By Emily Williams
Perseverance can be found in every detail of the TumTum Tree Foundation’s 31st annual Wine Auction and Vintner Dinners.
This year, the entire event has gone virtual, calling for participating winemakers and chefs to get creative in their approaches.
Despite the pandemic’s effect on the food-service industry, the foundation’s mission has called its supporters together to give back to children in need.
“Nonprofit organizations are facing major challenges, but in the face of adversity, creativity abounds,” said founding board member Pardis Stitt. “It’s been fascinating to see many organizations find ways of supporting others within their community. In difficult times, we must look after one another and help in any way we can.”
Pardis and Frank Stitt have been involved since the beginning, when the TumTum Tree Foundation was known as the Friends of Magic Moments. The live auction and dinner were first held at the Stitt’s Bottega Restaurant in 1990.
“Several years later, I joined the Magic Moments board and saw the impact the auction had on Alabama’s children with life-altering medical conditions,” Pardis said.
The organization grew over the years to support not just Magic Moments but a number of organizations that offer support to children in need, including Mitchell’s Place, The Red Barn, Angel Pillowcases, AMBUCS, the Alabama Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders, UAB’s Institute of Arts in Medicine, Service Dogs of Alabama, Smile-A-Mile and Special Equestrians Inc.
In 2005, Pardis and fellow board member Sally Mackin met with Cayenne Creative to change the foundation’s name.
“The story of … ‘Jabberwocky’ by Lewis Carroll – a young man resting safely beneath the Tumtum tree before facing the Jabberwock – enthralled us,” Pardis said. “The idea was that, through the auction, children facing their own chronic life-threatening Jabberwock would be provided a place to rest, safely beneath their own Tumtum tree.”
Over the years, Pardis said that not only has the mission promoted a network of good, lifelong friendships have been forged through the annual wine auction between members of the Birmingham community and vintners from California, Oregon and France.
For this year’s first vintner dinner, held Oct. 22, the Stitts were partnered with Susan and Tom Lowder of Holman Ranch, this year’s wine auction honorary chairs.
“Susan is so detail oriented and I had a blast working with her on the logistics,” Pardis said.
Susan was introduced to the TumTum Tree Foundation by her husband. Both Susan and Tom have a vested interest in helping those who are battling critical illnesses, having experienced such battles themselves.
“Tom lost his first wife, Jarman Lowder, to Alzheimer’s, and I lost my first husband, Dick Carrington, to ALS,” she said.
“One of my first dates with Tom was attending a TumTum Tree event,” she added. “He knew I had a special interest in children’s causes, having helped start a similar nonprofit in Virginia.”
She was later encouraged to join the board by friend and board member Susan Curtin.
“It has been a pleasure to serve with an inspiring group of caring individuals who play such a special role in impacting the lives of so many children in our community,” Susan Lower said.
A Passion for Wine
Susan Lowder grew up with a passion for gardening, mainly vegetables planted and cared for in the red clay soil of her native Virginia.
“My dad is well known for his Bloody Mary’s made with our homemade tomato juice,” Susan said.
When she married Tom, she left the tomatoes behind for grapes.
He introduced her to his winery, Holman Ranch, and she adopted his passion for growing grapes.
“Tom has taught me so much and I am fascinated by the whole wine process,” Susan said.
The 100% estate grown vineyard and boutique winery is in Carmel Valley, California. The grapes are handpicked. The wines are handcrafted in caves and bottled on site.
“Tom planted 18 acres of grapes in 2006 close to the Pacific coast in Monterey County, providing the perfect cool temperatures and chalky soil for growing grapes for our chardonnay, rosé, sparkling brut rosé and pinot noir wines,” she said.
“As a family-owned winery, we value our relationships with our clients and our community,” Susan said. “It is important to us to use our wines as a way to help others.”
Reorganizing the Dinner
The Oct. 22 virtual vintner dinner began at Bottega, with guests picking up food prepared by the Bottega Restaurant team and a wine package including four bottles chosen by the Holman Ranch team.
“We selected wines for the dinner that we thought best represented our Holman Ranch brand,” Susan said. “Pardis and Frank created a dish to match with each of the four wines we featured as a representation of our vineyard.”
The list included the vineyard’s 2018 Estate Chardonnay and 2013 Heather’s Hill Pinot Noir. Also included were a pinot noir and sparkling brut rosé from the winery’s premiere Jarman label, named after Tom’s late wife as a living memorial.
A four-course meal was organized for the tasting with transportation in mind, as food pickup began at 5 p.m. but the virtual dinner presentation started at 6:30 p.m.
“We served a duck braise as the main course, knowing it would hold well,” Pardis said.
“The olive oil cake was made with Holman Ranch olive oil and garnished with Petals From the Past persimmon compote.
“Our team loves a challenge and enjoyed putting the puzzle pieces together for this to-go dinner,” she added.
In addition to wines, the Lowders included a bottle of Holman Ranch’s extra virgin olive oils, produced from their estate olive grove.
“The Cookstore in Mountain Brook sells our oil,” Susan said. “The Holman Ranch extra virgin olive oil is like liquid gold and very healthy. We use it on everything.”
Pardis noted that it was important to create a sense of energy while the food and wines were presented by computer as guests sat in their own homes.
“Luckily, the winemakers, Chris and Greg, had the most beautiful background of the Carmel Valley, and their passion was palpable as they described the wines, which were exceptional,” she said.
Greg and Chris Vita are Holman Ranch’s father-son winemaking team. Greg learned the trade while working alongside his Italian grandfather in Mount Shasta, later studying botany and analogy at the University of California, Davis.
“Greg is fondly regarded as Carmel Valley’s Wizard (of) Oz of wine,” Susan said.
The starter for the tasting was the winery’s Jarman Sparkling Brut Rosé, which Susan said was “made as a priority wine long before the rosé trend for our brides that choose to be married at Holman Ranch.”
Her advice to amateur wine lovers looking to expand their knowledge is to relax and explore.
“First, take a deep breath and relax!” she said.
One of the best things about wine, in Susan’s opinion, is the variety. So, it is important to look past preconceived notions about the style of the wine or the area where it is grown when tasting.
“For example, our Estate Chardonnay is known for displaying bright, dry and crisp characteristics, which is unlike most found in California,” Susan said. A wine labeled chardonnay doesn’t necessarily offer up those deep oaky punches it is commonly known for.
“When you are ready to take your wine knowledge to the next level, download the WSET Level Three Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine,” Susan said. “This is a simple two-page document that will help you put your taste into words.”
Susan said Holman Ranch has been fortunate in that its large tasting room allows for social distancing. Some guests have continued to escape to the vineyards during the pandemic, while others have suffered far greater losses.
“Every person involved in the event is experiencing challenges,” Susan said.
“Many wineries suffered huge losses due to the California fires this summer,” she added. Overall, it’s more important than ever to give back to each other and the community.
“It is heartwarming to see all these folks coming together despite their own losses to help the TumTum Tree Foundation,” Susan said.