SoWal Wine Fest: It’s electrifying!

By Michelle Farnham
April 30, 2024

GRAND BOULEVARD – In the shadows of cherry blossom décor, the streets of Grand Boulevard were once again filled with eager taste-testers – and the vendors willing to fill their glasses and bellies – for the 2024 South Walton Beaches Wine and Food Festival.

With a history stretching more than a decade, not even a malfunctioning transformer box that led to the temporary evacuation of the retail and culinary tents Sunday could put a damper on this food and wine extravaganza.

Beer here!

Friday night’s Craft Beer & Spirits Jam put the spotlight on something other than wine, with all the tequila, bourbon, rum and whiskey you could hold, plus a septet of local craft breweries pouring their finest in the beer tent.

St. Michael's Brewery
Michael Bares of St. Michael’s Brewery pours his Dead On Amber Ale.

Mike and Paula Bares, owners of St. Michael’s Brewing Company in Navarre, named their brewery after the patron saint of military and law enforcement – a theme very evident in their lineup.

“The Dead On American amber is named after a military aircraft based out of Hurlburt Airfield, The Coastie blonde ale is of course the Coast Guard, and The K9 IPA for our K9 police,” Mike said during his second year at the festival. “Everything is tied back to first responder/military/law enforcement. We’re in distribution here, so we have a presence in a lot of the taprooms in the area.”

Bardstown Bourbon caught a lot of attention with their fancy trailer setup, and their two high-end bottles: the Discovery Series #11 and the Foursquare Collab, which retail for $164.99 and $181.99, respectively.

Bardstown Bourbon
Jarrett Kremer offers a sampling of Bardstown Bourbon.

“This is 118 proof, so it’s knock your socks off hot,” admitted Bardstown rep Jarrett Kremer, pointing to the Series #11. “It’s also very highly acclaimed and very hard to find. I only have 56 cases of this in the whole state of Florida, and three of them are here in the retail tent.”

Filling the Nosh Pavilions, Freddie’s Southern Eats was back with blackened shrimp tacos with mango habañero sauce, Cabana Café served filet mignon kebabs with mashed potatoes, and The Craft Bar got smokey with chicken wings and shrimp dip – just to name a few. DJ Pinke set the scene with fun beats from the main stage.

A taste so grand

While there were still plenty of spirits to be had during Saturday and Sunday’s grand tasting events, wine definitely took center stage with more than 600 bottles to choose from.

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Willamette Valley AVA, area Oregon wineries were featured in their own tent.

Mary Joli, regional sales manager of Willamette Valley Vineyards, had several bottles on hand, including the Bernau Block Pinot Noir, the Whole Cluster Rose, and the Dijon Clone Chardonnay.

Culinary Village
The Culinary Village tent offered bites from The Wine Bar/Craft Bar, and sparkling wines.

“We’re really creating a buzz with our White Pinot Noir,” Joli said, while admitting the SoWal wine fest is her most favorite of the year. “Our company has been around 41 years and owner Jim Bernau named the winery after the valley before it even became an AVA. We retained the name under the condition that all of our fruit is sourced from within the Willamette Valley. We have six to seven vineyards now within the valley, and being all estate-grown is really important to us.”

Four tasting seminars gave beverage representatives the chance to dig a little deeper into their products. Saturday Igor Marini gave a tour of Banfi Italian wines, along with Myra Barginear’s discussion of the rebirth of Paul Sutton Bourbon.

Celine Lannoye
Celine Lannoye discussed the sparkling wines of Celene Bordeaux France.

Céline Lannoye’s look into the sparkling wines of Celene Bordeaux included a discussion of all the manufacturing differences between prosecco (Italy), champagne (Champagne region), and Crémant, dubbed “Champagne’s elegant cousin,” which must come from one of seven regions of France.

She offered samples of her Cuvee Royal Blanc and Rosé Bruts, Amethyste Blanc de Noirs, and Quartz Blanc de Blancs.

“In the old days, bottles had to be turned daily to get the yeast to the neck of the bottle. Today that has been mechanized. There is nobody hand-turning all the bottles every day,” Lannoye told the capacity crowd with a laugh.

Next into the seminar tent was a quartet of Willamette Valley AVA representatives, discussing everything from the merits of volcanic vs sedimentary soil, to “sexy clone talk.”

Festival founder and Chan’s Wine World owner Chan Cox – looking suspiciously like an audience plant in his “May is Oregon Wine Month” Willamette Valley t-shirt – asked the panel why the Willamette Valley is the fastest growing wine area in the United States.

Grand Boulevard
The festival returned to the streets of Grand Boulevard.

“I think this is a combination of two very specific things: what we’re doing and where you are as the American consuming population,” admitted Eugenia Keegan of Jackson Family Wines. “Your tastes have changed over the last 40 to 50 years, as wine has become a beverage of choice in America. As your tastes have changed, they happened to have come at the point of the wines that we make, which are extremely elegant, they’re reserved, high in acid, wonderful and juicy with fruit, and lower in alcohol.”

Grand Tasting guests were also treated to four musical performances from the Nashville Songwriters’ Showcase, with local favorite The Casey Kearney Band closing out the event both days.

The South Walton Beaches Wine and Food Festival is held each year to benefit the Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation. Next year’s event is slated for April 24 to 27, 2025. For more information, visit

Photos by Michelle Farnham