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Wednesday, August 21, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wine

Wine auctions have turned into popular big-money raisers

Walla Walla Union-Bulletin

Dick Boushey describes himself as a vineyardist, not a black-tie party-goer, even though many of the grapes he has raised in the Yakima Valley have helped earn money at the Auction of Washington Wines, the big charity gala.

In fact, in the 14 years the state's vintners have been donating items for the summer event — tomorrow and Saturday on the grounds of Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery in Woodinville — this will be the first year Boushey will attend, mingling with the corporate chefs and wealthy wine buyers.

"I was kind of standoffish," said Boushey, who also grows cherries, juice and jam grapes, and apples on the lower slopes of the Rattlesnake Hills. "I just didn't walk in that circle."

This year, however, he will walk tall as the honored grower at the auction, a benefit for Children's Hospital & Medical Center and the Washington Wine Education Consortium.

"Forget the elitist thing," said Boushey, Washington's 2002 Grower of the Year who at Saturday's auction will donate premium wines from each of 13 wineries that buy his grapes. "This money is going for a good cause."

Tomorrow night's $125-per-person gourmet picnic and silent auction and Saturday's $500-per-plate gala live auction help kids who are unable to pay for the care they receive at Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center. Both events are sold out.

Organizers of the Washington event — among the most profitable charitable wine auctions in the United States — discovered years ago what more nonprofit fund-raising organizations are now learning: Rare, collectible and prize-winning reds and whites can be alchemized into serious gold for charities.

Indeed, such auctions are becoming so numerous that winery owners say they are being asked to donate wines almost daily. As a result, owners are becoming more selective about which causes they will support, with local organizations getting top priority.

The amount they donate, however, hasn't abated.

"I think the wine industry is one of the most generous industries on Earth," said Linda Moran, who this year procured about $500,000 worth of bid items as director of the Washington auction, about $50,000 more than last year.

Woodinville-based Stimson Lane, which owns Chateau Ste. Michelle and several smaller wineries in Washington, last year donated about $500,000 worth of wine for auctions around the country, said Stimson spokesman Keith Love. That's not counting the $150,000 in cash it gives to charitable groups, he added.

"We are on track this year to do the same," Love said. "We get hundreds of requests a month. As you can imagine, because of our size, we are the wine company in Washington and the Northwest that they most often turn to for donations of wines." But smaller wineries, too, get the call to donate.

Martin Clubb, co-owner of L'Ecole No 41, a Walla Walla Valley winery that produces about 20,000 cases a year, said his annual donations of wine to benefit auctions have a retail value of $50,000 to $60,000.

"In a small way we tend to support almost anything locally," Clubb said. "In the bigger field, we tend to support anything where the beneficiary supports the industry, like the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, or if it's something you can really get behind, like Children's Hospital."

Money for good causes

The Washington auction is the single largest fund-raiser for Children's Hospital. Last year, with comedian Bill Cosby the featured entertainer, it brought in $1.5 million in admission and sales.

Moran said one of the top bids at the 2001 auction came from three couples who went together to pay $50,000 for a private dinner with Cosby.

Each year $100,000 of the event's proceeds goes to the Wine Education Consortium, which funds viticulture and oenology programs at Washington State University in collaboration with community colleges in Yakima, Pasco and Walla Walla.

The rest of the money raised supports uncompensated care the hospital provides.

The top 10 wine benefit auctions in the United States last year raised a total of nearly $21 million for various charities, according to Wine Spectator magazine. The Auction of Washington Wines' $1.5 million tied it for fourth on the list with L'Ete du Vin, a 23-year-old auction held in Nashville, Tenn., to support the American Cancer Society.

The undisputed top-grossing wine benefit in the nation is California's Napa Valley Wine Auction, which in June raised $6.1 million for local charities. About 2,000 bidders took part in the 22nd annual auction.

Napa Valley also hosted the third-grossing auction last year, The V Foundation Wine Celebration, which in its third year raised $2.2 million for cancer research.

