Wine Fest Confronts Community Needs with Unique Energy 

by Jeff Lytle

Timing is everything” and “Labor of love” come together powerfully for the upcoming 21st anniversary Naples Winter Wine Festival.

The event, among the most successful charity events in the world, faces unprecedented challenges amid the pandemic, which has hammered children’s services to which the festival has been dedicated since 2001. Needs are greater than ever, with parents out of work and early childhood learning centers and clinics striving to sustain safely. The crises go on and on.

Enter the event’s co-chairs, Don and Darlene DeMichele, who are uniquely qualified, with credentials in modern marketing and professional event and business management skills. That is serendipitous for a cause whose trademark gourmet dinners and crowded live auctions faced scaling back. “Our response requires
creative thinking, flexibility and building new community partnerships in order to meet the soaring demand for these vital services,” the DeMicheles say.

Don & Darlene DeMichele

Indeed, it will be a labor of love for the couple committed to the ambitious, focused and data-driven work that has raised $212 million to help 275,000 youngsters over the years with physical, mental and eye health care – and much more, including  hunger and early learning – to thrive in school and life.

No wonder the enlightening festival website calls the work “a relentless pursuit of measurable impact” –networking with 45 established and vetted non-profits – which cannot afford to rest on laurels and take any year off.

The DeMicheles are three-year Naples Children & Education Foundation trustees and successful live auction bidders in 2019 and 2020. They split time between Naples and Nantucket, with a blended family of seven children and five grandchildren.

While details for the 2021 wine fest were a work in progress at our deadline in late September, one new wrinkle had been announced. Apt for the “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” theme, the festival was turning to television to tell the NCEF story and raise money.

Courtesy of WINK-TV, the one-hour broadcast on January 30 will blend live and recorded segments offering testimonials from parents and beneficiaries, reflections from NCEF founders, and the profound impact that NCEF has had in Collier County – and ask for pledges.

Meanwhile, the festival will continue its traditional public online auction featuring wine and travel packages on par with in-person festival auctions at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort. The web event will start January 22 and wrap up February 2.

Q&A: Darlene DeMichele Speaks for the 2021 Wine Fest Leadership Duo

Life in Naples: Thanks for serving your community in such an important way. How long have you lived in Naples and been a part of the wine festival?

Darlene DeMichele: I made my first trip to Naples in 2016 and immediately fell in love with the city, culture and endless sunshine. Three days later, I bought a home. Not knowing a soul, a neighbor mentioned that I might want to look into attending the Naples Winter Wine Festival. The following year, I attended for the first time, and was totally impressed with the event but even more so with the work being done at the Naples Children & Education Foundation (NCEF). I immediately inquired about becoming a trustee and how I could be more involved with the Grant Committee. Two weeks post my first festival, I met the man who would become my future husband, and together we have served as trustees for the past three years.

Life in Naples: You are chairing amid unprecedented, uncertain and challenging times. How is that affecting your work?

Darlene DeMichele: There are times when you simply have to embrace change as an opportunity to reinvent and reimagine what is possible. The beauty of having such a smart and engaged group of trustees is that we are building on the collective talents of the group. The institutional knowledge of our founders, coupled with the creative and entrepreneurial talents of our colleagues, has made the process less daunting than one might imagine. We’re a “can do” group, backed by an amazing staff. Together, we know that everything we do has a profound impact on the lives of underserved children in Collier County.

Life in Naples: You could have chosen other good causes locally for your volunteerism and philanthropy. What attracted you to the wine festival?

Darlene DeMichele: Don and I are very disciplined about what philanthropic organizations we support. We are particularly impressed with NCEF’s shift in focus from traditional grant-making, to being engaged investors in the community. NCEF builds strategic multiyear initiatives, looking for collaborative partnerships to leverage their resources, and measures the support provided based on the positive impact each organization makes in the community.

With the funds raised at the Naples Winter Wine Festival, there is an enormous responsibility to deploy millions of dollars each year. This stewardship is accomplished with rigorous oversight and reporting.

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