Sold! High-Profile Wine Auction to Benefit Direct Relief

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 2/15/14)



The bar’s been raised as high as the stakes: a record-setting $1 million.

Organizers of the upcoming Santa Barbara Wine Auction say a sell-out crowd should help them reach an ambitious goal at what’s become one of the country’s premier culinary fundraisers.  “It’s definitely one of the most prestigious parties in town,” admits Frank Ostini, President of the Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation, the fete’s organizer and the philanthropic arm of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association.  “There’s a strong urge to hang out with the vintners, but it’s also about Direct Relief.”

Set for Saturday, February 22nd, from 5pm at Bacara Resort, this now eight biennial event has benefitted the Goleta-based charity since day one.  In fact, when the Foundation hosted the premier auction in 2000, the $125,000 raised that year allowed the nonprofit to meet a six-figure fiscal shortfall, and to remain solvent.  Direct Relief’s portfolio of giving is legendary within the charities industry, notably leveraging relationships with pharmaceutical and shipping companies to translate every donated dollar to approximately $30 in medicines and services that are distributed locally, domestically and around the world. 

“Do the math,” says Mr. Ostini.  “We’ve raised $2 million with our auctions so far and are hoping to raise another million this year.  That’s $90 million worth of goods and services distributed all over the world.  It just makes us feel good.”

Winemaking duo Steve Clifton and Greg Brewer at the 2012 Santa Barbara Wine Auction (credit: Isaac Hernandez)
Famously, the Santa Barbara Wine Auction has done that – it has met and even surpassed monetary goals every time – by focusing on the wow factor.  The dial is cranked up to spectacular.  And the energy among the bidders is fierce, thanks to auction lots that are, really, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Among the star attractions on this year’s live auction roster:
  • The Sideways 10-Year Reunion: On the 10th anniversary of the Oscar-winning film that helped put Santa Barbara pinot noir on the map, Chef Frank Ostini is hosting a multi-course dinner at his famous Hitching Post II restaurant in Buellton, which was featured prominently in the movie.  Wines featured in the film (and mostly unavailable now), like the 2001 Hitching Post pinot noir, will be poured.  Key players from the movie will be there to share moviemaking memories, including director Alexander Payne and actress Virginia Madsen.  And guests take home a limited-edition commemorative Sideways Reunion wine, a joint effort by Mr. Ostini and Au Bon Climat winemaker Jim Clendenen.  Tables of 10 to this dinner will go to the five highest bidders.
  • A Blending Weekend with Beckmen and Qupe: These two Santa Barbara wine powerhouses farm their wine grapes biodynamically and are offering this unique lot as a weekend to remember for four.  Two nights at the Beckmen Vineyard Estate Cottage in the Santa Ynez Valley includes meals at Bell Street Farms, the gourmet Qupe/Au Bon Climat winery kitchen and the Hitching Post II.  But the clincher here is the opportunity to blend your own barrel of wine – 264 bottles.  And mastering the blend makes the winner an instant star, since the wine will then be featured at the 2016 Santa Barbara Wine Auction.
  • VIP Catalina Island Getaway: Ballard Canyon’s Rusack wine label has stirred up quite the buzz with its ambitious winemaking project on Santa Catalina Island.  This lot whisks four people to Long Beach to board a private helicopter for the famous island 26 miles across the sea.  Two nights’ deluxe accommodations come with most meals, a zip line experience and a private Hummer tour of the exclusive Rusack Santa Catalina Vineyards.  The parting gift is a case of the chardonnay, pinot noir and zinfandel made under this coveted label. 
  • Luxury Mexican Escape: The award-winning Esperanza Resort is, easily, one of the most desirable properties in Cabo San Lucas.  This auction item locks in a week-long getaway here for eight, with accommodations in a magnificent four-bedroom, 5000-square-foot Ocean View Villa, complete with full-time butler service and access to the resort’s private beach, infinity pool and daily yoga classes.

And the awe-inspiring list goes on, with options to win Skybox seats to an April bout between the Lakers and the Clippers at Staples Center, a week-long culinary extravaganza in Nantucket and VIP seats to the Project Runway Season 13 Finale, live at New York’s Lincoln Center (an experience that includes airfare, hotel stays, makeup and hairstyling sessions before the event and a meet-and-greet with show star Heidi Klum).

Bidders need not be present to wine, actually.  Absentee bidding forms can be downloaded from the event’s web site -- www.sbwineauction.com -- and are due February 19th.

Dozens of silent auction items – also one-of-a-kind wine- and lifestyle-driven experiences – will also be up for grabs.

And the brio continues on the floor, with Chris Harrison, host of TV’s popular The Bachelor, taking on emcee duties (local vintner Andrew Firestone, one of the original bachelors on the show, will also be there) and star chefs Vinny Totolo and Jon Shook, the celebrated duo behind hot L.A. eats like Animal and Son of a Gun, matching Santa Barbara’s best wines throughout the night.

The event’s move to Bacara Resort this year allows for a bigger capacity crowd – close to 600 people; the 2012 Auction took place at Four Seasons The Biltmore Resort’s Coral Casino and was emceed by actor and Montecito resident Billy Baldwin.

Thomas Tighe, President and CEO of Direct Relief (left) with "Glee" actress Jane Lynch and Billy Baldwin, actor and emcee of the 2012 Santa Barbara Wine Auction (credit: Mark Semegen)

“This is the biggest event that we put on, and we’re thrilled with the auction items this year,” says Hannah Rael, media relations associate at Direct Relief.  The group was established locally in 1948 and has done outreach in the form of medical supplies and services to need people in 70 countries.  Its biggest international project currently is a response to Typhoon Haiyan, which struck The Philippines in early November and left more than 6200 people dead and millions homeless.  Three months in, Direct Relief has made 20 deliveries – 120 tons of medicines worth more than $10 million.

Its domestic efforts have grown dramatically, too, especially recently.  So much so, that the organization tinkered with its name last year – Direct Relief International became Direct Relief – to better mirror its locally-driven efforts.  The group is currently the only nonprofit in the United States licensed to distribute pharmaceuticals in all 50 states.  And when Ms. Rael spoke with me last Friday, volunteer teams inside the S. La Patera Lane warehouse were shipping out dental kits for families in need throughout Santa Barbara County.

Proceeds from this year’s auction are specifically earmarked for maternal and child health projects around the world, “to pay for safe births, emergency obstetric care and midwives,” says Ms. Rael.  “It costs $25 to help ensure a safe birth [in third world countries], so raising a million dollars will equal quite a few healthy moms and babies.”

And “that’s why our work with this auction is so important,” adds Mr. Ostini.  “Leveraging relationships with their partners, and in the intelligent way that Direct Relief does it – they’ve done so well with the money we raise.”


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