Vintners, chefs and wine glitterati filled the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in Naples, Fla., this past weekend at the Naples Winter Wine Festival (NWWF), one of the wine world’s top charitable events. More than 30 wineries from five countries poured their wines, while culinary giants served food and prepped more dishes for the weekend's vintner dinners, brunches and luncheons.
Since Wine Spectator first began ranking the top charity wine auctions in the United States in 2001, the three-day Florida festival and its West Coast peer, Auction Napa Valley, have consistently exchanged the No. 1 ranking back and forth. This year, the NWWF set a high mark: Its live auction results shot up from its $11 million-average in recent years to $13.4 million. (Last year's live auction bids came to $10.5 million, and the festival's highest-ever live bid sum, in 2007, was $15.6 million.)
And that was just the live auction. Counting the amount raised by the Fund-a-Need charitable donations, which came out to $1.6 million, and the online auction, which raised upwards of $183,000, the total earnings for the weekend reached more than $15 million.
The Naples Children & Education Foundation (NCEF) is the festival’s primary beneficiary, and has given annual grants to a range of non-profit, largely local organizations that help more than 200,000 children today.
Festival cofounder Denise Cobb, who also served as cochair this year, attributes some of the success to the high engagement of the event with its donors and the return of several past chairpersons to vitalize the event.
"When we agreed to chair, we were asked to do two things: to infuse even more enthusiasm, and to help make it more sustainable," she told Wine Spectator. “We want [the festival] to sustain itself.”
The festival’s live auction on Saturday night kicked off with a lot featuring more than 100 bottles of rare collectible wines, including 13 magnums, ranging from a 1997 Joseph Phelps Insignia Napa Valley to a 1982 Château Pichon Lalande. Several wineries were represented by multiple wine selections, offering the lucky winner a chance to explore the nuances in vertical flights. The lot sold for $210,000.
Soon after, a lucky bidder paid $200,000 for a dinner at Le Clarence in Paris with wines such as Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan White La Clarté and Château La Mission Haut-Brion. (A magnum of 2010 Château Haut-Brion and 2010 Château La Mission Haut-Brion were included as a luxe parting gift.)
Cobb praised the generosity of participating winemakers—not only in donating wines, but offering to host guests and create dinners and personal experiences.
One of the highest-earning lots was for a private Silver Oak Cellars dinner with live music from Darius Rucker, which went for $450,000. A lot titled “Rare, Rarer, Rarest” offered six jeroboams of Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair Aux Brûlées Vosne-Romanée from vintages 2008 to 2013, plus a private tour, tasting and dinner including a vertical five-vintage pairing at Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair hosted by the Comte and Comtesse Liger-Belair. That lot sold for $210,000.
“We have wine-only lots and they do very well. But I think what people are looking for is things you can't buy: the wines you can’t buy along with the experiences you can't buy," says Cobb. "That’s where you're going to raise the most money.”
Capitalizing on the recent U.S. rapprochement with Cuba, one lot offered a six-day yachting trip from Naples to Cuba. Another gave two couples access to the upcoming New York City Fashion Week.
The festival’s itinerary was bolstered with additional dinners and brunches that provided opportunity for the wine and winemakers to shine. As ticket packages to the festival (limited to 580 guests) began at $10,000 per couple, these were no small events.
In a pre-festival lunch on Thursday, California cult winery Harlan Estate hosted a 10-wine flight at the Grand Award–winning Bleu Provence. Eighteen intimate dinners took place in wealthy participants’ homes with chefs and sommeliers including Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann and the festival’s honored vintner Pierre Lurton of Château Cheval-Blanc and Château d’Yquem.
Wolfgang Puck attended as the overseeing chef de cuisine. “It isn’t every day that you experience so much great and rare wine and amazing chefs all in one place, raising millions of dollars together, especially on the west coast of Florida!" Puck told Wine Spectator via email. "I’ve never seen a wine auction with that much energy and excitement. It ran for over four hours and the energy in the room was high the entire time.”
Now that the festivities have subsided, the work continues. "Our goal is to keep everyone engaged and excited, keep the lots as the best they can be and keep the vintners coming," Cobb said. "We're going through step-by-step how to make this sustainable for years to come."