Even a wine auction to support a school in the Napa Valley can generate significant money. A private Montessori preschool in St. Helena this year raised $200,000, said Kara Pecota, daughter of Calistoga winery owner Robert Pecota who with her father and sister Andrea chaired the Napa Valley Wine Auction.

She said public schools in California also are turning to wine auctions to raise money "because they're not receiving adequate funds from the state for programs."

Leading wine auctions in the Pacific Northwest include:

Seattle's Columbia Tower Club-organized Washington Wine Festival that in March raised about $475,000 for the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic and the Wine Education Consortium.

Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural and Charitable Organizations (PONCHO), which in October raised $470,000 to support the arts in Puget Sound area.

One newcomer on the auction scene is Grand Vin, a benefit for the Yakima Valley chapter of the American Red Cross. Its inaugural gala wine tasting, dinner and auction last year raised $45,000. At its second auction, held last month, Grand Vin raised $70,000.

High society & haute cuisine

There is a tax benefit for the wineries that make donations; they can write off their cost of making the wine, Clubb said.

But the real benefit of contributing to an auction is that they can showcase their wines to serious buyers and reap the publicity that surrounds these high-octane events.

Much of that publicity is due to the inventiveness and creativity involved in assembling auction packages and the astronomical bids many items receive.

Often, wineries will donate oversized bottles of prized wines with one-of-a-kind labels that are hand-painted or etched in the glass by noted artists. At last year's Sun Valley auction, L'Ecole No 41 donated a 9-liter bottle of its 1998 Pepperbridge Apogee decorated with an etching of a Dale Chihuly painting. With it came the artist's original work. The highest bidder paid $14,000.

At the same auction, Stimson Lane offered a trip to Tuscany and a private tour of centuries-old Antinori family vineyards led by Piero Antinori, a partner in Chateau Ste. Michelle's Col Solare label of Washington wines. The package sold for $22,000.

Among more than 50 items donated for the Children's Hospital benefit is Bookwalter Winery's offer of a trip to South Africa's wine country, along with collection of etched and painted magnums of the Richland winery's Columbia Valley wines. That has a minimum bid of $2,500.

Another item includes dinner at the Seastar Restaurant & Raw Bar in Bellevue with actor Kyle MacLachlan, a Yakima native, and his friend and winemaker Eric Dunham of Dunham Cellars in Walla Walla. The minimum bid on that package is $1,200.

And for more star power, there's Cuvee Edgar All-Star Syrah, a team effort produced by Seattle Mariners designated hitter and oenophile Edgar Martinez and Columbia Winery's winemaker David Lake. Starting bid: $1,500.

The Saturday event begins with a silent auction followed by dinner and a live auction. Bidders will will feast on such entrees as Chatham Straits Smoked Black Cod prepared by Charles Ramseyer of Ray's Boathouse, and Salt Spring Island Rack of Lamb Chops with Mint Pesto crafted by Gavin Stephenson of the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel.

Moran and Pecota attribute the success of their respective auctions to a formula that blends such trappings of high society and haute cuisine with basic services for people in need.

While relying on the well-to-do for fund raising can return big rewards, charitable bottom lines also fall when the economy sours.

Andy Demsky, a spokesman for the Napa Valley Vintners Association, which organizes the Napa Valley Wine Auction, said the $6.1 million raised this year is down from $7.6 million in 2001 and its all-time high of $9.5 million in 2000. "We're starting to see the auction as probably a bellwether for the economy," he said.

For similar reasons, the Auction of Washington Wines last year saw its first drop in total take, falling $100,000 shy of the $1.6 million raised in 2000.

Moran said she is uncertain how Saturday's auction will fare in light of the current stock market roller coaster, but even raising some money is better than raising none at all.

"For us, the jury is out, but our procurements are up," she said. "We don't have any reason to believe we'll be down from last year. If it is, we'll just look to next year. This auction isn't going away."

Thomas P. Skeen can be reached at 509-525-3300 or by e-mail at tskeen@ubnet.com.

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