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July 21, 2019

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Hospitality students add a special touch to 44th annual UNLVino fundraiser

Preparing for UNLVino

Zoe Sephos serves chicken and waffle skewers to guests during a food sampling day at UNLV’s Hospitality Hall Wednesday, March 7, 2018. The sampling is part of the preparation for UNLVino, a wine, food, and spirits festival, scheduled for Saturday, April 14.

The 44th annual edition of UNLVino is coming up on April 14, one of the city’s top wine tasting events and a longstanding tradition that puts the “fun” in fundraising. It’s easily one of the best-known charitable hospitality events on everyone’s Vegas calendar, but you might not know that much of the preparation for UNLVino is done by the students who have reaped the benefits of the event’s decades of success.

In early March—inside a pristine kitchen classroom at Hospitality Hall, the new headquarters for UNLV’s William F. Harrah College of Hospitality—the 40 students enrolled in a class devoted to the planning and execution of UNLVino welcomed faculty and friends for a pre-event menu tasting. Shrimp and red snapper ceviche, truffle and lobster mac and cheese balls and chicken and waffle skewers were among the shared dishes, tasty canapés that impressed everyone in a collaborative quest to create the perfect snacks for the annual event.

Kegan Kraft was tasked with creating many of the tiny, pretty desserts: candied and caramel apples, crispy cookies and cream puffs with lemon filling. “You can actually taste the lemon and a lot of people are going to love that,” she said.

Preparing for UNLVino

Rachel Neale and executive chef Mark Sandoval get ready for a food sampling day at UNLV's Hospitality Hall Wednesday, March 7, 2018. The sampling is part of the preparation for UNLVino, a wine, food, and spirits festival, scheduled for Saturday, April 14. Launch slideshow »

Kraft has volunteered to work UNLVino for the past two years, but since she’s enrolled in the UNLVino class—the culminating course for many hospitality students—she’s much more involved this year. She’s finishing an internship with the Hakkasan Group and planning a career in restaurant management. “I enjoy cooking but I don’t think I want to go that route, but I still want to be around it,” she said. “I’ve always thought about opening my own restaurant but that’s way farther down the line.”

When you bite into a candied apple at UNLVino—a Hawthorne apple, so each partygoer has their own whole, mini-apple to enjoy—you’re enjoying Kraft’s handiwork.

“A lot of these dishes have to do with trends, things the students like or things they’ve seen,” said Mark Sandoval, the college’s executive chef and a veteran of some of the most acclaimed restaurants in Las Vegas, including those by Joël Robuchon and Wolfgang Puck. “I’ve done the event so many times, I don’t want to come up with stuff. They create a dish and it’s on the menu so they have a vested interest. It makes it more fun for the students, and for the most part they like to go out and eat so they know what’s trendy.”

Since UNLVino is an event where everyone is walking around while sipping and snacking, the students’ dishes are typically one or two bites each, although there will be a street taco station this year. They created 30 portions of each dish for the March tasting; they’ll do 2,000 portions of each appetizer for the event at the Keep Memory Alive Center in downtown Las Vegas.

Assistant professor Todd Uglow, who leads the UNLVino class with Sandoval, said about half the students in the class go on to careers in food & beverage and half pursue event jobs. No matter what path they choose, working on UNLVino will be a formative experience.

“Every year I have students come back to me and say, ‘This is way more than I expected,’” Uglow said. “We try to prep them by showing them photos and materials from years past but it’s never enough. But you can’t get this far without a lot of hands-on experience. For the most part, these are people who know what they’re doing.”

The class isn’t just about cooking and serving food and drinks—there’s a massive marketing strategy that students like Summer Horvath assist with. “I’ve been working in hospitality since I was a freshman in high school and I just like the marketing side of it, but I haven’t been exposed to public relations as much so I wanted to learn more about that,” she said. “But also my uncle has worked for Southern [Glazer’s Wine & Spirits] so I’ve definitely been exposed to wine tastings and UNLVino.”

The state’s leading beverage distribution company has been a partner in UNLVino since its founding event in 1974 at Southern’s warehouse, a small wine tasting conceived by Senior Managing Director Larry Ruvo and former College of Hospitality Dean Jerome Vallen.

Of course, the students aren’t the only ones who will be dishing it up at UNLVino, and in fact this year’s event boasts an all-star lineup of chefs and restaurateurs. Among the participants are Scott Conant of the new Masso Osteria at Red Rock Resort, Charles Phan of the Forum Shops’ coming-soon restaurant The Slanted Door, Hubert Keller of Burger Bar and Fleur at Mandalay Bay, Brian Howard of Sparrow & Wolf and Paul Bartolotta, formerly at Wynn Las Vegas and currently running his restaurants in Wisconsin. Momofuku, RM Seafood, Bouchon, District One, Libertine Social and Lotus of Siam are among other participating restaurants.

UNLVino will take place starting at 7 p.m. on April 14 at the Keep Memory Alive Event Center at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. Tickets start at $150 and can be purchased at with proceeds going to scholarships for hospitality college students.