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A Winemaker's Journal

Money that grows on vines

By Elias Fernandez

Wine has an almost supernatural ability to open wallets. Already this year the two biggest charity wine auctions in the country, Naples Winter Wine Festival and Auction Napa  Valley, have raised more than $28 million to benefit programs in their respective communities. Add to that the hundreds of wine-related fundraising events around the country and that number likely reaches somewhere beyond $50 million.

The auction in Napa Valley is the one that closest to my heart. It was the first one to demonstrate the real power of wine to reach unheard of philanthropic heights. I remember well in 1999 John Shafer chaired the event when it broke the $5 million mark. For all of us at Shafer Vineyards it was an exciting event to be a part of.

At this year’s Auction Napa Valley, which raised $9.8 million, Shafer’s barrel lot (10 cases) of 2005 Hillside Select garnered more than $100,000. In the live auction a winning bidder paid $250,000 for Shafer’s lot involving a special dinner and numerous big bottles. It’s a great feeling, as a winemaker, to see something you’ve helped create not only provide enjoyment but also in some small way to make the world a better place.

The great-grandfather of wine charity events is the Hospices du Beaune wine auction in France, which has raised funds for health care in Burgundy since 1851.

Borrowing that idea Napa Valley Vintners created their own auction in 1981 to raise funds for two local hospitals. Today after raising more than $70-million over its lifetime, the Auction now helps fund programs related to youth development, health care and affordable housing.

A majority of these funds benefit organizations that support low-income Latino individuals and families in Napa County. Clinic Ole and Sister Anne’s Dental Clinic, for example, provide free or low-cost health care to numerous migrant workers and their families. Auction funds have also helped build much-needed farmworker housing.

Now we’re seeing the next step in wine charity – the emergence of Hispanic wine events to raise funds for community needs. A great example is an event called Sabor de Napa, which I’ve had the pleasure to participate in. Sabor, which is organized by the tireless Sandra Gonzalez, raises money to fund HIV/AIDS health education and prevention programs to migrant and resident vineyard workers in Napa County.

The event features cuisine and fine wine created by Hispanic chefs and vintners. The good news is I’m seeing the idea showing up in other places. In July there’s an event  in Los Angeles called “East L.A. Meets Napa,” that showcases Latino chefs and winemakers and banks on the spirit of generosity that runs wide and deep through Hispanic culture.

If you have a chance this summer, be sure to attend a local wine charity event. They’re great places to meet new friends and to sample food and wine. Better yet, work with your friends and neighbors to start a wine auction in your own area to support the wellbeing of schools, clinics, food banks and other critical-need organizations in your community.