January 26, 2023

A vintage year

After a five-year hiatus, the Lyric Wine Auction returns this spring.

The Lyric Wine Auction is, without question, one of the most dazzling dates on Chicago's social calendar — an unrivaled blend of music, fine wine and cuisine, and high-impact fundraising. It actually takes place directly on the Ken Pigott stage, and supports almost every facet of Lyric's activities. By tradition, the event takes place every three years — a cadence interrupted by the pandemic. On the evening of May 13, 2023, Lyric patrons will have the chance to make up for lost time.


A romantic lantern sits in the center of a finely set table during Lyric's 2018 Wine Auction.

Since its inception in 1988, the event has brought in more than $11 million in support, a generous tally from the guests in attendance and those bidding from afar. The wine world's book-of-record, Wine Spectator, named it a "Top Charity Wine Auction," and that's probably an understatement. In truth, it's always a blast, and this season's version promises to be every bit as stellar as in years past–a scintillating blend of the world's finest wines, rarefied journeys, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

The energy behind the auction mirrors the energy that has been felt in the opera house since the successful start of the season. "Lyric has come back really strong from COVID," notes Nancy S. Searle, who returns again this season as a committee co-chair. A past president and member of the Lyric Opera Women's Board for more than 20 years, Searle has been instrumental in growing the auction into the glamorous extravaganza it has now become. "We've got a full schedule of operas, including two commissioned world premieres, as well as musicals. There has been incredible audience response — including sold-out shows."

Wine Auction 2023 committee members (left to right) Suzanne W. Mulshine, Nancy S. Searle, Erica L. Sandner, and Eileen Murphy pose with a bottle of wine from Maison Joseph Drouhin in the foyer of the Lyric Opera House.

And the auction is an important part of making it happen. "All the funds raised support programs like Lyric's education and engagement efforts for children and adults across all of the communities we serve," she notes. "The auction also supports the training of professional artists and supports the creation of new works at Lyric."

With fellow Co-Chair Erica L. Sandner and Vice Chairs Suzanne W. Mulshine and Eileen Murphy leading the way, this year for the first time the three-day event will kick off with private dinners in some of the most beautiful homes in Chicago, Winnetka, and Lake Forest, pairing Featured Vintners with celebrated chefs. The night of the auction begins with a reception sponsored by Beam Suntory in the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Grand Foyer, before trumpeters beckon guests to the stage, where they are served dinner amidst a set designed by the Lyric Opera production team, followed by the always thrilling live auction, handled again this year by Michael Davis and Ben Ferdinand of Hart Davis Hart auction house.

"It's fascinating to walk into a grand opera theater and rather than seeing a stage with the curtain down, it is completely decked out with multiple levels of customized staging and lighting, set for a dinner and live auction," says Sandner. "To be sitting on that stage and looking out onto the seats is really special." An avid collector herself, Sandner has been attending the Wine Auction since 1997.

Among the experiences to be auctioned is a trip to the Burgundy home of this year's Honored Guest, Maison Joseph Drouhin.

The 2023 Honored Guest is Maison Joseph Drouhin, one of the most iconic producers of premier cru and grand cru Burgundy, with estate vineyards in Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, and Côte Chalonnaise. The Drouhin family is donating a two-night stay for four people at their private guest house with a personalized tour of the vineyards and historical cellars, plus lunch or dinner with the Drouhin family. The Lyric Wine Auction team has also donated a separate 16-bottle lot representing the best of Drouhin's portfolio, including Corton-Charlemagne, Bonnes-Mares, Chambertin-Clos de Bèze, and Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses, all from the 2019 vintage.

Among the other impressive auction offerings confirmed is a Château d'Yquem lot that includes a bottle from each of six decades, spanning from 1921 to 1975, generously donated by Stephen A. Kaplan, a member of Lyric's Board of Directors. French wine lovers can also fight over a lot of six magnums of 1996 Château Margaux, which received a perfect 100-point rating from Robert Parker, donated by Patrick G. and Shirley Welsh Ryan. These are wines you simply can't find anywhere else.

An aerial view of Pommard and its legendary surrounding vineyards.

A number of lots venture beyond wine into the world of one-of-a-kind culinary and travel experiences. Beam Suntory and Rick Bayless are offering a tequila tasting and five-course dinner for eight guests in Chef Bayless' garden, paired with Beam Suntory's El Tesoro tequila.

A four-night stay at Nimmo Bay Luxury Resort in the heart of Canada's Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia will be on offer, donated by Karen Z. Gray-Krehbiel and John H. Krehbiel, Jr. The wilderness adventure includes a fly fishing excursion, two customizable helicopter adventures, a whale watching excursion, and dinner with wine pairings.

"We have raised the bar on the event each time," Searle says. "All the vintners that are coming have become my friends. You develop relationships with them across the years and it's very rewarding to see them come back." Searle expects thirty Featured Vintners at the event, and in the days before the auction, they too will enjoy some local hospitality, with exclusive tours of Chicago landmarks.

A bidder raises his paddle at Lyric's 2018 Wine Auction.

To explore the full catalogue of available lots, click here. The pent-up demand for this special set of experiences — the bubbles in this sparkling bottle, as it were — is nothing short of effervescent.

Header photo: The stage of the Ardis Krainik theater is extended over the seats at Wine Auction 2018. Credit: Todd Rosenberg

All other photos: Jaclyn Simpson, Todd Rosenberg