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Tim Farrell, CEO of United Through Reading, left, Rico Cassoni and Rob Pennoyer, chairman of the Storybook Ball Committee. Photo by Douglas Gates
ColumnsTaste of Wine

Wine and food industry supports United Through Reading’s Storybook Ball

Deployments are common for military families, with over 100,000 parents leaving nearly 250,000 children at home annually.

United Through Reading (UTR) understands the importance of connecting families, offering on-demand story time video recordings read by separated parents along with a copy of the book delivered to their children to bridge the gap during separations. This helps children feel closer to their deployed parents, reducing stress and enhancing their development. Moreover, it supports emotional bonds for service members and eases their reintegration into family life.

This free program is accessible to all branches of the military, including Veterans. United Through Reading strengthens military families’ literacy, emotional bonds, and well-being through the power of reading together at every age, no matter the distance.

Invited by a longtime friend and mentor, Committee Chair Rob Pennoyer, and UTR CEO Tim Farrell, I readily joined this year’s ball committee again. The weekend-before-Halloween event allowed guests the option to abandon formal wear for storybook character costumes, adding a whimsical touch to the affair.

An accidental spill of DAOU Cabernet Sauvignon on my shirt during the pre-dinner reception turned into an unexpected part of my character for the night, albeit not the one I intended.

I was grateful again this year for the wine and food industry’s overwhelming support for the UTR Storybook Ball. Despite a shaky economy and world unrest, Sal Ercolano, proprietor of The Butcher Shop and The Godfather, donated $100 gift cards for each restaurant. Randy Smerik, proprietor of Solare Ristorante in Liberty Station, San Diego Magazine’s 2023 Best Restaurant winner, also pitched in a $100 gift card. Victor Magalhaes, proprietor of Vittorio’s Italian Trattoria, contributed two passes for one of his upcoming monthly wine dinners valued at $150. Keith Rolle, winemaker and managing director of Ocean Beach’s Gianni Buonomo Vintners, donated a wine tasting package for four. Gianni Buonomo secured its sixth consecutive Best of 2023 Readers Choice award from San Diego Magazine. They also earned the Critic’s Choice recognition for the third time in six years.

I was genuinely humbled by Daniel Daou, co-owner/master winemaker of DAOU Family Estate, who made an above-and-beyond contribution of DAOU cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and rosé for the pre-dinner reception and dinner. Additionally, Daou donated a signed bottle of their flagship 2020 Soul of a Lion and a wine tasting and culinary experience at DAOU Mountain for four. Together the bottle and DAOU Mountain experience generated a whopping $2,500 as part of the evening’s live auction conducted by auctioneer Mark Drilling.

Serving 180 guests with a three-course meal at the Hilton was an impressive feat, and the culinary team’s skills were showcased throughout the evening. The DAOU chardonnay beautifully complemented a baby spinach and frisée salad with feta cheese, blackberries, candied walnuts and citrus-maple vinaigrette. The
herb-crusted chicken, accompanied by roasted peppers, creamed farro and grilled asparagus, found a perfect match in the DAOU cabernet sauvignon, enhancing the flavors. The evening concluded with a delightful butter toffee cheesecake, paired excellently with the same cabernet.

The program opened with remarks from Farrell, celebrating milestones like connecting their 3 millionth military family member, distributing 85,000 books, participating in 450 events and recording 9,000 stories. Rear Adm. Yvette Davids and Crystal Bettenhausen-Bubulka shared personal stories of UTR’s support. Epsilon Systems, a San Diego-based company, received the Military Family Leadership Award, with CEO Bryan Min sharing his family’s story. Author and filmmaker David Barclay Moore received the Audrey Geisel Friend of Military Children Award, dedicating his latest book, “Boyogi,” to his late father, Army veteran John Nathaniel Moore.

I was excited to see that the Storybook Ball raised over $150,000 for this most amazing cause. Those wishing to learn more about UTR and possibly contributing can do so at

— Story by Rico Cassoni

Wine Bytes
The Butcher Shop is hosting a Prisoner Wine Dinner on Thursday, Nov. 16 at 6 p.m. Guests will experience a celebration of the renowned Prisoner’s exceptional selection paired with an unforgettable culinary experience crafted by Chef Brian Gist. The main course features char-grilled Wagyu New York Strip steak braised short ribs with truffle parmesan whipped potatoes, and roasted Brussel sprouts paired with Prisoner Red Blend. Cost is $120 per person and includes tax/gratuity. RSVP at

Reach Rico and Frank at [email protected]. 

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