In its 23 years of existence, the Florida Winefest and Auction has carved its niche as the place to be to discover new wines from around the world, dine on gourmet dishes and help benefit children’s charities in Sarasota.
This year, the event returns with all the traditional events people have come to expect, but with more wineries, restaurants and venues, in both the East County and Sarasota, and the addition of 22 hot-air balloons — making it the first event of its kind in the state.
With 17 events, including wine dinners, a charity auction and hot-air balloon rides, a first glance at the itinerary can be overwhelming. Continue reading for a few highlights from this year's festival.
IF YOU GO
When: Various events will be held April 4 to April 7. The balloon festival grounds at Premier Sports Campus will be open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, April 6 and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, April 7; balloon rides are available, weather permitting, 7:15 a.m. Saturday and Sunday
Where: Premier Sports Campus, 5895 Post Blvd., Lakewood Ranch; and Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
Cost: Costs for events vary. General admission tickets to balloon festival grounds are $10 advance admission; $15 day of event; children under 10 are free. Balloon rides are $225 per person, which includes a general admission ticket, as well as champagne and breakfast upon your return to the festival grounds. Info: The festival features 17 events. For a complete list, go to floridawinefest.org.
FEATURED WINEFEST EVENTS
The East County Observer enlisted the help of the festival organizer, Sandy Loevner, to spotlight a few of this year’s most exciting events.
+ Tried and true
Bayfront Showcase Lunch Tasting — takes place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, April 5, at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail. Cost is $65.
After a three-year hiatus, this fan-favorite event returns to the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall grounds. Guests will enjoy gourmet cuisine and music underneath tents on the bay. Several area gourmet food trucks will provide specialty dishes for the event.
“This used to be our most popular event,” says Loevner. “It became a little expensive to continue when the economy was in worse shape, but we felt ready to revive it this year. It used to draw 500 to 600 people, so we’re excited to bring it back.”
+ Connoisseur’s choice
Grand Tasting, Brunch and Charity Auction — takes place from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; auction begins at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 6, at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail. Cost is $125.
Wine enthusiasts will have no shortage of options at this grand tasting event, which will feature wines from more than 40 wineries. Guests will also have the chance to meet vintners and vendors to sample some of the most rare and vintage wines, including some that aren’t yet available for sale in Florida. Following the tasting, guests will enjoy brunch provided by 20 participating restaurants before the wine auction begins at 2 p.m.
+ Inside scoop
Smokin’ Hot Cigar Dinner and Balloon Glow — takes place at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, April 6, at the festival grounds at Premier Sports Campus, S.R. 70, Lakewood Ranch. Cost is $150.
Loevner’s personal choice is new to the festival and will feature 10 of the festival’s 22 hot air balloons, which will be tethered and illuminated as pilots maneuver them to dance and sway along to music. While watching the show, guests will enjoy dinner and four cigars from Maduro Cigars.
“Nothing like this has ever been done in Sarasota,” Loevner says. “It’s going to be a really fun event, and it’s something new. It’s outdoors and it’s a less formal event, so it’s all the same elements of fun without having to be dressed up.”
+ For the family
Sip & Soar — takes place from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, April 7, at the festival grounds at Premier Sports Campus, S.R. 70, Lakewood Ranch. Cost is $10, or $20 with wine-tasting upgrade.
Attending a wine event doesn’t have to mean calling a babysitter. This outdoor family-friendly event has something for everyone, including live music and a designated kids zone, which will offer a variety of activities such as face painting and a non-functional inflated hot air balloon envelope in which children can play. For an additional $10, parents can upgrade to a VIP ticket, which includes a tasting of six wines.