Naples Winter Wine Festival 2011: Bids! Action! Thrills!
David copham insists it’s easy to win big at the Naples Winter Wine Festival auction. Through the years, Copham and his wife, Cheryl, who are trustees of the Naples Children & Education Foundation, have brought home many admirable auction items, including a Screaming Eagle lot that included a private dinner.
But their strategy to besting other bidders remains simple: “Having the paddle up last,” says Copham with a laugh. “That’s usually what’s successful.”
Still, if winning was so effortless, the Naples Winter Wine Festival auction would not prove quite so dramatic. In its 11-year history, the wine festival has evolved to include a gallery of jubilant victors, gracious losers, colorful anecdotes and memorable moments that, like Copham’s paddle, just keep coming up again and again.
After all, who could forget the tale of Emeril’s underwear?
A little bit naughty
In 2006, celebrity Chef Emeril Lagasse threw himself into the auction mix. As part of a lot, the winner received a four-day trip to New York City that included tickets to the television show Emeril Live. When the bidding on the lot turned sluggish, Lagasse made his way to the microphone and joined longtime event auctioneers Ann Colgin and Humphrey Butler on the stage.
To coax the bidding paddles a bit higher, Lagasse offered to throw in a dinner with him. And to add a little spice, he joked that “If you give me $300,000, I’ll have dinner with you in my underwear.”
Bidding on the auction lot, which had originally lingered around $150,000, went wild, and event trustees Denise and Brian Cobb signed on to double the package. The double lot ultimately raked in $620,000 – not too shabby for the promise of dining with a nearly-naked, middle-aged man.
It’s that type of good-natured teasing that helps heighten the auction atmosphere to a frenzied pitch, explains auctioneer Butler. With Colgin, he’s been leading the auction since its second year. In that time, Butler says he’s learned many of the people and personalities involved with the auction. Now, he says he has an innate sense of who might be interested in what auction lots and what to do to lure them further into the bidding fray.
But even when confronted with a bidder he’s never met, there’s one thing that doesn’t change. Butler reveals how it gives him an advantage: By the time wine festival attendees arrive at the auction, they’re usually in the best of moods, the auctioneer says. They’ve already been privately wined and dined by some of the finest chefs and vintners in the world—now, all they need is to be entertained and have a few laughs as they bid.
That’s where Butler comes in with what he calls “very gentle leg-pulling.” Whether it’s a frisky jab at someone’s hairstyle, clothing or tan, “they all come in for a bit of punishment,” Butler says.
The reason such treatment works well at the wine festival is that a fundraising auction is one place where people don’t mind being part of the spectacle. Actually, they crave it, Butler explains, because it means that they’re doing something right: bidding big for the day’s charity.
“The more attention you draw to people,” he says, “the happier they are.”
Still, there are some quips that Butler has sworn never to make. Once, at a charity auction in Napa, he cheerfully goaded a septuagenarian in the audience into raising her bid higher by offering to be her companion for the evening. Except he didn’t say it as delicately as that, and the comment was aired several times on National Public Radio as part of a news story on the auction.
“Since then, I’ve resolved not to cross the line,” Butler says dryly. “You never know when you’re being recorded.”
A little bit competitive
Butler may have amended his auction day approach to be a little less outrageous on certain occasions, but Naples Children & Education Foundation trustee Retta Singer says she has no such similar plans. She loves the excitement and drama of the Naples Winter Wine Festival, both in being part of it and helping to cause it.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been to an auction where I don’t bid,” Singer says. “I love to raise that paddle.”
In 2003, she created a stir when she bid on a case of 1961 Chateau Latour that she admits she really didn’t even initially want to win. Then, when the event kicked off with a choral performance by youngsters helped by the money generated through the auction, everything changed.
“I tell you what,” Singer recalls. “They bring those children up on the stage and they’re singing to you and they’re the cutest things you’ve ever seen. You get so wound up. You just want to buy.”
At first, she didn’t pay much attention to how she was bidding. But then, she realized that the person she was primarily bidding against was another woman. And not just any woman, Singer recalls. Like Singer, this woman was petite and blonde. For some reason, Singer says she just couldn’t let a woman who looked so much like her take home the Latour.
Her husband, Elliott, kept telling her to sit down. Across the way, Singer could see that the other woman’s husband was doing the same. Singer wouldn’t be silenced though, she says, and finally, the other woman’s husband tugged her back down into her seat. Singer had won her wine—and was taking home a raucous auction memory, too.
“I got up on top of the table and I was screaming so loud,” she remembers. “In fact, my picture was in the newspaper the next morning, I got so excited. I went in the Guinness Book of World Records for never in history has anyone paid as much money for a case of 1961 Latour.”
Her husband has been seized by auction excitement, too, she notes. At one auction, a lot seemed to languish. As Emeril had done, Elliott ran up the stage and added a dinner at the Singer home to sweeten the pot. Unlike Emeril, Elliott made no mention of his skivvies, and the lot sold helped purely by the promise of a private dinner at the Singers.
If competition can be cutthroat, there are plenty of chances to form friendships at this auction, too, Copham notes. The first year he and Cheryl attended, the couple knew few other guests. When a lot that included a vacation to Ireland came up on the block, another couple at their table suggested they go in on the bidding together. The Cophams, gripped by the moment, didn’t hesitate to say yes.
“You’ve probably said 50 words to the people in your entire life,” Copham recalls. “But, oh, let’s go on a week’s trip to Ireland.”
The Cophams and the other couple won their bid and embarked on a journey to the Emerald Isle together. They’ve also become great friends, Copham says.
That’s why Butler believes it’s ultimately the people and their personalities that imbue the auction with such dramatic flair. The auction may be a little saucy and a little competitive at times, but ultimately, it all amounts to big fun for everyone who attends.
“It’s the only event that’s made me feel like a rock star,” admits the auctioneer.