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The Back Story: UNLVino

Annual fundraising event has grown from warehouse gamble into a full-blown food festival. Former dean shares the story of how it started.

UNLV History  |  Mar 23, 2017  |  By Brian Sodoma
Jerry Vallen and Larry Ruvo

A 1976 photo of former Hotel College Dean Jerry Vallen (left) and Southern Wine & Spirit's Larry Ruvo (right). The man in the middle is not identified. (UNLV Special Collections)

Editor's Note: 

UNLVino 2017 runs March30-April 1 and includes Bubble-Licious at The Venetian; Sake Fever at Red Rock Casino; and The Grand Tasting at Paris Las Vegas. Cosponsors UNLV and Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada work together provide an original mix of food, drinks, and entertainment at each event. Visit the UNLVino website for event details.

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 Glazer’s 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 of Nevada warehouse with fewer than 50 attendees. Four decades and over a million dollars in  scholarships 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 for several years, 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.

"I remember when [Karate Kid actor] Pat Morita did the celebrity auction. He was great -- he just didn't know anything about wine. But because of his celebrity, it raised awareness of the event," added Goitia.

Perhaps the biggest changes through the years came with the addition of food, said Mohsen Azizsoltani, hospitality professor and long-time event coordinator.

"It really has gone from a wine event to a food and wine festival," he said.

Azizsoltani has also seen an increased focus on students gaining valuable hospitality experience at the event. The professor says it's not uncommon for students to see job offers after using the UNLVino experience as a networking opportunity.

There are some 600 volunteers, almost all from the Hotel College, involved with the event each year. A UNLVino management class was created more than decade ago for student volunteers to learn what it takes to put on a large event.

"Hats off to the founders who started this (43) years ago in a warehouse. They had a vision for this. ... The partnership with Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits is very strong. Without them, we really couldn't be this successful at all," Azizsoltani added.