by robin leach
The three-day drinking orgy made up of the annual UNLVino festivities may, at first glance, seem to confirm the world’s worst fears that weekends in Las Vegas are just 72-hours of booze and alcohol followed by even more drinking. But, for those of us who live here, we know far differently.
Yes, it’s Champagne, sake, plus wines and premium beverages by the liters, but it’s all for a worthy cause. Millions of dollars have been raised for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration scholarship fund, which offers scholarships that provide unique educational opportunities for young people who want to enter the hospitality business.
It began 43 years ago as simply a one-day tasting with just 50 people, but over time, it has evolved into the three-day event it is today. This year, from March 30 to April 1, more than 300 volunteers from UNLV’s Harrah College of Hotel Administration will host thousands of guests at what has become the longest-running food and wine festival in the state. It’s become so large that it now takes 600 volunteers to handle everything from setup to serving, from packing to pouring.
There’s nothing better than “the bubbly” for a party so, naturally, Champagne and sparkling wine kicks off the first-night extravaganza on Thursday with Bubble-Licious at The Venetian Las Vegas. Restaurant chefs from The Palazzo will join their Venetian neighbors to provide taste treats while you “drink under the stars.” Sake Fever hits a high at the Red Rock Casino Resort & Spa on Friday with Japanese sakes, spirits and cocktails.
On Saturday, the final night — no joke — is the Grand Tasting at Paris Las Vegas, which will feature the most extraordinary display of thousands of bottles of wines, spirits and beers, plus cuisine by UNLV culinary students. Entertainment is planned for all three nights, and during each event, a presentation will be made to a local honoree who has contributed to the UNLVino fundraising program. Specific details can be found at UNLVino.com.
The origin of UNLVino dates back to 1967, when Jerry Vallen was hired to start UNLV’s hospitality program. From the most humble of beginnings, it has grown into one of the most memorable annual fundraising events at the university. Vallen bought into a summer wine-tasting class proposal, with the first being taught at the Las Vegas Convention Center by a sommelier from the then-Hilton casino hotel. Several local liquor distributors volunteered to provide the wines for the class, but Vallen had to store it at his home because it wasn’t permitted on campus. He offered to return the unused bottles after the class, but the law does not allow that.
“It was that gesture that established a relationship, which led to what has become UNLVino,” Vallen commented.
In 1974, it became serious when Larry Ruvo, head of Southern Wine & Spirits, approached Vallen about starting a wine tasting with the proceeds going to the hotel college scholarship fund. The first event was held in the Southern Wine & Spirits warehouse and had fewer than 50 attendees.
More than four decades and millions of scholarship dollars later, Vallen is still surprised by the event’s popularity.
“That first year, my wife and my secretary … were cashiers. There were no advance sales; everything was at the door. To get the people inside, we had to move all the liquor outside.”
After UNLVino outgrew the warehouse, it moved to the UNLV Thomas & Mack Center.
“We were always concerned if people had too much wine, they would have trouble getting up the stairs,” said Vallen. “That always worried us. But no one ever fell. We had quite a number of faculty members standing by every year for those who had a little too much to drink.”
UNLVino kept outgrowing itself, however, and the event was on the move again after its on-campus events, landing first at Bally’s Las Vegas and then Paris Las Vegas. Auction events were added, and one year, Karate Kid star Pat Morita handled the chores. Today, KLUC-FM 98.5 DJ Chet Buchanan is the regular auctioneer.
Hospitality professor Mohsen Azizsoltani, who has been the event coordinator for the past 20 years, commented, “The biggest changes through the years came with the addition of food. It really has gone from a wine event to a food and wine festival.
“There has been an increased focus on students gaining valuable hospitality experience at the event,” he added. “It’s not uncommon for students to see job offers after using the UNLVino experience as a networking opportunity.”
Azizsoltani handpicks 25 students from the hotel college to help plan and organize UNLVino, but, in all, some 600 volunteers — almost all from the hotel college — get involved with the event. A UNLVino management class was created a little more than 10 years ago for student volunteers to learn what it takes to stage such a large event.
“Hats off to the founders who started this all those years ago in a warehouse,” Azizsoltani said. “They had a vision for this. The partnership with Southern Wine & Spirits is very strong. Without them, we really couldn’t be this successful.”
So just how much alcohol gets drank during the 72-hour period, you may be wondering. During this past year’s Bubble-Licious, 600 bottles of Champagne were consumed, plus 70 beverages with food were served by eight restaurants at The Venetian. For Sake Fever, 23 restaurants joined forces, and 528 bottles of sake and 112 beverages were consumed. At the Grand Tasting, 411 different products and 7,400 bottles were uncorked for people to make merry.
“UNLVino has been a community staple for over four decades because of the great partnership between UNLV, Larry Ruvo and Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits,” said Len Jessup, president of UNLV. “The long-term success of this event is a testament to the community’s incredible support for the university and our students.”
And Stowe Shoemaker, dean of UNLV William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration, concluded, “We all know what a huge impact UNLVino has had on the Las Vegas community and student scholarships over the years, but many don’t know what a treasured experience it is for the students who work the event.
“With the guidance of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, our students are able to get involved in all areas of event management, which includes coordinating the run of show, marketing the event, working with health and safety, and planning and preparing menus. It is not only a tremendous training opportunity, but it is also so much fun!”