WINE-CRAWL AUCTION ACTION

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What a terrific idea for a fundraiser.

First, gather a couple of hundred well-heeled folks in blue jeans in the greenhouse at Sickles Market in Little Silver.

Hold a series of silent auctions for bottles of fine wine and gourmet foods as a warm-up.

Then, auction off “wine crawl” dinners, at which some of this region’s finest private wine cellars are thrown open, chefs from some of the best area restaurants provide signature dishes, and the winning bidders get limousined from one stop to the next in a head-spinning moveable feast.

Stand back. These folks will be waving their wallets and elbowing each other aside for a shot at the primo vino.

According to spokeswoman Karen Irvine, last year’s installment of the Sickles Market Wine & Cheese Tasting and Fundraiser “was a sort of quasi garage sale of the upper oenophile stratosphere” in which the crawls accounted for $9,000 of the $45,000 raised.

The money goes to Holiday Express, which puts on concerts and provides food and other services to AIDS patients, the mentally disabled, the isolated elderly and disadvantaged children during the Christmas season. Most people hereabouts know Holiday Express as the band that plays the tree-lighting ceremony in downtown Red Bank and features restaurateur/entrepreneur/athlete Tim McLoone.

Last year, the first stop of one crawl was Chick Cunningham’s home/business, Carriage House Marina in Sea Bright. His wine cooler, an above-ground space about the width of your average closet, doesn’t look like much. It’s off to the side of a large garage bay where Cunningham works on sailboats over the winter. But it’s stocked with Bourdeaux, a smattering of Italians, “a little Chablis for oysters, a little Chianti,” and various others bearing the dates 1988 and 1992, the years in which his two daughters were born.

The couple who won last year’s crawl were enthralled by Cunningham’s living and working quarters, a kind of oversized fairy-tale cottage tucked behind an apartment complex and overlooking the Shrewsbury River, he says.

“They were in here climbing all over the boats just having a blast,” says Cunningham. “It broke the ice for the night. So this year, I’m the appetizer again.”

As he did last year, Cunningham plans to pull a lot of corks for his guests this year. He buys much of his stock via a couple of online auctions for wine lovers, and “this summer, I hit the auctions pretty big,” he says.

And how does he know what to buy? Well, experience, for one thing, which has refined his olfactory sense. “I’m more of a nose guy than a palette guy,” he says.

Explain, please?

“The difference is that when you check the aroma of a wine, you know what’s coming,” he says. “You’re rarely surprised. But you can be surprised.”

This year, three crawls will be up for bid, and the winners may be in for some suprises, too. On the itinerary with Cunningham’s collection are Mark Murphy’s modest 500-bottle cellar in Fair Haven and Brian Pasch’s 6,000-bottle arsenal in Rumson. Another crawl is also clustered in the Rumson-Sea Bright area, and includes a stop at David Burke Fromagerie, which will provide both a meal course and wines from its famed wine cellar. The third will be held in the Colts Neck area.

Other restaurants donating courses will be Savanna, Lusty Lobster, Old Homestead, Salt Creek Grille, and Metropolitan Café.

The event is next Friday, Oct. 20, from 7 to 10p, and tickets are $75 each.

By the way, Sickles, which has been operating as farm since the late 1600s, was featured recently on MSNBC’s “Your Business” in a segment on niche marketing.

The episode will be replayed tomorrow at 5:30a, but unless you’re planning to plow the south 40, there’s no reason to ruin a good sleep-in just to see it; it’s available on the MSNBC website.

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