ST. PETERSBURG - I'm tempted to report that thousands of wine fans crowded onto the outfield at Tropicana Field for the 15th annual Abilities Wine Tasting this past weekend.
Except that they didn't crowd. Oh, it was quite a turnout, around 4,000 people, a record for the bay area's biggest wine tasting, which benefits Abilities of Florida. A few lines stacked up for shrimp at Bonefish and other popular booths, but this year's organization seemed especially smooth and spacious, during both the limited VIP reception and the grand tasting.
After all, there were tables for 200 auction items, two dozen restaurants and probably 300 wines.
Now that's an unmanageable crowd of chardonnay and merlot.
How to sort through that many wines? I can't say I tasted my way through all of them (nor would I trust anyone who claimed to).
There were many minor labels easy to pass up, but I also found some great top-dollar California bottles such as the '99 Charles Krug and Tapestry, a rich red Bordeaux-style blend from Beaulieu Vineyards.
Yet the standouts for me were from winemakers exploring less fashionable and often less expensive grapes, particularly cabernet franc, and a new generation of red blends heavy with spicier grapes, most for less than $15 and ready to drink.
* Tired-of-chardonnay whites: Pine Ridge added viognier to make its 2003 chenin blanc more round and peachy. Valley of the Moon's 2002 pinot blanc is crisp, dry and still fat and full in the mouth. Morgadio 2002 is a great introduction to Spanish albarino: dry, fresh and almost as flowery as a Riesling.
For a sweet treat, the semillon dessert wine from Miranda in Australia is a honey of a bargain.
* If you must: Top chardonnay on the field was, no surprise, the steely French-styled offering from Long Vineyards poured during the VIP tasting. For a lot less money, look for Firefly from Australia. Stepping up the quality level in pinot grigio was Maso Canali, a fatter, rounder version from a good Trentino, Italy, estate now in Gallo's Ecco Domani family.
* Move over, merlot: California winemakers looking for another grape to tame cabernet sauvignon found Bordeaux's cabernet franc worked as well as merlot as a blending grape. The surprise is that it makes a fine red on its own, easy-drinking but full of flavor. Great examples at the tasting came from up and down the West Coast: Hahn in Monterey, Beaucanon in Napa and Columbia Winery in Washington.
The 2002 Gascon from Don Miguel offered velvet proof that Argentina knows what to do with malbec. Pacific Star turned in a fine petite sirah, made from the less common grape that is a favorite with fans of big reds.
* Blending fools: The French in Bordeaux and the Rhone have always blended their grapes and now wineries around the world are foraging with abandon and blending odd lots, especially of old-vine grapes with great polish.
The pioneer Marietta Cellars now has Lot 33 from old vines of zinfandel, carignane and cabernet from various vintages. Belvedere doesn't give a clue to the grapes or vintages in Jest Red, but it drinks very smoothly.
Newton's Claret and Beaucanon's Trifecta stick to the Bordeaux grapes but Guelbenzu Vierlas 2002 puts Spain's tempranillo together with syrah, merlot and cab, for a spicier mix.
* Beyond wine: Of all the seared tuna, beef loin and sushi rolls generously laid out, the true crowd pleasers were chocolate, miniature flourless cakes from Cafe Ponte in Clearwater and a cold bisque of pure dark chocolate syrup from Mystic Fish in Palm Harbor.
* Logistics: This year's layout on the ground left plenty of room to maneuver and the program guide gave tasters a thorough alphabetical list for marking favorites. The next big addition would be to number the booths to help people find their way around the field.
One subtraction I'd make: Lose the small bar offering samples of call-brand liquor. Call me a wine snob on this one, even if the vodka's Ketel One. Sure, there's alcohol in wine (9 to 14 percent), but even when there's a stadium full of it, I'd like to keep the illusion that we're there for the flavor, not the punch.
In more important math, organizer Frank De Lucia said Monday that the agency, which assists people with disabilities, was still adding up the funds raised by the benefit.
Central Avenue watch
The action and inaction continues in downtown St. Petersburg:
* Oft-turned corner of Third Street and Central was set to become a Lucky Dill delicatessen this week. It would be the smallest location run by the sandwich-making Mitow family, who have two restaurants in Palm Harbor; they opened a third in Tampa two years ago but have since sold that location.
* More Greek, more Italian, plus breakfast and a steam table line; that's what Alex's Place (425 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 822-1229) has added to downtown St. Pete. Alex Kokkalidou, who formerly had Olympus restaurant in Clearwater, has a menu ranging from omelet, burgers and home-cooked hot entrees to fresh pizza and pastries. Prices run $2.75 to $6.75. Serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Saturday; on Sundays, breakfast only.
* Redwoods (247 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 896-5118) has added lunch, setting out high-end small plates of salmon and goat cheese, red pepper soup, Kobe beef burgers and clam risotto. Prices run $6 to $11.
* In the dark: Downtown sandwichery Cafe Monet is closed. Still no activity at the former Bertoni or the space that was Grand Finale.
The flashy flatiron corner in Old Hyde Park Village that was once Mia's and then Hyde Park Diner remains dark. The former Cactus Club is still empty too, but Samba Room and the Wine Exchange still do a lively business.
It's not a fresh idea but it may be useful to the hordes standing in line at Bahama Breeze (3045 N Rocky Point Drive E, Tampa; (813) 289-7922), the Caribbean claw of Red Lobster. You still can't make a reservation but under new policy you can call ahead and have your name put on the list and then spend the 45-, 60-, or 90-minute wait as you choose and show up at the appointed hour.
Seems after running at least an hour wait for approximately five years, the don't-worry, be-happy crowd learned from a survey that most diners hate to wait (75 percent) and a lot find waiting in line the most stressful part of dining (48 percent).
Duh. You could have told them that. So could anyone standing in line at Outback, Bonefish, Carrabba's, Cheesecake Factory, and on and on.
On the other hand, when you do stand in line at chains it only encourages them.
There are alternatives.
Restaurants long ago morphed into theme parks and lifestyle brands with miniature in-restaurant stores peddling ball caps, coozies and shirts, a la Hard Rock.
Few have a non-food menu as long as the Green Iguana, the beach bar that's eating Tampa Bay, from Ybor City to Tyrone Boulevard.
I counted nine short-sleeve T-shirts on the six-page menu perched on every table. There are more Ts in the vintage collection, and sweats, yoga pants, polos, spaghetti tanks, a dozen caps, visors, key rings, shot glasses, dog vests, and bibs for infants and limited-edition shirts for spring break and other events.
Even Michael Humphrey of Creative Exposure, Iguana's licensing agent licensee, isn't sure how many shirt designs the lizard has, just that GI has more than any local independent. "We just blow T-shirts out of there."
Sure it winds up as free advertising (as if the Iguana had room for more customers), but at least it's a logo born on turf.