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For 10 Years Wine Women & Shoes Puts Its Best Foot Forward

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Whenever I tell someone I am going to "Wine Women & Shoes" I get an array of reactions, ranging from "what is that?" to "that sounds like the most fun ever."  Well, it is the most fun ever.  And after more than 150 events and raising more than $20 million for local women's charities across the country, Wine Women & Shoes (WW&S) has become a phenomenon since launching 10 years ago.

Elaine Honig developed the idea for a different kind of fundraiser while she was at Honig Vineyard & Winery in Napa Valley.  She wanted something more than the same old boring wine and food pairing event.

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"I remember sitting down with Kristin Belair, our winemaker at Honig and saying okay, I've got this crazy idea about pairing wine and shoes," she explains.  "Kristin immediately began riffing on pairings.  The classic black pump goes with a classic Cabernet and its dark fruit flavors.  The heel is representative of the backbone of tannin.  Think of the texture of suede and how it relates to the texture of wine."  Thus, a great idea was born.

Most women adore shoes.  I for one happen to be a shoe fanatic.  Plus nowadays women make most of the buying decisions when it comes to wine.  WW&S celebrates all three:  wine, women and shoes.  When I produced the show In Wine Country on NBC, we shot one of the Napa WW&S events; it was one of my favorite shoots ever.

The first event, held at Honig Vineyard, raised $60,000 for Planned Parenthood and set the theme for events to follow.  There's a shoe "fashion show," where community models (local women) strut their stuff down the runway, showing off shoes from local boutiques and designers.

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There's the marketplace selling those shoes, jewelry and more.  Then a live auction, with a dazzling array of experiences to wrap up the event.

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As the event grew, "Shoe Boys" were added.  These men wearing all black walk around with a shoe on a silver platter to show guests.  They also cater hand and foot to VIP guests during the auction, making it a great experience.

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A WW&S event is more than a fundraiser or a wine tasting.  There's something almost cultish in its draw to women, and yes some men, across every spectrum.  Girlfriends plan weekends around the event.  Women return year after year.  People drive miles, even get on planes to attend.  Something about WW&S - whether it's the shoes and fashion, the novelty of wine and shoe pairings or the sheer fun, camaraderie and bonding through shopping, and of course feeling good about giving back - that resonates passionately with attendees.

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Call it the power of the girlfriend.  Elaine says one woman tells one friend, they end up bringing more friends to the events, and continue to go back year after year.

Elaine left Honig Vineyard several years ago, after a successful career of 21 years there, and is now completely focused on WW&S.  She's grown her operation to a staff of more than 10 people, whose role it is to help the local charities across the country put on the event.  Elaine says they've developed a formula that works, one that each charity can implement without having to reinvent the wheel.  The WW&S team provides support and guidance, but the planning -- choosing the venue, the food and wine participants, the theme -- all that is handled by the charity putting on the event.

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WW&S has moved beyond Wine Country - although events are still held in Napa and Sonoma - across the country.  Some events take place in urban sites; the largest event happens to be in Tulsa, OK, with 750 attendees.  In Sarasota, FL, the second longest running after the Napa Valley event, brings in 650 WW&S devotees.

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As WW&S enters its 10th year, more than 35 events are planned for 2014.  "I'm blown away," Elaine says.   "There are so many days I look up and think 'oh my god it's working.'  I can't believe this wacky idea that I concocted is working."