November 22, 2014

Tales of the Unsung Heroes

wine-(3).jpgThey descend upon Naples with the determination of an army—and the enthusiasm of an elementary school field trip.

By the time the last drop of wine is savored, more than 450 volunteers will have pulled off another spectacular Naples Winter Wine Festival, adding to the staggering pot—$69.5 million raised since 2001—to improve the lives of underprivileged and at-risk children.

In pre-festival preparation alone, more than 150 volunteers spend hundreds of hours completing 32 major projects. Then comes the three-day festival, kicking off Friday, Feb. 6, with this year’s theme of "Dreams Do Come True."

Marilyn Postle Tiburski, the festival’s volunteer coordinator, is one of seven paid employees. She has built up the pre-festival volunteer base from about 50 people four years ago, a mix of retirees and workers whose employers encourage community service.

"This couldn’t be done without them," Tiburski says.

Long-distance volunteers

Tiburski says 44 of the wine festival volunteers come from out of town. When winter weather slows things down in Linville, N.C., about half a dozen employees of Linville Ridge Country Club owner Scott Lutgert—the one and the same Naples real estate developer and wine festival trustee—head south for about two weeks to volunteer.

It all started when Lutgert asked Gary Johnston, then-general manager of the country club, to work at Lutgert’s first vintner dinner. "I came back and rallied enough interest to come as a team, from my excitement working with some of America’s finest chefs and meeting some of the finest vintners," Johnston says.

Natalie Watson, a Linville Ridge realtor, began volunteering four years ago from early December through late February. She coordinates wine inventory and delivery for festival events including vintner dinners, auction, after-party and brunch.

"Last year, we had 999 bottles just for the auction lot," she says. "There were over 3,000 bottles of wine. I make sure it gets from point A to point B. That’s where the Linville team comes into play."

Watson has so many duties during her three-month volunteer stint that it makes most full-time jobs seem leisurely. "In the back of your head, you’re so tired," she says. "But on Saturday, when you see everything at the auction, it all makes sense why you wake up at 4 in the morning and don’t go to bed until 2. You see the kids (who benefit from the money raised), hear their stories and forget about the long hours."

Quick Thinking and Connections

Fellow Linville volunteer Johnston is so committed to the festival that he’s not even letting a brain tumor get in the way. He expects to have medical clearance to do everything but drive. "I’ll be able to orchestrate and plan," he says.

And orchestrate he can, especially when things don’t go as planned. Johnston recalls one vintner dinner when the chef’s FedEx package containing all the specialty produce and meat got waylaid at a warehouse in Memphis, Tenn. "When those things happen, if you’re not familiar with Naples, you wouldn’t know where to turn," Johnston says.

Being a former Neapolitan and local dining industry insider until 1984, he immediately reached out to his connections. "I called everyone I’d ever done business with since the ’70s, and we pulled off a five-course menu, impromptu," he says. "We had to pair everything with the wines, and the vintners were happy."

The ironic pièce de résistance: One of the guests at the dinner that night was the CEO of FedEx.

Rolling up their sleeves

This is Robert Young’s seventh year volunteering from Linville Ridge. His duties have ranged from sommelier to dishwasher (when glasses he was supposed to transport hadn’t been washed). "We jump in and do whatever’s needed," he says. "We were washing for an hour and a half. We were drenched by the time we were finished."

Young also recalls a festival event on Keewaydin Island that posed unusual logistical problems. "We had to move everything by boat, and it’s a private island, so everything had to be removed that night," he says. "The boat captain had to wait for us, so he was helping us. Normally, it would take about six hours. We did it in two. The caterers pitched in—of course, they were waiting on the last boat, too."

Open every box

"We’ve definitely had broken bottles," Watson says. "Last year, it was a private donation of port wine someone had in their cellar a long time, far away from Naples. We opened the wine boxes, and it looked like a murder scene. We don’t have time to scrounge around and look for the same wine. The donor searched all over to get the exact same wine—we had advertised it—and he sent more. It came the morning of the
auction. That’s why we have to open every box."

It’s all in the presentation

Watson’s duties include making sure the auction lot display tables are decorated. She remembers having to rush around Wal-Mart looking for zebra stuffed animals so she could create a safari-themed display to entice guests to bid on a trip to Africa.

"You’re going around last-minute, getting all kinds of stuff," she says. "I’m constantly going to Costco on runs. The weirdest thing was in 2007 for the theme ‘Nature’s Transformation.’ I was in charge of the raffle. I spent a good week trying to find a butterfly costume. I was getting samples of wings."

