"It's My Passion"

By ericg August 1, 2012

“People come from all over the world to play polo here,” says James Uihlein. ( Thrills

James Uihlein carries on a proud family tradition while savoring the adrenaline rush of polo.

For James Uihlein, polo is a family tradition—his grandfather, Robert A. Uihlein Jr., helped introduce the sport to his native Wisconsin, where the family owned the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company for more than 100 years; and his father “taught me a lot about the sport”—but James, now 31, only started playing while a senior at the University of Tampa.

“It’s truly amazing when you and the horse are able to act as one to make a play,” he says. “You’re doing it at such a high rate of speed; you have to be 110 percent focused.”

Uihlein owns 14 polo ponies. “They’re members of the family,” he says. “You’re working with them every day, and each has his own personality. They want to please you. They have fun playing the sport. If they didn’t, they simply wouldn’t do it; they’re too big and too powerful.”

James Uihlein (Eric Napals)Married, with his first child on the way, Uihlein makes the Sarasota Polo Club his home base. Like his teammates, he travels to other parts of the country, “from California to New York,” he says, for summer leagues. Not this summer, though; he’s been sidelined with a shoulder injury. “I’ve had my bumps and bruises in polo, and that’s to be expected,” he says. “It’s a rough sport.”

Uihlein is enthusiastic about the Sarasota Polo Club, which he and his family founded. (The Uihleins own Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, home to Lakewood Ranch.) “The fields and farms are fantastic, and they really do come from all over the world to play here,” he says. Most of all, he says, the fans are championship-worthy. “The facilities are fantastic, but the community and fans make it what it is.”—Ilene Denton


Nicholas Allen feels “blessed” to have started Carte Blanche Wine.Through the grapevine

For Nicholas Allen, the world of winemaking was a dream long deferred.

“Wine is in our blood,” says Nicholas Allen, who can trace his winemaking roots back to his great-grandfather in France. “We always had the family wine at the table. We would talk about the climate and what happened in the world that year. It sparked the best conversation.” But when it came time to pick a career, Allen chose real estate. He spent 10 years dealing in residential and commercial investment properties. Six years ago, he and his wife bought a home on Longboat Key to be near her family.

Then, in 2007, Allen felt a yearning to do something more, to “follow my passion and make it my vocation.”

He decided to start his own wine label with a small, hands-on operation. Then he met Luc Morlet, a fifth-generation winemaker who oversees several Napa Valley vineyards that provide grapes for some of the country’s top winemaking companies. During the course of a six-hour dinner, Allen and Morlet sowed the seeds for a partnership in a company they called Carte Blanche Wine.

Still based on Longboat Key with his wife and two children, Allen has filled the last five years with trips to Napa, thrilling at the endless—if exhausting—work and education. He scrutinizes the soil under his grapes and cherishes blending wines in the cave with Morlet. And he peppers his discourses with words like “lucky” and “blessed.”

After last year’s first release, Carte Blanche wines are now distributed in 10 states and have won raves from Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast and the like. With this year’s second release, Allen expects the company to break even. “I was so hoping it would become a profitable family company,” he says. “I’m starting to feel the dream come true.”Hannah Wallace


Monroe KokinThe orchid chief

Monroe Kokin’s longtime obsession has made him a leader in Sarasota’s orchid world.

A visit 25 years ago to famed Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia started Monroe Kokin on his passion—“for me, an obsession,” he admits—for growing orchids.

“I walked into the orchid house and fell in love,” he remembers. “I shot six rolls of film and bought three orchids and a book on how to grow them, and before I knew it I had 150 orchids on benches in the back yard of my home in central New Jersey.”

