I was attending an advisory board meeting for the newly launched Feeding the Mind project, whose mission statement is "to provide culinary education to women who are interested in the industry, but do not have the financial resources necessary to get formal education," when founder Carmen Gonzalez looked to me for help. In conjunction with the program developer, the Women's Fund of Miami-Dade, the chef-proprietor of Carmen the Restaurant wants to launch a fundraiser so she can actually run a culinary school for disadvantaged females. But what could she and the committee plan that would be different and therefore a draw for all the jaded folks who are the intended benefactors? "Jen," she said, "you go to a million of these things. What are your thoughts?"
It's probably because I do cover a ton of these proceedings that I had virtually no creative thoughts at all on the subject. Whether fundraisers for worthy charities or simply company-sponsored media events designed to promote products, these evenings generally fall into two categories: a wine-paired dinner at a particular restaurant with a silent or live auction, or tastings at a venue provided by a bunch of participating restaurants and wineries, also with a silent or live auction. With the first, the variation lies in venue; in the second, it occurs in how fast the booths run out of food and wine.
I wouldn't say the majority of these events are downright boring, if only because truly good eats and fine vintages deserve at least a cursory nod from the rich and spoiled, as do the efforts of the chefs who donate their time and the public relations people whose job it is to handle arrangements for their clients. But sure, as festivities go, one might offer the criticism that such evenings, after you've been in the business for a while, can be a little mundane.
Enter Dom Pérignon (DP), which makes the usual unusual.
Owned by the luxury goods corporation Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), the highly respected champagne house puts out what is considered some of the best sparkling wine in the world. Like a successful pop star, it is so recognizable you refer to it uninomially. Nor does the first-name basis apply only to industry insiders or aficionados, but to the general public. Try it for yourself -- ask any bartender or wine steward for a bottle of Dom, and I guarantee you won't be in reception of a bubbly DeLuise.
Still the reps for LVMH and the importers for DP think that the brand might have an image that is just a tad elitist, made for the staid. I suppose the company has a small point. Rappers like R. Kelly sing about Cristal-popping in stretch Navigators. If it's uncorked in a car at all, Dom is probably more discreetly poured in the backs of private Cadillacs. And in relaunching DP's Oenothèque 1990 vintage, which was first debuted in 1998 but has since spent five more years of cellar time in France, the corporation wanted to hammer home the point that DP is more hip than dip.
Therefore the mandate from the company was for the marketing team "to create an event using the new vintage as an excuse to bring together media, VIPs, and on-and-off-premise people [restaurant, bar, and liquor store owners], thus equaling a group of major tastemakers in the Miami Area." Which is how I somehow found myself wearing an extremely revealing black dress, more like a naughty French maid's uniform than anything else, trying not to give panty shots to such folks as club impresario Tommy Pooch, Rumi restaurateur Alan Roth, society maven Norma Jean Abraham, and Talula chef-proprietor Frank Randazzo as I climbed in and out of a luxurious black limo on the "Dom Pérignon Pursuit."
A scavenger hunt with champagne, the Pursuit was designed as an interactive experience, punctuated by the imbibing of a variety of DP vintages: 1988 and 1988 rosé; 1993 rosé; 1995. As partygoers, we were required to participate in various activities, take photographic proof of our role-playing with those i-Zone cameras that spit out that instantly developing, sticky-back film, and paste such evidence in the green paper "passports" we were handed for the occasion. In return, we had to sign away our rights so the event could be photographed and filmed for the bigwigs back in France to see just how cool we were.
All trials, of course, centered on the Oenothèque 1990. At the Sagamore hotel, for instance, our first stop, we were required to plate seafood to pair with it; that's where our party was responsible for the first dead soldier of the mission, a glass bowl that in my opinion shattered way too easily to be in a public domain. Upstairs at the Sagamore, we were required to pose, as if for an Ocean Drive magazine shoot, with the wine and other props, including silver candelabra and "frozen" (sugar-coated) grapes that kept dripping residue. Somehow this translated to a tableau I will likely never live down: me lying suggestively on a fur, being plied with grapes, and pretending to pour wine down Alan Roth's throat out of my wood-heel Gucci shoes which, for the record, taste and smell about as vintage as they look. The price one pays for high fashion isn't always in currency, probably much to Roth's regret. To mine are the pictures that may or may not be in circulation; I hope I've sufficiently threatened all the local photographers who were hired to prevent such a leak (that means you, Mikey).
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The Sagamore is where the influx of DP turned me into something of a klepto. I managed to walk out with one of the props, an oversize crystal champagne flute that really suited my mood. And I hung onto it during the consecutive visits to Gulf liquor store to count the bottles of Oenothèque 1990 on the premises (31); Consign of the Times to try on vintage clothing, where I almost traded in the dress I was wearing for a strapless, tulip-shaped column of emerald green; Touch restaurant, where we were required to find and pose with the couple drinking Dom; and White Tulip, where we arranged flowers around a centerpiece of Oenothèque 1990. The odor of roses and lilies, combined with the aromatics of the 1988 and 1993 vintages we were sipping -- okay, slugging -- at the White Tulip, inspired me to heights of the orchid thievery kind. At least I think they did, since I somehow wound up with two plush roses in my cleavage the next morning.
The final stop was the kind of place where such promotions begin and end: the Shore Club. Only this time, the venue made itself distinct; we were set up to finally drink the Oenothèque 1990 at Bungalow 8, Robert de Niro's private residence, complete with personal pool, at the Shore Club. This must be where I reformed, because I didn't steal what I should have -- a bottle of the 1990 -- though I'm told many attempts were made by other guests and foiled by the bartenders.
The evening ended with the presentation of Louis Vuitton passport covers for our keepsake i-Zone journals, along with our cars that the valets brought over from the Delano, where we began the party by watching DP reps accept an official mayor's welcome to the City of Miami Beach. Keys to the city aside, the organizers probably should've held on to the rest of ours. But to tell the tale of the best party the city has seen in years -- fundraiser, promotion, or otherwise -- the creative venture that should inspire others like Feeding the Mind to more imaginative plans, everyone survived.
Everyone, that is, except for my champagne flute, the second fatality of the evening. I made it all the way home just to accidentally drop it in my driveway. I can't bemoan it, though. When it comes to the Oenothèque 1990, both the wine itself and the vessel for it, I'll take exactly the attitude the top LVMH brass want: C'est la vie.