Food and wine fanatics dodge raindrops, find host in Feld Entertainment

We’re living in a digital world.

But who you know still matters.

The Sarasota-Manatee Originals proved that Sunday.

The Originals are a group of 60 local and independently owned local restaurants, spanning from the tip of Anna Maria Island to South Venice, whose owners have unified to promote their restaurants’ unique culinary talents. One of their biggest events is a four-day annual food and wine festival that draws people from all over the world to the grounds of the Ringling Museum in Sarasota.

The Originals, however, had a problem.

Late this past week, it became apparent that Sunday’s sold-out “grand tasting” event, for many the culmination of the Originals’ four-day 11th annual Forks & Corks Food & Wine Festival, could leave 1,500 ticket holders battered with cold rain at the Ringling.

In its decade of existence, the event had never been moved inside or off Ringling property, said Sarah Firstenberger, executive director of the Sarasota-Manatee Originals.

“There was no way we would cancel, unthinkable,” said Michael’s On East owner Michael Klauber, a founding board member of the Sarasota-Manatee Originals and co-chairman of the 2018 Forks & Corks. “We had wine makers and patrons coming from all over the world.”

Within 48 hours, the Originals needed to find space for 1,500 guests, dozens of wine makers and 60 restaurants including Manatee County’s Birdrock Taco Shack, Ortygia Restaurant, Michael John’s, Pier 22, Seafood Shack Marina Bar & Grill, The Waterfront Restaurant and many others.

Who has that much space and could loan it on short notice?

Someone made a call.

Feld Entertainment to the rescue

As it turned out, the emergency call went out to Feld Entertainment Studios in Palmetto, the same 580,000-square-foot venue where Feld develops and rehearses Monster Jam, Marvel Universe LIVE! and Disney on Ice.

The Feld folks said yes.

“One of our Originals’ board members has a good relationship (with the Felds),” said Greg Campbell of Pier 22, which is, itself, one of the Originals.

Being in downtown Bradenton and one of the closest “Originals” to Feld Entertainment in Palmetto, Pier 22 jumped into action, sending staff over to Feld on Friday and Saturday to set up tables and table cloths, reorganize, hang signs and do whatever alchemy it took to turn Monster Jam into Monster Food and Wine.

“It was challenging but all the different board restaurants got heavily involved and we made it happen,” Campbell added.

The wine flowed, the food was consumed, and Feld provided lots of space for valets to park cars. Feld guards, usually on high alert, waved everyone in with a smile, but, in their uniforms, definitely gave the event more of an exclusive feel.

“The venue is phenomenal,” said Campbell as he was surrounded by people sampling Pier 22’s grilled skirt steak with chimichurri and Tuscan vegetables.” “I think we were all happy to be dry.”

Fork & Cork fan favorites.

By noon, as the venue was packed with ticket holders, Chef Gaetano “Guy” Cannata of Ortygia in Village of the Arts started playing his harmonica. He was evidently happy. He was receiving positive feedback on his sweet and savory baby bell peppers stuffed with golden raisins, pine nuts, currants and imported Italian cheeses.

“Forks and Corks is the biggest culinary event in the Sarasota-Bradenton area,” Cannata said. “It’s awesome. All the best restaurants are featuring their finest dishes.”

Food and wine fans Mark and Olivia Lorenz had flown from Colorado Springs, Colorado, to attend the event.

“Frontier Airlines had $45 one way,” Mark Lorenz said with a grin as he munched from a small plate.

Jeffrey Mehler, a retired Sarasota firefighter who is not a wine drinker, attended with his wife, Sonia Velasco, who loves food and wine festivals.

“I had Michael’s on East’s pork sandwich, which was very good, and Euphemia Haye’s shrimp gumbo,” Mehler said. “I have to pace myself because here you eat all day.”

One of the surprises of the grand tasting was the buzz around La Favorita, a wine company from Hungary.

La Favorita company reps were pouring lots of their new wine, Aquatis.

“It’s delightful and says, ‘Have me with oysters,’” Klauber said.

Customers could be seen carrying boxes of wine to their cars with their name “Bell” on the boxes.

Also getting attention was wine maker Anthony Bell and his 2015 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

“It has a lot of layers of structure,” Bell said of his Cabernet.

Over at the Euphemia Haye booth, the shrimp gumbo made by proprietor Ray Arpke and Chef Mark Keckstein was flowing like wine.

“I like making it and I know how to make it well,” Arpke said with a grin.

Richard Dymond: 941-745-7072, @RichardDymond