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For Wine Fest Creators, Charity Comes Before Chardonnay

A decade ago, Perry Giancola was asked to help create an event that would benefit Safety Harbor. Today, Wine Fest is one of the biggest festivals of its kind in the country.

When most people think of the Safety Harbor Wine Festival, the immensely popular outdoor event that takes place downtown every November, they think of three things: good wine, great weather and big crowds.

But for Perry Giancola, co-owner of Ed’s Fine Wines and one of the founders of the event, the main reason to hold the event was charity.

“We decided we wanted to do a benefit for charities in the city,” Giancola recalled of the original meeting with event organizers and city officials.

“Ever since, we’ve been trying to raise money for charities and organizations. And it's a great way to promote the city.”

So how does something that started as a small charitable endeavor become one of the biggest single-day wine events in the country? Let’s take a deeper look.

The Origin of the Wine Festival

According to Giancola, then-City Commissioner Robin Borland approached him in 2002 and asked if he would be interested in creating an event that would benefit the whole town.

“Robin shopped here,” Giancola said of his Northbrook Commons store, “and she asked what I thought about doing a wine festival. And I said, ‘Hell yes, of course!’ ” 

The pair, along with current county commissioner and Safety Harbor resident Neil Brickfield, then-president of the Safety Harbor Firefighters Association, John Little, and others came up with a blueprint of how to pull the event together in a short period of time. 

Months later, after much planning and preparation, the first Wine Fest came to be, and it was a rousing success from the start. 

“We didn’t expect much,” Giancola said. “We thought we’d get about 2,000 people, and we wound up getting 7,000. That’s when we knew this could be big.” 

From Humble Origins to Awesome Spectacle

What started out with three wine tents and a few local restaurants and vendors has evolved into a massive undertaking, complete with five tents, 100 different wines and an “entire force” of volunteers. 

In the past few years, the crowds have been estimated to be in the 12,000-14,000 range, and if you listen to local officials, it appears to be getting bigger every year.

“The first one was put on by the city’s 85th birthday committee, and it was such a success, they decided to do it again the next year,” said Joe Cooper, special events coordinator for the city. 

“The next year it just exploded. It went from $10,000 raised to $25,000 raised,” he added. “My position came about because the event was so successful, and there was so much going on in town at the time.” 

A decade later, there are plenty of events to keep Cooper and city staff busy all year round, but he admits Wine Fest sits at the top of the pile of time consuming projects. 

“I would say Wine Fest represents about 20 percent of my entire workload,” he said. “It’s all year long. It never stops. As soon as it’s over, we’re looking towards the next one.” 

All About the Charity 

Despite the huge crowds and the demand the event puts on the organizers, Giancola and Cooper say it’s all worth it to benefit the community. 

Some past and current beneficiaries of Wine Fest proceeds include the Mattie Williams Neighborhood Family Center, the Rotary Club, Safety Harbor Kiwanis and the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranch, among others.

In addition, local businesses get the added bonus of having thousands of out-of- town visitors patronizing their establishments, which could lead to future profits for them as well.

“It helps the businesses, it helps the charities and it helps the city be a better community,” Cooper said. "It’s a formula that works very well for all those involved.” 

“This is an event we don’t make a penny on,” Giancola said. “The idea was to give back.” 

If anything, it costs us money to produce, but in end the it’s worth it because it makes my heart feel good.”

This year the Safety Harbor Wine Festival will split the proceeds from the event amongst there local organizations: the Mattie Williams Neighborhood Family Center; the Safety Harbor Rotary Club; Magic Beans Village; and the Safety Harbor Museum and Cultural Center.

For more information on the event, contact Joe Cooper at 727-724-1572.

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Jeffrey Rosenfield November 01, 2012 at 04:21 PM
Thanks for letting us know Dori. I will get the word out!
Robin Borland November 01, 2012 at 06:13 PM
What the Giancola's are too modest to share with you is the fact that they work all year personally with vineyards to bring in great wines that make the event even more spectacular. They have made this event their personal baby pouring their heart and soul into making it a huge success for the city and its charitable organizations. Cheers to you both!! You faced difficult roadblocks in the beginning, but good always wins in the end ;0)
Jeffrey Rosenfield November 01, 2012 at 07:34 PM
Thank you for the comment, Robin, and for YOUR contribution in making the event a reality!
Misann Ellmaker November 03, 2012 at 09:48 AM
Looking forward to my first wine festival this evening! I've heard all great things about the event.
Jeffrey Rosenfield November 03, 2012 at 01:13 PM
I'm looking forward to it too, Misann - with a little dread mixed in! I've heard so many stories about this event since we launched it's taken on mythic proportions!

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