Splendor in the Glass: A Diary of the Naples Winter Wine Festival
A donor recalls the wines, foods, fashion and generosity that made the 2017 festival so memorable.
Here we go again. It’s Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017, and the day finds me prepping for my second Naples Winter Wine Festival. The multi-day event benefiting the Naples Children & Education Foundation is special to a great many, of course, but I must say it’s quite close to my heart—this one’s the second since my fiancé, trustee John Schanck, won the auction lot of a trip to Italy that would change our lives. He went on the trip and came back, as he puts it, “with a 450-year-old Tuscan farmhouse, an Airedale terrier named Teddy and, oh yes, a new girlfriend.” That would be me! (More on that later. The NWWF is, indeed, an amazing and worthy event.)
On this eve of “opening day,” I am very excited. And yes, I’ve already spent a few weeks contemplating what to wear to which event; the festival attended by an international who’s who comprises a wine tasting, Meet the Kids Day, vintner dinners, the grand auction, a closing brunch. (Though one does not need to get turned out for the online auction, thankfully. That we can do in our pajamas.) Of course, none of this overrides the fact that it is all about the children of Collier County. But during this fantastic project, we ladies like to bring color, fun and fashion along with us! This year’s theme of “Bright Sunshiny Day” is making it extra enjoyable.
Soon enough it is 10 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 26, and John and I are at Old Naples’ Bleu Provence. We’re here for a Harlan Estate wine tasting, an intimate, separate-ticket event. In front of me are 10 glasses to accommodate the 10 varying wines from the Harlan Estate in Oakville, California.
The author with John at their auction table.
At the head table are a team of wine experts together with the owners of Harlan Estate. Even if you know nothing about wine and its production, this is the place to learn. It brings together people from near and far who have a passion for wine, but more importantly, have a passion for using this as a means to raising millions of dollars to assist the underprivileged children, and therefore their families, of Collier County.
I do my best not to “drink” the nectar and merely “taste” it, because we have lunch coming up—with more wine—and it will be a long day. The meal, prepared by Bleu Provence master chef Lysielle Cariot with her husband, Jacques, is delicious. It is so much fun not just coming together with the existing trustees and friends of the NWWF, but also meeting new enthusiasts, including some of the people who will be guests at the vintner dinner John and I are hosting Friday evening at the beautiful home of Fred and Stephanie Pezeshkan.
Lunch is over, but I don’t stay sad for too long, as my dear friends Laura and Elisa Piccini arrive from Florence, Italy, to add to my fun. It was their contributed lot that John fatefully bought in 2015, and it was at a dinner in their jewelry shop on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence where John and I first locked eyes.
He was so tired on that full-programmed trip that he almost didn’t attend the dinner. But when he did, he saw me from afar standing by a window overlooking the flowing River Arno below. I had been widowed five years, and John was fed up with dating (he was on the trip with his son and his son’s girlfriend!), but after we were introduced and started chatting, we never stopped the whole evening. The next day, he emailed me to say he would be back in two weeks for our “first date,” and he was! We’ve been together ever since. (And, funny enough, his proposal to me in 2016 came with another wine fest connection—he popped the question on a cruise through the Panama Canal with two of that year’s festival co-chairs, trustees Jim and Laura Dixon, aboard the private yacht owned by lifetime trustees Lee and Penny Anderson.) Cupid really does exist!
OK, back to the present. After the wine tasting luncheon, I head home for a little rest to prepare myself for the exclusive opening evening event at The Continental restaurant on Third Street South. Present there will be the participating vintners and chefs—including, most famously, 2017 festival Chef de Cuisine Wolfgang Puck—as well as the trustees and some of our guests.
All night, the wine is flowing, the food is tremendous, and the atmosphere is electric as we discuss the lots to be purchased. They range from racing cars to world trips. I have never seen so many enthusiastic people ready to spend so much, so quickly, for such a worthy cause. And then there is the music. My John is the first to get up, taking my hand, and get the party going. And as soon as one couple is up, the rest follow. But all too quickly, it is over and time for all to retreat and regroup.
Up and at it! It’s Friday morning, and many of the patrons are taking buses to Meet the Kids Day, this year held at Grace Place for Children & Families. I unfortunately cannot be there, as I am awaiting the arrival of two guests from Jacksonville. However, I will be there in spirit. And the efforts of John being a strong repeat supporter of the festival—personally and through sponsorship with his company, Stellar Recovery Inc.—and the two of us hosting our vintner dinner should do the children proud.
