Wine is often brought into the realm of charitable events to up the ante because of its (supposed) glamor, allure and sophistication. Sometimes wine is used primarily to attract people to receptions or dinners, and sometimes it becomes the object of veneration itself, auctioned to bidders who pay extravagant sums for great vintages or special bottlings because the money goes to worthy causes. Other times, it’s the so-called wine lifestyle that invokes the generosity of bidders who are promised lunches and dinners at prominent wineries in California with accommodations in winery guest-houses with “the best view of the Napa Valley.”
No harm done, of course; nonprofit organizations and foundations have to raise money some way, and if their fund-raising events provide flash and fun as well as the opportunity to drop wads of dough on the needy and those who help them, well, bless their bones. Such an effort, for example, is the well-known Napa Valley Wine Auction, held every June and a lollapalooza of a blow-out event if ever there was one, which raises millions of dollars for healthcare, affordable housing and youth services in the Valley.
I have noticed, however, that even when wine is employed as a lure to get the well-heeled and beneficent in the door, the product itself often takes a secondary role. This is no big deal, of course; the object is to raise money. I couldn’t help noticing this phenomenon, though, Friday night when I attended a dinner on the second night of the “Wine, Women and Shoes” fantasia that benefitted Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center in Memphis. “Wine, Women and Shoes” was created spontaneously by Elaine Honig, founder of Napa Valley’s Honig Vineyard and Winery, as a gimmick that might attract women (and their husbands and boyfriends) to charitable functions. Now the movement has grown to he point that 20 “Wine, Women and Shoes” events around the country have raised $2.5 million for women’s and children’s causes. Honig left the winery in January 2008 to devote herself full-time to the organization.
Anyway, I found myself in pretty heady (not to mention sleek and well-turned out) company Friday night at the Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar about 15 minutes from my house. (This is a national chain that mounts an ambitious wine program.) In fact, a longtime acquaintance in the local wine trade said to me, “Who are these people? I’ve never seen them at wine tastings?” I replied, “These aren’t wine people. These are rich people.”
The program was simple: A four-course dinner accompanied by wines (two each; 22 altogether) from Oakville Ranch, Cornerstone Cellars, Domaine Carneros, Grgich Hills, Chateau St. Jean, Peju Province, Reynolds Family, St. Supery, Titus, Garbrielle Collection and Patz & Hall. Representatives from the wineries — many of them owners or winemakers — were on hand to talk about their products. About the time the third course was served, an auction began of wine and winery visits and travel packages.
Now let’s be honest. Most of the people present Friday night weren’t particularly interested in either the dinner or the wines. Their purpose was to shine amongst their well-dressed peers, to engage in hugs, kisses and general hilarity and to join enthusiastically in the game of out-bidding each other in displays of fiduciary prowess — all to benefit Le Bonheur.
My purpose, on the other hand, was to suck up juice. (Yes, I was a charity-case, myself, having been invited as a guest.) I’m familiar with these wineries and had already tasted some of the wines, but I was happy of the opportunity to try a few that had not made their way to me or that I hadn’t tasted in a while.
The dinner, I’m sorry to say, was no great shakes. The best course was the second, Peppered Scottish Salmon on a Napa Cabbage Slaw with Sweet Pepper Emulsion. Also good was the Roasted Butternut Squash and Caramelized Shallot Bisque, though, in a trite device, served in a large cocktail glass. (I understand that the kitchen then has to wash only one vessel, not a charger and soup bowl.) Beef Tenderloin on a Roasted Garlic Hash brown with a Grilled Red Onion Demi Glace, however, was an exercise in meat and potato banality that could have been turned out in any kitchen (not mine!); one expects more of Fleming’s, which tends to do a great job with meat. Worst of all was a small plate of three uninteresting “artisan” cheeses plopped down on each table with no explanation from waiters as to what they were and no bread or toasts on which to eat them, though, oddly, served with olives and strawberries.
So much for that.
The scheme was that waiters would pour wines for the room, which was sort of divided into thirds, and alternate, so that each table would get to try each wine. That system broke down within about 10 minutes, and it was every man (as it were) for himself. The result was that I wasn’t able to taste all the wines I wanted, though I was happy with what I did manage to snag.
Picture this: Table-hopping, laughter, back-slapping, announcements, a surprise belly dancer for someone’s birthday, and a general mounting of the levels of noise and joie de vivre, the auction increasing in excitement, with bids (by the time I left) going up to $15,000; and then me, taking pictures of food, tasting wine, chatting with my attractive and eloquent table-mates (these were wine people), elbowing waiters to say, “Hey, pour me some of that, please.” Sure, it was fun.
Here’s what I tasted:
From Chateau St. Jean, the nicely balanced and tasty Chardonnay 2007, Sonoma County (Very Good+, about $14, an incredible bargain).
From Domaine Carneros, the delightful Brut 2005 to start the festivities (Very Good+, about $26); and the lovely, rich, warm, spicy and delicately structured Pinot Noir 2006 (Excellent, about $35).
From Oakville Ranch, their Chardonnay 2007, Napa Valley, always one of my favorite Napa chardonnays, this version boldly rich but exquisitely balanced (Excellent, about $46); and the Robert’s Blend 2005, a powerful, deeply earthy and minerally, wild and warm expression of the cabernet franc grape (Excellent, about $90).
From Cornerstone cellars, the superb Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, so solid, forceful and deep, yet beautifully balanced (Excellent, about $85).
From Patz & Hall, the Jenkins Ranch Pinot Noir 2007 (Exceptional, about $55), of which my first note is “lord have mercy!” One could not ask for a more perfect model of the grape’s potential sumptuousness and strength wedded to classic lightness and clarity. And it was terrific with the salmon.
From The Gabrielle Collection, the Equilateral Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Very Good+, about $40), deep and dense, smooth and harmonious. This producer also makes the Vertex Just Red, a terrific $15-quaffer.
And the Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Excellent, about $65), the essential Napa Bordeaux-style cabernet, gorgeous but broadly fleshed out with earth and minerals and a foundation of austerity. This needs from 2010 or ’11 through 2015 or ’18.
There you have it. You can see from these wines how generous the wineries were with their donations, and of course Fleming’s was generous in turning over most of the restaurant on a busy Friday night.
No, I didn’t pony up big bucks for the evening’s charitable cause; we ink-stained wretches have little more to contribute than our wit and charm.
Ah, Charity! Ah, Life!
Image of the Napa Valley Wine Auction from napavalleyregister.com.