A dream grows on the vine

Published 1:58 pm Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A taste for the grape has translated into more than $100,000 in contributions donated to local nonprofit organizations during the past two years by the Suffolk Business Women.

And another successful Suffolk Wine Fest, held in April, is likely to result in tens of thousands of dollars more going to help the Suffolk Education Foundation, ForKids, the Children’s Center, the Coalition Against Poverty in Suffolk, the Suffolk Ruritan Club and the Suffolk Business Women scholarship fund.

Those are just the groups that were chosen to benefit this year from the profits made during the Suffolk Wine Festival, whose single annual fundraiser has already become one of the most successful and highly anticipated events of the year in only its third year out of the gate.

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“All the feedback we’ve had so far has been nothing but positive,” said Deb Gayle, the chairman of this year’s event and founder and former president of Suffolk Business Women.

The wine poured at the Suffolk Wine Festival, but the festival organizers took steps to ensure everyone got home safely. New this year, designated drivers could get in free to enjoy food and fun without the alcohol. They received a white wristband to denote their status.

She was speaking specifically of the 2017 wine festival, for which organizers are still counting receipts, but she just as well could have been talking about either of the two annual events that preceded it.

From the start, the Suffolk Wine Festival has proved to be wildly popular, and even what has turned out to be an annual struggle with the weather has not been a deterrent to big, happy crowds and packed tasting booths.

This year’s fest was no different in its challenges or its victories, Gayle said.

“We had three seasons in one day,” she joked recently. The day started hot and became breezy with the onset of a cold front that brought a bit of rain and finished cool as the front passed through.

Undeterred, guests strolled from tent to tent, sampling dozens of offerings from more than a dozen different Virginia wineries and six craft breweries.

Gayle said the event’s committee is still gathering information, but they know there were more than 1,800 people in attendance. All 23 of the “wine chalets,” along with all 15 of the “red-carpet tables” — the two VIP-type experiences available for purchase by guests and sponsors — were sold out, she said, and the food and retail vendor tents had reached capacity.

For Gayle, especially, the continuing success of the wine festival feels a bit like a dream come true.

In 2010, Gayle had just opened her company’s downtown Suffolk office, and she wanted to do something that would encourage networking among women in business. That first networking opportunity involved eight or 10 women, she said, and from there the organization has grown.

In 2014, the organization achieved its nonprofit status with the IRS, and planning immediately began for the first wine fest, held in 2015.

Today, Suffolk Business Women has about 60 members, all of whom either live in Suffolk or work here, and it continues to grow, as Gayle and other members pursue SBW’s mission in the city: “to empower the professional business women in the city of Suffolk to become actively involved in the enrichment of the community through volunteerism and charitable acts.”

The organization has already begun planning for next year’s wine festival, which is scheduled for April 21.

For more information about Suffolk Business Women, visit www.suffolkbusinesswomen.com or attend one of its meetings on the second Tuesday of each month at the Hilton Garden Inn Suffolk Riverfront. The social hour is from 5 to 6 p.m., and the official meeting follows.