Checklist for a great February trip: Sun—and sun-drenched sand. Food—the newest, freshest, and most delicious (duh). And wine—the best of the best (duh). We checked in with Lee Schrager, the man behind the South Beach Wine and Food Festival in Miami Beach, to find out more about the culinary star-studded event that combines all three, and is heading into its 12th year this February 21-24.
Fodors.com: Give us a little backstory on the SOBE Wine and Food Festival. How did you get involved?
Lee Schrager: When I joined Southern Wine & Spirits in 2000 as their director of media and special events, they had just started the "Florida Extravaganza" with Florida International University. Part of my new job responsibilities was to take this event and upgrade it—turn it into a means of raising funds for the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management. It was a one-day wine tasting that took place at FIU’s Biscayne Bay campus and drew about 600 people and raised $30,000. Having just been to the Aspen FOOD & WINE Classic the year before, I immediately saw great potential to move it to one of the world’s most beautiful beaches and turn it into a destination event with national and international appeal.
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Fodors.com: How did you create the buzz for the event to take it to that next level?
LS: In 2002 the event was officially renamed the South Beach Wine & Food Festival—and getting Alain Ducasse, Nobu Matsuhisa, Drew Nieporent, and others in that first year gave us industry cred. Food Network signed on as our Title Sponsor in 2007 and allowed us access to their incredible marketing machine to assist with promotions. And here we are, 12 years and $17 million in proceeds later, drawing about 60,000 guests each year and finishing construction on a brand new, state-of-the-art teaching restaurant for the School.
Fodors.com: So, how many events are there this year? And do they skew more food- or wine-heavy?
LS: We have about 50 events again this year at various locations throughout Miami, from the Biltmore in Coral Gables to Turnberry Isle Resort in Aventura and everything in between. Our signature Whole Foods Market Grand Tasting Village is really the epitome of both aspects, with enough balance to keep an oenophile and a foodie entertained all weekend.
Fodors.com: What’s been your favorite event in the past, and which one are you most looking forward to this year?
LS: I have great memories from all of our events, but I would have to say The Q—formerly known as the BubbleQ—because it’s the event that really kick-started the Festival’s recognition on a national scale years ago. The concept started as a pairing of champagne and barbeque and was instantly popular. [This year], I’m really excited about our new cocktail events, and introducing more mixology into our events.
Fodors.com: What’s the craziest story you have from a festival, as a longtime veteran?
LS: We are so focused on getting through the weekend sometimes that we don’t always hear some of the best stories until afterward. I do always enjoy hearing what the Amstel Light Burger Bash People’s Choice Award winner does each year after the event—it’s usually quite a celebration from what I’ve gathered.
Fodors.com: So what are your best insider tips for first-timers navigating the festival?
LS: Plan ahead and pace yourself. Our website is an all-encompassing source of information—take a look at who’s there and who you absolutely want to see, and take advantage of the menus and maps that are provided at each event. If you’re going to multiple events, don’t forget to drink lots of water in between and plan on allowing enough time for you to get from one venue to another. Don’t forget to dress for the venue as well—sometimes first-time Festival goers don’t realize that we hold some of our events actually on the beach, which means you’ll be walking in the sand. Ladies, that means 5-inch heels aren’t always the best shoe choice. And don’t forget your camera…you never know who might be standing next to you!
Photos courtesy Billy Farrell Agency