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Before I arrived at the 2007

South Beach Wine and Food Festival, I had envisioned drinking wine with celebrities, trying elegant dishes and watching the sun rise on the beach.

My expectations were more than fulfilled when I found myself chatting it up with Al Roker, sipping Dom Perignon and tasting tuna tartar (which I had never tried before) right on balmy South Beach, instead of shivering while eating a hot dog walking down an icy New York City sidewalk.

I was already familiar with South Beach, but this gala, four-day culinary affair -- now in its sixth year -- was Miami like I'd never seen it before.

It was almost impossible not to be overwhelmed with the sheer number of festival events, such as the Grand Tasting Village, which included wine and spirit tastings and cooking demonstrations; the Best of the Best, a high-end culinary showcase; the Burger Bash, a juicy roundup of an American classic; the Moet & Chandon BubbleQ, an unusual pairing of champagne and barbeque; and the Tribute Brunch, which honored many food icons, including wine masters Peter and Robert Mondavi and kitchen queen Martha Stewart.

The festival attracts big-name sponsors including the

E.W. Scripps

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-owned Food Network,

Southern Wine and Spirits of Florida,

American Express

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(KO) - Get Coca-Cola Company Report


"It wasn't always this way. At the beginning we were begging for sponsors. A lot of people didn't pay attention and only looked at South Beach as a party town; now the major players intend on coming every year," says Lee Brian Schrager, an industry expert who revamped the festival in 2002.

High-Time Wining and Dining

The events certainly have gone upscale -- one of the most inexpensive ones was a cocktail clinic ($35 a ticket), which featured expert mixologist Francesco Lafranconi, who held a hands-on session teaching guests how to concoct unique drinks.

Others, such as the

Le Bernadin tribute dinner, which honored the restaurant's executive chef Eric Ripert and owner Maguy Le Coze, ran $500 a ticket.

The number of wine tastings and seminars on cooking techniques and grape varietals was impressive, even attracting such big names as Motley Crue lead singer Vince Neal, who recently started his own line of artesian tequila called Tres Rios.

The Grand Tasting Village featured two tents full of chefs prepping delectable treats as well as hundreds of representatives from wine and sprits companies. Seminars were hosted by celebrities including Martha Stewart,

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Rocco DiSpirito and

Food Network

personality Robin Miller. "This festival is a really inviting atmosphere to get people to try wines from all around the world," says a representative of the Robert Mondavi wine company.

To view Danielle Sonnenberg's video take of today's Good Life segment, click here.

For those who love barbeque and sparkling wine (and who doesn't?), the Moet & Chandon BubbleQ event was a highlight.

TV celebrity Al Roker hosted, with many talented chefs manning the grills: John Stage of

Dinosaur Bar B Que, Laurent Tourondel of

BLT Steak and Adam Perry Lang from

Daisy May's BBQ. This sticky celebration cost $300 for admission, which may seem expensive for a cookout -- but not if you factor in the endless amounts of Moet & Chandon champagne.

Moet & Chandon conceived the event in order to reposition champagne for more than just special occasions. "You can create special moments for every day," says company spokeswoman Dalicia Ramey.

For those leaning more to the ultra high-end, "The Sopranos" star Lorraine Bracco and chef

David Bouley hosted an exclusive private dinner for American Express platinum card holders at Bouley's new Miami restaurant

Evolution, featuring stellar wine and food pairings.

Creme de la Creme

Would you spend a few hundred dollars to try the best offerings from more than two dozen restaurants?

If you're on the fence, consider that the hosts throw in luxe libations from Au Bon Climat (California), Charles Krug Winery (one of the oldest in Napa Valley) and Chateau de la Gardine (France), as well as top-tier champagnes from Dom Perignon, Laurent Perrier, Louis Roederer, Nicolas Feuillatte and Pommery.

At this year's Best of the Best event, celebrity chefs including Govind Armstrong from

Table 8 whipped up myriad innovative dishes, to the delight of attendees.

Armstong served kurobuta pork with celery root mousseline and celery leaf pesto; Michelle Bernstein from Michy's in Miami prepared jamon serrano and cheese croquettes with fig jam; and David Chang from

Momofuku in New York City presented seaweed-cured Maine diver scallops with lemon puree, pickled cherries and microgreens.

My favorite dish was the sweet spice-braised short ribs with apple-celery slaw prepared by Floyd Cardoz, executive chef of Manhattan restaurant

Tabla. I admit I went back for seconds, but that was the beauty of this event -- you could have as much as you wanted.

Throw in some of some costumed showgirls who were promoting the Pure -- a glittering Las Vegas hot spot that is opening a branch at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach in 2008 -- and an auction sponsored by Delta in which guests placed bids on dozens of unique bottles of liquor, and the festive atmosphere was contagious.

On the Plate


The festival started bigger than anyone imagined. The reality is that I think it always exceeded everyone's expectations, even from the first year," says Jorge Gonzalez, city manager of Miami Beach.

Attendees numbered about 30,000 people for this year's celebration, up from several thousand in 2001. What's next for the festival is anyone's guess. "How it grows will be in stature, not necessarily in size," Gonzalez believes.

Did everything go as planned? Of course not, but as Schrager points out, "I think when it all goes as planned is when I have to stop."

After the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, I left full with the piquant tastes -- and experiences -- of cuisine and drinks from all over the world. It will be at least another year before I can eat as extravagantly as that for four full days, which may not be good news for my palette but is certainly good for my physique.

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