Some parties get a little wild.Others start out that way.
Such is the case with the Rotary Club of Naples' second annual Grapes and Apes event on Saturday — a wine and food festival set among the gentle jungle of the Naples Zoo. Promising animal encounters, live music, a silent auction, wine education opportunities and more, the event also is an earthy alternative to the typical upscale wine festival fare.
"It's very low key, very casual," said Rich Ahrens, a Rotary Club of Naples board of directors member. "People can come as they are, wish to dress and just enjoy a casual but exclusive atmosphere."
If attendance expectations are any indication, that's a highly appealing atmosphere.
In 2011, the inaugural Grapes and Apes sold 750 advance tickets, selling out. Then, the night of the event, organizers decided to sell another 50 tickets in the zoo's parking lot. In all, the event raised $115,000 and netted $60,000, or $40,000 more than goal, as attendees snacked, sipped and wandered freely through the zoo's environs.
This year, organizers expect at least 1,200 attendees, Ahrens said.
"In Naples, you want to be outside," said Jerry Wynn, past president of the Rotary Club of Naples. "It really has a draw to it," he said of the event.
Grapes and Apes replaced another Rotary Club of Naples fundraising wine event that was previously held at Wynn's Family Market. That event also proved popular, but quickly outgrew its venue. Plus, organizers wanted to use the event to further partner with the community, open the event to the public and to finally create what Ahrens called a "signature fundraiser."
"Our club had talked about a signature fundraiser for 59 years," he said. "You can only talk about it for so long."
Moving to the Naples Zoo provided an opportunity not just for the Rotary Club of Naples, but also for the zoo to gain greater exposure within the community, Ahrens said.
"We find a lot of the people who came last year never had been to the zoo before or hadn't been in many years," he said. "It was a completely new experience for them."
That's good for the zoo and good for the community, Wynn noted.
"We really feel like we're working together with Naples and old established Naples traditions," said Wynn, whose father, Don Wynn, was a charter member of the Rotary Club of Naples.
Whether they're new to the zoo or not, Grapes and Apes attendees will find plenty of beastly good experiences at this year's event.
The festival officially starts at 6 p.m., but anyone wanting to drink in a little extra wine knowledge can begin at 5 p.m. with a food and wine talk led by Tim Hudgens, an adjunct professor of wine at Florida Gulf Coast University.
Once the event begins, zoo visitors can expect to encounter all sorts of culinary creations and wine pairings. There are 22 different wines at this year's event, and four craft beer stations, each with multiple beer choices. Food selections vary and will include everything from grilled meats, Chef Paul's paella, chocolates from Royal Palm Chocolates and desserts from Mikkelson's Pastry Shop.
There will even be a 10- by 20-foot tent filled with cheese, Ahrens said.
If you're wondering how all this delicious food will cause the zoo's animals to react, you're not alone. Ahrens wondered the same thing, and even asked one of the zookeepers about it. Turns out, it's a non-issue.
"She said, 'The animals have never experienced grilled food,'" Ahrens recalled.
Which isn't to say the animals won't be aware of their many evening visitors. This year, organizers have planned five animal encounters, including a tiger feeding from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. At last year's event, one of the most memorable moments was at sundown, when the birds began returning to the alligator lake area to roost for the evening, Wynn said.
Zookeepers will be on hand to deliver educational talks, and boat cruises to the primate area will run throughout the event as well. There are also six musicians stationed around the zoo, allowing attendees to enjoy a range of live entertainment as they walk through the park, including steel drums, jazz guitar and country. Also, in addition to Hudgens' presentation, wine education will be offered throughout the evening.
Money raised from the event will benefit the Rotary Club of Naples' local and international charitable efforts, including international scholarships, Project Graduation, the Gift of Life and Polio Plus.