My personal preparations are most extensive for the vintner dinner. Each of the 18 trustee-hosted dinners has a different spin on the Bright Sunshiny Day theme. As John and I are “Apollo Meets Bacchus,” I commit to the “goddess” look. I will be wearing a full-length gold Herve Leger dress and a crown of golden leaves, so I pop into Nordstrom’s cosmetic department to have the artists there work on my face to “golden me up.” It is so much fun playing dress up—and that goes for John, too. He’s set to wear a wine-red dinner suit lined in a wine-glass and grape print, with matching handkerchief and white gold grape cufflinks. When else can you get away with that?
Alas, back at the house there’s no time to rest as a Greek or Roman goddess might. We have to be at the Pezeshkan’s beautiful home—and I mean beautiful, like a dream—by 5:30 p.m., to check table seating and other arrangements once more.
We arrive to find that our party planner, Pamela Beckman from Bon Soiree, and her daughter, Samantha, have truly done us proud. The property has been decorated gorgeously, starting with “living,” grape-bunch-clutching statues in white at the entrance to the house, and again in the dining room, which is completely white from the tablecloths to the flowers to the candelabra. Accents of gold, like the cutlery, glitter. And while we greet our guests in the garden with a glass of champagne, ethereal “living” vines (tall human trees!) begin to move slowly like surrealistic monsters back and forth across the lawn in the fading evening light, backlit by flaming torches and lights sparkling on the water from across the estuary. It’s truly a stunning sight, to the sounds of a harpist and flautist, haunting and beautiful. I hear many “oohs” and “aahs.”
Once seated in the lanai across from the beautiful pool lit with changing colors, we meet our chef, John Minas of Tallahassee’s The Edison, and his staff as music drifts in from outside. The aromas wafting from the kitchen make the taste buds tingle as he regales us with details about the seven-course meal we are about to experience.
Next, in comes our vintner, Dr. Madaiah Revana—also a practicing heart surgeon in Houston—owner of the Revana Family Vineyard in St. Helena, California; Alexana Winery in Newberg, Oregon; and most recently Bodega Corezana del Sol in Argentina. He and his winery manager, John Gabelhausen, share the history of their wine production and notes about the wines they have for us tonight.
What follows is, in a word, amazing.
We feast on an artistically plated chicken liver pate with a touch of Eastern delight, paired with 2015 Aleana Revana Riesling; braised pig cheeks with frisée, pomegranate, pecans and sheep’s milk feta, paired with 2015 Aleana Terroir series Pinot Gris; chestnut gnocchi with acorn squash, pine nuts and Maine lobster, with 2013 Alexana chardonnay (my favorite, as I am more of a white wine drinker); salsify and black truffle soup (out of this world!) with 2013 Revana Estate Pinot Noir (John’s favorite); beef Wellington mushroom duxlle, with 2013 Revana Estat eCabernet Sauvignon, also delicious; sorbet and fresh berries, with 2013 Alexana Late Harvest Riesling (mmmm); and, lastly, cheese, dried fruit and walnuts, with 2013 Corazon del sol Gran Reservation Malbec. Wow. Every pairing is just perfect, and the toga-clad staff serving us are excellently trained, with all the dishes touching the table at the same time, so no hesitation about who should start enjoying their meal and when!
Master Sommelier Scott Carney and guests
As the meal progresses, so does the music. We have such fun with Dr. Revana in particular—he offers great conversation, he charms the ladies, and he likes to dance! He may be a small man, but he has a big passion for the vine.
One of our guests from Tallahassee, Adam Corey (lobbyist and restaurateur of The Edison) is also a talented singer. He grabs the microphone and gives us a version of one of the Tamla Motown hits. Frank Sinatra, eat your heart out. Another guest from Tallahassee, Randy Mills—who does a perfect rendition of Michael Jackson’s dance-floor moves—pulls me up and off we go, entertaining the guests (the wine giving me a touch of “Dutch courage”). You can tell Randy is in the fashion business by his fabulous pink, three-piece suit! (Later, when I would run into a lady at St. Ann charity dinner, she would tell me, “Oh, it’s you! I saw you and that man dancing on Twitter—it was like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers!”) Even our host, Fred Pezeshkan, ends up singing with some of the other musical men.
Randy, John and I aren’t the only ones sporting fashion to write home about.