Fast forward a quarter-century. Kokin is immediate past-president of the 125-member Sarasota Orchid Society, whose members span ages 22 to 88. He’s traveled to Hawaii, Japan, Thailand and Singapore in pursuit of unusual species and plans to visit Indonesia in 2013 and to attend the World Orchid Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2014. He teaches classes at Selby Gardens. (“I tell my students it’s a misconception that orchids are hard to grow; they grow like weeds,” Kokin says. “They thrive on benign neglect.”) And his collection has grown to 800 orchids housed in his custom-built lanai at home.

Kokin also photographs award-winning orchids. Not only have orchids inspired him with their beauty and sent him around the globe, but Kokin even credits orchids for a healthier life. “I was a corrections officer,” he says. “This was my stress release. I say that growing orchids was how I got to live this long.”Ilene Denton


Warren Coville at home, in front of an architectural abstract by Janice Mehlman. ( eye for photography

Warren Coville’s lifetime interest grew into an important collection.

At his bar mitzvah, Warren Coville received a camera as a gift. What started as a hobby turned into his career—operating a successful photo finishing supply business in Michigan for more than 30 years. During World War II, he even served as an aerial photographer.

So it was natural for his wife Margot to present him with a print by famed photographer Ansel Adams for his birthday, back in 1975. That was the first of some more than 2,800 prints Coville has collected since then—many of which he has given to the Library of Congress and, more recently, to the Ringling Museum of Art, which will present an exhibition featuring a number of his historic photos Nov. 9 through Feb. 3.

“When I was still working, I would stop on my way home at a photo gallery, take books home, and that’s how I started building my knowledge,” Coville recalls. “Then Margot and I began to go to New York City for auctions.” Coville also started collecting the work of photojournalists early on “for next to nothing,” he says. “People thought I was crazy.” The Ringling’s Coville collection includes images of such unforgettable moments as Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, and of a young John F. Kennedy at the 1960 Democratic National Convention.

Part of the thrill for Coville has been meeting many of the photographers whose work he acquired; he vividly recalls lunches or martinis with such icons as Andre Kertesz, Alfred Eisenstaedt and Ansel Adams. The Bird Key home he and Margot share is the gallery for some of his favorite photos, including a Brassai print depicting artist Henri Matisse drawing the nude and that famous Eisenstaedt photo of the nurse/sailor kiss in Times Square. And Coville occasionally still takes photos of his own with the single-lens reflex camera Margot gave him.Kay Kipling


Wendy Surkis ( start in art

Post-retirement, Wendy Surkis rekindled her energies for the Sarasota Museum of Art.

Wendy Surkis started her career in New York City with a small advertising agency that she grew into an 18-office international company before retiring in 2000 to Sarasota. Her plan was to bask in the glow of her golden years on the sugar-white sands of Siesta Key, but in 2003, Surkis, a self-described “art enthusiast,” learned about plans to start a contemporary art museum in Sarasota—the Sarasota Museum of Art.

“The opportunity to take something that was just an idea and to help it grow was very motivating,” she says. Besides, she adds, a few years of retirement had forced her to realize “I’m actually a workaholic.”

Surkis threw herself into the fledgling project, delving deep into every facet of the new museum, from studying blueprints to coaxing funds out of a community that was soon to be mired in recession. Despite a tough economy, the SMOA board has now raised 65 percent of their $22 million goal ($14 million for renovation, $8 million for endowment).

Surkis and her board partnered with Ringling College of Art and Design in 2005—a smart move that brought the clout and resources of the popular school to their cause—and in 2008, they acquired the keys to the historic 1926 Sarasota High School building. The renovated building will become Ringling College’s Visual Arts Education Center, and SMOA will occupy 21,000 square feet on the second floor. In addition to traveling exhibitions, SMOA will provide classes, lectures and more.

For Surkis, it’s been “a marvelous journey.” Along the way, she has formed friendships and lasting connections. And it’s underlined, she says, how special Sarasota is: “Sarasota is culturally thirsty and comprised of people who want to expand their knowledge. Children and adults will be exposed to something fresh through this museum, and that’s what motivates me.”Jessi Smith

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