December 21, 2014

Conversation

At John Vega's comfortable family home, kids congregate in the pool and the only quiet spot is a circle of Adirondack chairs in the front yard. It might seem worlds away from the glitterati jetting in for the Naples Winter Wine Festival this month. But those same guests, who paid $5,000 a couple for the privilege of attending what's become the most successful wine charity event in the world, may be relying on Vega as they plot their bidding strategy. A volunteer, Vega writes the descriptions of the wine auction lots for the festival catalogue, incorporating a wealth of knowledge with just the right cosmopolitan flair. We caught up with Vega on a late Sunday afternoon over a glass of Foley chardonnay.

Q: Why your interest in wine?

A: In law school, I was older and married; running out to drink nickel beers every night had lost its appeal. A few friends of like mind started meeting every Friday night at the Gainesville Wine & Cheese Shop for a themed tasting. Everyone bought a bottle that fit the wine theme, and the last to arrive got stuck with the cheese. Having eight wines in front of you was a beautiful way to learn.

Q: After law school, what advanced your enlightenment?

A: A friend and I began something called "Cooking With Wine." Somehow we survived these sessions to understand the nuances of wine with food. Back then California wineries could ship wine directly to Florida residents, and I started my California collection-small wineries, interesting wines.

Q: Why are there so many boutique California cabernets in the $150-per-bottle range?

A: They're great wines that do stand up to first growths [top Bordeaux wines]. Here's the difference: The big Bordeauxs are in the thousands of cases. These wines, like Screaming Eagle, are produced in such small runs-just a few hundred cases. So that makes them even more of a great value.

Q: Speaking of hard-to-get wines, the Grace family's auction lot this year is incredible.

A: It is very, very unique and rare, especially when you consider that in the early years of their vineyards, they might have made only 150 cases of each vintage. This auction lot consists of one bottle from each of their vintages-1978 through 2001. Each bottle is a specially etched magnum. Auction lots like this add wonderful prestige to the festival. And the list goes on. The guys from Torbreck are bringing a Les Amis Grenache, a wine that Robert Parker just scored a 99. And they have two of the world's very best wines: Ornellaia from Frescobaldi and Sassicaia from Nicolo Incisa della Rocchetta. These guys have had vineyards on their Tuscan estates for centuries.

Q: How do you think the event got so big so quickly?

A: The founders had a vision and were able to bring it home. We do things differently. For example, rather than one large black-tie dinner, we have 17 dinners for 30 people each, held in people's homes. Each dinner has a world-class chef and world-class vintner, who are cooking and pouring and really part of the dinner. You can have Dick Grace pouring his wines for the food that Daniel Boulud is cooking in front of your eyes. That's incomparable. At the auction the next day, the vintners sit at all the tables, and it creates such a level of enthusiasm-and the enthusiasm spills out through the entire community. Last year I was walking down Fifth Avenue South and at a sidewalk café there sat Mario Batali, Joachim Splichal and Daniel Boulud, arguably three of the top chefs in the U.S. How cool is that for little old Naples?