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Naples Goes to Napa

In the face of it, Naples and California's Napa Valley might not seem to have all that much in common. Sandy beaches and mangrove wetlands versus golden hills and freeways. The humid subtropics versus a cool Mediterranean clime. But the connection lies in the fruit of the vine-wine and the people who love it. More specifically, a close-knit cadre of Neapolitans, many of whom have Napa roots of their own and who, three years ago, began to hatch the grand idea that ultimately became the Naples Winter Wine Festival.

After launching a spectacularly successful event in 2001-more than $2.7 million raised to benefit the Boys & Girls Club of Collier County and Youth Haven of Naples, not to mention a dazzlingly good time had by all-festival founders immediately began brainstorming the follow-up, which will run Feb. 1-3. And that naturally enough meant a September reconnaissance mission to the heart of California's wine country for a weekend of public-minded research (how to raise even more money to benefit Naples' children than last year's inaugural event?) and hedonistic diversion (how to sample all the wares of vintners and chefs who will be participating in this year's version?).

Yes, it's a tough job, but. . .

"It wasn't all play. We did sit down, hold a founder's meeting and got plenty of work done. But all in all it was a weekend of great fun, great food and great wine," says Valerie Boyd, who with her husband, Jeff Gargiulo, is one of the wine festival's 18 founding families. Boyd and Gargiulo, both native Floridians and longtime residents of Naples, now split their time between Southwest Florida and California, where Gargiulo is the chairman of Sunkist. Since 1995, they have also owned Gargiulo Vineyard in Oakville, Calif., which hosted some of the festivities as part of its annual "Harvest Celebration" picnic.

The weekend started off at the Napa summer home of festival founders Tom and Theresa Wajnert (he was the chairman and CEO of AT&T Capital Corp. and she is a former Episcopal priest). Orchestrating the Friday evening dinner was Peter Hall, executive chef of Piatti in Napa. Hall is one of more than 20 chefs scheduled to share their culinary magic at the exclusive vintner's dinners that will kick off the first evening of the wine festival in some of Naples' grandest estate homes. Indeed, the lineup of chefs reads like the A-list of contemporary cooking and includes Thomas Keller, chef and owner of The French Laundry and Bouchon, both in Napa Valley; Tom Colicchio, chef and co-owner of Gramercy Tavern and Craft in New York City; Todd English, chef and owner of the five Olives restaurants and host of "Cooking with Todd English"; and Mark Militello, owner/chef of four acclaimed south Florida restaurants.

Holding court on Saturday were Gargiulo and Garen Staglin, owner of the esteemed Staglin Family Vineyard in Rutherford, which hosted guests at the Staglins' 11,000-square-foot villa that, along with the grapes themselves, is the centerpiece of the 112-acre property. It is nestled against Mt. St. John, the tallest mountain in the Mayacamas range, with a unique gravelly loam that provides the character of Staglin's Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese.

"It was a perfect setting, and it was one of those dinners where everyone just sort of pitched in," says Boyd. "Jeff and Garen were the chefs. They conspired on a salmon and caviar pizza that was unbelievable. And I was one of the waitstaff."

After the meal, served al fresco on a long granite table by the pool that had room for all 24 guests, there was a tour of the vineyard's caves, where the wine ages in oak casks. It's notable that Staglin is one of the largest single vineyards owned by a family without outside partners or investors, and the vineyard's motto-"Good food, good wine, good causes"-is underlined by its dedication to numerous charitable pursuits, often donating its wine for auctions and benefits.

The Sunday morning founder's meeting was at the home of Clarke and Elizabeth Swanson. Clarke, a Naples native son and part-time resident, has made his reputation at Swanson Vineyards, producing among other offerings, an outstanding red table wine, named after his daughter, Alexis, that is a mixture of merlot, cabernet and syrah. Swanson's wines will again be showcased at this year's festival, along with those of some 20 other vintners including Ken and Grace Evenstad, founders of Oregon's Domaine Serene winery and winter residents of Naples; Dick Grace, owner of Grace Family Vineyard and an honoree at the 2001 festival; Ann Barry Colgin, owner of Colgin Cellars; Gil Nickel, proprietor of Far Niente and an honoree at the 2002 festival; Robert Pecota, founder of Robert Pecota Winery; and Michael Mondavi, chairman of the Robert Mondavi Winery.

Afterwards, the moveable feast landed at Gargiulo Vineyard for the spirited gathering that marks the harvest celebration. The 120 guests, including colleagues and friends from neighboring vineyards, supped on spit-roasted pigs and joined in the barefoot stomping of freshly picked grapes.

"It was a wonderful weekend," says Boyd. "And it was the same sense of fun that will be playing out in Naples in February."

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