A local food and wine festival can make for a really unique weekend getaway. If you’ve been to the hosting location before, you get a whole new perspective on a destination by tasting food and drink that you haven’t already discovered there. And if it’s your first time in the destination, you get the pleasure of a crash course in its food and wine scene.
Last month, I packed up the little red mini cooper (you might remember her appearance here) and drove her from Daytona Beach to Key West for a delicious weekend treat at the Key West Food & Wine Festival. (My fiancé met me in Miami and helped me drive halfway!) Here’s a look at highlights from this year’s festival and some great wines from Florida and around the world:
Next year: The next Key West Food & Wine Festival will be January 23-27, 2019.
Event #1: Sunset Grand Tasting
The festival’s Sunset Grand Tasting was located at The Reach, a Waldorf Astoria resort on the south end of Key West, just two blocks east of the famous southernmost point of the continental U.S. My fiancé Spencer and I found ourselves nibbling on tasty bites from the hotel’s restaurant, Spencer’s by the Sea, while overlooking the island’s only natural sand beach and sampling fine wines from all over the world.
Not only were the chefs out on the patio cooking in front of us the whole night, but they were also personable and showed incredible talent. One of the chefs cooking outdoors, Liz, had been with the property for many years. The energy she brought to searing her ahi tuna atop a block of pink salt was contagious! Meeting an outgoing chef made the food taste even better (not that it needed any help!).
In addition to the tasty tuna, the restaurant served up a fantastic short rib with polenta and Floridian beef. In fact, the best food I tasted in Key West was at Spencer’s by the Sea. There were so many unique wines to sample during the evening, as well. We hopped from table to table, chatting with other event attendees and enjoying the food, drink and view.
Wines included a wine from southern Spain—a 2015 Alaya Tierra from Bodegas Atalaya. This wine is made from a single (pretty rare) varietal, Garnacha Tintorera (also known as Alicante Bouschet), which makes for a very unique tasting red. The Sonoma County favorite and staple Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon was another highlight, as was the very aromatic Famille Perrin Lagille Gigondas from Rhone, France.
Event #2: Stock Island Shrimp Boil
There are very few delicacies quite as delicious as the mighty shrimp. And in Key West, the adjacent waters are home to some of the tastiest examples. For those lucky enough to partake in the Key West Food & Wine Festival, The Perry Hotel on Stock Island offered a traditional shrimp boil at its restaurant the Salty Oyster Dockside Bar & Grill. It not only featured fresh Key West pink shrimp and royal red shrimp, but also plenty of other staples including black bean fritters, corn on the cob and (of course) Key lime pie. Key West pink shrimp has to be my all-time favorite type of shrimp, with its vibrant color and sweet and mild flavor.
Just steps from where boats offload their salty catches, the 100-room boutique Perry Hotel hosted guests wanting to sample the freshest seafood Key West has to offer. And since the shrimp was likely swimming that morning and brought to the dock fresh, there could have been no better way to do it. Event planners went so far as to pair the boil with meticulously selected wines. What could be better than fresh seafood and a perfectly paired wine?
Event #3: Cirque du Champagne
As the sun set on Friday evening, the waterside pool at The Perry Hotel transformed into a sassy circus with jugglers, aerialists and stilt-walkers. As the name indicates, champagne poured among with visually stunning sights and culinary treats that delighted us all. Champagnes from popular wineries like Moet & Chandon and the Domaine Bousquet Rose were good choices.
Among the event’s surprises for us was finding some great local whiskey and mac and cheese. The Key West Smuggler Company shared the whiskey samples, and we chatted with the friendly owner. The mac and cheese was provided by the Perry Hotel with endless toppings for us to pile on. Quite a memorable display! And ultimately, the endless flow of good champagne and the beautiful venue made the evening a special one.
Event #4: Old Town “Uncorked” Unhinged
A local wine sampling tour of Duval Street’s local businesses began at the Curry Mansion Inn, located just a block off Duval Street on the northern end of the island. Things kicked off with a glass of local fruit wine from the Key West Winery. Yes, Florida has a winery! The winery proudly serves more than 43 different varieties of tropical fruit wine from the Sunshine State itself. You can sample Key Lime, White Sangria, Mango Mamma wine and a ton more flavors with fun names!
After our first stop, we worked our way south to the other local businesses on our map that offered wine samplings. There was something awesome about sipping a rosé, shopping at a cute boutique and chatting with business owners. Spots we loved include:
- Anahara Spa, which handed out glasses of Slow Press Cabernet. (The spa was deemed a “hotspot” for the festival, meaning they offered great deals on massages for wine event guests. I wish I could have stayed long enough for a massage!).
- Le Macaron had one amazing raspberry macaron and served Bernier Chardonnay to wine walk guests.
- The Key West Business Guild served a fantastic Kaiken Ultra Malbec 2015 (from Mendoza, Argentina).
- The Peace Store served a Cabernet by 1895 but most notable were their unique gifts.
Final event: Sunset on the Green “Vintners Dinner”
The Sunset on the Green “Vintners Dinner” was an excellent way to close out a lovely, wine-sipping weekend in Key West. 24 North, a boutique hotel on Key West’s northeast side, hosted expertly curated food, wine, and—most of all—great people and conversation.
We met on Saturday evening on the finely manicured Sunset Green event lawn, and with lights strung above our heads we shook hands with, to name a few, representatives from wineries like Domaine Bousquet, Banfi Vintners, Hahn Winery and Van Duzer; knowledgable event organizers; a representative from olive oil producer Sogno Toscano (black truffle oil was a favorite!); and Charleston University professor Mike Cohen.
At the table, we were greeted with four dishes by Chef David Fuhrman, the owner and chef of Great Events Catering. The entire affair was plated beautifully and visually enticing. Each course was crafted to highlight the chef’s skill and the fresh fare of the area. Among the highlights was a Pulpo “pastrami” featuring duck fat fingerling potatoes with onion jam and a surprising candied lemon.
The wine at the dinner showcased some of the event’s finest varieties and vintages. Wines from Oregon, California, Italy, Argentina, and more flowed. Highlights included a 2013 Domaine Bousquet Reserve Chardonnay 2013 and a 2015 Smith & Perry Pinot Noir.
Dining under the stars with swaying palms, we met and connected with guests that had traveled from distances as far as Hawaii to experience everything the weekend had to offer. I enjoyed a lively chat and laughs with a group of gentlemen and their wives, who shared lessons learned about making wine in their garages!
Oh, the people you meet. This year the event drew better crowds than it did in 2017, with 3,500 event attendees in 2018. A big thank you is due to the Key West Food & Wine Festival for not only making it a memorable food and wine experience but also for bringing together a diverse group of people from all over the country. That’s what travel is truly about.
This year’s festival shined some light on what to eat and drink in Key West. Enjoy it all—and don’t forget to put next year’s Key West Food & Wine Festival on your travel list!
For more information on the Key West Food & Wine Festival (January 23-27, 2019), visit kwfoodwinefest.com.