This is a guest blog from my good food buddy Chris Sherman. Years ago he was the restaurant critic for the Orlando Sentinel and now edits the dining guide and Florida Trend restaurant awards.
By CHRIS SHERMAN
NAPLES. FLA. – The stars of food wine and charity broke through the gloom of the recession and last weekend’s dreary weather to raise $8 million at the 10th annual Naples Winter Wine Festival for troubled children of Collier County. After the last tambourine rattled, the total raised in four hours on only 61 lots made the 10th Naples Winter Wine Festival again the richest wine charity in the world. Last year’s $5 million fell behind the long standing record in California’s Napa valley.
The success came in part from the flash of the world’s finest vintners, America’s top chefs and wine and some celebrities such as golfer Annika Sorenstam and actor Kyle MacLachlan who combined love of wine with fame from other fields. The bigger factor came from the 500 guests, primarily a small group of the rich and not so famous millionaires who make their home in Naples and donate many of the fine wines for auction – and bid furiously for other lots. After the counting, festival chair Francis Rooney, a builder and the former ambassador to the Vatican, said the organizers had not set goals knowing the state of the economy.
“We never talked numbers,’’ Rooney said. “All strata were hit by the economy including all the people under this tent. Every one who lives in southwest Florida knows we went through a boom, and now we’re making up for it’’ in defaults, unused inventory and unemployment. “I’m deeply gratified to this community that dug so deeply’’ for the people who suffered the most.
For Swedish golfer Sorenstam, who now lives in Orlando, the Festival was a chance to introduce her namesake wine, Annika, a sleek syrah from California, and win raves from fans and wine lovers.
“I’m no expert on wine, but I didn’t want another California cab,’’ Sorenstam said. “”I didn’t have much wine growing up but when I started to travel I got to know some of the best food and wine. When I met the Wentes, who have such good wine, and a restaurant and a golf course [in Livermore] I knew we had the same passion.’’
Naples raised the money this year in its trademark mix of glitter and good humor. The prices are extravagant, averaging more than $100,000 for each lot. But the atmosphere is informal, a balloon filled tent party at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort. The raucous bidding was urged on by a rattling drum corps, maracas and pulsing rock, including its own mantra: “Bid higher, higher.’’ And of course fabulous wines, many rarely available at any price. Bidders fought to pay $150,000 for four monster 9-liter botttles from the Haut-Brion in Bordeaux Estate. They included two from 2005 and two more from the not yet bottled 2009 vintage 2009 added by the proprietor, Prince Robert of Luxemburg after he toured a youth shelter supported by the auction.
They also popped $140,000 for sixteen double magnums of great Burgundies donated by New York Mets star and wine connoisseur, $120,000 for Harlan Estates and $80,000 for 100 bottles of Australias’s best, including 12-year-old verticals of Penfolds Grange and Henschke’s Hill of Grace. Biggest bid of the day was $440,000 for a weeklong cuise in the Mediterranean on a 170-foot lot for one of many lots that combined wine and food with luxurious travel to Cannes and Thailand and one-of-a-kind experiences. One winner bid $200,000 for a Hollywood weekend that included back stage visit to Desperate Housewives and a walk –on role on Modern Family, another winner popped $140,000 for tickets to the Project Runway finale and a Michael Kors makeover. And there were other celebrity-studded lots: a New York trip including dinner at Daniel, lunch with Regis Philbin and VIP tickets to the Yankees, Saturday Night Live and other TV shows drew $170,000. Just for the chance to bid on such luxuries cost guests $7,500 a couple, which provided participants a weekend filled with world class food and wine and the celebrated names behind them.
Besides the auction the festival includes luxurious dinners for 25 in private homes. The meals are prepared by Americas most famous chefs including Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Tom Colicchio and Emeril Lagasse. Wines were provided by the people behind such labels as Antinori, Harlan, Grace Family, Staglin, Lynch-Bages, Vega Sicilia and Araujo. In addition, the festival drew new wines that are or soon will be cult favorites. These bottles can sell for $600 and only by mailing list — if you can get on. This year’s guests included the hot new South African Vilafonte by American Zelma Long, the luscious Scarecrow cabernet, rich and ripe Benovia pinot noir and brilliant Bodegas Chacra pinots from Patagonia made by the Tuscan producers of Sassicaia.
From television and the movies came, an elegant Walla Walla cabernet pinot noir made by Twin Peaks/Dune/Desperate Housewives star MacLachlan, a Washington native. He kids that wine is an alternative future “in case this acting thing doesn’t work out.” The auction itself started with an outdoor showcase by a brigade of chefs drafted from Ritz-Carlton properties across the state serving such delicacies as grouper gravlax and celery foam. But when the bidding started, the food shifted to popcorn hot dogs and sliders. The beverages of choice were a lineup of top wines like Duckhorn, Ridge and all the guest vintners. plus bottled water.
For many wealthy bidders and visiting stars, the central event of the festival was a bus trip on Friday to Youth Haven, a children’s center where they met many of the children they aid in depressed homes and migrant camps through literacy, mentoring, mental health and dental clinics. “’My father [winemaker Sir Peter Michael] said we had to come to this,” said Paul Michael, “It’s amazing.’’ Vintner Dick Grace bent down to show magic tricks to grinning four year-olds. MacLachlan watched in awe as a teen-age boy described his victory over mental illness, a woman tell of adopting a neglect child who weighed 12 pounds at age three and heard a chorus of learning deprived pre-schoolers read and sing. Piero Incisa della Rochetta, the bearded young Italian from Bodega Chacra, sat on a small stool blowing bubbles for severely autistic children.
”It’s so little, nothing, just bubbles but they smile and giggle,’’ said della Rochetta. “When we think we have problems, we don’t know what real suffering is.’’ “To hear these accounts first hand,’’ Prince Robert said later, “That makes all the difference.’’ The field trip won over Bart Araujo of Calistoga, Calif., who donated prize bottles from his famed Eisele vineyards and also bid high enough to win lots donated by others. Asked what distinguished Naples from other charities in the wine world, he recited the facts of its impact: “$74 million. 100,000 children. There’s nothing like it.”
Chris Sherman, former wine columnist and restaurant critic for the Orlando Sentinel is the dining critic of FloridaTrend.com and writes b21blog.com . He lives in Tampa and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.