‘Cheers to 10 Years’: A look back at a decade of dedication

Matt Algarin
Some of the names and faces have changed since the Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation began 10 years ago, but the mission has remained the same — raise money for children’s charities in Northwest Florida. Some of the organization’s founders are pictured in this auction photograph from 2006.

How long does it take to pop the cork on a bottle of wine?

Well, that's about how long it took the original organizers of the Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation (DCWAF) to put together their first auction.

Okay, well not literally, but those early years were nowhere near the well-oiled machine we see today.

Since the first wine auction in 2006, which raised $80,000, the DCWAF has been a driving force in the local community, donating millions of dollars to benefit children in need in Northwest Florida.

This year marks the organization’s 10-year anniversary, which proved to be record breaking, surpassing $10 million raised in 10 years. This year’s wine auction raised $2.3 million for charities.

Partnering with AMI Kids Emerald Coast; Boys & Girls Clubs of the Emerald Coast; Children in Crisis; Children’s Volunteer Health Network; Emerald Coast Autism Center; Emerald Coast Children’s Advocacy Center; Food for Thought; Habitat for Humanity of Walton County; Horizons of Okaloosa County; Opportunity Inc.; Pathways for Change; Sacred Heart Hospital on the Emerald Coast; Shelter House of Northwest Florida; and Youth Village, the foundation has used these generous donations to impact the lives of more than 60,000 youth.

That’s quite the accomplishment, but before one looks at the end, it’s important to reflect on the beginnings.

Early Days

Chan Cox is a name that’s synonymous with the local wine scene, as the owner of Chan’s Wine World locations along the Emerald Coast.

Having seen wine auctions around the country, and conducting semi-formal wine auctions in conjunction with his annual wine festival, Cox thought “why not here?” The wheels were soon put into motion.

Given Cox’s history with the annual Wine Festival, which is now in its 30th year, Cox used his personal and business connections to put together a board tasked with creating a local wine auction.

“I never dreamed it would get to what it is today,” Cox told The Log, adding the initial board was made up of friends and customers. “It was a husband and wife board. We were going to make it fun.”

One of the many early supporters of the foundation was Todd Vucovich, who like Cox, has an affinity for spectacular wine and giving back to the community.

“We needed board members, we needed people with a business background to get this going,” he said.

“We held recruitment dinners all over the Southeast,” said Vucovich, former executive director of the DCWAF. He said the early days of putting the auction together were a challenge.

“It was a sprint to the finish.”

To be completely frank, Cox admits “it wasn’t an easy sell” to get people on board with the idea, “but now they get it.”

Whether it was organizing the food menus, bringing in celebrity chefs and vintners or providing entertainment and organizing auction lots, the workload was tremendous.

“There was no roadmap for this type of thing,” Cox said.

Through hard work, determination and probably a little stubbornness, the inaugural Destin Charity Wine Auction saw more than 200 wine enthusiasts participate.

After the foundation’s initial success, it was very clear that to ensure continued growth, serious decisions had to be made throughout the charity.

“We decided that you can’t run it like a charity, you have to run it like a business,” Cox said.

“It starts and ends with the people at the end of the day,” Vucovich added. “We’ve been very fortunate to have some very dedicated people helping out.”

While there are numerous individuals who have played a significant role in the DCWAF, Cox told The Log if it wasn’t for Steve and Joan Carter, the foundation wouldn’t be where it is today.

The Carter’s, who spotted an advertisement in The Destin Log, had just moved to Destin from Kansas City.

“Our first involvement was signing up as a patron,” Steve said. “We invited a bunch of friends from Kansas City to come with us.”

“We had a ball and fell in love with it,” Joan added.

Soon after, the Carters, who were selected as philanthropists of the year in Kansas City in 2005, were invited to join the board of directors for the DCWAF.

“Giving back is something we’ve done most of our lives and our careers,” Steve said.

“Everybody loved great wine, great food and they were all so philanthropic,” Joan told The Log of the early board members. “It felt like together we could have greater leverage, as we were focused on making this a big deal.”

