Wining With Purpose: Santa Barbara Vintners Make Record Donation to Direct Relief

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on March 1, 2012 )


Call this one the little auction that could.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  The American Riviera Wine Auction, which is held biennially by the Santa Barbara County Vintners Foundation, has never been a small affair.  Over the years, it’s been held at fancy places, like Bacara Resort and the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel.  And stellar lots – fancy bottles and unique experiences – have always helped harvest big money.

But at its core, this event has always been about heart.  A hand-grown enterprise with plenty of small town character.  A genuine effort to heed the call and make a positive local impact.  And an organic process that’s put local vintners on the front lines of what’s become a competitive arena in Santa Barbara: putting on a fundraiser that lives up to expectations and generates impressive results. 

The American Riviera Wine Auction achieved that on day one; the premiere event in October of 2000 resulted in a $250,000 donation to Goleta-based Direct Relief International in a year when the non-profit group was grappling with a $100,000 financial shortfall.  With the five auctions that followed – through the Auction in February of 2010 – vintners doled out more than $1.6 million for DRI.  And when the Foundation presented a check during a lunchtime ceremony at the Hitching Post II restaurant in Buellton yesterday, the amount represented a new donation record: $500,000.

That impressive total was the result of a spectacular evening held February 11th at the Four Seasons Biltmore’s Coral Casino.  The iconic seaside location may have had something to do with the night’s generosity.  “It’s one of the most special places on the coast,” says winemaker and Hitching Post II owner Frank Ostini, who’s also the new president of the Vintners Foundation.  “Being there makes you feel like you’re really lucky and that you’ve got a lot to give.”

To be honest, there was a fair share of celebrity pull.  Actor Billy Baldwin served as the night’s energetic emcee.  Actress Jane Lynch, from Glee, broke into song at one point.  Days of Our Lives heartthrob Bryan Dattilo drew stares and smiles.  And rocker keyboardist Martin Gore, of Depeche Mode fame, inspired; winemaker Steve Clifton, actually, wowed the crowd by bursting into a classic Depeche Mode tune a capella on stage.

There were also plenty of competitive bidding, thanks to what may be the best group of auction items in the event’s history.  “I think we’ve figured out the crowd that comes out to support DRI, and they like the lifestyle stuff,” admits Ostini.  The vintner, himself, won two lots, including one that’ll give his daughter a one-of-a-kind behind-the-scenes experience during an upcoming taping of her favorite TV show, Glee.  Ostini also secured himself a seat, with voting privileges, on an upcoming episode of Top Chef.  One of the top getters of the night was a once-in-a-lifetime experience with Depeche Mode: attending a studio recording session and joining the rock band on tour, including a seat on their jet and access backstage.  Various barrels of wine also motivated bidders.  And Baldwin, the celeb emcee, “was incredible at working the crowd,” says Ostini.  “He was able to get four or five lots doubled,” or sold twice on the spot.

Thomas Tighe, president and CEO of DRI, gives credit for much of the night’s flash appeal to the vintners, themselves.  “Love for Santa Barbara wine is the main draw,” he says.  There’s truth in that.

But the vintners think they figured it out 12 years ago, when they selected DRI as the Auction’s sole beneficiary.  Keep in mind that the Vintners Foundation, which was formed in 2000 as the philanthropic arm of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association, gives year-round to plenty of worthy local causes, including the Unity Shoppe, People Helping People and the Food Bank of Santa Barbara County, as well as public high schools throughout the county’s vineyard region.  “Having the Foundation furthers our belief that we all survive with sustainability,” says Jim Fiolek, executive director of the Vintners Association and past president of the Foundation.”That’s sustainability in the vineyard, yes, but also in the community.  Whether they’re in wine biz or not, the community that supports us must be sustainable.”

But there’s little denying that Direct Relief has carved out a league of its own when it comes to efficiency and the delivery of medicine and medical supplies to those who need them but can’t afford them.  It’s been both an international and local effort for decades, though a new, concerted focus – inspired by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and dubbed Direct Relief USA – has placed even greater emphasis on aid on the national and regional level.  That includes things like the delivery of medical supply packs for emergency responders and dental care for low-income children even in our own backyard.  DRI has leveraged its cache to get much of the medicine and supplies it distributes donated for free, meaning efficiency of identifying problem areas and delivering to them takes priority.  Forbes consistently ranks DRI among the most efficient charities in the nation.  Doing the math, the $500,000 donation by the vintners this year will translate to $15 million in critical aid.

Hence, the little auction that could.  And did.  Fact is, the reach of this event – driven by our friends and neighbor in the Santa Barbara wine industry – may be tough to rival anywhere else.

“I feel privileged to be involved with this event,” says Ostini.

And what of the Auction’s spectacular, record-setting success?  Tighe believes it’s due both to a better understanding by the community today of the work DRI does, combined with the still-troublesome economic reality of the day.  Fiolek adds, “This is a generous community that wants to give, it’s just a matter of how they’re asked.”

We’ll be asked all over again at the next American Riviera Wine Auction, set for February of 2014.

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