September Events In Downtown Tampa Toast Local Arts, Independent Business

Editor's Note: On Sept. 26 SAVOR Events PR Marketing announced the postponement of the Tampa Bay Food and Wine Experience until 2012. The Grande Tasting for media & trade professionals is now scheduled to be held at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on Feb. 17, 2012 from 1 to 4 p.m., followed by a Mini Treat tasting at Creative Loafing's Ybor City headquarters from 8 to 11 p.m. The general public event is rescheduled to take place Feb. 18, 2012 from 1 to 4 p.m., followed by cocktails and appetizers at Mise En Place from 6 to 9 p.m. For more details and further updates, check out the official website.

A duo of culinary events in Tampa during the last half of September promises to tantalize taste buds while enhancing downtown's emerging urban scene that increasingly attracts people before and after the traditional workday.

Where they differ is in the experience of each.

The 10th annual Tampa Theatre Winefest celebrates the elegance of one of Tampa's most beloved landmarks.

The inaugural Tampa Bay Food and Wine Experience is designed to establish a vibrant and duplicable community event along the Riverwalk at Curtis Hixon Park.

Tampa Theatre Winefest -- Sept. 23-25

The 10th annual and newly expanded three-day Tampa Theatre Winefest is an opportunity for the popular nonprofit to raise part of the funds required for operation of the 85-year-old theater.

The weekend celebration kicks off Friday evening with a sold-out wine pairing dinner at Mise en Place, 442 W. Kennedy Blvd. Chef Marty Blitz and Augustan Wines Import Founder Proal Perry will team up to dazzle guests with a special five-course dinner.

Saturday boasts a wine seminar on the third floor of the theater. The seminar is limited to 16 guests at $150 per person, followed by premium ($85) and grand tastings ($50) throughout the theater as "La Dolce Vita'' is projected on the 24-by-15-foot screen. For the first time the event will culminate with a light wine brunch inside the theater on Sunday for $40.

This year's event theme, "La Dolce Vino,'' celebrates Federico Fellini's Academy Award-winning "La Dolce Vita.'' The theme was chosen by Katy Alderman, an asset manager for Redstone Asset Management Services in Tampa, who served on three previous Winefest committees before chairing this year's event.

A decade of themes have paid homage to great films, ranging from "The Grapefather'' to "Midnight in the Vineyard of Good and Evil.'' 

Charles Britton, chairman of the theater foundation's board of directors, recalls when board members first contemplated new ways to raise funds for the theater and came up with the idea of a wine tasting called "Gone With The Wine," which seemed like a creative, yet natural fit.

"I'm an Atlanta native," he explains, "and for us Atlantans, 'Gone With The Wind' is near and dear to us."

Like the Food and Wine Experience, Alderman says the theater's Winefest has made a shift toward featuring Tampa Bay's independent restaurants in recent years. This year, guests can expect to sample food from Tampa Bay greats such as Bern's and La Segunda Central Bakery, and from established newcomers such as Pizzaiolo Bavaro.
Just as the details of the event have shifted through the years, so has its importance. Before the Winefest, and this year's inaugural Beerfest, the largest source of fundraising was individual contributions, according to Britton.

Sixty percent of the theater's annual operating budget is from earned income; the rest comes from the generosity of individual donors and sponsors, says Director of Development JL Wagner.

Wagner says the committee -- more than 30 members this year that includes first-time participant Jennifer Bingham of South Tampa's Cru Cellars -- has invested time, energy and sometimes financial assistance to ensure the success of the theater.

"Without [the committee] this event wouldn't have grown into what it is," she says.

Britton says the committee aims to raise 5 percent of the annual budget through this year's Winefest. That money will benefit the theater's artistic and educational programs that reach nearly 40,000 school kids. Although the theater appears to be in good shape, Britton says the board will embark on a capital campaign to fully restore it at some point.

Restoration is important, he says, because the Tampa Theatre's very uniqueness is the kind of asset that defines the heart and soul of a great city.

"It's something that's been passed on to us from people we never knew," he says, "and we have an opportunity to pass it on to people we'll never meet."

An internationally recognized landmark, the theater draws 140,000 visitors a year to downtown Tampa. Theater visitors help drive spending in retail, restaurants, businesses and parking.

