Annual fundraising event has grown from warehouse gamble into a full-blown food festival. Former dean shares the story of how it started.
When Jerome “Jerry” Vallen was hired in 1967 to start UNLV’s hospitality program, he never thought he’d have a hand in creating one of the most memorable annual fundraising events at the university.
In the late 1960s, someone proposed a summer wine tasting class. In a city already becoming known for its innovative and top-notch hospitality offerings, the idea made sense to Vallen. The first classes were held at the Las Vegas Convention Center and taught by a sommelier from the Hilton Hotel-Casino.
The dean contacted several local liquor distributors in town to provide the wine for the class. “I had to store the wine at my house because we couldn’t have it on campus,” Vallen recalled.
After the class was completed, the school offered to give the wine back to the distributors, which wasn’t allowed by law but made an impression nonetheless.
“I think that gesture established a relationship with everybody,” Vallen said and eventually led to what’s become UNLVino.
Larry Ruvo, head of Southern Wine & Spirits, approached Vallen about starting a wine tasting in 1974, with the proceeds going to the hotel college scholarship fund. The first event was held in the Southern Wine & Spirits warehouse with fewer than 50 attendees. Four decades and millions of scholarship dollars later, Vallen is a bit 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,” Vallen added.
But UNLVino eventually outgrew the warehouse site and moved to the Thomas & Mack Center.
“We were always concerned if people had too much wine, they would have trouble getting up the stairs,” Vallen said. “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.”
Tony Goitia, a territory manager for Southern Wine & Spirits who has taught international wine classes at UNLV, manned booths back in the warehouse days. He also helped with the live auctions at the Thomas & Mack, then eventually at Bally’s and The Paris Hotel and Casino, where the event moved after its on-campus years.
SOUTHERN GLAZERS WINE & SPIRITS
Senior Managing Director
Michael A. Severino
General Marketing Events Director
Assistant Director of Marketing and Special Events
UNIVERSITY OF NEVADA, LAS VEGAS
Dean, William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration
Todd A. Uglow
Assistant Professor, Faculty in Residence, UNLV Harrah Hotel College
Chef Mark Sandoval
UNLV Harrah Hotel College Executive Chef