When the final figures for the 2006 Naples Winter Wine Festival auction were announced, festival chairman and Domaine Serene winemaker Grace Evenstad was elated. Losing all trace of the calm that had been her hallmark in the week preceding the event, Evenstad hugged in turn her husband Ken, fellow trustee Donna Solimene and chef Emeril Lagasse.
The 2006 auction raised a total of $12.2 million in live bids, confirming once again Naples' position as the top charity wine auction in the nation.
Despite her cool demeanor, Evenstad had every reason to be nervous. In 2005, the auction raised $11.1 million for local children's charities, making it the top auction for the second year in a row. And while Evenstad claimed that she had no set goals for this year's auction, the predominant feeling beneath the tent on Saturday, Jan. 28, was one of determination: The Naples trustees and supporters wanted to set another record.
With its circus theme, the 2006 festival was a true three-ring party. On Saturday, more than 500 guests gathered beneath tents at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in Naples, Fla., for a food and wine tasting before the main event. After each lot was sold, rock music boomed from the speakers while friends hugged the winning bidder. Two large screens above the stage broadcast all the excitement, and anytime bidding stalled, cameramen filmed potential winners as they decided whether to bid higher. With the camera lights hot on their faces and the crowd cheering them on, few bidders could resist raising their paddles just one more time.
The top two lots-a Ferrari Spyder and a Mediterranean yachting cruise for five-sold for $520,000 each. But the lot that generated the most excitement was a trip to New York to watch a taping of Emeril Lagasse's television show Emeril Live and have dinner with the celebrity chef. To kick it up a notch, Lagasse, who was in attendance, climbed on stage and took over as auctioneer, pacing back and forth as bidders vied for his attention. "If you give me $300,000, I'll have dinner in my underwear," he joked. In the end, Lagasse offered two packages for $300,000 each.
Lagasse didn't relax, though, once he came off the stage. He spent the latter half of the auction furiously text-messaging his friend and fellow chef Mario Batali. At the end of the auction, Lagasse stepped on stage again and announced that Batali had agreed to join him in hosting a truffle tasting dinner, with matching wines, at the Italian Wine Merchants in New York. That lot sold for $240,000.
For the most part, the wine lots took a backseat to the luxury cars and trip packages, although bottles were included in many of the travel lots. Ten large-format bottles of Bordeaux from Pomerol and St.-Emilion sold for $45,000, the lowest winning bid of the day. At the upper end, a collection of 24 magnums, one from each of the vintners participating in the auction, sold to Scott Lutgert, the 2005 event chairman, for $180,000. A double magnum of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 sold for $120,000.
Several of the auction lots came from fellow organizers of charity auctions. Former baseball player Rusty Staub, who founded the Rusty Staub Foundation and its charity wine auction, donated several large-format bottles of French and California wines to the Naples event. Chalk Hill Estate owner Fred Furth, who cofounded the Imagine auction, donated a tour of his winery along with five double magnums of his wine. Lagasse, who donated several lots, benefited from Evenstad's generosity in 2005, when she and her husband gave a double magnum of Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Evenstad Reserve 2002 to Lagasse's inaugural Carnivale du Vin, which raised a total of $726,300.
The festival, whose ticket prices were raised from $5,000 to $7,500 this year, also included 17 simultaneous vintner dinners on Friday evening, as well as brunch on Sunday at the Ritz-Carlton. The vintner dinners, each held in the home of a festival trustee, were prepared by well-known chefs and featured wines from one of the visiting producers, who included Napa names such as Garen and Shari Staglin of Staglin Family Vineyards, Ann and Dick Grace of Grace Family Vineyards and Ann Colgin of Colgin Cellars.
Although the Naples event unseated Auction Napa Valley as the nation's top charity wine auction in 2004 and 2005, and appears likely to take the No. 1 spot again in 2006, Evenstad denied that there is any competition. "We help each other," she said. "It's a community of fundraisers. We're not in competition, but if we push each other to do better and give more, then that's better for everyone."
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