Follow That Dream

By staff August 1, 2008

Diana Cloud is no stranger to adventure. The Sarasota real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist is also a licensed pilot who has already experienced G-force within the confines of a British military jet called the English Electric Lightning, becoming one of only 10 civilian women in the world to have ever flown at Mach I speeds. So when Virgin Galactic, a division of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, announced that it would be chartering commercial flights into outer space beginning in 2009, Cloud’s longtime travel agent, Admiral Travel’s Ryan Hilton, knew she would be eager to hop aboard.

Virgin Galactic’s $200,000-a-ticket flights consist of multiple mind-blowing aspects: three days’ worth of pre-flight training; a 50,000-foot ascent from Virgin Galactic’s launch location in California’s Mojave Desert; the release of the spaceship from its jet carrier and the ignition of its hybrid rockets; a 90-second ascent from 50,000 feet to 360,000 feet during which the shuttle reaches 2,500 mph, just over three times the speed of sound; the vast, black quiet of outer space followed by weightlessness; a blue-green view of Earth from the windows of the ship; and, finally, a deceleration back into the Mojave Desert that produces powerful G-forces and the return of gravity. A $20,000 deposit is required to secure a place on Virgin Galactic’s wait list; at press time, Cloud had fully paid for her ticket and was the 161st person in line.

It’s an amazing—and extravagant—journey, but Cloud, 53, says she’s not just doing it for the thrill. “This trip is an opportunity for me to connect to my humanity,” she says.

Cloud is a spiritual seeker and a firm believer in the need for a connection between mind and heart. “I’m writing a book right now on the journey of my life and how I healed myself,” says Cloud, who two years ago split from her husband after 23 years of marriage. For her, travel is a natural extension of that healing.

“Every astronaut will tell you that when they first saw the Earth [from space], it was extraordinary,” she says. “This trip will allow me to see Earth from a distance, with my own eyes, so that I can appreciate its fragility—that it is a living entity, that we are one in our human being-ness.” —Megan McDonald

A wine-loving Longboat Key resident leaves high-tech success to till his own grapevines in Napa Valley.

The gold-rush days of California attracted Americans dreaming of making their fortune, but many of today’s food-and-wine-loving baby boomers have a different California dream: They long to leave the demands of corporate life to live close to the earth on their very own Napa Valley vineyard.  For Longboat Key’s Tom Porter, that dream is now a reality—one that his entire family has embraced.

Porter, 62, says he’d talked about buying a vineyard “some day” for 25 years, ever since he and his wife, Beverly, lived on temporary assignment in San Jose, Calif. A longtime employee of IBM who later became CEO of a computer hard-drive company, Porter fell in love with Napa’s culture and people, and in 2005 the couple spent 10 weeks shopping for just the right property in the wine country.

“We wanted one with a house so we could live on it, and we wanted one we could build a winery on,” Porter explains. About to give up, they finally located a vineyard for sale that they found particularly appealing because a hill on the 20-acre property would make a great site for a winery. After they acquired it, they built a 17,000-square-foot cave inside the hill to serve that purpose. Once they made the vineyard buy, the Porters removed some cabernet vines to make room for plantings that will bear cabernet franc and malbec grapes for a Bordeaux blend Porter wanted to produce.

But while it was Porter’s passion to own a vineyard, the surprise came when daughter Heather, who already possessed a master’s degree in biology, decided she wanted to learn to become a winemaker. “She and her husband sold their house and moved to Napa,” Porter says proudly. “She took a year’s worth of classes and now she’s making wine under the direction of [oenologist] Ken Bernards.” Heather’s husband Steve has computerized the operation, and the Porters’ son Tim’s M.B.A. has come in handy running the business side, while Beverly concentrates on sales and marketing.

Now, when the rain starts falling in Napa about mid-December, Tom and Beverly head back to their Longboat home (which boasts an 1,800-bottle wine cellar) and stay here through April, knowing their Napa vineyard is in good hands.

