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Fall 2007/Winter 2008

The Spirit of Giving

by Janet Parmer

The long agricultural tradition of neighbors helping neighbors has engendered a thriving atmosphere of philanthropy in wine country-raising millions of dollars each year for the communities' underserved.

When one farmer faces a crisis because a critical piece of equipment breaks, nearby farmers often rush in to lend machinery. Reaching out to help a neighbor in need is one of the intangible qualities that enriches lives and creates a cohesive community, and for decades in Napa and Sonoma counties, vintners and growers have followed in this tradition, strengthening their extended communities by supporting each other-as well as a wide range of charitable organizations. Denizens of the region have lent their time, energy, wares, and money to help raise money through events such as wine auctions, golf tournaments, and music festivals. Thanks to this enduring philanthropic spirit, millions of dollars flow each year to Napa and Sonoma area nonprofit organizations.

Napa Valley Vintners' annual Auction Napa Valley, for example, this year raised more than $9.8 million for nonprofits. Sonoma County's Imagine Auction (recently renamed Sonoma Paradiso) has contributed more than $4.5 million to the underserved in Sonoma County since it started four years ago. These events, which are the second and third most profitable wine auctions in the nation, make a profound financial impact on organizations providing services to children and low-income families, including groups that deliver health care, educational opportunities, and affordable housing.

Although the wine auctions grab headlines because of their significant earnings and celebrity attendees, countless less-splashy events also draw big crowds and raise impressive sums. "People in Napa and Sonoma still have a barn-raising philosophy," says Dorothy Lind-Salmon, a board member of the Community Foundation of the Napa Valley. "If a neighbor is in trouble, you help out." The foundation manages almost $20 million in philanthropic funds, matches donors with beneficiaries, and looks at the root cause of problems in the community and what's needed to solve them. "It leverages community gifts by partnering people," says Lind-Salmon.

Terence Mulligan, president of the foundation, moved to the area three years ago after working for a similar organization in Silicon Valley. "Napa Valley is a special place with a rich civic life," he says. "The intersection between its civic life and philanthropy is quite powerful. I think it has to do with the agricultural tradition of having neighbors step up to help one another.

"The county is small, but there's a wealth of social capital," he adds.

Top-quality wine has become the commodity for philanthropic events in Sonoma and Napa counties-even for elementary school fundraisers-but other tantalizing "experiential" items, such as the use of vacation homes in resort destinations and dinners prepared by renowned chefs, are often donated for raffle prizes or auctions.

Although Napa County has only an estimated 130,000 residents, it is served by some 550 nonprofit groups. Philanthropy, mostly from residents who regularly participate in fundraisers, nets an estimated $50 million annually for charities. Popular Napa County events include the V Foundation Wine Celebration, which raises funds for cancer research; the Staglin Music Festival for Mental Health, which raises some $4 million annually; and Feast of Eden, which benefits the Land Trust of Napa County. The annual Pope Valley Turkey Shoot supports a volunteer fire department, and Cause for the Paws, which features wine, food, auction items, and adorable adoptable pets, is a fundraiser for the Napa Humane Society.

"The vintner community for decades has shown philanthropic commitment," says Bill Phelps, whose family chaired this year's Auction Napa Valley. "We've been fortunate and blessed, and this is a wonderful opportunity to share. Many of the people who are prominent vintners grew up on a farm, and the farmer's tradition is barn raising and putting out fires. It's the nature of farm families."

Generosity is abundant also in Sonoma County, and the Community Foundation Sonoma County serves a similar function to Napa's community foundation by matching philanthropists with worthy causes. Since it was established 24 years ago, the Sonoma County foundation has distributed more than $82 million through more than 5,000 grants, according to president and CEO Kay M. Marquet.

Four such philanthropists are Barbara Banke and Jess Jackson, of Jackson Family Wines, and Peggy and Fred Furth, of Chalk Hill Estate, who joined forces four years ago to raise money for children's charities through Sonoma Paradiso. Hosted this year at Francis Ford Coppola's Rosso & Bianco Winery in the Alexander Valley, Sonoma Paradiso attracts about half of its bidders from out of state. "People are really incredibly generous," says Banke. "They come from all over the country and know proceeds are going to help people within this community. They come because they believe the cause is great and it's a fun way to support it."

Banke doesn't feel competition from the also-popular Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction because both events are aimed at galvanizing support for worthy nonprofits. "The whole point is to do it as effectively as possible so the most money goes through to charities," she says.

One of the key recipients of the Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction, produced by the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance, is Vineyard Workers Services, a group providing health care and housing for farmworker families. "These are the guys who get the work actually done," says auction supporter Chris Benziger, who owns Benziger Family Winery with his family. "We need to hold this auction and give back. It's the right thing to do."

Since it began 15 years ago, the Labor Day weekend event has raised more than $6 million, according to Grant Raeside, executive director of the vintners and growers alliance. Proceeds benefit 11 organizations.

"There are a lot of big rollers, but there are always a lot of locals, too," says Benziger.

The auction initially tried to poke fun at the sophisticated, lavish Napa auction, with participants organizing irreverent spoofs and dressing in silly costumes. "Each year, we say we're going to get more serious, and then it's 'How can we make the biggest splash on stage?' " says Benziger with a laugh. "As you get older, you don't get much chance to make [an] idiot of [yourself]."

Other annual charitable events in the Sonoma area include B. R. Cohn's Fall Music Festival & Celebrity Golf Classic, whose proceeds go to children's organizations, and the Croquet Invitational and Charity Auction, held at Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards, which benefits the Greater Bay Area Make-a-Wish Foundation. Becoming Independent, an organization for developmentally disabled clients, sponsors an annual fundraising dinner under the stars; and Face to Face Sonoma County AIDS Network holds an art auction and beerfest to support AIDS and HIV patients. The annual Sonoma County Human Race gives participants of any income level, even kids, a chance to make a difference. In 2006, 9,000 walkers and runners converged on Santa Rosa; pledges topped $1 million for 300 local nonprofits, making this the highest-earning Human Race in the nation. Infusing spirited fun into philanthropy is a hallmark of Wine Country fundraisers.

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