NAPLES — Bob Clifford knew his guests were in for a spectacular evening.
But he also realized that what he was asking of his guests was equally spectacular.
“You open your hearts and your wallets to help the Naples Children and Education Foundation,” he said, adding he knew it was especially difficult to do in these economic times. “The kids need you now more than ever. The institutions we are supporting are suffering in their own right.”
If it was the wow factor that the 32 guests needed Friday evening at one of several Naples Winter Wine Festival dinners, Bob and Joan Clifford certainly supplied it.
Guests were ushered into a VIP Lounge where they sipped on glasses of Cristal Rose and a Prohibition cocktail called the Aviator, made with gin, maraschino cherry liquor, crème de violette, dry vermouth, Grand Marnier and lemon juice. The effect was a drink that looked like the sunset. White spoons with tuna tartare floated by on mirrored trays as waiters dressed like flight attendants and pilots moved around the room.
Many guests wanted to know about the wine that awaited them at dinner. Prince Robert of Luxembourg, whose family owns the Haut-Brion vineyard in Pessac, France, supplied the wines for the evening’s festivities.
“Everything I have tasted has been really good,” said Chad Ellegood, wine director at Tru in Chicago. “Mr. Clifford has bought some unique decanters for the evening, which are terrifying to pour from. We have been practicing with water today.”
Wine Festival Trustee Michael D’Alessandro said he was excited about the evening’s progression of wines, from younger to older vintages. He said he was especially excited about trying a bottle of 2000 Haut-Brion, which he has in his own wine cellar, but has yet to open.
As to what makes a great wine, D’Alessandro said there was no one right answer.
“Wine, like art, is very subjective,” he said. “People who love wine and collect wine really spend a lot of time developing their paletes.”
D’Alessandro and Bob Clifford presented Prince Robert with a bottle of 1926 Haut-Brion, which was the one of the wine’s best vintages.
“We feel, this being one of the last great vintages, this was probably the wine your great grandfather was drinking when he decided to buy the vineyard,” D’Alessadro told the Prince as he presented it to him.
Prince Robert, who was last at the Naples Winter Wine Festival in 2003, said the guests came to feast on the food and wine, but the magic of the evening was perpetrated by the guests themselves.
“I see all the lives you affect ... The lives you have changed in this community is inspiring for all of us,” he said. “Wine and cooking is about sharing and we are delighted to be a part of it.”
The guests headed upstairs to the Clifford’s living room, which had been transformed to look like the inside of a plane. Orchids in 12 different varieties and various colors sat in small vases along the table.
Chef Rick Tramonto came out of the kitchen, delicious smells following him all the way, to inform the guests they were in for a 12 course treat.
“Pace yourselves,” he said to laughter from the diners.
Before introducing the first course, an amuse duo that included an octopus dish, Tramonto took a moment to thank his diners for their part in the weekend’s activities.
“You are truly making a difference. And these people here,” he said, gesturing to the Cliffords, “have shown us such amazing generosity. It blows me away.”
Cathy Elward, who was at her first vintner dinner with husband Tom, said she expects a lot of surprises in store for the evening.
“It’s going to be good food, good wine, good company,” she said.
Diner Brandie Dixon said it was a treat to be at an event that was going to benefit many people.
“All of this goes to such a great cause,” she said.
As the diners talked and sipped from one of many glasses of wine placed in front of them, the Cliffords' kitchen was decidedly more stressed.
After one course went out, the chefs moved quickly, placing more food on plates, making sure the presentation was perfect and there were no stray marks before sending the food out.
When the lobster risotto was plated, the kitchen filled with the smell of the fish and brown butter. Those in the kitchen who were not part of the crew, remarked on how good the food looked and how sad they were not to be getting any.
Outside on the balcony, pastry chef Gale Gand prepared the cheese course. She added tiny white bowls of grapes and nuts to the plates, careful to leave one plate without nuts to accommodate a guest with a food allergy.
Just outside the kitchen, sommelier Chad Ellegood was busy getting the wines in order to take out to the guests. The red wine arrives just in time for chef Rick Tramonto to unveil the latest course, a surf and turf of a braised short rib topped with unagi (eel).
"This has been a signature in our restaurant for 10 years," he tells the diners.
Gand's artistry was in full play, as diners enjoyed butterscotch pudding with peppered whipped cream. Gand, whose in-laws live in Naples, said the experience at the Wine Festival has been tremendous.
"If I can give two days of my life to children who have nothing, it is a worthwhile experience, she said."
In the back of the house, workers prepared for the arrival of Richard Marx, who performed for the guests following dinner.
Following an eight-course dinner, guests at Joan and Bob Clifford's vintner dinner headed downstairs to enjoy a performance by Richard Marx.
Awaiting them were root beer floats, cookies and other goodies prepared by pastry chef Gale Gand and chef Rick Tramonto.
Marx, who waived his appearance fee once he was told the party was to benefit a children's charity, played songs from his greatest hits, including "Endless Summer Nights" and "Now and Forever."
"Thank you for supporting a great cause," he told audience members who sat on white benches and high-top tables around the stage.