A look back: 45 years of l’Eté du Vin

Paula and Tom Milam at Grand Cru in 2016.

As we prepare for the 45th Annual l’Eté du Vin, we look back at some of the most memorable years of this historic charity wine auction. A special thank you to Tom Milam, one of the founding members of l’Eté du Vin, for sharing these milestones with us. Cheers to another 45 years! 

Where it all began 

If you ask Tom Milam, l’Eté du Vin comes from humble origins. While serving as chair of the American Cancer Society’s Davidson County fundraising in 1980, a goal was set to identify possible new events. Wine was a passion and hobby for Tom and he remembered hearing about a PBS station on the West Coast raising money during a wine auction. He thought, “Why not Nashville?” 

Tom scheduled a meeting with Norman Lipman, CEO of Lipman Brothers, and he gave encouragement and suggestions. An introduction to Tennessean critic Homer Blitch helped the first (Un) Eté du Vin go from an idea to reality as the pair led the charge.  

Without special occasion licenses in 1980, the event couldn’t be held at a licensed facility like a hotel. Spencer and Marlene Hays graciously offered their beautiful lawn in Belle Meade and people were invited gratis (no license means no ticket sales). Everyone attending did send a donation, ranging from $10 to $100, and some generously donated wines. The very first donation was brought in by Mike Grace, CEO of APCOM in Franklin. Mike passed from cancer before the 1981 event. 

Steve and Jan Anderson brought the live auction to life, with auctioneer Steve enthusiastically presiding, often with his favorite line (“Come on! It’s only money! You can get more money!’) and Jan running and bookkeeping the auction. 

The first (Un) Eté du Vin grossed about $6,000 and netted $3,000. With just over 100 guests, everyone raised their hands during the auction and (most) everyone opened their purchases and shared with one another. The $3,000 raised was just enough for the American Cancer Society to beat its fundraising goal for the year by just over $1,000.

1981-1985 

The goal became “how to keep getting bigger.”  The next two auctions were in the beautifully renovated Hermitage Hotel, with attendance and fundraising doubling and doubling again.  The auction moved to the Doubletree Hotel in 1983, with attendance and donations continuing to grow. Net proceeds for cancer doubled and doubled again, exceeding $50,000 in 1985. 

1986 

In 1986, l’Eté du Vin welcomed its first Guest of Honor, featuring a prominent personality in the wine community who could speak to certain wines and lend credibility. Charles Sonnenberg, owner of Frugal MacDoogal, agreed to approach his godfather Peter M.F. Sichel, who is internationally known for saving the German wine industry post-WWII and creating the Blue Nun brand. 

 A “Grand Dinner” (now known as the Patrons’ Dinner) was created to fete this Guest of Honor with a special evening exclusive to the prior year’s top bidders. A case of the great white Burgundy “Le Montrachet” (only 3 years old) was purchased and when served his glass, Peter commented “This is infanticide.” And he was right, but it was the auction’s first experience and guests wanted it.  When served the 1955 Graham’s Vintage Port at the conclusion, he smilingly said “This is too good for your guests.”  

1993

By 1993, l’Eté du Vin was raising over $250,000 for cancer each year. It was the nation’s largest one-day charity wine auction outside the California wine industry. 

To accommodate the growth, the wine auction moved to the more spacious Loews Vanderbilt Plaza. Former CEO Holly Whaley’s father, Billy Ray Hearn, chaired the celebration in 1993, and the Guest of Honor was Jean-Claude Rouzaud of Champagne Louis Roederer, with many magnums of their extraordinary Cristal. 

The goal for the 13th Annual l’Eté du Vin was $500,000. As the last lot was brought forth (a special jeroboam of Cristal), it appeared the auction would fall a good bit short of its goal. Then the bidding began, and while generous, it was well short of what was needed. Suddenly one of the professional ringmen working the crowd leapt into the air yelling, “25! I’ve got 25 thousand!” John Lindhal Sr. exceeded the fundraising goal, and then sheepishly remarked, “Is no one else going to bid?” (Note, $25,000 in 1993 is equivalent to $55,000 in 2024…for one jeroboam!)