I put Randy and Austin Rain, another young man from Tallahassee, at the table with Naples residents Lynne Byerly, an eye doctor, and her friend Carla Delgado, originally from Venezuela. (Both married with young children, the ladies have very well-trained husbands who were at home looking after the children during the whole wine festival. Well done, ladies!) They loved getting dressed up, and both look stunning—Lynne in a red one-shoulder short dress and Carla in slinky palazzo pants with a transparent mèche top (bra underneath, of course). Steve and Elizabeth Shlemon out of Miami, with us for the second time, are a handsome couple: Elizabeth in a red lace figure-hugging short dress ... she certainly has the figure to pull it off.
The party proves a wonderful time for guests to make new friendships as well, and the mood is perhaps best summed up by Canadian guests Arni Thorsteinson and Susan Glass, who say, “We will be back!”
By the time we prepare to leave this wonderful evening, we are still in the party mood. But being wise, and knowing we have the most important day ahead of us, John and I head straight home and leave the late-night partying back at The Ritz-Carlton to the “young guns.”
Fitting with the theme, Saturday morning is thankfully sun-filled. A carnival atmosphere greets us upon our arrival at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples, and we start with an impressive bang. A fantastic electric orchestra awaits us on the grounds, its young musicians in black playing violins and dancing.
The dress code for auction day is a little more casual than the vintner dinners. However, as I like to dress up, I’m wearing a midi-length, flowing, multicolored halter-neck dress with cork-heeled pink suede shoes. Plenty of people come up and compliment me as we all mingle among the vintners and chefs to sample their wares, but I have my eye on some other fashions. Laura Russell, I must say, looked especially lovely in a blue and natural lace shorts jumpsuit (she has the legs for it!). The other ladies, all sporty and elegant, are attracting lots of admiring looks as well.
Suddenly, a flash mob of young dancers, musicians and cheerleaders arrive and a tumultuous show ensues, culminating at the steps into the grand marquis, prompting us to head into the main tent for the main event.
The vista inside elicits a big wow from me. The décor is sunny and the tables are full of nibbles and noshes, with bright flowers at the center. At our seats, each of us receives a gorgeous shoulder bag full of goodies. (We have more men than women at our table, so I momentarily consider bribing them for one of their bags, too! The facial serum and hydrating cream are superb…) Soon, veteran auctioneer Humphrey Butler is up on the stage starting the auction.
John has done his research, as always, but this year, because he is a sponsor and we hosted a vintner dinner, we don’t walk away with a winning bid. (And, a little secret: We still have two trips to take from our wins last year and the year before!) But you can bet our paddles still go up to drive other bidders higher.
The auction starts on a high, with Lot 1, a collection of more than 100 100-point wines, going for $210,000 (!)—and the generosity continues. Byron and Laura Russell, two of our vintner dinner guests from West Palm Beach, buy a trip to Italy for another $230,000. (Byron won’t be coming back with a new girlfriend as John did, one hopes!) They go after the “Around the World in Napa Days” 24-day journey, but that goes so quickly that their paddle is only hallway up when it sells for $250,000—a steal, in a private jet with all luxury accommodation. Wow, where was my paddle?
The time seems to fly by, as we jump around from person to person, making sure they are having a great time and waving their paddles. Every staff member and guest plays a part in making the atmosphere electric. I watch as people weave between tables, peeking at who might be bidding for what, with big cheers each time the hammer comes down. We won’t learn just how much money is raised today until tomorrow’s Sunday brunch—and the silent auction continues another couple days—but we know already it will be over the $15 million mark.
Something tells me that high figure plays a part in the vibe staying strong all throughout the “Wine Down” after-party, back in The Ritz garden. Adam Corey joins the entertainment and grabs the mic again. We dance the night away, laughing with friends old and new. Oh, my poor feet!
Sunday morning is somewhat more relaxed when we all reconvene in the grand marquis at The Ritz-Carlton for a magnificent brunch, much-needed coffee and, on the big screens, some of the wonderful sights from the weekend’s events. The “Sunshine Team” of the year’s eight co-chairs take the stage to tell us the grand live auction total. The announcement of $15.1 million (and counting, thanks to the online auction) is met with shrieks of delight and much applause. Then they pass the proverbial torch, introducing the trustees who have volunteered to take on the task of organizing NWWF 2018. Oh yes, the work starts now!
Personally, I can’t wait to do my part all over again.
Editor’s note: Angela and John wed on Feb. 10, 2017, in Vancouver, British Columbia, and she has joined him as a Naples Children & Education Foundation trustee.
Another look inside the vintner dinner: