Put the fools back in fundraising

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Like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, Sonoma’s social scene appeared to be emerging from its pandemic hibernation on Saturday, dressed in short shorts and boat shoes. As Dorothy entering Oz, Sonoma’s rowdy Gay Wine Weekend and its Twilight T-Dance came back to life in technicolor, rallying thousands for the Face to Face Sonoma County AIDS Network.

About 250 happy humans collectively reveled in the return to the holidays. Some might call this trivial, especially given the growing number of COVID cases in Sonoma County. But ask any extrovert about the restorative powers of the social circuit, especially after months of isolation. The hugs, the friendly faces, the fabulous food and wine, the bucolic settings – it all feels like a mini-vacation after a year without a large gathering.

There were drag queens with sparkly jumpsuits and jewelry. There was dancing under the magnolia with many 80s classics like Madonna’s “Lucky Star”. There were couples kissing in the vineyards as the sun dipped beneath the mountain, casting a perfectly golden glow on the Chateau Saint-Jean. And of course there was a constant flow of wine.

What’s not to like?

Sonoma has always excelled in the party business, dating back at least as far as the first Vintage festival filled with music and wine at the Gundlach Bundschu Rhine Farm in 1897. After a few difficult years of growing up, the family created a party. to beg Bacchus, god of wine, for a bountiful harvest. They wrote silly skits and songs and donned costumes while they drank and danced.

They weren’t afraid to look cool. But again, these are the Gundlach Bundschus, they still look cool. Especially when hijacking the Napa Wine Train. But this is another story.

Anyone who has walked down the hallway by the staircase of the Swiss hotel can see the whimsy of Sonoma’s fundraising story hanging on the wall. Photographer Ron Zak’s famous Harvest Wine auction posters perfectly capture how the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance embraced the ridiculous.

The auction, which raised millions for Sonoma Valley charities before ending its 23rd birthday in 2016, began as an “anti-black tie fundraiser.” Sonoma’s wineries, producers and community members wore jeans and t-shirts while tasting some of the best food and wine around. To break up the notoriously long auction, the winemakers put on slapstick skits and musical numbers that included everything from Elvis impersonators to the adorable kids at the Boys and Girls Club (we especially miss former Broadway dancer Suzy Fridell from Glen Lyon and his magnificent Magnum Force ladies).

The event continues, now as the Sonoma County Wine Auction, but it has lost the local ridicule that made the original auction so lovable. It’s a nice party of well-dressed people, and raising more money than ever now that it has spread across the county, but it leaves us longing for this truly Sonoma Valley version.

Somewhere along the way, a fundraising formula was established. A cocktail party and a silent auction, followed by a dinner and a live auction. It is effective, but it may seem redundant.

Which is why it was so refreshing to see the absolute joy spreading through the vines as sparkling drag queens surprised the dancing crowd on Saturday night. No one took themselves too seriously, and so everyone had a great time.

As we come back into social life and continue to support our nonprofits as they deserve, let’s not forget our fundraising roots. A little fantasy can do us a lot of good.

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