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July 25, 2014

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UNLVino gets better with age

In its 40th year, the four-day event to fund hotel college scholarships has grown into real-life training for students

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COURTESY OF UNLVINO

Larry Ruvo, left, and Jerry Vallen look over a bottle of wine at the Southern Wine & Spirits warehouse for the first ever UNLVino event in that took place in 1974.

UNLVino

In this undated photo Jerry Vallen, left, and Larry Ruvo look over a bottle of wine circa late 1970's. Launch slideshow »

IF YOU GO

When: April 9-12

Where: Various locations

Cost: $100-$275 per event. Tickets can be purchased in advance for a reduced cost (tickets are $25-$50 more at the door).

To purchase tickets: Go to unlvtickets.com or call 739-3267

More info: unlvino.com

American best-selling author and television producer George R.R. Martin once said, “Wine makes all things possible” — words that UNLVino co-founders Larry Ruvo and Jerry Vallen have proved true.

Since the two longtime friends paired up in 1974 with the vision of launching a local wine festival to benefit students enrolled in the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration at UNLV, the annual event has raised millions of dollars to fund scholarships for thousands of students while simultaneously emerging as a community mainstay for discerning — and thirsty — Southern Nevadans, who come out in droves to demonstrate their support.

“We’re expecting about 7,000 people this year,” said Ruvo, a philanthropist who is senior managing director of Southern Wine & Spirits, which has partnered with UNLV for UNLVino from the get-go. “Our first year, we held the event in the Southern Wine warehouse, charged $5 admission at the door and were thrilled when 400 people showed up. We never dreamed it would get so big.”

This year, Ruvo and Vallen will be honored at a special Founders Grand Tasting, which will top off the four-day event that begins April 9.

“We wanted to offer a course in wine at UNLV, but we didn’t have any,” said Vallen, the retired dean emeritus and professor emeritus at the College of Hotel Administration. “This was a small town, and I had no trouble going around and knocking on doors at liquor distributors and saying ‘Can you give us some?’ Of course, we didn’t know that we weren’t allowed to have wine on campus at the time, so we held the first class at the convention center.”

While Vallen was focused on educating his hospitality students, Ruvo recognized a similar need to educate the public — two convergent schools of thought that led to the creation of UNLVino.

“A customer had called and said she had purchased a case of wine that had gone bad, and all the corks had popped out,” Ruvo said. “We were happy to replace it, but I wanted to meet her and try and figure out how this could have happened. Turns out, she had put the wine in the trunk of her car and then gone shopping for several hours. This was in July and it was 115 degrees outside. I asked her if she would have stored ice cream in the trunk and expected it to be in good shape. She did not grasp the similarity, and a light bulb went off for me that people do not know how to properly store and take care of wine. Being that we predicted wine would be the next big thing — the days of the 5 o’clock martini were over — we founded UNLVino based largely on a bad case of Nectar Rose.”

UNLVino is a social event for the community and a fundraiser for the College of Hotel Administration, but Ruvo and Vallen strongly emphasize that it is also an academic program, with an accredited course where a few dozen students are involved from the ground up. They plan the menu, market the event and recruit hundreds of volunteers to, among other things, pour wine and check IDs at the front door. Students even conceived UNLVino’s catchy “Take a Sip for Scholarship” tagline.

“This is probably the best hands-on experience possible for our students, and they really take pride in it,” said Mohsen Azizsoltani, who teaches the UNLVino Management course. “UNLVino has grown to a huge food and beverage festival beyond just wine-tasting with bread and cheese. We now have celebrity chefs such as Wolfgang Puck involved, and the event attracts thousands of people. This really helps our students, educating them in hospitality and events management, and UNLVino looks great on their résumés.”

Michael Severino, general marketing events director at Southern Wine, has been with the company for 15 years and has known both Ruvo and Vallen even longer.

“Larry and Jerry recognized the need, and they forged a great idea,” he said, calling Ruvo a true philanthropist and Vallen an exemplary role model for students. “It’s long overdue that they are honored for creating UNLVino, which to me is community pride at its best.”

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