1995

Two years later, l’Eté du Vin continued to grow and needed more space. The 15th Annual l’Eté du Vin was hosted in Opryland’s Presidential Ballroom and a third night was added. 

Grand Dinner in the Opryland Presidential Ballroom.

The Vintners’ Tasting was introduced as a Thursday night expert-led wine tasting. Louis Jadot and its venerable CEO André Gagey joined the auction for the first Vintners’ Tasting hosted at Vanderbilt’s Stadium Club. The evening was so fantastic that André invited all attendees to charter a plan and come visit him in Beaune for a great party. We never took him up on that offer, but we should have! 

At the auction, the award-winning catalog featured a short story set in Burgundy, with original art depicting the scenes, one of which was a bottle of 1921 Jadot Corton-Charlemagne resting on straw in a wood box. Who would have known that was Andre’s birth year? He purchased it at the auction and took it home with him. 

Heading to the new Millennium

L’Eté du Vin closed out the 90s with back-to-back successes, grossing $1 million plus on auction night in 1998 featuring Women in Wine and in 1999 with the great Port houses of Fonseca and Taylor.  

Women in Wine was repeated in 2018 for its 20th anniversary and chaired again by Tom Black. Pictured here are the Guests of Honor: Lindy Novak, Pam Starr, Vitalie Taittinger, Zelma Long, Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi, Shannon Staglin and Marimar Torres

The new millennium was ushered in with one of the five First Great Growths of Bordeaux: HRH Prince Robert de Luxembourg of Château Haut-Brion with winemaker Jean-Bernard Delmas, followed by American “first great growth” Warren Winiarski and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, winner of the famous 1973 “Judgement of Paris” wine tasting organized by Steven Spurrier.     

During the summer of 2001, a special video invitation was sent to Corrine Mentzelopoulos, owner of the beautiful and superb first great growth Château Margaux. Following the tragic events of 9/11, Corinne personally phoned the auction in October to say she loved America and felt a duty to do something. l’Eté du Vin was her choice and Corinne delivered a memorable and emotional address at the 2002 events. The million-dollar NET threshold was crossed. 

2003 

L’Eté du Vin had succeeded getting “bigger.”  With a goal of getting “better,” a self-sustaining independent 501(c)(3) was established which allowed the organization to provide support to multiple deserving nonprofit organizations that support the fight against cancer. Over the ensuing years, l’Eté du Vin evolved into the Nashville Wine Auction, adding year-round events, tastings, dinners, trips and more. The annual Pairings in February is a gratifying success. With an involved Board, the many volunteers and donors, dedicated office space, proper wine storage, talented and enthusiastic staff, and a community of wine-loving donors who like to have fun while doing good, the Nashville Wine Auction continued to grow and improve.

l’Eté du Vin guests shop the Silent Auction in 2006 before mobile bidding was introduced.

2023

Twenty years later, with much growth and challenges, the community and support for the mission of Nashville Wine Auction is stronger than ever. In 2023, l’Eté du Vin featured Château Léoville Barton and Barton Family Wines with honored guest Damien Barton Sartorius. Château Léoville Barton was Wine Spectator’s #1 Wine of the Year in 2019, and Damien spontaneously offered a bottle of this remarkable vintage as an incentive to all guests who committed to pledge a significant Raise Your Paddle donation during the auction.  Once the confetti settled, l’Eté du Vin again broke fundraising records for the second year in a row. More than $2.4 million was raised at the 44th Annual l’Eté du Vin. 

Damien Barton Sartorius (Château Léoville Barton) at l’Eté du Vin in 2023.

2024 

What began from humble beginnings has grown to support 12 cancer-related nonprofit organizations. The 45th Annual l’Eté du Vin celebrates 45 years of the nation’s longest running charity wine auction and promises a memorable three days of funding the fight against cancer. 

Learn more about the 45th Annual l’Eté du Vin and purchase tickets here