The Ultimate Naples Winter Wine Festival 2017 Recap
Grab a glass, pour yourself some Cabernet and enjoy a virtual ride down memory lane paved with the country’s best wine, food and philanthropy.
There’s a heightened sense of pride among Naples’ wine and food lovers the last week in January, when the star-studded Naples Winter Wine Festival (NWWF) is in swing. The nation’s largest charity wine auction this year alone raised $15,066,000 for at-risk Collier County children—a record in recent years and the second-highest ever (only 2007 narrowly edged it out by roughly $600K). Here’s a look at the 2017 festivities, not without a few food and wine tips for anyone reading at home.
MEET THE KIDS DAY (MTKD): A “BRIGHT, SUNSHINY” START
Colorful displays show how NCEF grants help local children.
Although the skies didn’t initially cooperate with this year’s festival theme, “Bright Sunshiny Day,” that didn’t translate into any shortage of wattage from everyone around, starting with the bright orange and yellow balloons flanking the entry and sunbursts lining the path around Grace Place for Children and Families.
Launched by the Naples Children & Education Foundation (NCEF) with the help of Dick Grace of Grace Family Vineyards, MTKD was designed to introduce attendees to the mission of NCEF, which is the nonprofit created by the festival’s trustees to distribute the funds raised by the auction to Collier County children’s charities. Children in orange T-shirts crowded around booths of the organizations that help educate, care for and inspire them to dream big.
Trustee Dave Gibbons (far left) with the eight 2017 co-chairs: Debbi Cary, Denise and Brian Cobb, Bill Cary, Valerie Boyd and Jeff Gargiulo, Simone and Scott Lutgert
Among them was the Boys & Girls Club of Collier County, which had its precocious fourth and fifth graders help create their display. Its COO, Megan McCarthy, reminded me how its junior high students launched and manage the Blue Canteen food truck, which won the best of Baconfest in 2016 for its pork taco.
Once the meet-and-greet ended, we sat down for the program of speakers that never leaves a dry eye in the house. Hearts skipped a beat at several moments, like seeing Tally, a little girl with developmental disabilities who was told she’d never walk, dance on stage with her mother.
The tragedies and triumphs—and how the NCEF has made such a difference in these children’s lives—worked up an appetite, and next we were onto the luncheon at Grey Oaks Country Club.
MTKD: GREY OAKS’ DELECTABLE SPREAD WITH 16 WINES TO BOOT
Nikolai Boyd, GM of Schloss Elmau in Germany, poured friend Violet Grgich's wines at Grey Oaks.
Call me crazy, but I can’t help but think there should be a passport for some of the wine events—there are just so many pours that I almost want a stamp to proclaim, “Been there—tried that!”
In all, there were 16 wines at this event. Four featured vintners held court at individual tables—Casa Piena, Grace Family Vineyards, Grgich Hills Estate and Jones Family Vineyard—plus, there was a long row of additional whites and rosés from producers around the world.
The boutique Jones Family Vineyard (which produces 300 cases per year, a tiny fraction compared to even other small-scale producers) was drawing attention for its Sauvignon Blanc; so, too, was Casa Piena for its 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon with an intense wallop of flavor that unfurled the longer it rested on the tongue. Grace Family Vineyards showed off two Cabs as well: from their estate vines and those of the Blank Vineyard in Rutherford.
The MTKD buffet took over an entire dining room.
The Grgich table had the annals of history supporting it—and a colorful personality manning it. The estate, created by Mike Grgich after he created the instantly famous Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that was recognizable around the world after the 1976 Judgment of Paris blind tasting, was pouring its 2013 commemorative Paris tasting Chardonnay. Admittedly, I’m not the biggest fan of the most popular Napa white-wine grape, but this French-oak-steeped version made a convert out of me.
Mike’s daughter Violet, now a vintner in the family business, was at the luncheon, but a longtime friend of hers from Napa, Nikolai Boyd, was pouring the wines for guests. This was Mike's first time at the festival, and he was present actually because, as a friend of co-chair Jeff Gargiulo, Boyd donated a retreat to the luxury hotel he manages in Germany, Schloss Elmau, for an auction lot. But he wanted to give organizers some hands-on help, too.
An antipasto bar with hot fresh mozzarella was a highlight.
