Sip from Your 16 Wine Glasses Along Route 66

Tales of exotic Friday night vintner dinners at the Naples Winter Wine Festival

BY February 2, 2015


It’s long been suggested that breakfast is the most important meal of the
 day. But for children of Collier County, the most important meal of the year is dinner, held on January’s final Friday.

From a social and socio standpoint, the infamous Friday Night Vintner Dinners are of the most cherished tickets in town. A precursor to
the annual Naples Winter Wine Festival Saturday auction, these 17 dinners (each hosting 24 to 40 guests) take place at some of Southwest Florida’s most exclusive private homes and feature world-renowned chefs, such as Tom Colicchio (Top Chef, Craft Restaurants) and Barbara Lynch (Boston’s Menton), as well as premier vintners, including Piero Antinori (Marchesi Antinori) and Paul Pontallier (Chateau Margaux), serving guests from across the globe. We’re talking 17 chefs (plus their staffs) and 42 vintners (plus their staffs) descending on Naples for one night of gastronomic and grape-o-phonic brilliance.

And not surprisingly, the dinners require an army to produce. But as each army has a general, so, too, does each dinner have an event planner who’s been hired to make sure every- thing goes smoothly, regardless as to whether things call for something as simple as extra bar towels or as excessive as turning someone’s home into the Starship Enterprise. (It happens.) Both Milda Vaivada of Soirée Atelier and Margaret Short of Margaret Events have been planning Friday Night Vintner Dinners since the festival’s very first year (2001). And both are intimately familiar with the numerous moving parts that go into making Naples’ most fabulous parties come to life. In fact, Vaivada’s resume includes a Woodstock-themed 50th birthday that took up three ballrooms at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples and a 70th birthday party at Skibo Castle in Scotland. Neither a subtle affair.

“The hosts (restricted to trustees
of the Naples Children & Education Foundation) just want to put on a great event,” says Short, who has planned more Friday night dinners than anyone else (sometimes up to three per year). “They want people to come and have
a great time. Their guests are paying $8,500 (per couple) and so the purpose is to get them excited for the event
the next day and get them to raise the paddle. That’s what everyone’s goal is. That’s why they’re trustees and that’s why they’re doing this.”

And what gets guests excited is uniqueness—but that doesn’t come cheap. “People can be as elaborate or less elaborate as they choose,” Vaivada says. “My clients usually want to be more elaborate. I honestly have to say, in the end (the hosts) usually don’t want to add it up.”

That’s because price tags can run anywhere from $40,000 to $150,000—per dinner. And since 2007, dinners have been planned around the festival’s yearly theme, which tends to make hosts go the extra mile.

Two years ago, with a festival theme of When Stars Align, Vaivada planned out a dinner for Shelly and Ralph Stayer at their Gulf-front mansion. They came up with Star Trek as their theme then set out to create it. “Shelly said, ‘I want my living room to look like the Starship Command Center,’” Vaivada says. “We had to empty the whole living room, cover up all the walls, build an entire set with the twinkling lights and the monitors. We put a big screen in the room featuring Mr. Spock and Capt. Kirk giving messages. It was amazing.”

To pull it off Vaivada watched every single Star Trek episode. She studied what the console looked like. How the doors opened between rooms. She brought in a production company from Miami to build the set. She tracked down authentic costumes and the right characters to portray Mr. Spock, Scotty and Lt. Uruha. She had laser-etched boarding pass place cards made from glowing acrylic. She even had menus on iPads, so she had to hire a technician to be in the back and press a button to make sure the menus came up for the different courses.

For last year’s dinner for James and Gail McCready, Vaivada rebuilt the façade of the couple’s Port Royal Italian villa into a diner you might find along Route 66 replete with Elvis impersonator and classic cars. The festival’s theme was Celebrate the Journey. For 2015, the theme is Imagine the Possibilities.

