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Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest 2018: Milestone Met, Traditions Upheld

Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Lee County’s largest annual fundraiser was a weekend of epic vintner dinners and a blockbuster auction that brought in $2.9 million for local children.



Guests were welcomed with a glass of champagne poured by Pzazz entertainers.

Dorothea Hunter Sönne

Maybe it was the reminder of the gravitas of the moment—a big “Cheers to 10 Years!” embedded in a sea of lights on stage, creating a starry backdrop behind the auction podium. Or perhaps it was how Barbara Banke, a Napa legend and the festival’s honored signature vintner of Jackson Family Wines (a portfolio with Vérité, Lokoya and more than 30 others), got the crowd excited about why they were there—“I have five grandchildren under the age of 3—so I really value children’s health.”

Whatever the magic touch was, the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest auction on Saturday, March 3, raced forward full-throttle. An even $100,000 was pledged right out of the gate for a five-course wine dinner for 40 at New York’s Rao’s, and that momentum continued through the next 37 rounds of bidding. With paddles flying up and sky-high sums reached, it seemed like nothing was selling for less than $30,000, and when all was said and done and silver roman numeral Xs and long strands of confetti were launched into the 300-strong crowd in a ballroom at Quail West Golf & Country Club, more than $2.9 million had been raised.

Co-chaired by Elaine Hawkins and Brooke Denson, this year’s fête carried on traditions that have been an integral part of the experience for a decade but also broke new ground, including a change of venue and the addition of an on-site after-party featuring desserts by Norman Love and guest pastry chefs from three-star Michelin restaurant Le Bernardin and the renowned Greenbrier Hotel, followed by dancing and more haute munchies courtesy of Quail West into the wee hours.

Familiar faces returned, with Kellie Burns of NBC2 serving as the emcee for the 10th straight year; vintner dinners on Friday and Saturday’s pre-auction Grand Tasting featured the mastery of Lee’s and Collier’s best chefs (such as Andy Hyde of Chef Hyde Gourmet, Brian Roland and David Robbins of Crave Culinaire, and Todd Erickson of Society) paired with Napa, Sonoma and Oregon’s finest pours; the quirky “Pass the Hat” auction lot intrigued once again with its potpourri of items donated on the spot; and artworks by a 5-year-old leukemia patient at the Golisano Children’s Hospital drew one of the event’s highest bids, a multi-effort $170,000.

Since building the hospital’s new home had been a huge motivating factor in years past, the showing Saturday quenched any fears of a drop in enthusiasm post-construction last year. If anything, one of the most touching moments belonged to the Fund-A-Cause, Lot 16, in which individuals pledged donations to support the pediatric oncology department. Not a dry eye was seen after Burns introduced her neighbors, the Bell family, who shared the story of their son Jack being diagnosed at age 2 with a rare form of cancer and needing a liver transplant and seven months of chemotherapy. Jack, now 12, on stage, cancer-free, and looking sharp with tousled hair and a pink bowtie, was so moved by the generosity in the room that he walked into the crowd and gave tearful hugs to Banke and trustee Dave Copham, who each gave $100,000—and more bids flowed in to reach a grand total of $637,750.

Copham, who won more auction lots than his head could support top hats (they’re given to winning male bidders; women get tiaras), is among the festival’s earliest supporters. (He and several others led the charge 10 years ago to incorporate a charity and up the ante.) He had given a heart-felt plea the night before at an intimate vintner dinner he and his wife, Cheryl, had hosted with fellow trustees Sandy Stilwell-Youngquist and Tim Youngquist. “I can’t speak for the other trustees, but I have a number for what I want to spend at the auction every year, and I always blow right past it,” he says. “It’s all about trying to earn money for worthy causes.”

Aside from the Golisano Children’s Hospital and the two other primary beneficiaries, Florida Gulf Coast University and Florida SouthWestern State College, the trustees added four other groups to the list this year, which were announced throughout the weekend: PACE Center for Girls of Lee County, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southwest Florida, SalusCare, and The Heights Foundation.

Last but not least was a fitting end to the festivities. Auctioneer Scott Robertson had joked with Banke and Copham earlier that he’d auction off his silver jacket to add to the pool. When it came time to do that, who wound up taking the jacket home and adding an extra $20,000 to support those initiatives?

A beaming Ed Bell, Jack’s father, who more than anyone knows how meaningful that donation can be.

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