Orlando is leaping into the high-end wine festival game next month.
After almost three decades, the Orlando Magic is trading its annual Black Tie & Tennies fundraiser for a wine and food extravaganza modeled on similar events in Naples, Destin, and Napa. Ticket sales end in less than a week.
The Orlando Wine Festival and Auction weekend kicks off on Friday, March 15 with twelve themed vintner dinners at private homes around the area, where attendees will rub elbows with winemakers over meals cooked by celebrity chefs from near and far. The main event takes place the next day at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes, featuring a three-hour al fresco tasting, followed by a live auction and a dinner. Some packages also include tickets to the Magic’s game against the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday.
The festival’s participating wineries are almost exclusively from Napa, including high end heavy hitters like Dunn, Heitz, Cliff Lede, and Rudd.
The price of admission is also on the high end, with packages starting at $2,500 per couple – for admission to Saturday’s events – and going up to $18,500 for four people. There are no a la carte ticket options.
Old Connections, New Direction
Why would an NBA franchise want to host a wine festival? For one thing, Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins is a longtime wine collector.
He says he started researching wine festivals and auctions because the Black Tie & Tennies event had “started to get a little bit tired.” That event raised as much as $650,000 a year for the Orlando Magic Youth Foundation, but he found wine festivals that were raising well into the millions.
Martins began to network with Napa Valley winery owners and vintners he’d come to know through his annual wine country visits, including Casa Piena’s owner Carmen Policy. The two men first met through professional sports – Policy is a former executive with the San Fransisco 49ers and the Cleveland Browns.
“He was one of the individuals who encouraged us to move forward [with the festival] and has been a connector” with other Napa wineries, Martins said.
Some of those wineries shared their extensive Central Florida mailing lists as well as their wine. Many are also attending the event, including Jason Lede, who will represent his father Cliff and his family’s wines.
“We were honored when Alex Martins, a long-time supporter of Lede Family Wines and regular guest of ours … invited us to participate in the Orlando Wine Auction,” Lede said. “Philanthropy is a core belief of our family, so we are thrilled to be coming out to support the community.”
Hey Big Spenders!
With the lowest admission price working out to $1,250 per person, this is most definitely not an event for your average Orlando wine lover used to paying $20-$50 for tastings around town.
But Martins says there are good reasons for the high barrier to entry.
First, he says, the festival is first and foremost about raising money for at-risk kids through the team’s Youth Foundation (though the Magic won’t say whether there’s a specific monetary goal for the event).
Second, Martins was determined to feature high-end wineries with relatively small productions.
“These wineries will come,” he said, “but they’re not willing to pour for more than 5-600 people.”
When you do the math, the per-person price has to be pretty high to raise a significant amount of money.
Despite that price tag, the Magic says it has sold just over 200 packages, representing about 450 attendees. Martins says 90% of those packages have gone to locals – a mix of fellow wine collectors and frequent philanthropists.
There are just under 50 packages left to sell. The ones that include vintner dinners are available only through this Friday, March 1. The cutoff for all other packages is Tuesday, March 5.
Putting Orlando’s Wine Community On the Map
“The wine scene here is blossoming,” Martins said. “It’s bigger than I thought it was until I started talking to these vintners.”
He hopes the Orlando Wine Festival and Auction will help grow the local scene even further.
It’s worked that way for Naples.
Julie Glenn, host of “Grape Minds,” a wine podcast produced at Southwest Florida’s public radio station WGCU, says the Naples Winter Wine Festival has translated into sustained attention from international winemakers and wine marketers.
“Year-round there are numerous winemakers looking to get a foothold in the [Naples] market in an effort to become part of this festival because it is so prestigious,” she said. “That naturally translates to greater access for local wine lovers.”
Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins believes Central Florida wine lovers can look forward to the same effect, and he hopes next month’s festival will help put Central Florida on the nation’s wine map.
“We all know that the food scene has exploded significantly here,” he said. “I think this has the opportunity to bring the focus on wine out in a way that our restaurant industry has brought a focus to food in our area.”