CWA Celebrates Silver

By Greg Robeson

In early 1987, I was sitting in the bar at Atwater’s Restaurant, and something happened that has had a profound impact on my life and career ever since. 

Atwater’s—it closed several years ago, giving way to Portland City Grill—was part of Portland’s first wave of culinary development (it opened in 1984, along with the Heathman Hotel, Bridgeport Brewing and a few others). It was a client of mine, and the restaurant had staked its claim on being the city’s top wine destination. General manager Art Fortuna came to me that day in March—21 years ago—with a proposition: He was involved in a small wine auction that had just taken place and wondered if I’d be willing to volunteer some time to help market the event the following year.

The event, Classic Wines (“Auction” was added later), had been going on for a few years, and had raised an astounding $35,000 for its benefiting charity, Metropolitan Family Services (MFS). Fortuna thought that, with a little publicity and some classy marketing materials, they could do even better. I said, “Sure,” even though the extent of my wine knowledge back then was that it came in red, white and, sometimes, pink. 

I’ve spent nearly half of my life volunteering with the Classic Wines Auction. In that time, I’ve watched it grow into one of the country’s top charity wine events, with proceeds last year topping $3 million. I’ve also tasted the world’s great wines and finest vintages, worked with some of the country’s top chefs and winemakers, and been humbled by the amount of dedication that people give year in and year out to keep building this event.

As the auction approaches its 25th anniversary, March 6–7, I’ve thought a lot about some of the highlights of past events. Here, in no particular order, is my list of some top CWA milestones and memories.

Surviving Challenges

In 1991, the weeks leading up to the auction were filled with tension as Operation Desert Storm began. I remember watching CNN’s coverage of SCUD missile attacks while we set up the event. We still made nearly $100,000.

In 1996, a snowstorm threatened to keep guests at home, but nearly all showed up, and we had our best year to date. The financial challenges of 2009 are certainly real, but we’ve managed to survive and grow, and I have no doubt that will happen this year.

A Classy Gavel

In 1990, we decided we were ready for the big time. The wildly successful Napa Valley Wine Auction was using auctioneers from the venerable Christie’s in New York, so why shouldn’t we? We asked, they said ‘yes,’ and for several years they wielded the gavel. Their involvement gave our auction genuine credibility in its infancy, as well as a launch onto the national stage.

Raising the Culinary Bar

In 1995, I asked the Red Lion Hotel if we could do something a bit brazen: bring in our own chefs to create the dinner for the auction. That year, Mark Gould (then a chef at Atwater’s and now a vineyard manager with Ken Wright Cellars) and Catherine Whims (then at Genoa and now Nostrana) set a new culinary standard for the Classic Wines Auction. In the years that followed, great chefs from Portland and beyond, including Philippe Boulot, Caprial Pence, Pascal Sauton and many others contributed their talents to the event. This year, Kenny Giambalvo of bluehour and David Machado of Lauro Kitchen and Vindalho, plus others, will be featured.

Meet the Ambassador

In 1993, we began honoring winemaking families from Oregon, California, Washington and abroad. The list of those who’ve been featured is a “Who’s Who” of the wine world. As culinary director of the event in 2000, I had the privilege of working with Robert Mondavi, who was incredibly effusive in his praise of the dinner we designed with his wine and the event overall. It was a very proud moment indeed.

Building the Charity Family

In 2005, after 20 years benefiting the programs of MFS, it became clear that the auction needed to expand in order to continue to grow. That year, a new charitable organization, Classic Wines Auction, Inc., was created to manage the auction and distribute its funds. While MFS remains a benefiting charity, four other regional charities—New Avenues for Youth, Friends of the Children–Portland, Trillium Family Services, YWCA Clark County—now share in the proceeds that have grown with the expansion of the event’s base of support.

The Wow Factor

One of my volunteer tasks early on was overseeing the cataloguing and storage of wines donated to the auction from private collectors. For several months each year, I had one of the city’s finest wine collections (well, at least it felt like I did). I loved to inventory the great vintages of Bordeaux, Burgundy, California, Oregon and Italy, researching their heritage and writing the catalogue. My first hint that wine could be something truly spectacular came after the 1991 event. A donor had given us an extra magnum of 1961 Joseph Drouhin Romanée-Saint-Vivant, which we opened and toasted in celebration, exhausted but elated. The leathery, fruity, utterly complex aroma and flavor of that aged Burgundy was my seminal wine moment, the benchmark by which I’ve measured every wine I’ve ever tasted.

Watching It Grow

In 1988, my first year with the event, we raised $52,000 and thought we were pretty cool. Two years later, we surpassed $100,000 and figured we couldn’t go much higher. Ten years after that, in 2000, we said “hello” to our first million dollar night. In 2006, we raised $2 million, and in 2008, we topped $3 million. Amazing.

If you would like to be part of the 25th Anniversary celebration of the Classic Wines Auction, March 7, 2009 at the Oregon Convention Center, there are a select number of tickets still available. For more information, call 503-972-0194 or visit ◊

Since 1987, Greg Robeson has served as a volunteer in nearly every capacity of the Classic Wines Auction, including chairing the event twice.  He is president of Robeson Communications, an advertising and marketing firm in Portland.

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