NAPLES — Any guest at a Naples Winter Wine Festival dinner will tell you it’s all about the kids.
But undeniably, a close second is the wine.
As French vintner Laurent Ponsot prepared to sit down at his first wine festival dinner Friday evening, he summed up the best part of watching guests enjoy his wines paired with chef Daniel Boulud’s culinary creations.
“It is to discover our wines in the eyes of other people,” said Ponsot, owner of Domaine Ponsot, in the Burgundy region of France.
Ponsot was one of two vintners featured at Shirlene and Bob Elkins’ Port Royal home Friday night, along with Peter Sisseck, Danish-born owner of Dominio de Pingus, in Spain.
Boulud, owner of Daniel, one of Manhattan’s few restaurants rated four stars by the New York Times, grabbed a glass of one of Sisseck’s wines before disappearing back into the kitchen, taking obvious delight in interacting with the dinner’s guests.
“I want to make sure the wine is good for you tonight,” he joked with Bill and Rosann Nunnelly.
The Nunnellys, who spend half their year in Naples and half in Nashville, Tenn., own a retail wine store in Tennessee. They said they look forward to the wine festival as one of Naples’ most notable events.
“With the great chefs and the great wine producers that are here, there’s nothing like it anywhere,” Bill Nunnelly gushed. “It’s over the top, and we’re glad to be a part of it.”
While wine festival dinners are typically full of surprises, Bob and Shirlene Elkins and co-host Marie Copley-Andrews saw to it that the night started with a big one.
Guests were dropped off at Tin City, just in front of Pincher’s Crab Shack, in downtown Naples. From there, guests were ferried away from the decidedly touristy spot, via the Double Sunshine boat.
“We thought we were coming to Tin City, so we were a little concerned,” Bill Nunnelly said. “But, knowing it was Shirlene Elkins, I knew it would be a blast.”
Copley-Andrews welcomed the newly nautical guests aboard, inviting them to grab a glass of champagne, and telling them, “You have the dubious pleasure of being the first dinner guests to ever go to dinner by boat.”
It was smooth sailing all of the way to the Elkins’ canal-front home, where they were greeted by Shirlene Elkins, arms thrown wide as the boat pulled up to the dock.
“It’s fun -- this is great,” Tom Bringardner said. “A little champagne, and to arrive other than by limo or car -- it’s great.”
At the Elkinses’ Port Royal home, guests were greeted by a decor draped in midnight blue and sparkling in silver accents. Guests had been asked to dress to match the color scheme, inspired by the dinner’s theme: Blue Skies.
Guests were treated to a dinner that was just as much a study in contrasts as in elegance.
The first course paired foie gras with celery root, in a checkerboard “mosaic” that played the creamy texture of the foie gras off the crunchiness of the celery root.
Boulud said it was his homage to winter, even in a place largely untouched by winter weather.
The next course took the opposite approach, pairing hearts of palm with yellowfin tuna grilled so fine it looked as though it was seared.
“I thought it would be nice to make them taste a little bit of a tropical taste,” Boulud said.
Following the tuna was a lobster civet over a puree of parsnips, chicken served with a rice pilaf melange and black truffles followed by Boulud’s “piece de resistance” -- bone-in veal. Topping off the five savory courses were an apple tart tatin and a mint-chocolate ice cream, which Boulud described as a layered sundae of several kinds of chocolate.
With the guests seated and wine flowing just after 7 p.m., under hazy blue skies, it would seem there was nothing left to do but eat, drink and be merry.
But Shirlene Elkins had one more surprise up her sleeve.
Mykala Fowler, 10, serenaded the guests at the Elkins home just before guests launched into their first course.
Fowler, a cancer survivor, sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a fitting homage to the dinner’s theme: “Blue Skies.”
“And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why we do what we do,” said Shirlene Elkins, reminding her guests of what this weekend is all about: children in need.
She encouraged them to take that to heart as they soaked in an evening of impeccable food and perfect wines, before going on to Saturday’s auction. The auction is the festival’s big money-maker, and with 61 lots up for grabs this year, attendees can expect a busy day.
“The auction is just so exciting,” Copley-Andrews said. “To see the generosity of people when contributing to the children -- it’s wonderful.”
With the guests seated and wine flowing, it would seem there is nothing left to do but eat, drink and be merry.
But Shirlene Elkins has just one more surprise up her sleeve.
Mykala Fowler, 10, serenaded the guests at Shirlene and Bob Elkins' Port Royal home just before guests launched into their first course
Fowler, a cancer survivor, sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," a fitting homage to the dinner's theme: "Blue Skies."
"And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why we do what we do," said Shirlene Elkins, reminding her guests of what this weekend is all about: children in need.
She encouraged them to take that to heart as they leave this evening and go on to tomorrow's auction.
But first, guests had to tackle that first course: a checkerboard mosaic of foie gras and celery root, veined with black trumpet mushrooms. Chef Daniel Boulud said it is his way of incorporating the influences of winter into tonight's dishes. The foie gras is complimented by the texture of the crunchy celery route, which the earthiness of the mushrooms enhance.
