Harvest Auction cultivates young minds

Not many businesses, much less charities, can claim a 100 percent jump in revenues one year over next. But the boisterous crowd at the Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction last year erupted in whooping and hollering when the Fund The Future auction lot did exactly that – bringing in $1.7 million earmarked to improve childhood literacy rates in Sonoma County.

Overall, the 2014 Wine Country Weekend raised more than $4 million and event organizers distributed more than $3.3 million to local nonprofits.

With numbers like that, Sonoma Wine Country Weekend is thought to be the county’s signature, and largest, charity event. For more than 20 years, the Labor Day Weekend auction, put on jointly by the Sonoma Vintners & Growers Foundation and the Sonoma County Vintners Foundation, has celebrated the region’s winegrowers, winemakers and chefs.

While the Sonoma event isn’t yet at the fundraising level of the Napa wine auction (which raised $15.8 million in June), this year’s luncheon at Chateau St. Jean Winery promises to be bigger and splashier than ever. Attendees from around the country readily pay $500 a pop to bid on auction items that can go for upward of $250,000. The big ticket items this year include food and wine trips to France, Spain, Italy, England, India, Canada and French Polynesia accompanied by native winemaker families, a private concert by Bruce Hornsby, tickets to Super Bowl 50, a 163-bottle collection of Sonoma wines, and a 23-bottle large format collection, just to name a few.

But midway through the afternoon, the focus will shift from lavish experiences to basic education. Under the theme of “If Kids Can’t Read, They Can’t Succeed,” this year’s “Fund the Future” Lot 24 will attempt to match or exceed the $1.7 million raised last year.

Maureen Cottingham, executive director for the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Association, sees last year’s result as the number to beat. The joint boards of SVVGA and Sonoma County Vintners – the partnering hosts of Wine Country Weekend – have a very specific goal in mind – funding programs that will increase the third-grade literacy rate in Sonoma County to 90 percent by 2018. According to the 2013 State of the Valley report, 51 percent of Sonoma County third-graders cannot read proficiently by the end of third grade. That number is even higher – 69 percent – in Sonoma Valley.

“We’ve handpicked some of the most powerful and effective local children’s literacy programs as recipients of this multi-year campaign,” says Cottingham.

In good news for Sonoma Valley, for the past several years the bulk of the money raised has stayed right here, funding four specific programs: a Spanish-speaking parent education program; a community volunteer reading program in most district elementary schools; a summer reading and writing academy serving 300 students; and the Grade Level Proficiency Project at Sonoma Charter School and Dunbar and Sassarini elementary schools.

Because last year’s Fund the Future campaign was so successful, the joint boards were able to fund eight additional county literacy programs open to Sonoma Valley youth, including the Boys & Girls Clubs Project Learn enrichment program, and the expansion of the Pasitos educational playgroups to the La Luz Center.

“With all the money we raise comes great responsibility to fund programs that will have the most impact,” says Cottingham. “We met with experts all over the county to make sure we were identifying the greatest community need and where we could have a real impact. Choosing to tackle childhood literacy was an enthusiastic unanimous decision.”

Cottingham says “study after study” shows that if a child can read by the third grade there is a far greater likelihood they’ll graduate high school. She says there are also correlations between reading by third grade and not being involved in crime as an adult.

“We have a very specific opportunity to change the future for at-risk kids,” Cottingham says. “Which will improve the quality of life for everyone in Sonoma County, now and for generations to come.”

In education circles, third grade is widely considered to be pivotal because until that point, students are learning to read. After third grade, kids are reading to learn.

Cottingham stresses that closing the literacy gap is also a smart investment.

“It’s estimated that improved literacy could result in nearly $800 million of increased economic output, thousands of jobs, and $53 million in new revenue in Sonoma County over the next 10 years,” she says. “Tackling literacy is good for our kids, our community and for our industry.”

The weekend events start tonight, Sept. 4, with the Sonoma Starlight party at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, continue Saturday with the Taste of Sonoma at MacMurray Ranch in Healdsburg, and conclude with the Harvest Wine Auction on Sunday.

If you aren’t one of the 5,000 guests expected to participate in some part of the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, but want to participate in the charitable effort, an online auction is open for bidding through Sept. 25 at www.biddingforgood.com/auction/auctionhome.action?auctionId=237456292.