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Bidding on the good life

The world's richest wine event's auction embodies the thrill of the quest, the joie de vivre of a lifestyle, and a delectable way to spread the wealth.

Published February 7, 2007



Influential wine judge Robert Parker didn't need to rate the Naples Winter Wine Festival on a 100-point scale. It's at the top.

"It's the gold standard," Parker said, as he watched bidding under a big white tent at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort last month.

The numbers that most matter are prefaced by dollar signs and now rank the festival's auction as the richest wine event in the world.

The figures are big and climb as fast as the bass line to La Bamba or Sly Stone's I Want to Take You Higher, the high-energy beat that pumps through genteel Naples at auction time.

Auctioneers Humphrey Butler and Anne Colgin start the bidding at $5,000 or $10,000, yet in seconds it nears six digits. "C'mon it's just a couple pairs of shoes," Colgin kids, and soon it's $300,000.

Boom-shaka-laka-laka, boom-shaka-laka-laka.

A few hours later, total bids are more than $16-million. Counting tickets sales, the event raised $18-million. Last year's festival brought in $12-million. In seven years almost $60-million has been raised for needy children in Collier County.

Wow. Why? And how? Is it the wine? Ask Parker again.

The grand arbiter of American wine-buying is the guy in the red Hawaiian shirt at a center table, amid the happy hurrahs surrounding winning bids. Volunteers in Wine Patrol T-shirts shake tambourines, clack maracas and flutter gossamer butterflies. Those selling $5,000 raffle tickets dress in full monarch drag, complete with big orange wings.

"People who like wine love life. They are adventurous and generous," Parker says. "They know they have a good life and that not every one does."

While wine and good food are staples of charity affairs, Naples takes them to a level any fundraiser would envy. It could merit a doctoral dissertation in event planning, a well-developed industry in this very social town.

Even if Emeril Lagasse weren't on the roster, Naples kicks everything up a notch, including the wines, chefs, party, auction lots and, as a consequence, the totals.

FUN: While the money is serious, the festival's atmosphere is not. No society orchestra or black ties for a crowd unlikely to admit to 50-something. The soundtrack is pumped-up oldies rock and the dress code, day and night, is open collar, tropical pastel and Tommy Bahama. The resort clothier, a hometown hero, made $125 souvenir silk camp shirts for the auction. London auctioneer Butler sells wines at Sotheby's and Christie's but probably never calls a lot "a damn big wine cooler" in those august houses.

Naples also serves hungry bidders popcorn and sliders.

GUEST LIST: The money is big, but the crowd is small: under 600 this year. Celebrities included Parker, Martha Stewart, Hank Aaron and a half-dozen other baseball greats, but most guests were rich and unfamous. Organizers include investment advisers, developers, broadcasters and bankers, a mine owner, a neurologist and a farmer. Their roots stretch to Massachusetts, Minnesota and Iowa, not just big financial centers.

Half the guests were from Naples; the out-of-towners, more wine-savvy than flashy, had minimal Hollywood or Manhattan attitude. One San Francisco lawyer considered $80,000 for a 6-liter bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc a bargain. He said he had tasted the 60-year-old Bordeaux recently and it was drinking beautifully.

AUCTION EXTRAS: Most lots start with great, rare wines donated by wineries and the cellars of Naples wine collectors. Then they are larded with extravagant extras, from dinner with movie stars to European cruises. Thus a winning bid can buy the thrill of victory at the auction, great wine for a special dinner or three, plus a fun party or trip.

The biggest single item was a $2-million Rolls-Royce.

WINES: "The key is the vintners. These people don't go to many auctions," said Clarke Swanson, a former Naples resident who now has his own successful winery in Napa, Calif.

The Naples organizers include others with their own wineries or major wine cellars; together they have the connections to bring in the rarest wines and wine makers. And the resources and jets to bring them in.

So sought-after California cabernets Colgin, Grace Family, Harlan Estates and Shafer Hillside Select were there in person and bottle. Antinioris and Drouhins came from Europe, as did bottles with the grandest old labels, La Tour, Sassicaia, Jaboulet, Palmer, Guigal, Gaja and Cheval Blanc. The best years were there in cases, vertical collections, signed magnums, nebuchadnezzars (15 liters) and melchiors (18 liters).

GOOD CAUSE: The festival schedule wisely includes an unglamorous field trip to Immokalee and other poor areas in which the auction's millions buy dental care, health insurance and after-school programs.

This year, before their grand meals and swell parties, 200 of the guests rode the buses to meet the staff and kids their bids would support.

Dick Grace, who is both a top-dollar vintner and a Buddhist with an activist heart, says it's why he comes. "These people really care about the kids. They have commitment, energy and efficiency. There's an injustice and, through generosity, we'll try to correct it."

Chris Sherman can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or


[Last modified February 6, 2007, 12:10:53]

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