The Porter Family Vineyards’ 2005 vintage cabernets, all 260 cases of them, will have their inaugural release in September. And yes, they will be available locally, both at restaurants and at the Butcher’s Block. In five years, the Porters hope to ramp up production to 5,000 cases annually. “Now that I can see passing it along to the next generation, I’m making more wines than I originally thought,” says Porter happily. —Kay Kipling

A car-loving philanthropist gets the chance to test-drive the world’s best automobiles—and help charity, to boot.

Sports cars have been a passion for Neil Moody since high school, but the Sarasota fund manager’s ultimate automotive fantasy was actually realized decades later at a fund raiser sponsored by Queens’ Wreath Jewels.

There, the car collector known for his generosity to such local causes as the Sarasota Family YMCA was confronted with the opportunity to help select Robb Report’s Car of the Year from 13 of the world’s finest driving machines. The cost: an auction bid of $30,000 to support the Children’s Hospital of Tampa. For Moody, two lifelong passions were attainable with one winning bid.

Robb Report, which covers the ultra-luxury lifestyle and is published by the same company that owns this magazine, selects 20 judges from around the country for its annual Car of the Year event. “For me, driving a fine car is itself a peak experience, an exciting blend of man and machine,” Moody says. “This was like going to 13 luxury car dealers and saying, ‘I want to drive your car for an hour at 140 mph—give me the keys!’”

Instead, the cars came to the judges. Each was to test drive the 13 cars vying for the Car of the Year title along two 14-mile stretches of beautiful Napa roads. At 8 a.m., Moody took the wheel of a spectacular Ferrari 430, the beginning of what he describes as a “dream day” as he put each magnificent machine through its paces.

The head of Valhalla Management in Sarasota, Moody says his love affair with automobiles goes back to his school days in East Orange, N.J., when he and a friend “used to do crazy things like put a big fuel-injected Pontiac engine into his mother’s Ford Thunderbird.” At Lehigh University, he met fellow student Roger Pensky (now the director of American Express and a legendary car fanatic).

“He had cars even then,” Moody says, and Moody tried to buy Pensky’s Corvette, but “we were $50 apart,” and Moody couldn’t come up with the difference. By his junior year he’d saved enough of his earnings from waiting tables, repairing outboard engines and “playing bridge for money” to finally buy his first sports car—a 1957 “cascade-green” Corvette.

At his summer home in Evergreen, Colo., Moody has a car collection that includes a 1957 Corvette just like the first one he owned. (Also in the collection: three Porsches, a 1957 Mercedes 300 SL Roadster and a 1966 275 GTB Ferrari.)

“I’ve flirted with flying, skiing and sailing, but sports cars have always been a constant,” Moody explains. He says standing up at the gala dinner that ended Car of the Year to speak about his three favorite cars was “an experience I’ll never forget”—especially since his favorite, the Ferrari, captured top honors at the end of the night. —Pam Daniel

A doctor who’s devoted to cinema helps create an international film festival.

If a dream is a wish your heart makes, as the Walt Disney song proclaims, few have wished upon as many “stars” as Dr. John D. Welch, founder of the Sarasota Film Festival. Indeed, Welch’s grandiose scheme to create an international film festival in a tiny resort city is the stuff Hollywood scripts are made of. Yet the temerity of such a fantasy would have given even George Lucas pause.

Here’s the plot: Small-town urologist who loves the movies gets a group of locals together to fill an artistic void in their culturally rich city, which has just about everything but a celebration of film. The characters start with no money or experience in running a film festival, but they soon attract a cadre of stars who annually descend upon downtown’s otherwise sleepy Hollywood 20 theater. Within 10 years the festival is considered one of the top 25 in the country. Attendance leaps from 2,300 to 50,000; screenings from 10 to 200. Board members travel en masse to Cannes to mingle with industry glitterati. In Sarasota, they discuss filmmaking with Stanley Tucci; they dine at Mediterraneo with Charlize Theron. Some even invest in an independent film starring William H. Macy.

