A bottle of hard-to-find Pappy Van Winkle has become a hit at many Central Kentucky charity auctions, sometimes fetching bids of $1,000 or more.
So here is one reason the Lexington Cancer Foundation's Kentucky Bluegrass Wine Auction & Derby Gala is one of the state's fanciest Derby parties: It will auction an age-mixed case of a dozen bottles of the high-priced bourbon, plus a limited-edition Scottish crystal decanter filled with even more.
Kristi Martin, foundation's executive director, wouldn't say who donated the Pappy or how much she thinks it might sell for. But I would expect several five-figure bids from the 400 guests Thursday night. After all, tickets to this sold-out gala at Donamire Farm cost $700 per couple.
Other auction items might bring even more than the Pappy. There are University of Kentucky basketball season tickets; a U2 concert in Chicago; a breeding season with an Ashford Stud sire; a Breeders' Cup package; golfing at Pebble Beach; and luxury trips to Rome, Argentina, Mexico, Napa Valley, Las Vegas and Wyoming.
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The wine auction gala has become a popular fundraiser for the foundation, which by the end of this year will have made more than $3 million in grants and donations to cancer-fighting organizations throughout Kentucky since 2004, Martin said.
At least half the attendees will come from out of state, she said, including a large Silicon Valley contingent that includes Kevin Systrom, founder and CEO of Instagram. Graham Yost, creator of the hit TV series Justified, also will be there.
But compared to some other Derby parties, this isn't a star-studded event — unless you are a wine connoisseur.
"Some high-level groups are coming in now, and that's wonderful," Martin said. "But what we have found out over the years during Derby Week a lot of celebrities want to be paid to come, and that's something we would never do."
Brenda Rice, wife of Lexington attorney Brent Rice, started the foundation in 2004 after a family member was diagnosed with cancer. She talked with friends she had volunteered with for other causes over the years and discovered many of them also had been touched by the disease.
"I thought, how can we make the biggest impact?" Brenda Rice said. "I knew what these women were capable of when their hearts were in it."
The foundation is run by a 50-member board of female volunteers, with help from another 50 "junior" board members. Each year since 2005, the foundation has made an average of more than $280,000 in grants to a variety of hospitals, researchers and cancer-related programs throughout Kentucky.
The private foundation receives no state or federal funds but has attracted a long list of corporate and individual sponsors whose donations significantly cut the cost of putting on the wine auction and gala.
A key to the event, Martin said, has been its ability to attract top vintners. Each year, more than a dozen wineries spend about $50,000 each from their marketing budgets to participate. This year's vintner chair is Will Harlan of the Harlan Estates family in Napa Valley. He now has his own label, The Mascot.
"The event has grown over the years as word has gotten out," Martin said. "The level of wineries that we're able to attract is phenomenal."
Festivities begin Wednesday with six private dinners for top sponsors at foundation patrons' homes. Vintners have a trade fair for area restaurateurs and wine merchants Thursday morning to promote their products, which will be served that evening at the gala with food catered by The Apiary.
After a Friday breakfast at Keeneland, guests are offered tours of horse farms and Woodford Reserve Distillery before dinner for vintners and top sponsors at Iroquois Hunt Club. For those who want to attend the Derby on Saturday, the foundation helps them arrange to buy tickets.
"They get a wonderful experience of Kentucky during the Derby season," Martin said. "And they help us raise money for our mission."
The foundation's other major fundraiser this year will be the fourth annual Roll for the Cure, a bicycle tour Aug. 22 in partnership with Bluegrass Cycling Club.