This is the 25th anniversary year of VeritageMiami – a quarter century of sharing great wines for a great cause, helping our fellow citizens here in South Florida. Anniversaries are equally about reflecting on the past as they are about looking forward and with that in mind, we’ve started this new page on the VeritageMiami website to share our history with you. During these cloistered times, I thought a bit of sunny reflection would help lift the pandemic gloom, so here we go, creating a timeline that over the next 10 weeks will share the sometimes-convoluted path that moved this event forward over two and a half decades. It’s been a lot of wine in the glass, that’s for sure, and therein lies a story.
South Florida has been a center for wine collectors for decades and there were always tastings and opportunities for these enthusiasts to get together. One of the most important of these was an annual gathering on Miami Beach, driven mainly by wine distributors. This event, the Annual South Florida International Wine & Food Festival, was staged for several years at the Doral Beach Ocean Resort on Miami Beach, and usually took place during the workweek. In 1995, several prominent wine collectors and people in the wine trade began talking about giving the trade-oriented event a charitable component. Led by Mike Bittel, an influential South Florida wine retailer and community activist, and Dr. Sergio González-Arias, a leading physician at Baptist Hospital, among others, the group decided to stage an auction to benefit Baptist Hospital of Miami Foundation and United Way of Dade County, as the charities were then known.
This event, dubbed The Great South Florida Fine Wine Auction, was tacked on to the Miami Beach festival, extending the beach event into Saturday for a fourth day: January 27, 1996. I was the emcee of that first wine auction, and I can confirm that, in offering 150 lots of highly sought-after luxury goods, travel and special wines from leading wine collectors and great vintners around the world, the event was a stunning success. The auction tallied bids of more than $180,000 and the entire event, including sponsorships, netted $210,000 for the two charities. More importantly, it laid the groundwork for another auction the following year.
However, when it came time to plan a follow-up event, the organizers wanted to move from Miami Beach to the mainland where more of the charities’ patrons were situated. The venue with the largest and most conducive event space in downtown Miami was the Hotel Inter-Continental, so planning began for a food and wine extravaganza that would set the auction within a gala dinner featuring an array of top South Florida chefs – in essence, a culinary event to draw additional people to the wine-focused auction.
Thus, the second annual Great South Florida Fine Wine Auction was held a year after the first, on February 15, 1997 and with it, the organizers were already creating auction lots that would set a pattern for future events. Travel and luxury products balanced the heavy emphasis on wine, and often produced some hybrid lots, like a business-class trip for two to Paris packaged with a fast train to Bordeaux, several nights at an influential château (in this case, Château Pavie) and tastings throughout the region. That lot brought in $6,500, while a collection of three 6-liter bottles of Château Léoville Las Cases from vintages 1982, 1986 and 1989 sold for $8,500. With the final hammer of the gavel, the one-night auction brought in another $210,000 for the two charities. Clearly, a high bar was being set!
Some elements familiar to today’s festival goers were already in place in this auction in addition to lucrative lots for bid, including a Champagne reception (this one featuring Perrier-Jouët), and a gala dinner featuring five top local chefs (including Michael Schwartz, then at Nemo, who will make his fourth festival appearance in Spring, 2021 at the Farm to Fork Brunch). Just as importantly, it set the scene for a number of elements to coalesce not just into another wonderful auction dinner, but a full-blown, weekend-long wine, food and lifestyle festival. Perhaps most interesting of all from a historical perspective, they didn’t wait until the following year to create the festival but staged it just two months later, including yet another auction.
Next week we’ll explore how the wine festival we know today sprang from an auction and found a new home at a historic landmark, with the Great South Florida Wine Auction inspiring The Biltmore International Wine Festival at Coral Gables over three days in April, 1997.