What’s more, says Welch, all this happened without the backing of a big Hollywood name. “Sundance had Redford, Tribeca had De Niro, and Sarasota had John Welch, who no one had ever heard of,” he quips.

Sarasota’s first film festival was the French Film Festival in the mid-1990s. “It was a small niche festival intended to promote French films in the U.S.,” Welch recalls. “It lasted about six years, and when it ended, I began to think of Sarasota as a venue for a new international festival. I went to Sundance, Toronto and Cannes to get a feel for it. Sarasota had everything they did—the right setting, the people, a sophisticated artistic community.”

Next he got a group of key people together. “Since the Asolo had been running the French Film Festival, several were Asolo board members; others were prominent people in town.  It was 30 people around a table saying, ‘Let’s do it,’” Welch says. Their first hire was an executive director, Jody Kielbasa.

“We learned as we grew,” Welch says. He is quick to credit board members, staff, volunteers and sponsors for the festival’s success. And though, like any film festival, it faces ongoing challenges—building greater financial stability and finding a leader to replace Kielbasa, who recently resigned—Welch predicts even greater success in its second decade. But did he really think back in 1998 that Sarasota would be home to a significant film festival? Or that his hometown would attract celebrities from Jon Voight to Alan Alda, Jill Clayburgh to Felicity Huffman? “That was the dream,” he replies. —Carol Tisch

A passion for Africa sparks enduring friendships—and a new career.

As a child growing up in Iowa, Rebecca Saggau used to dream about lions, elephants and other wild and beautiful creatures in Africa. But once she saw Africa firsthand, what started as a child’s distant dreaming became a passionate investment in the people and culture of the continent.

A financial services professional for 22 years, Saggau first visited Africa in 1994. That week-long safari stretched into a month of exploring nearby towns in Zimbabwe. Like the trip itself, the souvenirs she brought home would be the first of many.

Saggau soon began hosting African-themed parties in her California home, which was steadily filling with artifacts. After subsequent trips, she needed a warehouse to store her collection. Opening a gallery in 2001 was the next logical step.

In 2007 she moved her collection, called Inspiration Africa, from a warehouse in Sacramento to a cozy back room in Palm Avenue

’s Gallery 53. With gallery owner Cinthya Retz overseeing Inspiration Africa in her absence, Saggau is free to maintain her career and her travels.

Friendships with indigenous artists and merchants fuel her passion for the African people. On one visit, a Masai warrior serving as a tour guide introduced Saggau to his village. “By the time I got home, there was an e-mail from him,” she says. He’d taken a bus into town to find Internet access.

Her closest business partner, a South African woman who helps negotiate with traders, made her first trip to the United States to visit Saggau in California.

Through these relationships, Saggau contributes directly to those in need, both by purchasing their artwork and by establishing trustworthy philanthropic connections to orphanages, schools and other organizations throughout Africa. “I’m very concerned about the continent,” she says. “It’s in constant strife.” Though well-meaning, conventional donations to African charities are unreliable, she says. Often, “the money never gets where it’s needed.”

Some of the Inspiration Africa pieces were produced by working artists, like the massive sculptures by Zimbabwean Chituwa Jemali, who carves Picasso-like faces out of stone. Many more are day-to-day tribal tools and ceremonial props, a Kenyan pestle or a Zulu bowl, sold by the tribesmen themselves when the items got too worn for use. Saggau affectionately describes each piece as though it were an incarnation of its creator.

The work, she admits, is “not financially rewarding.” Even small artifacts, for which she might pay the equivalent of a few dollars, can cost hundreds of dollars to import to the United States. For 500-pound sculptures, the transportation cost is astronomical. In fact, Saggau still has a full warehouse in California; she’s yet to work out a viable plan for relocating the pieces.

Still, her collection—and her passion for those who created it—know no boundaries. After a recent journey to Australia piqued an interest in Aboriginal culture, Saggau returned home with several didgeridoos and plans to add native Australian pieces to her gallery. —Hannah Wallace

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