Derby Legends

Table 10 at the Kentucky Bluegrass Wine Auction and Derby Gala.

Wine, Mansions, Bourbon and a First Lady

By Janice Carter Levitch

When you receive a coveted invitation to the 2018 Kentucky Bluegrass Wine Auction and Derby Gala, you do everything humanly possible to clear your schedule and go. That’s exactly what happened when my dear friends Dale Fisher and Jon Carloftis invited little ole me to one of the biggest shindigs of the year held in Lexington at the Donamire Farm.

The word spectacular can’t even begin to reach the pinnacle of what you experience from the moment you see (what seems like the yellow brick road going on for miles) the driveway entrance. As you meander along the winding drive, the rolling hills along with the perimetrically-placed horse fencing immediately capture your sense of nostalgia. You feel you’re on the way to Oz.

Janice and First Lady Glenna Bevin.

Once inside the castle-sized tent, you are greeted by sommeliers and wine connoisseurs from all over the world. Surrounded by tasting tables, you are offered a sampling of some of the best wines that will ever land on your palate. From this moment on, you will never be the same. Grapes are a gift of nature after all; they just happen to grow up to be fantastical wines, and my strong sense of responsibility is to do our due diligence and enjoy as many as possible.

Transformative and spiritual in a sense, there were moments throughout the evening, I do declare, I was moved to tears. And rightfully so, especially after learning about the two ladies who are responsible for founding this event that benefits the Lexington Cancer Foundation.

Let me introduce you to Mrs. Brenda Rice, president and founder, who had this to say: “It’s hard to believe 2018 was our 14th auction. In October of 2004, five women passionate about the fight against cancer started this foundation along with me around a dining room table. Since that time, we have grown in so many ways. I’m incredibly grateful for all of the continued dedicated support we receive from our board members, staff, donors, sponsors and volunteers within our community and beyond.”

Cornelia “Neal” Vaughn, founding executive board member and vice president, has been involved since the inception of the foundation as well and has contributed countless hours to making this event a tremendous success. These two ladies are powerhouses indeed, and let’s not forget Kristi Martin, executive director.

“Our dedicated relationships locally, nationally and internationally through this auction have helped us raise millions of dollars in support of our mission,” Martin told me. “It’s wonderful to see how our guests who attend the auction week fall in love with this beautiful place Kentuckians call home.” Like Dorothy, click your heels together and say, “There’s no place like home,”’ and boom, the entertainment for the evening brings down the house with their rendition of, wait for it, “My Old Kentucky Home” presented by our very own Linkin’ Bridge.

Janice with Bill Samuels Jr. and Samara Rivers.

Carter Cellars was the featured wine placed at each immaculately set table and has been rated at 100 points, donated by vintner chairs Mr. and Mrs. Mark Carter. Auction paddles flew up in the air as the auctioneer introduced each lot listed. The luxury experience (auction lot) Jon Carloftis Fine Gardens donated received the highest winning bid, bringing in $85,000. Impressive fundraising indeed.

The next evening, as I wondered if anything could top the wine auction experience, something different actually hit the mark: the Derby Eve Gala at the Governor’s Mansion in Frankfort. Walking up the long stairs and through the gardens, you feel as if you’ve been magically transported to somewhere in France. Rightfully so; the exterior was modeled after the Petit Trianon, Queen Marie Antoinette’s villa on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. I’ve been to Versailles, France and Versailles (Vur-sales), Kentucky, and adore both.

I was stopped in the middle apex of the garden for a photo near the gorgeous mammoth-sized urn spilling over with a glorious abundance of colorful local flowers that made me swoon. As soon as I passed through the front door, First Lady Glenna Bevin greeted me with a smile and we chatted about one of her greatest interests, foster care. Soon, she was swept away to greet the hundreds of other guests who flowed through the door.

The next morning while attending the Black Bourbon Society (BBS) brunch at La Chasse, in walked Bill Samuels Jr., chairman emeritus of Maker’s Mark, who I believe is one of the happiest people I’ve ever met. Mr. Samuels was attending as a special guest of Samara Rivers, founder of BBS.

“I created BBS when I realized that there was very little direct consumer marketing being spent on cultivating the African American consumers outside of the urban demographic,” she said. “Our audience is a mature, professional, conscious consumer with a sophisticated palate, an eagerness to collect and learn more about premium whiskies. The numbers are there. African Americans spend over $3.3 billion a year on wine, spirits and tobacco. It is my hope that there will be more inclusion to engage with this untapped demographic.”

One last stop I made – and such an adorable one at that – was the Cinco de Mayo celebration held the Sunday after Derby. As I watched the young girls that were part of the performance swirl their colorful dresses around so effortlessly, they became much like a moving rainbow. Talented and confident, these young folks held strong to their cultural traditions, and I admired it so. The music was festive and everyone had such an enjoyable afternoon. Reflecting back on my own Derby experience this year, it very much resembled a rainbow within itself – constantly changing and moving around different cultural experiences. VT