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Vero Beach Wine & Film Festival a huge success


If the premise of the short film “Rated” came to life, there would be five stars floating over the heads of Vero Beach Wine and Film Festival founder Jerusha Stewart and her swarm of volunteers.

The comedy short, about parents who wake up to find Yelp-style ratings over their heads, took one of the festival’s audience favorite awards Sunday afternoon.

After four days of analyzing films and wines, participants in the first-ever Vero film festival were judging the festival itself – and the score seemed unanimously high.

The visiting filmmakers who flew in from as far away as Italy and Colombia were apparently utterly enamored with the Vero audiences, who packed nearly every event and most of the screenings.

“The filmmakers were over the moon,” said an ebullient Stewart on Monday. “The comments were overwhelmingly, passionately positive.

“They spoke so highly of the audiences and their appreciation of their work,” she said. “And oh my god, they wouldn’t stop talking about the beach.”

But it was the moviegoers’ and wine drinkers’ reactions that convinced Stewart that her year-long effort paid off. “They asked incredible questions and they laughed in the right places,” she said. “The filmmakers were just excited, like, ‘Vero really gets us. They got our movies.’”

From early afternoon until late at night, movie lovers came out in force to pack four venues: both stages at Riverside Theatre; the Leonhardt auditorium at the Vero Beach Museum of Art; downtown’s Heritage Center and Raw Space at Edgewood, a new gallery on Old Dixie that hosted evening and late-night screenings that were  the liveliest of all. “For a lot of people, that was shocker,” said Stewart. “People just did not think that people were coming out at night. But Vero gets it. Vero after dark rocks.”

Even restaurants got into the act. Costa d’Este hosted an elaborate four-chef dinner Thursday night that drew a standing ovation at evening’s end. “That was like a scene from a movie,” said Stewart. “The energy in that room was so electric, they didn’t want to leave.”

The same space held a celebratory crowd at Saturday night’s Grand Tasting, where there was also a screening of Jason Wise’s full-length documentary, “Somm: Into the Bottle.”

Alongside vintner Beth Ann Dahan, an instructor at Boston University and owner of New Zealand’s Vela Wines, there was the unpublicized, impromptu pouring from the private collection of Harvey Kornicks. The recently retired public school art teacher who has been collecting top-rated wines for years offered samples from about a dozen bottles, including a $600 magnum of Napa cab.

“Gloria [Estefan]’s hotel is so magical,” said Stewart. “It was the perfect place to begin this celebration that focuses on entertainment.”

Estefan herself was the recipient of the festival’s “Life Worth Living Legend” award. Though she was in New York for a performance from her bio-musical, “On Your Feet!” at the Tony awards ceremony, she sent the hotel’s general manager, Chad Olsen, to read a statement of gratitude.

Later Saturday night, nearby Orchid Island Brewery held a Bordeaux and Brew event, screening the film “Beatbox.” The title refers to a music-making technique using the face and mouth as an instrument. Curtiss Cook, an actor in the movie, gave a live beatbox performance.

“I got to see what a huge film-loving community there is here,” said Stewart.

By Sunday, it seemed just about everyone who stopped by Blue Star Wine Bar downtown for one last party were already claiming the film fest as a Vero institution.

As for Stewart, she was fielding inquiries from new filmmakers Monday morning asking how to submit films for next year. “They heard what a fabulous festival we were having.”

She has also been approached to consult on two new festivals elsewhere.

As for Vero, her main project is to get city officials on board to rehab the historic Florida Theatre downtown. “That’s my next task and it’s going to be a huge one,” she said.

Stewart has already talked with the property’s owner, Bob Brackett, who poured considerable funds and effort into the project before putting it all on hold in the mid-2000s. “He really believes the city should be kicking in the money for this,” said Stewart. “A festival always needs a home.”