“I’m a sommelier; I’m doing this for fun. Later I’m going to dress up in Bavarian clothes and stand near our lot in the auction preview room at the Ritz to drum up interest,” Boyd said. (Whatever he did worked, because the following day Lot 12 wound up selling for $220,000.)
As for its part, Grey Oaks rose to the occasion with an entire room of food, from a hot mozzarella and antipasto bar to a buffet of sliders and fries (the garlic-parmesan ones alone would have hit the spot) and salads galore.
Of what was poured for the lunch, some of the vintages can’t be bought (the distribution is limited to wine club members) and some are pricey (upward of $100 per bottle), but some retail starting at $25 or 30—definitely worth checking out.
- Jones Family Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2013
- Jones Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
- Casa Piena Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
- Casa Piena Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
- Grgich Hills Estate Yountville Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
- Grgich Hills Estate Fumé Blanc Dry Sauvignon Blanc 2014
- Grgich Hills Estate Paris Tasting Commemorative Chardonnay 2013
- Grace Family Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
- Blank 2013 (Grace Family Vineyards’ Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon)
- Poggio al Tesoro Solosole Vermentino 2015
- Bodega Garzón Albariño 2015
- Twomey Sauvignon Blanc 2015
- Antucura Chérie Sparkling Rosé Pinot Noir
- Salus Staglin Family Vineyard Estate Chardonnay 2013
- Alexana Pinot Gris 2015
- Gargiulo Vineyards Money Road Ranch Pinot Grigio 2016
VINTNER DINNERS: JAMES BEARD WINNERS AND MICHELIN STAR RECIPIENTS
Because there’s no such thing as a time machine in which I can poof! to each of the 18 vintner dinners that took place throughout Naples on Friday—each in a private home with a celebrity chef and sometimes multiple vintners providing the evening’s fare—a few highlights will have to do.
From Wolfgang Puck with Bordeaux’s Château Canon to Missy Robbins (one of only a dozen female Michelin-starred chefs in the United States) with Château Cheval Blanc and Château d’Yquem, each combination was a tour de force prophesying a remarkable sit-down feast.
Auction day guests gather during the cocktail hour.
“Wine is about the people, the place, the time,” said NCEF trustee Tom Koehn, reflecting on his evening, which matched chef Dean Fearing of Fearing’s in Dallas with Napa’s Darioush and Spain’s Dominio de Pingus. “Last night it really came together—the stars and the moon aligned.”
It was similar praises all around, but NCEF trustees Barbara and John Jordan and Bob and Karen Scott seemed to really hit the jackpot with their soiree. Not only did they get Harlan Estate wines (the cult favorites were also the subject of the Vintage Cellar vertical tasting event right before the festival officially got underway), which means they also had the visionary Harlan family as their dinner guests, but they also had Krug champagne on hand and Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio, who brought two executive chefs from his restaurants. “What’s better is that Tom is dedicated to eradicating hunger in the United States,” said Barbara Jordan. “We’re giving out his DVD, Hungry in America, to everyone at the dinner. He cares—it’s in his soul.”
AUCTION DAY: COCKTAIL BITES AND WORLD-CLASS WINES
The Orlando Ritz executive chef trucked in his smoker, Maggie.
If ever there were a “bright, sunshiny” day for the weekend, Saturday was thankfully it. The light streamed through the auction tent, and the lawn of The Ritz-Carlton at Tiburon was verdant. People mixed and mingled outside during the cocktail hour, and trustees of the NCEF got in the spirit, many of them wearing yellow (red wine stains, be darned!).
Under the open-air food tent, it was business as usual—when “usual” means bringing in the best chefs from Ritz-Carlton resorts from across the country. A gigantic smoker, “Maggie,” was trucked in from the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando, to make an earthy smoked lamb with crushed peanut stuffing (trust me, it was amazing). An industrial-size sous vide machine was rendering some beef fork-tender at another booth. And an open-fire pit caught my eye from none other than our own Ritz-Carlton team. Chef George Fistrovich, the executive chef presiding over both of our resorts, informed me he was inspired by the spit-fire cooking of Francis Mallman, one of the festival’s visiting chefs from Argentina with a new restaurant in Miami (Los Fuegos at the Faena Hotel)—and that our beach hotel has experimented with this style of cooking, which preserves the meat’s natural juices, over the past few years.
