40 Years of Cheers

Major milestones in UNLVino history

Larry Ruvo and Jerry Vallen, pictured at Southern Wine & Spirits headquarters, founded UNLVino 40 years ago. | Photo by Anthony Mair

Larry Ruvo and Jerry Vallen, pictured at Southern Wine & Spirits headquarters, founded UNLVino 40 years ago. | Photo by Anthony Mair

You don’t become one of the nation’s largest wine events overnight. What began 40 years ago as a humble fundraiser in a liquor warehouse for Las Vegas’ hometown university has gone on to have a significant impact on the lives and careers of numerous hospitality students—not to mention the culinary world to which they’ve contributed. “From servers to food-and-beverage directors, they are among the very best in the world,” says Tony Goitia, territory manager for Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada. He’s been involved with UNLVino since 1981, when he manned a booth and poured so much white zinfandel he couldn’t move his arm the next day. Goitia, who joined Southern two years later and also taught International Wine at UNLV for four years, has not missed a UNLVino since. With his insights, we put together some of the event’s most delicious highlights:

A billboard from the first UNLVino in 1974.

A billboard from the first UNLVino in 1974.


Larry Ruvo, managing director of Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada, and Jerry Vallen, dean of what’s now the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration, meet to discuss ways to bring in revenue for the school. UNLVino is born, with the first tasting held in September in the Southern warehouse on Wynn Road. There are 25 tables, with a few wines at each. The big hits: Blue Nun, Mateus, Lancers and a Chianti that had straw wrapped around the bottle. And Robert Mondavi actually attended!


UNLVino becomes so popular that it’s forced to relocate to the Thomas & Mack Center in order to accommodate the huge crowds.


The event moves again, to Bally’s Grand Ballroom, which offers better acoustics, lighting, carpeted floors, parking and much more room. There are now more than 100 tables, and beer and spirits are offered. “We added hot new liquor items such as Grey Goose, Captain Morgan spiced rum, Malibu rum and many of the flavored vodkas that are now staples at every bar,” Goitia says. Meanwhile, wine demand takes off, with the average American discovering brands beyond California, Italy and France. Wine from Washington and Oregon—who knew?

UNLVino at  the Thomas & Mack, circa the mid-1980s.

UNLVino at the Thomas & Mack, circa the mid-1980s.


Two new events—Bubble-Licious and Auss-some & Then Some (featuring wines from Australia and New Zealand)—join the lineup, making UNLVino a three-day event. Bubble-Licious is an instant hit, and it will grow quickly in the years to come. The main event is now called the Grand Tasting, and celebrity chefs become a featured attraction (Wolfgang Puck and Thomas Keller are among those who have been honored). Also, the celebrity wine auction is introduced, with actor Pat Morita the first to host. “He knew as much about wine as I know about Eskimos—which is nothing,” Goita says. “He got the crowd going, and despite his lack of wine knowledge, he made record sales in the auction.”


With American tastes continuing to expand, Sake Fever joins the lineup, replacing Auss-some. The event is very popular, with hundreds of people enjoying poolside pairings of sake and sushi.

A Vallen-and-Ruvo photo from the early days.

A Vallen-and-Ruvo photo from the early days.


BAR-B-Q—with emphasis on the “bar”—is the latest attraction, giving spirits the same exposure that wine has enjoyed. Some of America’s top mixologists show off their talents, while Southern Wine & Spirits showcases new liquor brands.


The event expands to four days (April 9-12), and for the first time in 20 years the Grand Tasting venue has been changed, to the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health’s event center, where Ruvo and Vallen will be honored with the Dom Pérignon Award of Excellence. “A new venue can be difficult,” Goitia says, “but since the brain center is in the news so often, I hope it will bring in some people that perhaps haven’t seen it, and at the same time, who can try so many wonderful wines.”

Back to 2014 Spring Epicurean Guide.