"[Tampa Theatre] is a big part of the downtown economic development and recovery," Wagner says.

Tampa Bay Food And Wine Experience -- Sept. 28-Oct. 2

The Experience grew out of the now defunct Tampa Bay Food and Wine Festival, which rocked St. Pete Beach for the last four years with an enticing array of independent and chain restaurants, big-name spirit purveyors and a wide variety of wine to suit any taste. But budget cuts forced cancelation of the event at the end of 2010.

"I thought that was such a travesty," says Tonya Valdez, co-creator of the Experience. "I couldn't imagine that event not continuing to have an impact on the marketplace when it was so successful."

So, Valdez contacted some friends, and together they came up with the idea to create a new Experience.

"I think there's a need for something like this in Tampa specifically," Valdez says. "I've been talking with the [Tampa] Downtown Partnership and the opening [of the park] was to attract things just like this."

She and Stacy Paul Barabe, president and creative director of Orlando-based event planning firm Exhilarate, came together in January 2011 as managing partners of SAVOR Events PR and Marketing to establish the Food and Wine Experience. They enlisted Grand Events of Tampa to help bring the concept back to life.

The result is a four-day main event that begins Thursday, Sept. 29, with the "Perfect Pair" culinary dinner at Mise En Place. Diners will be treated to a four-course meal paired with southern Italian wines and a Prosecco entrance for $65.

Trade and media professionals will preview the Tampa Bay Food and Wine Experience at Curtis Hixon Park on Friday, Sept. 30, followed by the $75 "grande tasting" at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 1, for the general public; VIP tickets are available for $100.

The Experience will top off the weekend with a Sunday, Oct. 2, "Jazz & Wine Maker Brunch" at Wine Exchange in Hyde Park for $65.

A portion of the proceeds from the events will establish culinary and hospitality-based scholarships for kids interested in getting into the culinary industry, according to Valdez.

However, the Experience doesn't stop there. Starting in 2012, SAVOR plans to travel throughout Florida for a series of beer, wine and spirit-focused events designed to promote Tampa Bay's culinary community.

"We love our chain restaurants; they help keep the economy running," says Valdez, a USF fine arts graduate. "But there are so many beautiful chefs and small restaurants that aren't focused on."

She and Barabe jokingly refer to their business dynamic as "The Mouth and The Hands." Valdez is the voice of the event: She collects the sponsorship dollars, and deals with public relations and marketing. Meanwhile, Barabe handles the logistics, the placement, and look and feel of the event.

"We've built a name for ourselves for producing top-notch events over the past four years," Valdez says.

The team's goal this year is to attract 1,000 new consumers. That means pulling out all the stops to create an event that deviates from the norm. In the past, Valdez has been known to feature a living work of exotic art dubbed "The Painted Lady," acrobats hanging from the tents, DJs spinning pulsating, vibe-driven music -- all to encourage patrons to let down their guards and relax. This year will be no exception.

"We go to great lengths to not make it feel so generic," she says.

While events of this nature have traditionally featured brand-name chains and celebrity chefs, Valdez says there was a conscious decision in 2011 to focus on Tampa Bay's independent restaurants, such as Sono Cafe, Taps Beear & Wine and Gulfport's Island Flavors and Tings. The Experience will also give students from The Art Institute of Tampa's culinary team the opportunity to showcase their skills.

Growing Urban Appeal Of Downtown Tampa

Shaun Drinkard, director of placemaking for the Tampa Downtown Partnership, says having the Experience in a centralized location like Curtis Hixon will benefit local business owners.

"They've reached out to businesses in downtown and offered to integrate many of them into the event," he says. "So, people will get a chance to see what we have down here and will hopefully come back again."

Some 5,000 people now reside in downtown Tampa. As that number grows, more people will be looking for events to enhance their urban lifestyle.

These events help showcase downtown -- a neighborhood that will grow with the revitalization of Tampa's Riverwalk and the completion of the Encore! development district -- not only to residents, but to international travelers as well.

"I think we're grossly overlooked in culinary travel," Valdez says. "We want to give national travelers the chance to see there's more to Central Florida and more that we have to offer them."

Matt Spencer, a University of South Florida grad, is a native Floridian who enjoys sharing his love for Patty Griffin, browsing produce stands, spending hours in record shops and gawking at the ice cream selection in grocery stores. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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