Lots and lots of limos

"It’s a wine festival. We don’t want people driving themselves around," Watson says. "We have over 300 limos we’re sending all over Naples and Bonita to pick up 600 to 650 guests, mostly couples."

She says it’s quite a feat to call all the limo companies and guests to coordinate the logistics. "Inevitably, with out-of-town drivers, a number of drivers will get lost," Watson says. "We have to reel them back in."

To make sure guests aren’t delayed, the festival now keeps a few standby limos in their parking lot for emergency pick-ups. "If two cars show up, great," she says.

"Security!"

Security is serious business at the wine festival, where the rich and famous pay top dollar for an exclusive experience—and gawkers are tempted to peek in the auction tent.

Security volunteers take their assignments so seriously, in fact, that even VIPs don’t get to break the rules. Rosemarie Schwager of Naples remembers asking everyone to show credentials at the gate—even Emeril Lagasse, a featured vintner’s dinner chef.

"Emeril didn’t have his credentials," Schwager says. "He said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ I said, ‘It doesn’t matter. You have to get your credentials.’ He was very good about it. He went and got them and said, ‘I have my credentials!’ The whole afternoon, anytime he left, we would joke back and forth about his credentials. We were doing our job."

While Schwager and Lagasse’s encounter was pleasant, Bob Centrella of Naples had to threaten police involvement to get three middle-aged ladies to stop trying to sneak into a festival after-party at Ridgway Bar & Grill in Naples. When they couldn’t get through the front door, they tried the back.

"We never have problems with young kids," he says. "The three of them were 55 or 60, and they were insistent about getting in. I don’t know if they were looking for a new husband. Nobody poor goes to this thing."

Ray Marasco of Naples had a run-in with one of those big spenders while working security. "In security, you feel a little like a policeman," he says. "I overdid it on one particular occasion. A gentleman came up to the gate near the tent and said he wanted to register. I thought he was a volunteer."

So Marasco tried to usher the man into the volunteer area—against his will. It turns out the man had paid $7,500 for a pair of tickets and was trying to meet his wife. "I didn’t know. He had no identification and no ticket," he says. "He gave his name, and they checked him out."

Under the Tent

Security guard Centrella has also worked in the "Fun Factory," the group of volunteers whose job it is to get the crowd pumped up during the bidding wars at the auction.

"There’s a lot of excitement under the tent when the bidding goes on. It’s a feeding frenzy," he says, recalling a $2 million bid for a Rolls Royce. "You can’t fathom it. I wouldn’t know how to write that kind of check. When you get three or four or five people bidding, you don’t even need the Fun Factory. Their friends at the table are standing up and screaming. It’s something you have to see once in your life to understand."

Ready, set, go!

Patricia J. Williams of Bonita Springs has been volunteering at the wine festival since its inception and is now in charge of about 15 "runners."

"When the hammer goes down on the final bid, we are the ones responsible for going and getting their signature," she says. "It’s a really interesting job. We’re right up by the stage by the auctioneer. We get to see everything that’s happening."

That includes seeing all the famous faces, which can be intimidating. "You have to be very confident. You’re going up to celebrities," Williams says. "But you’re only getting their ‘autograph’ because they just bid on something."

Williams remembers a runner who got starstruck by Lagasse and couldn’t work up the nerve to get the chef’s signature. Williams had to think fast and send another runner to get the job done.

Fruits of their labor

Peter Manion and his wife, Susan, of Naples, are cleanup crew volunteers. They are also board co-chairs of the Fun Time Early Childhood Academy, a recipient of some festival proceeds. He says many board members from his academy and other local charities volunteer for the festival.

"We will assist them in any way they would like us to," he says. "It’s a chance to give back to the organization that’s given so much to us and to the community at large. You get to know everybody in the nonprofit fraternity, and they’re all there."

In addition to showing his appreciation, Manion discovered a special perk of volunteering for cleanup: unfinished bottles of wine.

"If there are extra bottles, after you clean the place up, you can meander over to the tent and have a nice tasting," he says.

When it’s all over

"At some point, we get to sleep," Watson says. "Two days after everything’s done, we close the office down, and our families get to talk to us again. The month of the festival, you work seven days a week. The day we get to enjoy is on Sunday, when we have the celebratory brunch. It’s our day to take a breather, sit back and enjoy."