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Raising Glasses, Funds and Spirits

How Block O’Toole & Murphy helped turn the St. Jude Autumn Wine Tasting into an event

Published in 2018 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine

Every October for the past quarter century, attorneys and other legal professionals gather at a New York City restaurant to eat and drink.

Yes, they do it much of the rest of the year, too, but this one is for a good cause. The St. Jude Autumn Wine Tasting is one of the biggest fundraising events to help St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and its dual missions: to prevent and cure devastating childhood diseases, and to help the hospital foot every family’s bill for treatment, travel, housing and food.

The event was started in the early 1990s by Lois Ottombrino, now senior counsel at Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker. “St. Jude was always an organization I supported with donations of my own,” she says. The early events drew 100 to 150 attendees, she adds, and raised about $20,000 to $30,000.

Now the law firm Block O’Toole & Murphy sponsors the event. One of Ottombrino’s partners happened to be the wife of Stephen Murphy, and one year Ottombrino asked if he could help; the firm took it over completely in 2007. 

“The charity speaks for itself,” Murphy says. “It had a particular appeal to me because I lost a cousin very young to leukemia. My partner Dan O’Toole had a niece die from cancer. So the concept of supporting a charity that battled pediatric cancer resonated with all of us.”

“They have done a fantastic job, grown it exponentially,” Ottombrino says. “I am happy I handed it to those guys.”

Murphy acts as event chair, and committee members Jeffrey Block, Daniel O’Toole, David Scher and Joseph Donahue enlist the help and participation of more than 70 firms. Last year’s event raised more than $650,000, bringing the overall total raised to more than $4 million. Murphy estimates that attendance and revenue grow 10 to 20 percent each year.

The tasting has moved from venue to venue, but since 2012 it’s been held at Guastavino’s on East 59th Street. About 14 wineries donate vino, and seven or eight restaurants serve up the food. “I Trulli [Ristorante] gets involved in a big way,” Murphy says. “The matriarch comes and rolls fresh pasta, the owner is a wine connoisseur and gives dissertations on the wines they pour.” A silent auction of restaurant gift certificates, sports tickets, high-end clothing, golf outings, European vacations and more bring in even more money. 

“This is unlike any other group we work with,” says Caroline C. Sparico, senior development director for ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude. “This event has five people behind it, so pound for pound what they do from a fundraising perspective is mind-blowing. They truly, passionately care about St. Jude, and they open their Rolodexes and ask everyone they do business with to help support our mission.” 

For Murphy, the most rewarding part of the night is when auctioneer Patrick Tully calls for the Give to Live. “We talk about how St. Jude is changing the world in pediatric disease and making strides in combating cancer, and the costs involved,” Murphy says. “When you tell the crowd, ‘This is what an hour of chemotherapy costs for a 6-year-old,’ ‘This is what a blanket costs,’ the public support is warm and touching and focused on donating more money to fight cancer.” 

Last year’s Give to Live auction generated $30,000 in three minutes, Sparico says.

It’s all very much lawyer-driven, and most of the attendees are attorneys, judges and court employees. “It’s almost like a reunion,” says Ottombrino.

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