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Weekend Planner

Sarasota's sunny sophistication

Annual Winefest lures visitors amid beaches, shops, golf

Email|Print| Text size + By Pippin Ross
Globe Correspondent / March 31, 2004

SARASOTA, Fla. -- My first trip to Sarasota was inspired by an April school vacation five years ago. It was a last-minute decision, prompted by an attractive airfare we found from Boston to Tampa, where we rented a car. Knowing almost nothing about Sarasota did not diminish the goal of achieving warmth, playing golf, and seeing the Gulf Coast.

Turns out Sarasota is a lot of fun, and we have returned almost every year since. The city itself has much to offer, as does its annual Florida Winefest & Auction that we stumbled upon on that first trip, and now wouldn't miss for the world.

This is how it happened: Of all the places in Sarasota at which you can stay and play, we chose The Resort at Longboat Key Club. A sprawling, 410-acre condominium-and-hotel resort located on the extensive strip of beach for which it is named, it had the things we like and want: beach, massive swimming pool, golf course, and tennis courts.

What it also has, about a mile away, is St. Armand's Circle, a charming and sophisticated village in Sarasota with restaurants, shops, galleries, and high-end nightclubs, that is dense with the well-dressed, well-to-do residents who have made this city undeniably upscale.

Despite our dedication to body surfing in the turquoise ocean and goofing off in the pool, we couldn't help but notice that something big was about to take place at our resort. Between the main hotel and golf course was a massive tent. We peeked inside to see banquet tables and cases of wine being unloaded and arranged. Although there were obvious catering types at work, there were also dozens of people who looked like representatives from some other occupation unclear to me. I approached one with the naive question: "What are you?"

"I'm a vintner," he said. "That's what most of us are. Aren't you joining us?"

Joining, it turned out, meant engaging in four days of food and wine tasting and attending a black-tie dinner dance and charity auction. Fetzer, Iron Horse, Stags' Leap, and Wente were a few of the 78 wineries attending. To complement the wine-drinking, 50 restaurants from Vermont to Key West were to spread out luscious food, from sushi to chocolate mousse. We decided we would be fools to miss out, and signed up. The various admission fees go to all manner of Southern charities and are half tax-deductible. The only drawback was that because of the wine, no one under 21 was invited. Our 12-year-old son had made his own new friends, though, and didn't seem to mind that his parents were going to spend time in the gorgeous, giant tent.

The next morning, we went back to the tent for the Suncoast Showcase Brunch Tasting. The food was creative and delicate: dusted, grilled mahi-mahi; crab and shrimp with a basil, lemon, and olive oil sauce; an avocado and mango stack; tiny baguettes topped with chevre, fennel, and sun-dried tomatoes. We ate -- a lot -- and then turned for recovery back to the ocean's soft warmth and abundant dolphins. That night we donned our nicest clothes and arrived for the black-tie gala.

I've never witnessed so many good-looking people gathered in a tent. It was, again, the well-to-do Sarasota crowd hyped for a big night of charity, champagne, and chardonnay consumption. The multi-course dinner was compelling. The extra-best part? Shaking it off on a dance floor to a funk band of Sarasota musicians.

Although the following day was yet another brunch and auction, we reconnected, instead, with our son on the golf course, followed by an exploration of St. Armand's Circle.

That was then. This is now. Although we continue to stay at Longboat Key Club, the annual Florida Winefest & Auction has relocated to the nearby, brand-new Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, a snazzy resort for the snazzy event. We'll attend because it's so seductive -- like the rest of Sarasota.

This year's Florida Winefest & Auction will take place April 16-18. To sign up for any of the Winefest events, call 800-216-6199 or visit www.floridawinefest.com. Pippin Ross is a freelance writer who lives in Western Massachusetts.

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