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Winefest auction offers unique experiences


You’ve probably never thought of pairing a visit to the Great Ape Trust of Iowa with a glass of fine wine, or stepping out of your business suit and into the shoes of a zookeeper at the Blank Park Zoo, or that you could actually “rent” Downtown Events Group boss Mo Dana for your kids’ “show and tell” at school.

It’s a good thing, then, that the committee planning Winefest Des Moines’ April 8 Gala Auction did. “The auction committee tried very hard to create more experience-driven items,” said Debra Salowitz, Winefest executive director. “Most of us have more things than we need, but we want to have more life-enriching activities.”

Many of the auction packages encourage group bidding. For example, the “Apes and Grapes” package for 16 includes not only an elegant meal and wine, but also a chance to work with the primatologists at the Great Ape Trust and have one-on-one experiences with the apes. Jim Cownie is offering 12 people a weekend at his safari camp and game preserve near Earlham. Steve and Ellen Gaucher and Bill and Wicker Van Orsdel will host dinner parties for 24 and 12 people, respectively.

The eclectic mix of items also includes meteorologist and helicopter pilot John McLaughlin’s offer for a birthday party in the air for three, followed by a day of flying model airplanes with Paul and Carol Knapp; a night for four at Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino with horse owner Maggi Moss; golfing with Principal Financial Group Inc. Chairman and CEO J. Barry Griswell at Glen Oaks Country Club; and an Iowa Cubs package that includes a ball autographed by Hall of Fame pitcher and Iowa native Bob Feller, four club seats, the right to throw out the first pitch and operate the hot-dog gun at any home game before June 14.

Several of the items for both the live and silent auctions include experiences at cultural attractions supported by Bravo Greater Des Moines, a group that will divide about $1.7 million in hotel/motel tax money among 15 area cultural organizations. For example, 24 people will tour the new Science Center of Iowa, a Bravo-supported attraction, with Executive Director Mary Sellers, then enjoy cocktails and an Iowa Cubs game in Linda Grandquist’s suite at Principal Park. The Des Moines Art Center is offering a private tour and dinner for eight at its café. The Des Moines Symphony is offering four tickets to its 2005 New Year’s Eve concert, the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines is providing four tickets to “Miss Saigon” and the opportunity to attend a cast party, the Des Moines Playhouse is offering season tickets for two, the Blank Park Zoo is offering the zookeeper experience, Salisbury House is offering a picnic for four during the Shakespeare Festival, and music at the ArtHouse’s dinner for 20 will be provided by the Des Moines Opera Guild.

Last year, Winefest gave $40,000 to Bravo.

Salowitz said the Gala Auction in April is “a launch event” for the festival’s June 9-11 events, which include elaborate dinners and wine tastings on the rooftop terrace of the State of Iowa Historical Building. The organizers’ strategy is to eventually extend Winefest throughout the year with a series of different events.

This year, the wine tasting will be extended to two nights, Friday and Saturday, June 10-11. The Friday night event, Sips & the City, will coincide with other downtown events, including the opening concert of the Alive Concert Series at Simon Estes Amphitheater on the banks of the Des Moines River. The Saturday night event, Wine Discovery: The Grand Tasting, is Winefest’s signature event. A series of 10 “Prima Dinners” will be held June 9 at 10 of the cultural venues supported by Bravo.

The April 8 Gala Auction, to be held at Hotel Fort Des Moines, also includes a six-course meal prepared by Mark Serice, chef de cuisine at Brennan’s restaurant, a New Orleans culinary landmark. A different wine will be served with each course, and the dessert course will feature Bananas Foster, a flambé dish for which Brennan’s is internationally known. The Sam Salamone Group will provide New Orleans-style jazz during the reception and auction preview.

A limited number of tickets are still available for purchase online at www.winefestdesmoines.com.

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