But if Boulud's first dish is a study in the influences of winter, his second dish represents the climate and environs of Naples.
A woodfire grilled yellow-fin tuna served with hearts of palm served three ways is his "little bit of a tropical taste," he says.
Boulud's assistant, A.J. Schaller, says this is a signature of Boulud's: one, simple ingredient prepared in different ways. Boulud chops, grills and glazes his hearts of palm to compliment the grilled tuna, served with two red wines from Domaine Ponsot.
First and foremost, it is about the children, any guest will tell you. But bringing up a close second is the wine.
Wines from Laurent Ponsot, of French winery Domaine Ponsot, and Peter Sisseck, of Spanish winery Dominio de Pingus, greeted guests as they circulated on Bob and Shirlene Elkins' patio.
Chef Daniel Boulud, taking a break from the kitchen to say hello, picked up a glass of Pingus as he smiled broadly at dinner attendees Bill and Rosann Nunnelly.
"I want to make sure the wine is good for you tonight," he joked.
Aside from cooking at several dinners hosted by the Elkinses over the course of the past 10 years, Boulud is also a close friend of the couple. They are patrons at his Manhattan restaurant, Daniel, on frequent visits to New York.
It might contribute to Bob Elkins' bias toward Boulud, but he makes no effort to hide it.
"This is really the most spectacular pairing of vintners and chefs we've ever had," Elkins told guests as he welcomed them to their seats in the couple's dining room.
Elkins, who, with his wife, was one of the founding chairs of the Naples Winter Wine Festival, said tonight's dinner boasts the best-ever pairing of chef and vintners. Ponsot and Sisseck are regarded as two of the best winemakers in Europe, and Boulud, owner of one of five restaurants with the New York Times coveted four-star rating.
Ponsot is making his first appearance as a vintner this year. He just barely arrived in time to catch the boat to the Elkins' home, but said he already caught the "sparkle of fun" boasted by the festival.
As a wine festival newcomer, he summed up the best part of watching guests enjoy his wines paired with Boulud's culinary creations.
"It is to discover our wines in the eyes of other people," he said.
But to choose a favorite among his own wines?
"When you have children," he said, "you cannot choose one of them."
Tin City was their embarkation point, but when guests stepped onto the Double Sunshine boat, they were greeted with glasses of Delamotte Champagne, ferried past a sunset and into the canal-front home of Shirlene and Bob Elkins.
Dinner co-host Marie Copley-Andrews announced the boat's departure: "You have the dubious pleasure of being the first dinner guests to ever go to dinner by boat."
The sailing was smooth though, as the Double Sunshine motored out of Tin City, and toward Port Royal.
"We thought we were coming to Tin City, so we were a little concerned," joked Bill Nunnelly. "But, knowing it was Shirlene Elkins, I knew it would be a blast."
Shirlene Elkins, who seems legendary among this crowd for her party-planning and hosting prowess, greeted her guests from the patio of her home, overlooking the home's dock. Elkins, dressed in midnight blue to match the party's decor and "Blue Skies" theme, threw her arms open wide to welcome her guests, as they waved and laughed.
"Great surprise!" guests told Shirlene Elkins as they disembarked and headed for hors d'ouevres and champagne on the patio.
They arrived in Fort Lauderdale after midnight, hit the road at 9 a.m. to reach Naples, and by 1 p.m., were in the kitchen of Shirlene and Bob Elkins preparing a meal for 38 people.
At 6 p.m., they, along with co-host Marie Copley-Andrews, will welcome their guests off a boat ferrying them from Tin City in downtown Naples.
Chef Daniel Boulud's staff calmly chopped, sliced and prepared hearts of palm, sea bass tartar and lobster for this evening's six-course meal. After spending the bulk of their day stuck in a New York City airport Thursday, the four-person team was composed.
Roughly 75 percent of their prep-work is done before they even arrive. It helps reduce the imposition on the homeowner, says A.J. Schaller, Boulud's cullinary communications director -- his assistant and secretary. Boulud, chef-owner of Daniel in New York, owns one of just five Manhattan restaurants graced with four stars by the New York Times.
His team is pulled together from two of his New York restaurants, as well as his catering service.
"Our team, it's probably the most relaxed working today," Schaller said. "Wait 'til later when the boss gets here."
When Boulud does arrive, though, he breezes into the kitchen emitting energy, exchanging hellos with his staff.
"I brought you cookies," he says, presenting a cellophane package of something dipped in chocolate.
For a staff of four people laboring over -- but not eating -- vegetables and lobster for the better part of an afternoon, they are a breath of fresh air.
The Port Royal home of Shirlene and Bob Elkins is a small buzz of heady, yet relaxed excitement. They are less than two hours away from serving a meal of foie gras and celery root, yellowfin tun, lobster civet, chicken with truffles, bone-in veal and apple tart with mint-chocolate ice cream.