by Bob Groeneveld/Special to the Langley Advance
From a $900 beginning nearly three decades ago, the Fraser Valley Wine Tasting Festival now raises tens of thousands of dollars for charity every year.
Langley Central Rotary’s annual wine festival has put more than a million dollars back into the community, and it keeps growing and attracting more enthusiasts and more wine merchants who want to show off their finest offerings.
John Morgan, who has co-chaired the organizing committee with David Taft for the past several years, has been involved in the Fraser Valley Wine Tasting Festival – in one capacity or another – from its “humble beginning” in 1990.
That first wine-tasting event was held at Langley Civic Centre (since renamed George Preston Recreation Centre), and raised a whopping $900 for local charities.
“I was president of Langley Central Rotary,” recalled Morgan. “There were several members at a board meeting and we decided we needed a fundraiser. One of the guys suggested a wine festival.”
Some Langley Central Rotarians, including Bob Stedham, Rob Martin (who remains an integral part of the organizing committee), and the late John Dance, made a field trip to check out a wine festival in Richmond.
They decided they could do something like that.
“We arranged for a couple of wine merchants… there weren’t very many,” Morgan recounted. “Tickets were $20 for entry, and we had pate, biscuits, cheese, grapes… and that was about it.”
He smiles, “It developed from there.”
Taft came on board early in the going, as well, taking over the chair three years in. A 25-year veteran on the committee, he actually got Morgan to step up as co-chair a few years ago with thoughts of handing off the duties altogether.
“I think I got John in so I could get out,” Taft said. “But then I just keep staying in.”
It’s a lot of work for everyone involved, Morgan said, adding with a laugh, “There’s a love-hate aspect to it.”
But then: “Each year when it’s all done and it’s successful and we’ve raised a lot of money for charity, it feels good. It’s a lot of fun.”
This year’s wine tasting, set for Willowbrook Shopping Centre on Nov. 4, will showcase dozens of wines from more than 30 merchants, and is expected to add upwards of $70,000 to the million dollars this festival has generated for local charities through the years.
Willowbrook turned things around
The wine festival struggled for the first couple of years, but then there was a breakthrough. Willowbrook Shopping Centre manager John Gordon joined the Langley Central Rotary club, and rolled up his sleeves with the wine festival committee.
Gordon suggested moving the festival to his mall, Morgan remembered, “And we all got wound up and inspired, and things took off from there. Instead of $900, we started making four or five thousand, and it kept growing and growing and growing… wow!”
The festival has been tied to the welcome it has received from Willowbrook management ever since, Morgan and Taft agree. “We are eternally grateful to the mall for its support,” said Morgan.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d ever raise a million dollars.” The disbelief colours Morgan’s voice despite himself. “It’s been fantastic.”
They kept shifting the game a bit, trying anything that they thought might give the growing engagement an extra boost.
Many different incarnations
“We tried everything,” said Morgan. “We tried having big bands there, and we tried fashion shows, and we tried perfume shows and lingerie shows.”
But it became apparent over time that it was “the selections of good food and good wines” that sold tickets and turned the wine-tasting festival into one of Langley’s preeminent social events.
“We got feedback from the merchants about what would work and what wouldn’t work,” said Morgan, “and they said definitely no perfume or lingerie. It’s too complicated, and you know, try to keep it in focus – wine and food. And we’ve sort of stayed with that, with basically background music.”
Prizes also attractive
And grand prizes.
The wine festival has included some pretty nice draw prizes over the years.
“In the beginning, prizes weren’t a problem,” said Morgan. “Thanks to [then committee member] Gary Smith, Air Canada gave us flights anywhere. And so did WestJet. There was no problem.”
But since then, arranging suitable prizes for an event that seeks to minimize costs to maximize benefits for charities has sometimes been difficult, Morgan explained.
That’s why he’s particularly enthusiastic about the generosity embodied in this year’s prize: an outdoor dining experience for four, provided by SKY helicopters with Moxie’s Restaurant.
The winning diners will be flown by helicopter to a scenic location where a chef will prepare and serve a four-course meal with wine pairings.
It’s the perfect prize for an event that has become known for both quality wines and foods. In addition to participating in the grand prize, Moxie’s will again be one of a dozen restaurants arranging the food line-up for this year’s festival.
