Uncorking ‘Clearwater Beach Uncorked’

The paella was going to be a hard act to follow. Luckily we hit SHOR’s culinary presentation before the big crowds arrived.

SHOR, the flagship restaurant for Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach, somehow managed a fresh-tasting true taste of Florida for thousands of guests on the beach that Saturday afternoon in early February – part of Clearwater Beach’s third annual Uncorked festival.sign

Under tents set up right on Clearwater Beach’s patent brand of sugar sand, the food and wine adventure is unlike any other of Florida’s barrel-loads of winter wine festivals.

For starters, organizers have decanted out any snob, elitist dregs. Here, beach bash meets foodie feast. It runs for two weekend days and draws a diverse, grape-happy crowd that cheerfully – for the most part anyway – endures long lines and crowds so clotted it got tricky raising glass to lips.

Barefoot and Bountiful

A shoe check-in at the tents’ entrance gave permission to wiggle toes in sand, but I feared for the safety of said toes. At Saturday’s peak, crowds were five to eight deep at the more popular food and drink stations. That’s when we were gladdest to have passes to the VIP Grand Tasting, where vendors were pouring top-shelf drinks, and we could score a splendid plate of escargot with smoky mac ‘n’ cheese from the Lobster Pot in Redington Shores.

The VIP lounge was available only during Saturday’s 1-to-5 p.m. event. It’s worth paying the extra 40 bucks (regular admission is $85 for each day) .

View from the Hyatt Regency

View from the Hyatt Regency

For the most top-shelf Uncorked experience, book a room at the Hyatt, central to the festival: Avoid parking hassles and easily escape the crowds in Skimmers bar or your sumptuous room.  After a couple of hours we were ready to do just the latter, since scoring tastes of food and booze was becoming near impossible.

Sip. Savor. Repeat.

We started earlier the next day so we could pick up what we had missed the day previous – wowsome pancetta-wrapped shrimp atop lime cream corn from Caretta’s on the Gulf and smoked fish dip and house ale from Crabby Bill’s, both on Clearwater Beach; grilled scallops with cheesy grits from Oystercatchers in Tampa; and crab cakes from Salt Rock Grill in Indian Shores – to name a

The Caretta team

The Caretta team

few.

Wines came from all over the country. My favorite new tries were White Lightning Chardonnay, Dreaming Tree Everyday White, and a Florida-made Hurricane Category 5 sangria.

Available both days, a separate lounge area provided samples of liquors ranging from Cape Coral’s artisanal Wicked Dolphin rum to Tito vodka in lemonade with fresh basil and Jim Beam Honey.

So the moral of the story: If you’re expecting hoity sit-down dinners and break-the-bank tastings at your Florida wine

Wine flows freely

Wine flows freely

festival, head to Naples, Sarasota, or South Beach. Otherwise, mark Uncorked on your calendar for next February.

In let-loose Clearwater Beach (warning: no drinks outside of the festival areas), it’s all in the spirit of fun and food that comes uncorked on several levels.

For more information about beach-going on Clearwater Beach, read my USA TODAY coverage.

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