Melt-in-your-mouth short ribs with pickled veggies from the Fort Lauderdale Ritz
My friend, patron Cate Linn, got there a bit earlier than I did and took me on a personal tour of what she felt were the greatest hits of the afternoon. We had to have the short ribs with delightful shavings of pickled watermelon radish from The Ritz in Fort Lauderdale, along with a taste bud-tingling liquid nitrogen powder of raspberry ice cream from the Naples’ Ritz pastry chef. It was layered with bittersweet mousse, crunchy balls of white chocolate and other surprising textures and flavors.
New this year was a booth from the recently minted JW Marriott on Marco Island. The hotel achieved the brand’s ultimate luxury rating and is under the same corporate umbrella as The Ritz. Gerard Sombright, executive chef at the Marriot's steak- and seafood-focused Ario and fresh off a stint on Top Chef in December commanded people’s attention for his beautifully presented oysters with beet “pearls,” shavings of green apple and a diminutive violet.
Naples Ritz chefs plated spit-roasted baby pig and black truffle risotto with braised oxtail.
Oysters with beet pearls from Ario chef Gerard Sombright
Intriguing on the wine side was a booth of Krug brut near the registration table. Meanwhile, the U-shaped main bar offered more than 20 selections from Chappellet, Schafer, Darioush and other heavyweights.
Inside the tent, each table for the auction was loaded with a mix of bottles, some red, some white, in an ice bucket the size of a giant clamshell). The vintages and selections varied from table to table, but that’s where the festival’s 18 master sommeliers came in. Circling the floor, they were bringing some truly spectacular pours to each table spontaneously and upon request. Really, where else do you get 18 of the planet’s 230 master sommeliers working under one roof?
Auction munchies at the tables included gourmet nibbles along with popcorn and M&Ms.
Good thing I happened to be in the right place at the right time when one of the master sommeliers, Jarad Slipp of RdV, was making rounds with a bottle of Krug, as I had missed my chance during cocktails.
Another prize from being in the right place at the right time was a taste of 1999 Baron de la Charrière, a Pinot Noir from Burgundy. The wine was being shared by restaurateur Ingrid Aielli (Sea Salt’s owner) as she waited for bidding to start for Lot 32—in which a meal prepared by her husband, chef Fabrizio Aiello, was part of the cache.
If you looked at the auction catalog this year, it seemed like the lots were consistently heavy with premium wines or dining experiences. No winning bid was less than $100,000. (For a full play-by-play of auction highlights, click here.) The excitement crescendoed as the final lot, a fund-a-need for children’s health care, propelled the final fundraising total beyond $15 million—and then people flowed back outside with a happy glow into the moonlight for the Wine Down, a party celebrating the day’s fun and philanthropy.
Under the tent as the auction got underway
CELEBRATION BRUNCH: LOOKING FORWARD TO 2018—WITH A SIDE OF STEAK AND EGGS
The Ritz Celebration Brunch on Sunday continued the savory feats.
If there’s ever a brunch to be at during the year in Naples, this is it. Food stations lined the perimeter of a football field-sized tent at Tiburon. Fresh waffles? Check. Made-to-order omelets? Check. Parmesan-crusted chicken with heirloom tomatoes and polenta? Check, check. Sausage, bacon, grits, salmon both poached and smoked—you name it, they had it. (Not to mention bloody marys, mimosas and, of course, more wine.)
Midway through the event, the eight co-chairs got up to thunderous applause and thanked everyone. Trustee Dave Gibbons then announced next year’s chairs, and fellow NCEF trustees Becky and Lewie Card took the stage with Susie McCurry. (P.S., some of the vintners are already confirmed for 2018, according to honorary trustee Bruce Nichols.)
With his signature drawl, Lewie Card congratulated his predecessors and proceeded to get a chuckle out of the audience: “As we say in the South, you ain’t seen nothing yet.” The ever-eloquent McCurry (a longtime member of the grant committee who often speaks at NCEF events), pressed the group for another couple or solo trustee to join them in their effort. They know they have a hard act to follow in the name of helping Collier children.
Excited for the possiblities of 2018, three co-chairs were ushered in.
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