Travis Strain has been the Rotarian in charge of lining up the festival’s food services for the past three years.
“It’s amazing, the amount of work these restaurants put into this event,” he said. “They put their hearts into each and every piece of food they serve, resulting in an amazing presentation that ensures this Fraser Valley Wine Festival is the social event of the year in Langley.”
Morgan said the commitment from the food providers and all of the other sponsors keeps the heart of the festival beating.
“The Keg has been absolutely incredible… Envision for many years… then BDO came in… on behalf of everybody involved, how can we thank them for their generosity?” he said.
Sponsors are ‘awesome’
“They are the difference between raising a lot of money and not. Their sponsorship has been over the top.”
BDO has been kicking in $15,000 a year as the wine festival’s top sponsor for the past nine years.
BDO office managing partner Paul Coltura expressed the sentiments of many of the sponsors when he said, “The wine festival has grown over the years and has helped many worthy organizations over the years and we at BDO have been excited to be part of the giving back to the community.
“It is also a great community event for many of our partners and staff who volunteer to help during the night,” Coltura added.
“It just doesn’t end with the sponsorship,” Morgan added. “There are the extra tickets that they buy and everything.”
“The sponsors are all awesome,” he said. “The businesses have been the backbone of the whole thing through all the years. We can’t do it without them.”
He’s quick to point out that the support from fellow Rotarians and from the community at large – and his fellow committee members – has been instrumental in the festival’s continued presence and growth.
Committee works for month
“What’s nice about the whole thing is that every member of the committee does their thing,” Morgan said.
“They know what to do. We look to [architect] Bill Evans for the layout. He solves that. Wayne Crossen just solved the licencing needs. Stew McIvor has been phenomenal dealing with sponsors.”
Calla Krause has been dealing with publicity; getting the best deals on various advertising means more money for charities when the final numbers come in.
As an insurance agent of long standing in Langley, Morgan manages the festival’s insurance needs.
“You know, everybody puts their little bit in and… it’s good,” said Morgan.
“It’s all good. Everyone who has been involved has just been doing their thing, and that makes it fine. We’ve put our wine festival on the map. We get glowing accolades from the wine merchants.”.
Where does money go?
Where the money has gone over the years is also important: to the organizers, to all the people who support the event as sponsors and as participants, and of course, to the beneficiaries of the million dollars already raised through the past 28 years, Morgan pointed out.
For the past few years, the proceeds have primarily gone to organizations working with local youth at risk.
For instance, Encompass Support Services received $25,000 last year to help build a shelter for homeless youth.
In previous years, Langley Big Brothers and Big Sisters received tens of thousands of festival dollars.
But the recipient list has been diverse, from projects for Nicomekl Park to Langley Memorial Hospital equipment, from Ishtar Transition House to Langley Community Music School, from Langley Hospice to the Eric Bysouth Rotary Field House at McLeod Athletic Park.
The bottom line remains, Morgan said, “People come to enjoy themselves. It’s become the social event of the year, where you always meet so many people you know, and it’s always a relaxed atmosphere.”
Tickets going quickier
This year’s Fraser Valley Wine Tasting Festival is at Willowbrook Shopping Centre. The doors at the mall’s south entrance (between Sears and The Bay) open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $55 each, and can be purchased from Langley Central Rotarians, at the mall’s customer service booth, or online through the festival website.
Online ticket sales have been especially brisk this year, said committee member Mike Brown. The numbers are about two weeks ahead of last year, and the festival is expected to sell out earlier than ever before.
“We are doing things a little differently this year,” said Morgan.
“Although the tickets have gone up a little bit this year [from $50 each], we are eliminating the wine-tasting tickets.”
That means unlimited wine-tastings are included in the original ticket price (which includes the SKY Helicopters/Moxie’s grand prize draw) – and cuts the hassles of presenting taster tickets for each tasting.
After years of spearheading the festival organization alongside Taft, Morgan has also thought about handing it off and taking a break, but, like Taft: “I keep coming back for more.”
“I just love the wine fest!” he said, adding with an infectious smile that’s all his own, “It gets me out of trouble doing other things.”
And then he turned a bit serious again: “I am so proud of the way it’s turned out, and of everybody that’s been involved in it.”