Chi Chi Miguel Throwdown Raises Record Sum for Charities

This Santa Rosa Beach bash started as a backyard cookout.

Photo Courtesy of Valerie and Michael Thompson

Valerie and Mike Thompson founded the annual Chi Chi Miguel Throwdown, now presented by Emeril Lagasse, which raised more than $2 million this year for local causes.


Mike and Valerie Thompson are still flirtatious high school sweethearts after 40 years of marriage. It’s enough to make someone believe in soul mates.

The couple met when they were teenagers living in College Station, Texas.

Once Mike graduated from Texas A&M University, the pair moved to Houston, where they brought their two daughters into the world.

While living in Huntsville, Alabama, the Thompsons found themselves pining for Florida after a family vacation to Destin in 1986.

The family took about six trips a year to the beach, and when their children flew the nest, Mike and Valerie made the big move to Sandestin in 1999.

Meanwhile, a second passion was bubbling on the backburner.

The Thompsons are founding board members of the Destin Charity Wine Auction and, while living in Sandestin, began venturing to vineyards in California and Europe to learn the ins and outs of the industry as well as to expand their personal cellar.

One fateful Sonoma night, an unassuming dinner with friends changed the course of the Thompsons’ lives.

A lively debate broke out about who could barbecue the tastiest ribs, to which a friend answered, “Mike, of course.”

Dan Kosta, co-founder of Kosta Browne winery and current partner of AldenAlli Wines, was skeptical.

He issued a challenge: “You want some California boys to come down to Florida and teach you how to cook?”

Photo by Kay Phalen

Amateur and master chefs at the 2018 Throwdown included (from left) Mark and Jennifer McWilliams, Mike and Valerie Thompson, Lynn and Steve Dugas.

A date was set. About 40 vintners and friends gathered in the Thompsons’ backyard for the first Chi Chi Miguel Throwdown.

(Chi Chi Rodriguez was the biggest golfer around the time a young Mike Thompson was learning to play. His father’s friends from the Dominican Republic started calling him Chi Chi Miguel, and it stuck.)

“It started as a fun, modest cookout at our place, but as the years went by, more people caught on and it exploded,” Mike said.

“We decided if we were going to keep doing this, we needed to do something more productive than a house party. At that point, Emeril Lagasse and his wife, Alden, had moved here. I’d been functioning on the board of the Emeril Lagasse Foundation and we’d been friends for a while, so when Emeril found out about our quandary, he wanted in.”

“It went from winemakers competing against Mike to everyone versus Emeril,” Valerie added. “We were relieved when the Emeril Lagasse Foundation officially took over for us because it’s become so much bigger than a friendly competition. It needed to grow, and they helped it move in the right direction.”

In the meantime, the Thompsons were headed west. In 2013, they founded Thompson 31Fifty Wines in Healsburg, California, a region the couple refers to as the “Rodeo Drive of Wine Country.”

Still living full time in Sandestin, they have the best of both worlds as they hop from coast to coast and tour the country for grand tastings, competitions and fundraising events.

Obviously, the pair was excited to contribute, at last, their signature pours of pinot noir during Chi Chi Miguel Weekend.

Now a three-day bash comprising a Wine Walkabout, Golf Tournament, Sip n’ Shop, and Throwdown Benefit Auction and BBQ, this year’s event raised over $2 million to be distributed to Alaqua Animal Refuge, Camille’s Art for Autism, Children’s Volunteer Health Network, Emerald Coast Children’s Advocacy Center, Food for Thought, the Ingram Lee Foundation, Seaside School Foundation and Sinfonia Gulf Coast.

Half of the sum was bestowed by Ryan and Raven Jumonville for Alaqua Animal Refuge, to finance a new adoption facility and welcome center. It is a significant cause to Valerie, as it’s where she and Mike adopted their puppy, Emmie, in 2009.

“I call her a pappi-huahua because I think she’s part Papillon and part Chihuahua,” Valerie laughed. “She was in horrible shape when she came to Alaqua. But Laurie Hood, who founded the refuge, shelters these lost and mistreated animals and helps them find a loving home. Her mission is one that’s really special to me.”

Mike’s special interest is in the Emerald Coast Children’s Advocacy Center, where he’s served as a board member for the past eight years.

“We have a center in Niceville and one in DeFuniak Springs,” he said. “In my involvement throughout the years, I’ve seen the center get these abused children’s lives back in order.

I’ve watched them grow into young men and women who live successfully, knowing that we helped them get there.”

Categories: Community Causes

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