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The 26th Annual Sandestin Wine Festival

There’s nothing quite like a wine festival at the beach. And while I’ve heard of one or two others across the country, for the past two decades I’ve been a zealot for the Sandestin Wine Festival – held at the golf and beach resort of that name on the lovely piece of northwest Florida known as the Emerald Coast. That name, of course, is inspired by the see-through Gulf water that, at almost any time from sunrise to sunset, takes on a shimmering blue-green hue.

This festival was, is and perhaps always will be about wine – unlike many that weave the magic words “Wine and Food” or at least “Food and Wine” into their names. There’s even a “retail tent” for buying bottles to take home after you’ve wandered up and down the aisles for several hours of dedicated tasting. This year, however, there was the strongest presence I’ve seen yet for edible as well as drinkable goodies.

Borrowing a page from other successful wine festivals, Sandestin has also added a “reserve tasting” and wine auction to raise money for local charities. I attended this event for the first time yesterday, and with food from area restaurants (including familiar names like Carrabba’s and Ruth’s Chris, as well as the eateries on the Sandestin property), it was a great way to while away an afternoon heated by bright sunshine but cooled by delicious spring breezes.

One of the culinary highlights was provided by a young chef who works for the resort, serving up gumbo he said was made with duck confit and garlic andouille. Now I’m pretty picky about my gumbo, not least because I love my gumbo best, but this stuff was amazing. I almost regretted all the room I’d “wasted” on sliders, sushi, ceviche and grilled scallops, when I could have simply declared it the Sandestin Wine & Gumbo Festival!

And just when the late afternoon temperatures were peaking beneath the tasting tent, along came the San Gelato Cafe. While a simple-enough food and drink outlet with three locations (the Village at Baytowne Wharf at Sandestin, the Silver Sands Factory Stores and the Boardwalk-Okaloosa Island in nearby Ft. Walton Beach), the real Italians behind San Gelato actually make the stuff  masterfully enough to sell to national Italian restaurant chains. Yum!

When you get right down to it, though, I always love hanging out with the chefs best. This year, for the first time ever, there’s an impressive Culinary Pavilion staged by the folks at Coastal Living, which along with Saveur is one of the few magazines I actually read. Here we see chef Johnny Earles, who for 20 years ran his own place called Criolla’s on fabled Highway 30A, doing a demo for his current home, Seagar’s Steakhouse.

And while I’ve known Johnny Earles for years and remember his Louisiana-Caribbean food at Criolla’s very fondly, I’d only heard about and read about but never met chef Irv Miller – until I interviewed both chefs together for my radio show. They’d cooked here and there together and separately, like neighbors, for many years – and like most chefs who’ve shared trenches and tuna, they were even more fun together than separately.

After several legendary stints around Destin, including the beloved Bud & Alley’s, Chef Irv moved to Pensacola in the late ’90s to open Jackson’s Steakhouse. And he’s been going great guns there ever since. In the land of Gulf seafood, the two chefs I admire most find themselves “beefing up” the seafood selections… at prime steakhouses. Go figure! But quickly, thanks to the wonderful Sandestin Wine Festival, I finally got to catch these two great chefs in the same place at the same time.

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About John DeMers

I've been a journalist and author forever. My favorite single word in the English language is "foodandwine." This spirit drives my 45 published books and my weekly radio show heard in Houston, Dallas and Austin.

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