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10-Year-Old Winemaker Helps Emeril Lagasse Raise $3 Million for Children’s Charities

The 14th-annual Carnivale du Vin charity wine auction in New Orleans brought chefs and vintners together to help kids in need
Cruz Bilbro joined Emeril Lagasse on stage at Carnivale du Vin for a special auction lot.
Photo by: Steve Freeman
Cruz Bilbro joined Emeril Lagasse on stage at Carnivale du Vin for a special auction lot.

Mitch Frank
Posted: December 13, 2018

No one could blame Cruz Bilbro for being nervous. For one thing, the vintner had never spoken to a ballroom packed with hundreds of people before. For another, it was past his bedtime. The 10-year-old was on stage at Carnivale du Vin, the New Orleans charity auction founded by chef Emeril Lagasse. Cruz is the son of Limerick Lane Winery owner Jake Bilbro, and he had made his own barrel of Grenache from the family’s Russian River Valley property to auction. All proceeds went to the Emeril Lagasse Foundation.

“Emeril Lagasse came to my farm and gave me a hundred bucks, and now we are partners and I am thankful for it,” explained Cruz. “I gave him a barrel of my wine and we are going to help a school.”

Cruz’s wine proved to be a highlight in a weekend of generosity that raised more than $3 million for youth-oriented culinary, nutrition and arts education programs in New Orleans and beyond. The live auction on Nov. 10 raised close to $1.1 million.

Named Too’s Babor Grenache 2016, for the name the boy called himself before he could say Cruz Bilbro, the wine came adorned with a crayon drawing of Cruz’s favorite tractor. For several years now, Jake has been putting his kids to work, both in the vineyard and the cellar. But after meeting Emeril, Cruz was moved to do something more. He also traveled to New Orleans for the weekend, visiting several of the charities helped by the foundation, including St. Michael’s School, which serves children with special needs.

For other guests, the weekend started Nov. 9 with performances by beneficiaries at the Youth Empowerment Project, followed by a lunch at Café Reconcile, a nonprofit restaurant staffed by at-risk youth receiving job training. A cold rain stopped in time for the evening’s main event, Boudin, Bourbon & Beer, where thousands of guests enjoyed dishes from more than 70 chefs and top-notch whiskeys and craft beers while listening to music outside the Superdome in Champions Square.

Saturday night saw the action move to the Hilton New Orleans Riverside for the live-auction gala. Attendees could enjoy wines from some of California’s best vintners, including this year’s “Honorary Bacchus,” Barbara Banke, chairman of Jackson Family Wines. “You do fabulous work here,” she told the crowd. “I’m so impressed.”

As the crowd enjoyed a grand dinner cooked and served by young talents working at beneficiaries like Café Reconcile, Liberty’s Kitchen and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), the live auction began. Top wine-themed lots included 5L & 5 Courses, a meal for three couples, prepared by Emeril at his house in New Orleans, paired with a 5-liter bottle of the 2011 Wine Spectator Wine of the Year, the Kosta Browne Sonoma Coast 2009, opened by Kosta Browne founder Dan Kosta at the table. The lot sold for $100,000.

The Danica’s Exclusive Napa Valley lot offered a weekend in Napa for six couples, hosted by retired race-car driver and Napa vintner Danica Patrick. As bidding ramped up, Patrick stood up and offered to throw in one of her old racing suits. The lot brought in $32,000.

But perhaps the biggest moment of the night was when Cruz took the stage with his dad and Emeril to offer cases and bottles of Too’s Babor. Bidders raised paddles at varying prices. By the time the dust settled, 22 bidders had donated $325,000 to the foundation, making it the biggest lot of the evening. Then the young winemaker went upstairs to bed.

Bottles of Too’s Babor can still be purchased at the foundation website. Since 2002, the Emeril Lagasse Foundation has given more than $10.5 million to charitable efforts.

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