“I’m just doing two this year,” Short says, rather nonchalantly, “the Gargiulo/Cobb (Jeff Gargiulo and Valerie Boyd/Brian and Denise Cobb) dinner and the Anne (Welsh) McNulty dinner. Both are for about 32 people. Each has its own theme. The Gargiulo/Cobb theme is You May Say I’m a Dreamer and the McNulty dinner is Motown. So they’re totally different. Motown will have lots of lights and a tribute band just as you’d imagine Motown. For Dreamer I want to do a dream-like feel: In one area it’ll look like you’re walking on the water, ethereal-like, more iridescent than clouds with interesting lighting effects.”

We’re talking full-scale productions that also happen to feature some of the world’s finest chefs and vintners.

“Often I’ll get a call and hear, ‘OMG, we just agreed to host a wine din-
ner. Help!’” Vaivada says. “So for my clients, basically it’s like, ‘Come up with everything—the theme, the staff, interact with the chef.’ … It’s pretty much a turnkey event.”

That’s in large part due to the army every planner enlists. Aside from the set designers, laser engineers and entertainers dressed like the cast of Star Trek, every dinner requires an team of movers, caterers, valet, invitation designers, florists, rental agents, musicians, photographers, delivery people and more.

“The servers alone we have at least eight,” Short says. “And then the florist and their team, another three; the lighting guys (probably four); the rental companies, if you’re putting up a tent that could easily be eight guys; a photographer; the invitations; the band—that’s more than 20 right there.”

And often the client will have staff
at the house—at the very least a house manager—to work with and arrange different deliveries, such as the all-import- ant wine glasses. Each place setting can include up to a staggering 16 glasses. It’s excess for the best of causes.

Yet surprisingly, budgets are occasionally of concern. “Sometimes a client will say, ‘Yes, I want swans in the water!’ and I will say, ‘We can do that, it’ll be $20,000.’ And they go, ‘Well, maybe we can eliminate the swans.’ So it takes a little while to get it packaged where they sign off on it.”

Vaivada and Short have done the thinking so their clients and their guests can relax and enjoy the evening. After all, when you’re not used to having 40 people in your home, there are contingencies you need to be prepared for.

Consider the fact that you have 40 strangers in your home who’ll consume 12 cases of wine between 6 and 11 p.m. Even though these homes are worth millions of dollars, their bathrooms have the same limitations as homes
of lesser values. So there’s a plumber
on standby. “I learned it from like the second event,” Vaivada says. “It’s only 40 people, but the house is not used to that many people.”

Then there’s the garbage. If that neighborhood doesn’t have pick-up Saturday morning, the planner’s team must arrange for its disposal. One year the power went out in an entire neighborhood, prompting hosts and planners to flood FPL with phone calls demanding action. Plenty of other times the chefs’ planes might come in late or the chefs fail to keep in touch with planners, leaving everyone in a panic. “It comes with the territory,” Short says. “It’s not hard when you know what you’re doing.

If you plan ahead of time and you’ve crossed all your t’s and dotted all your i’s you should be fine.”

And though each one takes months of planning, the heavy lifting takes place in just a matter of days.

“Monday or Tuesday I’ll come in and go through the kitchen and take away anything that might get broken,” Vaivada says. “We provide the pots and pans. The chefs are a little bit hard on the equipment, so we rent some of it, some we source from the caterers, some we have to buy. It just makes it a lot easier. Over the years we’ve found that 90 percent of these kitchens are show kitchens. And most of the time (homeowners) don’t even know what they have. So we’ve found that it’s better to just put all of their stuff away, because it’s usually really nice stuff.”

“If I can set up the day before I’m super happy,” Short says. “If we have to move furniture out of the house I like to do that on Wednesday so we can have all the rentals delivered on Thursday and decorate on Friday morning; that’s my ideal way of happening. We start cleanup Friday night. We do everything in our power so that when the hosts wake up the next morning the house is back to normal.” If not
by Saturday morning, certainly by the time homeowners arrive back from Saturday’s auction. Just in time to start thinking about next year’s dinners.

Hopefully those swans will make the cut.


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