Written by Jan Walsh
The 30th annual Evening of Wines will be held on April 26. Over the past 30 years, Evening of Wines has brought exposure to the work of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and generated some $2.7 million since its inception in 1985. This year’s goal is to surpass the $3 million mark for the 30-year period. Monies from the auction are divided among providing programs and services for people living with MS and their families, 57 percent, and 43 percent of the revenue drives research to stop progression, restore lost function, and end MS forever.
Multiple sclerosis is a disease in which a person’s immune system attacks the myelin that covers the nerves. This disrupts communication between the brain and the rest of the body. And the nerves themselves may deteriorate, which is presently irreversible. Some people with severe MS may lose the ability to walk or walk independently. Other people with MS may experience long periods of remission with no new symptoms. There is no cure for MS at the present time. However, treatments can help speed recovery from attacks, modify the course of the disease, and manage symptoms. Symptoms range from numbness and tingling to blindness and paralysis. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, with at least two to three times more women than men being diagnosed with the disease. MS affects more than 2.3 million worldwide.
Evening of Wines is a wine lovers event, held at the Country Club of Birmingham, where guests can buy unique, hard-to-find wines. This year’s honorary chairman will be Bill Phelps, president of the legendary California Joseph Phelps Vineyards. At the event’s dinner, Joseph Phelps Sauvignon Blanc, Freestone Vineyards Chardonnay, Freestone Vineyards Pinot Noir, Joseph Phelps Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, and Insignia—their flagship wine and one of the world’s greatest wines—will be poured. Honorary chairmen in recent years have included Ed Sbragia of Beringer Vineyards and Sbragia Vineyards; Jed Steele of Steele Wines; Henry Peterson of Nedry–Chehalem and Ribbon Ridge Winery; Josh Jensen of Calera Wine Company; Dixon Brooke III and Thomas Morgan of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant; Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards; Eileen Hallmark of Vineyard Brands; and Charles Yeates of International Wines. Yeates is also on the steering committee for the event and has been involved with the auction since 1986.
Lee Weathers, committee chairman for Evening of Wines, has been involved in all 30 auctions. He became a board member of the society 25 years ago and remains on the board today. Weathers has seen the event grow from its modest beginnings to one of the Multiple Sclerosis Society’s significant fundraisers with more than 300 patrons annually. “Enormous progress has been made over the last 30 years in multiple sclerosis treatment,” Weathers says. “During the time that the Evening of Wines has been in existence, we have gone from a period when there were very few treatments for MS to having multiple drugs available, which can often prevent the progression of the disease for years. This is tremendously satisfying, particularly when I think about the contributions that have been made to multiple sclerosis research right here at UAB.” Other steering committee members include Scott Atkinson, John Griffin, Ben Johnson, Bradley Lard, Kevin Logsdon, April Mason, Tom Miller, Wimberly Miree Jr., James Powell, Richard N. Vest Jr., Jan Walsh, Wendy Watts, and Charles Yeates.
Miree has been involved with the wine auction since 1986 and has been an important donor of his own fine wines, as well as a buyer. Thirty years ago, his personal wine cellar was small and filled with relatively young wines. Over the next 29 years, his cellar grew in number, variety, and quality of wines, as did the average age of the wines. “About 20 years ago I realized I had some wines that would be of significant interest to other wine collectors. During the same period, there were more and more serious collectors in Birmingham, and the attendance at our wine auctions began to grow exponentially,” Miree says. “Today it is really exciting to see 330+ patrons cheering on the bidders, and everyone in the room knowing what this will mean to MS patients and their families and friends.”
Yeates has many memories over the three decades of auctions. “One year we had a new auctioneer, and we could not find him at the event. Lee discovered him in the restroom, having stage fright with the thought of having to auction off wine, which he knew nothing of,” Yeates says with a laugh. The most special lot he ever bought at the auction was by accident approximately 20 years ago. It was a Magnum bottle of 1929 Chateau Haut Brion, which would be worth about $6,000 today. “No one was bidding. So to get the bidding starting, I raised my paddle at $800,” he remembers. “No one else raised their paddle.” He won by default and donated it back to the auction the following year. “I got involved for the wine,” he explains. “But 10 years later, an old high school friend left a message at the MS office that she had been stricken with MS and that she had been helped so much by the local Alabama Multiple Sclerosis Society and wanted to thank me. Since then, I’ve come to realize how many people I know have connections with MS, and that we are all making a difference.”
Members of the Birmingham Branch of the International Wine and Food Society (IWFS) have supported the Evening of Wines for 26 of the 30 years. Members have contributed wines from their cellars, bidding in the auctions, serving on the steering committee, calling on fellow wine collectors in the Birmingham wine community to donate wines to the events, and recruiting winemakers and wine importers to participate in donating wines poured at the event and appearing as honorary chairs of the events.
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society mobilizes people and resources to drive research for a cure and to address the challenges of everyone affected by MS. In 2014, the society invested $50.2 million to advance more than 380 research projects around the world. Through its comprehensive nationwide network of programs and services, it also helped more than one million people affected by MS connect to the people, information, and resources needed to live their best lives.