UNLVino puts a cork in its 40th year with grand wine tasting
It was just after seven and the sky was that grapey purple gradient that only Vegas gets, a combination of light pollution and rich sunsets. I was walking towards the wavy, mirrored siding of the Lou Ruvo Center, tailing a blonde in 3-inch blue stilettos and a backless halter top that exposed a wealth of side boob.
The sidewalk was littered with women in silk blouses and sun dresses, men in black slacks and suit jackets. The road was a slow-moving ocean of expensive cars—Mercedes, Lexus, a shiny new Audi A8 L. Their path ended at UNLVino’s Founder’s Grand Tasting, the last event in the four-day series, the 40th anniversary of the show.
The parking lot of the Ruvo Center had been transformed into a classy courtyard—sparkling white tea lights dressing fence posts, row upon row of peaked white tent tops cresting the horizon, and lip-stick rimmed wine glasses held in hundreds of hands. The entrance line creeped around the block with at-the-door ticket prices at $150 a head. When I entered I was handed a wine glass, greeted by four or five UNLV students in pressed white shirts and then offered to pose for a photograph with two showgirls in front of a sparkly lit cube, dubbed with a big number “40” in gold.
Here were the Vegas elite, the scholarship donors and $1,000-plus auction bidders. They perused the alleys of tents, chewing and sipping and rinsing out glasses before tasting the next bottle. The UNLV students served and entertained them—culinary kids in white hats and chef jackets, doling out hors d’oeuvres; band members blowing brass and tapping symbols; and Hey Reb, always flanked by two cheerleaders, walking about and posing for photos.
The Yellow Brick Road Band played Led Zeppelin covers on the main stage in front the neon sign for the Showboat Hotel. Nobody paused to dance, everyone constantly tracked towards the next booth or searching for the yummy-looking small plate that just passed them by.
The wine flowed. So did the whiskey, champagne, sake and beer. And the vodka, rose, rum, tequila and spiked sweet teas. Even moonshine. There were 74 beverage booths and another 16 food vendors were set up in tents and open-air buffets. There were so many small portions being handed out from so many. It was dangerous game, taking just one taste of this and another of that until you’d forgotten the number of times you emptied your glass and then refilled it.
Speeches were at 8:20. They gathered only a small crowd. President Don Snyder filled in for Jerry Vallen, UNLVino founder and former dean of the hotel college, who had stayed home sick. He stood next to Larry Ruvo, the second founder and director of Southern Nevada Wine & Spirits, and they were handed large champagne bottles in a gesture of honor—the Dom Perignon Award of Excellence. Snyder thanked everyone on behalf of Dean Vallen and Ruvo slid in an endorsement for a Las Vegas medical school. They unfurled a declaration from the mayor, so large it had to be held by two people, declaring the onset of “UNLVino Week.”
Then there was the auction. Large numbers floated through the air, yelled into a microphone whose speakers dotted the courtyard. They rose quickly from $500 to $800 and then, as I walked away, a faint $21,000. They bid on dinners at five-star restaurants, California wine tours, luxury 1-night stays at Strip hotels. And a painting, done by artist Romero Britto, of Vallen and Ruvo in front of the Welcome to Las Vegas sign and cartoonish bursts of orange and red patterns—fair market value of $30,000.
By 9:20 the other band came on—The Dirty featuring Franky Perez—and they played pop songs with a funky twist. The crowd was louder and inebriated. People now were sauntering, swaying hips; their lips stained with wine. Those manning the booths took to their cell phones or stared blankly at the crowd, looking bored and sober. People started to leave, walking to their cars past signs that read the phone numbers of designated drivers.
I left just before closing, around 9:50. I again tailed the blonde in the skimpy top, this time back to the parking lot. She now had friends with her and they were talking loudly and laughing. And there was plenty of side boob.