Laying the Groundwork

As the young organization grew, so did the 501 (c)3’s operating procedures.

“We were really trying to improve the infrastructure so we could become more efficient, more impactful and it was coming up with a plan and what we wanted things to look like,” Joan said.

One of the first things the board charged itself with was creating a mission statement, which now reads: “Our mission at the Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation is to connect wine enthusiasts to raise money to benefit children in need in Northwest Florida.”

“It was crazy and wild,” Joan said of the wine foundation’s initial setup. “We had one staff person, no office and no place to store the wine or any of the items we put together for auction lots.”

“We were enthusiastic with the first auction,” Steve said.

But it wasn’t all about the money.

“Even more important than raising a million dollars was building the foundation — with our bylaws and committee structure,” Cox said.

The Carters said the group focused on a strategic plan after the first year.

“Up until the time we did that, we had a board, but some of the meetings would last four hours,” Steve said.

“We were talking about everything, because we hadn’t segmented responsibilities, we hadn’t formed any committees yet,” he added. “The strategic planning gave us a framework for stability.”

Continued Growth

With the momentum building, the wine auction’s board and charity partners watched the donations soar despite being faced with challenges like the economic downturn and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

“It was just a lot of hard work,” Joan said. “Most charity wine auctions lost money during (the recession), and we increased every year.”

Each year, the goal of the foundation is to improve on the last year’s success. And judging by the numbers that goal has been meet — and exceeded.

The money raised during the auction weekend has continued to climb and climb. The foundation crossed the million dollar mark for the first time in 2012, raising $1,220,000 and again in 2013 ($1,375,000), 2014 ($2,035,000) and 2015.

“As we grew, we never fell into the trap where we lost sight of the end goal,” Vucovich said. “One of the most gratifying things to see, is that after 10 years, this foundation has never gone backwards financially — every year its raised more money than the prior year.”

The DCWAF can almost be thought about as the little wine auction that could. Wine Spectator has Destin ranked as the No. 4 charity wine auction in the United States, only behind the likes of Auction Napa Valley, Naples Winter Wine Festival and Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction. Destin debuted on this list in 2012 at No. 10.

This is no small feat.

“It’s so interesting to hear the vintners talk about us,” Joan said. “Some of them have told us this is the most fun wine auction they go to.”

“This isn’t about one person,” Steve said of the foundation’s success. “It’s a board who is committed to these children’s charities. They are passionate about putting together great auction lots and raising money for those in need.”

As with most successful organizations, having the right pieces in place ensures longevity and success. The DCWAF is no different.

As Cox and Vucovich sat down with The Log, they spoke of the many hardworking people that have contributed 40-plus hours a week to the foundation, in addition to other jobs and responsibilities.

For the majority of the early volunteers and board, the foundation could have been their full-time job.

“If you look back at the people who have been involved in this foundation, there is no wonder why this has been successful,” Vucovich told The Log. “You can chase the lineage all the way back to the original board members.”

“It’s a legacy,” Cox said. “I am just so privileged and fortunate to be a part of this — we’re blessed.”

What’s Next?

With the 2015 wine auction in the books, the foundation team can take a small breather before they begin planning for 2016, where the goal is to raise the bar —  and a glass — higher than the year before.

And if 2015 was any indication of the success to come, there should be plenty of smiling faces amongst Northwest Florida’s non-profit organizations and youth.

“We are extremely grateful for the tremendous support we once again received from vintners, chefs, and the local community,” John Russell, DCWAF president, said of the April 25 wine auction. “All of us associated with this auction are amazed that we continue to garner this kind of support to help children in need in our community."

It takes a community to help those in need, and that’s exactly what the faces behind the Destin Charity Wine Auction will continue to strive for.

“All of this wouldn’t have happened in a lot of other places,” Cox said.

“Everything just converged in the right place and the chemistry was there,” Vucovich added. “It all just happened in the right place at the right time.”