket holders the chance to attend an authentic French wine seminar hosted by expats Julie and Laurent de Cock at the couple’s cozy wine bar, Vivez Joyeux. With an emphasis on vintners who use old-world techniques such as hand harvesting and minimal sulfur, and who avoid the use of pesticides and herbicides, a $50 ticket buys attendees an afternoon of eco-friendly libation and lively conversation beginning at 1 p.m.
Starting at 4 p.m., attendees can choose between two neighborhood strolls of the historic Seaport or Bahama Village. Both two-hour tours begin at the Casa Marina. The cost is $90, and the tours are guaranteed to be as informative as they are delicious. Nearby, the Conch Republic Seafood Company will be gearing up to present its first ever Taste of the Seaport, a sampling of fresh local delicacies, including Conch salad, smoked fish dip, and key lime crab cakes, all paired with a selection of rose wines served dockside at the historic Key West waterfront. Tickets are $55 and sure to be well worth it, but for those looking to pinch pennies, a complimentary tasting of Argentina-sourced Domaine Bousquet wines will open to the public at 5 p.m. at downtown local’s favorite Cork & Stogie wine bar.
Across town, the second of the festival’s lauded Winemaker Series dinners will pair Wayward Vines representative Sara Brewer and Great Events Catering chef David Furhman for an unforgettable night of poolside dining at the Southernmost House, one of Key West’s most historic mansions. Tickets are $150, but with limited seating, an oceanfront location, and a mouth-watering menu, it’s one dinner that is sure to sell out long before it begins.
Friday’s schedule is jam-packed with events ranging in price from $50-$150, beginning with the second in the aforementioned and adorably named Bad Ass Brunch Series, “Bubbles & Brunch,” hosted by Rooftop Café. For $65, diners can indulge in the signature New Island cuisine of executive chef Brendan Orr, served with sparkling Domaine Bousquet Brut Rose. Particularly ambitious drinkers might want to head directly from brunch to Spencer’s by The Sea for a 1p.m. seminar on “The Riesling Revolution,” meant to make oenophiles question everything they think they know about the often-scorned grape.
Back at the Casa Marina, a 2 p.m. trolley will depart for the first ever Tropical Garden Tour & Tasting. Presented by Hahn Family Wines and Old Town Trolley tours, riders will be ferried between the most impressive and well-tended gardens in Old Town, with snacks by Chef David Fuhrman and wine parings available at every stop. Limited to 120 passengers and priced at $90, the event is destined to sell out, so botanical-appreciating booze lovers should hurry to book while there is still availability. If you’d rather enjoy your wine in a stationary position, the 8th annual Grand Tasting at the Reach Resort will seat diners beachside for an evening of sophisticated small plates and a spectrum of unique wines, all served against a backdrop of one of Key West’s legendary sunsets.
If you’re feeling particularly charitable, Pawadise Pet Rescue will serve their wine pairings with a side of grilled cheese and puppies. Yes, you read that right. From 5 to 8 p.m. on Jan. 27, the “Have Some Pinot for the Paws” event will feature a live deejay, silent auction, raffle and a selection of adoptable rescue dogs primed for snuggling. Proceeds from this event benefit the rescue group’s efforts throughout the Keys.
Next up is the third Winemaker Series Dinner at Spencer’s by the Sea, this one hosted by Castillo Banfi ambassador Luciano Castiello, who will guide ticket holders through a six-course Italian-inspired wine dinner with pairings ranging from Vermentino and rose to Brunello and Chianti, all to the tune of $150.
Those who’ve made it through to Sunday, Jan. 29, should give themselves a round of applause as they make their way to the second Badass Brunch Series event, this time a beach bash featuring live music by local celebrity supergroup Patrick and the Swayzees. Beach smoked ribs with bourbon barbecue will be paired with a variety of wines served on the sand at the Southernmost Beach Café starting at 11 a.m. That afternoon, expect a lot of rusty high school Italian to be trotted out at the already-sold-out Spaghetti in Spiaggia con il Vino family-style lunch at Casa Marina. Though tickets are long gone, you still have time book a spot at the 23rd Annual Master Chef’s Classic, a tented oceanfront affair held from 4 to 7 p.m. on the Westin Resort and Marina Pier. This spectacular competition is one of Key West’s most successful annual fundraisers, whose proceeds benefit Monroe County Association for ReMARCable Citizens, a nonprofit that serves adults with developmental disabilities. Perched above Key West harbor, the event offers 450 ticket holders the opportunity to sample small plates by a variety of high-end restaurants who compete across appetizer, entrée and dessert categories for prizes awarded by both panel judges and ticket holders. It’s always an absurd amount of fun. Tickets begin at $75 for three hour’s worth of world class food.
All in all, the Key West Food & Wine festival is a marathon event that may seem a bit daunting to newcomers, but fear not: each event has been painstakingly put together to appeal to both those who casually drop the word “terroir” into everyday conversation and those who limit their current wine orders to either “white” or “red.” And with Key West busier than ever — attendance at the island’s most recent Fantasy Fest is estimated to have surpassed 100,000 people — the Key West Food & Wine Festival is sure to grow exponentially in both size and popularity.
Buy your tickets now before it’s too late, and save us a glass. Of everything. ¦