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Longboat Key Tuesday, Mar. 15, 2022 5 months ago

Grapes for Humanity hosts auction to help winemakers

The foundation usually works to help people with disabilities but is giving back to its wine producers.
by: Nat Kaemmerer Staff Writer

Without the vineyards, Grapes for Humanity would be nothing. CEO and Longboat Key resident Arlene Willis realized this last year when thinking about what her foundation would do for its next philanthropy event. 

“Because of COVID, we couldn’t do an event (last year), so we had to figure out something,” Willis said. “I thought about online wine auctions, but I also thought about our wine producers, who are so affected by climate change. We couldn’t do what we do without the wines they donate. Every event we have is about wine.” 

Take an online auction and fancy wine, and you’ve got what Willis and her board of directors cooked up: Aan online auction with Christie’s to raise money for the wineries that have made Grapes for Humanity’s events possible. The auction, which features more than 175 lots including wine, Festival Napa Valley tickets and accommodations at French vineyards, is now on Christie’s website and will run until March 29.

Grapes for Humanity is a nonprofit that aims to help people with disabilities and raises money through wine-based events every year. Since Willis began the foundation in 2000 in Canada, it has raised millions of dollars for organizations including The Lavalla School in Cambodia, Vietnam Assistance for the Handicapped and War Victims Medical Fund in Laos. The foundation is made up entirely of volunteers and holds events twice a year, with one in Sarasota and one in New York. 

“We invite very well-renowned wine producers to donate wine to us, and that’s how we make our money,” Willis said. 

She began the foundation in 2000 in Toronto and registered it in 2003 in the U.S. with Sam Sarick. It began as a foundation to help victims of landmines, which Willis wanted to do because her brother had been killed by a landmine in Vietnam. In the late 1990s, she was working as a consultant for a landmine foundation in Canada and was frustrated that the money raised didn’t match the money given out to those who needed it. 

“They raised so much money but I never saw where the money went,” Willis said. “So I got a bunch of my friends together who all love wine and we went for it. It took about six months and we got the group together and the wine producers and they said they’d be directors, and here we are 20 years later.”

Willis and her husband are passionate wine people, so the modus operandi was easy to come by. They’d been on the board of the Toronto Symphony and knew philanthropists and wine producers that way because of the organization’s annual wine auctions. Grapes for Humanity evolved into a foundation that aims to help people with disabilities and brings all its money in from its wine events put on by volunteers. For this event, they wanted to do something different.

“We talked to the wine producers, and they suggested that because of what's going on in the world, that we do an event for the wine producers on climate change, specific to the wine industry,” Willis said. “There's been massive vineyards destroyed in California, Australia, and in Burgundy, the wine vineyards have a drought there. These wine producers are looking for solutions, and we've partnered with The Porto Protocol, which is in Portugal and does research into the specific devastation caused by climate change to the wine community.”

Money raised will go to climate research institutions including The Porto Protocol Foundation, Tasting Climate Change and Climate Adaptation Certificate Program and Napa Valley Vintners, as well as Grapes for Humanity’s chief beneficiaries Hôpital Albert Schweitzer and Yamba Malawi.

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