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Far larger crowds expected for Treasure Coast Wine Festival

The big tent for the Treasure Coast Wine Festival is getting broader. The increasingly popular Wine Festival, once the bastion of Vero’s wine-collecting elite, is now bringing down prices and opening up admissions to a larger audience, with more private homes and restaurants sponsoring dinners on Friday, January 23, and plans to accommodate far larger crowds under the white tent at Riverside Park for Sunday’s Grand Wine Tasting on January 24.

With a reduction in ticket price for the Sunday tasting from what was once $125 to only $50 for advance tickets ($60 at the door), the festival hopes to attract a crowd of up to a thousand, nearly twice the attendance of last year’s tasting.

“We thought, let’s really reach out to the community, drop the price and open it up to the masses,” says Kirsten Kennedy, festival director.

The Sunday event will include tastings of 200 wines.

Instead of two local restaurants, four will participate this year in the Friday night benefit dinner, with 75 patrons at each. In addition to The Tides and the Indigo Room from last year, Maison Martinique joins Oriente on the expanded list of options. Tickets for the restaurant wine dinners are $175 per person.

Costa d’Este resort, home of Oriente , has been designated the partner hotel for the event. The hotel will host the Thursday welcome reception for vintners, board members and VIPs. Costa d’Este’s management company, Benchmark, along with the hotel, have donated a trip to Chile to be auctioned at the black-tie dinner and auction Saturday night.

The hotel also is offering a special package deal, Wine and Roses, starting at $332 per night that includes accommodations, two tickets to Sunday’s Grand Tasting, and a bottle of Miguel Torres wine.

“They’ve been 100 percent involved,” says Meredith Vey, festival coordinator.

Along with the restaurant dinners, nine private homes will host dinners on Friday as well, up from last year’s seven. Each home will accommodate at least 24 guests. Tickets for the private home dinners are $750 per person.

Brian Burkart, newly named to the festival’s board of directors, is hosting one of the dinners in his expansive home in Riverwind, sharing hosting duties with real estate agent Sue Powell who owns a home in Surfside. Burkart was brought into the festival’s core group after attending the Friday night dinner of chairman Tom Naerebout in Grand Harbor last year.

“There was certainly plenty of wine to go around,” he says. “They were very generous.”

The next night, Burkart cast the winning bid for a Viking wine storage unit that now stores his collection of more than 150 bottles of wine in an air conditioned space beside his garage.

With Denver star chef Jennifer Jasinski planning Burkart’s menu, and Hirsch Vineyards and Winery of Sonoma, known for its brilliant pinot noir, pairing the wines, Burkart is left only to fill the seats of his table with friends, having already made a donation to the cause for the pleasure of staging the dinner.

“I already have a lot of wine décor in my house, so I shouldn’t have to do too much decorating,” says Burkart, a publisher of trade magazines who moved to Vero from Chappaqua, NY, a year ago this month.

“I’ve loved wine since I worked for a liquor store in college,” he says, adding that he’s “graduated from Mateus and Lancers.”

Another board member, Bob Gibb, will host a dinner in an extraordinary John’s Island spec home, staged by chef and author Giuliano Hazan, only son of the legendary Marcella Hazan of the School of Classic Italian Cooking. Tiberini, a sixgeneration winery in the town of Montepulciano in southern Tuscany, will provide the wines. “That’s going to be a spectacular party,” says Vey.

As for the Saturday night live and silent auction and black-tie dinner, up to 350 can attend, at a ticket price of $750. There, guests will circulate through a silent auction during a 6 pm cocktail hour under the tent in Riverside Park. Then, they’re seated for a four-course meal with wine while Napa Valley auctioneer Fritz Hatton opens the bidding on the larger items.

Among the items for auction: a Viking under-counter wine cellar stocked by this year’s festival vintners with 24 bottles.

There is a trip to California wine country, with VIP tastings and tours. And a five night stay in two of Chile’s premier wine valleys, including hotel, transportation and meals, donated by Benchmark Hospitality and Costa d’Este.

In the silent auction, guests can bid on the chance to cook alongside the chefs in the Sunday Iron Chef competitions, or act as an honorary judge.

Beachside landscape artist Jill Pease is guest artist of the event, and has donated a painting of a farmhouse and vineyard in Taos, New Mexico. “I was extremely thrilled to be included in such an important event in my hometown,” said Pease, whose work hangs at Tiger Lily studios in Vero’s downtown.

But the belle of the ball is clearly wine. And it is Dale Sorensen who gets the first dance. Sorensen, a Realtor and longtime wine collector, chooses the wines to be auctioned. He sets the order of how he wants the wine to be sold. And he cajoles donors to part with beloved bottles.

Introduced to wine by his friend, investor Ed McLaughlin, Sorensen says he began collecting in the early 80s. For the auction, his choices are narrowed by practical considerations.

“There are really two criteria: One, is what people will give you – obviously all the wines are donated out of people’s cellars or collections. The second is when it is valued by an independent evaluator, who knows the winemakers and follows the commercial and charity wine auctions around the country. He knows what to charge.”

Not that auctions are for bargain hunters. Most of the wines will sell for more than their valuations, Sorensen says.

