Fun and philanthropy

Destin Charity Wine Auction raises money for children's charities

Jim Thompson

SANDESTIN — Judging from the crowd gathered inside the large air-conditioned tent at Grand Boulevard on Saturday afternoon, the Destin Charity Wine Auction is headed for another impressive round of raising funds for a number of children's charities.

In the couple of hours leading up to the midafternoon auction —which featured wines from more than two dozen vintners, autographed bottles, art and more — hundreds of people spent time sampling wines and cuisine from several restaurants while enjoying live music.

"Traditionally, this is a sold-out event," said Tracy Louthain, a member of the Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation's marketing committee who also serves as its media liaison.

Now in its 13th year, the auction is earning a stellar reputation. It finished third last year in Wine Spectator's ranking of similar events. The Destin auction was surpassed only by the top-grossing Naples Winter Wine Festival and runner-up Auction Napa Valley.

Also last year, the Destin Charity Wine Auction raised $2.7 million, bringing its total fundraising to that point to $15 million.

"We're totally with the big boys," Louthain said. "It's been a constant growth mode."

The auction's increasingly high profile has been noted in the winemaking community, and many vintners eager to participate.

"We're at the point where vintners are calling us" to get a spot at the auction, according to Louthain.

Among the wineries represented at this year's charity auction is Rudd Oakville Estate, a small California winery that produces only a couple of hundred cases of wine each year.

Between pouring samples for visitors to the Rudd table, Oscar Henquet, the winery's managing director, traced the path that his winery took to Destin.

A number of the winery's loyal customers are from Atlanta, he said, and many of them take vacation in Northwest Florida. They asked Henquet about participating in the auction, and this year the auction foundation's board of directors chose Rudd Oakville Estate as an exhibitor.

Similarly, restaurants find the auction a good way to get their wares in front of the public. Bryce Jarvis, owner of Slick Lips Seafood & Oyster House, which opened recently at Baytowne Wharf, brought samples of the restaurant's Ahi tuna poke to Saturday's pre-auction festivities.

"It's great," Jarvis said. "I'm glad to be a part of it."

Among the people enjoying the Destin Charity Wine Auction on Saturday afternoon were John McLane and his wife, Lori. John McLane's business, Image Printing, has been an auction sponsor for eight years.

"Every year is better than the one before," said McLane, who added that he plans to continue to play a role in the auction.

According to Louthain, the Wine Auction Foundation board takes its philanthropic role very seriously. Each year, children's charities seeking money are carefully vetted. Even charities that have previously been awarded funds must reapply, she said.

The foundation also takes steps to ensure that all proceeds from the auction go to the charities. Proceeds from its annual Harvest Wine & Food Festival in the fall are earmarked specifically to cover expenses of the spring auction, Louthain said.

"Every dollar that's made in that room," Louthain said, gesturing toward a section of the tent reserved for the auction itself, "goes to our charities."

In addition to the money from the auction, proceeds from the South Walton Beaches Wine & Food Festival, also being held now at Grand Boulevard, go to support the foundation's chosen children's charities.

Auction festivities will wrap up Sunday with a brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Bijoux, a Sandestin Resort restaurant. Ten percent of the proceeds from the brunch will go to the Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation.

The South Walton Beaches Wine & Food Festival continues Sunday afternoon at Grand Boulavard, with a "grand tasting" from 1 to 5 p.m., along with afternoon tasting seminars and live music.