When the invitations arrived for “Fast Cars & Wine Stars,” guests of the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest who had selected this particular vintner dinner had a general idea of what would be in store. Lucky them: Their wine benefactor for the night was none other than Barbara Banke, the leader of an exalted worldwide portfolio (Vérité, Lokoya and 30 other endeavors), and holding fort in the kitchen was Todd Erickson, the hot-ticket TV chef who waded into Southwest Florida with Society at the Bell Tower Shops.
Upon arrival, however, all expectations were blown out of the water.
At the host palatial eight-bedroom Fort Myers waterfront estate of newlyweds Sandy Stilwell Youngquist and Tim Youngquist, the front yard could have doubled as a racetrack—Lamborghinis, Porsches, Ferraris, Teslas and other hot rides were lined up, doors open for people to climb in and have photographer Megan DiPiero snap a keepsake. (See pics in the gallery below.)
Out back, on a covered patio overlooking the yacht-dotted bay, round tables were draped in sumptuous gray fabric and sporting towering crystal candelabras and tufts of deep red roses. Racing colors carried over into the place settings, where gold-edged glass chargers held colorful menus listing the night’s five courses, such as the “High-Octane Beef Short Ribs” spiced with star anise and Sichuan pepper and served with potato “tires,” molded into recognizable doughnuts and rendered fork-tender in duck fat. As for the wine, guests were in for a real treat, as Banke brought her best: A Brut Rosé from Yamhill-Carlton was poured for the very first time, the Capensis Chardonnay from South Africa, Burgundian in style, is her self-professed favorite Chardonnay, a 2014 Zena Crown “Slope” Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills and two of her prestige Napa signatures, the 2007 Lokoya Cabernet Sauvignon from Mount Veeder and the 2012 Cardinale.
All told, there were seven dinners that night with roughly 30 to 40 attendees. One this year was even held on a yacht (chef Gloria Jordan d’Cabral of La Trattoria Cafe Napoli had to juggle a shortage of counter space and staff, yet somehow did it seamlessly). The soirees give food and wine lovers the opportunity to have an extravagantly good time, but they also prime the crowd for the main reason everyone is there: the next day’s live auction that raises money to help local children, from patients at the Golisano Children’s Hospital to health care students at Florida Gulf Coast University and Florida SouthWestern State College (the three primary beneficiaries) to SalusCare and PACE Center for Girls of Lee County and more.
Banke, Stilwell Youngquist, trustee Dave Copham, festival co-chair and trustee Elaine Hawkins, and Armando Llechu from the Golisano Children’s Hospital all spoke, not just in exhortation of bidding but also to give people a better idea of the history of Lee County’s largest annual fundraiser and what it has meant to the community.
And of course, there was plenty of room for fun.
“Because I love you guys, I gathered my favorite musicians here tonight,” Stilwell-Youngquist told the crowd. By the last bite of the cheese course, tables had been pushed back and the dance floor enlarged. As more and more people joined in, sequins shimmered like mirrors on a disco ball from all the sparkling dresses moving to the beat. When Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic came on, Banke joked, “Let’s make that the theme song for tomorrow!”
People couldn’t help but celebrate and have that enthusiasm carry over: With a whopping $2.9 million raised at the auction, it certainly was a magical weekend.