“It’s a very good way to give to a good cause, as well as being able to secure some wines that you wouldn’t necessarily see every day. Many of these wines are truly rare.”

Among Sorensen’s favorites: a rare case of 2000 Cheval Blanc Bordeaux in its original wooden box, donated by Guy Snowden of Windsor. “It’s a very famous Bordeaux chateau that historically ranks in the top five wines of the vintage – and 2000 was a great year for Bordeaux,” says Sorensen.

There is also a vertical of three magnums of Chateau Yquem sauternes, the “wine of kings,” which Sorensen says is “probably the greatest dessert wine.”

There is also a case of mixed years of Leroy Burgundies, from ’71, ’76, and ’85. Known for their depth, Sorensen says they are “very powerful burgundies that last a long time.” That wine is donated by Bill Becker, a citrus investor from the Moorings.

There are also two bottles of “the best and rarest cult California Cabernet, a 2005 Screaming Eagle, and a 2004 Harlan, donated by William Zadel. Last year’s Screaming Eagle sold for over $1,000.

And on the receiving end of all the generosity and effort will be a longer list of beneficiaries this year, rounding out the effort at inclusiveness. In addition to long-standing causes — Visiting Nurse Association and Hospice and the Indian River Medical Center Foundation — are two cultural organizations, the Vero Beach Museum of Art and Riverside Theatre, as well as the Environmental Learning Center. Hibiscus Children’s Society and the Children’s Home Society also are reaping the expanded effort at provoking generosity from the hundreds of volunteers putting the festival together, as well as wine donors, auction patrons, ticket buyers and business sponsors.

In exchange, those charities have been working in reciprocity for months recruiting festival help from their own stable of volunteers. “Hibiscus Center has a group of a hundred women in its guild, and many are volunteering through the weekend,” says Vey.

Others are cross-promoting the event in newsletters and advertising. Riverside Theater, for example, placed an ad for the Wine Festival in its playbill, Vey said.

In addition, more national sponsors are kicking in. In addition to Wine Spectator and Cigar Aficionado magazines, sponsors in this and prior years, Cabot Creamery, the cheese maker, is contributing cheese to the grand tasting; Voss Water will be pitching its sleek-looking bottled water; and a Smart Car donated by a Palm Beach dealer will be given away to one of 500 festival-goers who purchase chances to win.

Media has been purchased throughout Florida to promote the event.

Founded in 2000 by Sorensen along with Dace Brown Stubbs of the legendary Brown-Forman wine and spirts family, and VNA’s Ann Marie McCrystal, the festival was originally run by internal staff of what was then the Indian River Memorial Hospital Foundation and VNA/Hospice.

The first auction was attended by 320 people; it was held in the Village Shops on A1A, and featured 50 lots of wines, plus travel packages. The next two festivals were held at Windsor.

In the festival’s early years, the auction was the main event of a weekend of food and wine related events. In 2004, the Friday night restaurant dinners and the Sunday Grand Tasting were inaugurated, with private homes added as venues for the Friday dinners the following year.

That year and the next, 2005, the main auction was held at Quail Valley. In 2006, the event was moved to St. Edward’s School; with the tasting held on Saturday, the event took on a more informal cast. The Grand Tasting began to be seen as more of an outreach to the community, and was organized with both experts and wine novices in mind, a movement that extended to this year’s lowered cost and larger tent.

“This is a cultural event for the community, like the Museum of Art and Riverside’s festivals,” says Kennedy. “There’s something for everyone, including the lay person who wants to learn about wine as well. You can talk to a professional and ask questions and refine your palates and see what you really like, without being intimidated.”

“It’s another thing that makes this community so unique.”

All told, those early years yielded $1.7 million for local charities.

In 2006, the festival’s board made the decision to become its own 501 c3. The hoards of volunteers took a year off from the exhausting and time-consuming staging of the event while the board focused on applying for non-profit status. The festival came back in 2008 as its own organization, says Vey.

“Now they are completely separate from the hospital and the VNA, though of course those are still beneficiaries,” says Vey. “The catalyst was to become more sophisticated in giving by eventually incorporating a grant process for beneficiaries.

“Our mission is to better the lives of children and families focusing on health and social services,” says Vey. “The first phase is to connect with more organizations that match our mission, then transition into the grant process. These are baby steps. A couple of board members spearheaded the whole movement.”

This week, crates of wine for Friday and Saturday’s dinners continued to arrive at the festival’s office in the Bridgewater building on Indian River Boulevard, while the rare wines to be auctioned were placed under lock and key in climate controlled storage in the specially built facility of contractor Toby Hill.

As the weekend of the 23rd draws nearer, vintners and distributors will start shipping the wines they will offer as samples at Sunday’s huge Grand Tasting.

“We’ve been working on this since last spring,” says Vey. “The bulk of everything happens in the final three months. By the end of it we’ll all be buried in boxes.”

Treasure Coast Wine Festival tickets are on sale at the Bottle Shop, 4877 Hwy. A1A; Great Spirits Liquor and Fine Wine at Oslo Road and US 1; and Carroll Meat and Seafood Market at 1355 US 1, behind Crispers.