Inside the Napa Valley Wine Auction

ANVlogo2006.gifIf you follow wine news at all, you will doubtless have heard that the Napa Valley Auction raised 8.4 million dollars for local charities this past Saturday. This is down from 10.4 million the year before, but a hefty sum nonetheless. Of course, the auction usually never misses a chance to break some record or other, and this year was no exception, even though the total raised didn’t merit an entry in the record books. Last Saturday, Joy Croft of Woodside, California paid $1.05 million dollars for a single auction lot — the highest price ever. With that cool million, Joy purchased an all-expense-paid guided trip through some of the top Bordeaux estates with the Staglin Family and their winemaker, plus a few magnums of their wine. Most of the press releases also don’t fail to mention the $460,000 paid for the 12 year vertical of Screaming Eagle magnums, which was the second most expensive purchase of the evening.

Yes, the auction was hosted by Ryan Seacrest, and Geena Davis made several appearances on stage as well, but amidst all this press, no one tells you what the auction was really like. I read the press releases every year, and I’ve talked with some folks who have gone for years, but I’ve never really gotten a sense of what it’s like to take part in the whole extravaganza, and neither have most people who aren’t in the business or on the yearly list of the invited.

Well, Vinography is going to straighten that out. I happened to land a press pass to the full event this year (sort of like getting invited to be part of the California wine equivalent of the White House press corps, I think) so here’s the inside scoop on what your $7000 per couple investment actually gets you, should you decide to ever attend. Or maybe, like me, you’ve just been curious about what actually goes on behind those press releases with eight-digit dollar sums.

After you purchase a ticket for the event, you are sent a rather hefty, but slickly-designed registration booklet with details on all the different activities of the weekend, as well as detailed overviews of the auction lots for both the barrel auction and the live auction. Also included in here, however, are a list of private parties for between 12 and 25 people and hosted by various Napa wineries, which take place on the Thursday and Friday preceding the auction. There are approximately 15 to 20 parties each of these nights, and as part of the full package deal, you get to go to one each night. If you’re a real guest (and not a journalist like me) you submit a list of your top five choices for each night, and the organizers do their best (no doubt using some super-secret methodology) to match people to events. Once the invite lists have been made, guests receive individual invitations from the wineries themselves with instructions on times, dress codes, and details on the evenings festivities.

Frankly, these evening events are the best part of the whole weekend. They are intimate, friendly, and just the sort of parties you would expect to have in Napa if price were no object and you knew all the right people.

Like I said, I didn’t have any choice where I ended up, but I had two perfectly lovely evenings. My first was spent at the Rutherford House in St. Helena as a guest of Beaulieu Vineyards, Provenance Vineyards, and Sterling Vineyards — three of the top estates in the Diageo wine group. I and about twenty other guests (including a couple of other journalists) were greeted with champagne and then immediately drafted to assist celebrity chef Joey Altman in preparing dinner. None of us were quite expecting to have to chop and stuff and grate and sear, but everyone jumped in gamely while the catering staff kept us plied with bubbly and hors-d’oeuvres. We didn’t even lose any fingers.

We ate the fruits of our labors about an hour later, along with the winemakers from each of the hosting estates, who paired their wines with each course, and chatted as much or as little as people wanted to about the wines and the food. After dinner, Joey swapped his toque for an electric guitar, and played into the evening with his local band while we danced, ate dessert, and sampled some library wines.

The wine auction begins with this first dinner and continues the following day with the Barrel Auction and Festival, which I’ve already written about this week.

After the Friday barrel auction, and a break to freshen up and to let the day cool off a bit, attendees head off to the second evening of winery parties.

My second night was spent with an equally lovely set of people at Cardinale winery. This event had a bit more of a glamorous theme — each arriving guest was “mobbed” by 1950’s style Hollywood paparazzi as they stepped out onto the red carpet leading them into the winery’s guest house. There we spent some time sipping champagne and nibbling on a seemingly endless variety of passed hors-d’oeuvres while the sun went down over the vineyards.

After some time, we moved into the main winery gallery, where we had dinner while being serenaded by Franc d’Ambrosio, a lovely singer who among other things can claim to be the longest running Phantom in Broadway’s Phantom of The Opera. The food was prepared by Kendall-Jackson Executive Chef Randy Lewis to match several vintages of Cardinale’s single release, and included two notable elements — an “appetizer” of pork so large that could have easily have been an entree, and some of the best Kobe beef tenderloin I have ever had.

Like the first dinner, this one was filled with warm conversation amongst the guests as well as the hosts — winemaker Chris Carpenter, several members of the Cardinale and Kendall Jackson management, as well as Jess Jackson himself. Couple that with good wine, a gorgeous sunset, and what amounted to a private concert from one of Broadway’s smoothest voices and you’ve got one fine evening.

On Saturday morning, those who are early risers have the opportunity to attend a breakfast event at the COPIA center for wine and food in Napa.

Needless to say, you’re not going to get any details on that event from me.

The main event of the weekend, is of course, the live auction at Meadowood, which takes place in a huge tent placed on the golf green. Many people choose to attend this part of the weekend only, making the total number of guests at this eight-hour extravaganza somewhere around 1500. Parked offsite and shuttled up to the Meadowood resort, champagne glasses in hand, those of us attending were able to stroll around outside the tent eating freshly shucked oysters and picking up our bidding paddles (for those who felt like spending).

I headed directly for the tent after a few slurps of oysters, hoping to stay out of the sun on what turned out to be about a 95 degree day in the valley. Unfortunately a blown air conditioning generator meant that the tent offered very little comfort from the heat, so we all sweltered through the first few hours of the event no matter how sensibly dressed we were (in a sportcoat, I couldn’t count myself among the smart ones).

Once inside the tent, those who didn’t have reserved tables waiting for them, which applies to most guests, had to find their way among the maze of seating looking for empty seats to claim, which was a bit of a nightmare if you up anything less than on-time. But eventually it seemed everyone found someplace to sit in the cavernous space and settled down to enjoying an endless supply of wine, coupled with plates of nearly twenty different appetizers which appeared at regular intervals throughout the evening.

The two words I have to describe the wine auction (other than HOT) are “spectacle” and “marathon.” It’s quite a scene. I can’t remember the last time I was at such an event — swarming as it was with guests, waiters, most of the top sommeliers in the Bay Area (enlisted to attend to the VIPs) and aproned volunteers for the entirety of the 6 hours it took to auction off the various lots on offer.

One of the unrecognized aspects of the auction, and one that I knew nothing about until this year, is this army of volunteers that materialize from the local community to help out. Nearly 900 volunteers don blue aprons for one or more days throughout the weekend and serve as gofers, waiters, guides, information dispensers, and problem solvers for the mass of guests and vintners who converge on the event. These folks (a majority of them, women it seemed) are local mothers, schoolteachers, businesspeople, and employees of the charities who benefit from the auction every year.

As mentioned, Ryan Seacrest hosted the auction this year, which essentially meant that he stood up at the beginning and bantered with the auctioneers a bit, helped with the first auction lot and cavorted on camera for a while before settling down like the rest of us to watch the auction take place. It seemed to me that while it was certainly a novelty to have a big name star up there on stage, he didn’t add a lot of value.

I suppose this is in part, because no one can really do anything much to make the auction be more than what it is — a somewhat lengthy process of excitement, cajoling, inspiration, and enticement to get people to spend extraordinary sums of money for charity. To most people who wouldn’t have a prayer of being able to afford even the cheapest auction lots (90% of the people there) it’s somewhat interesting to watch, and certainly there is a little excitement in the air when big shots get in a bidding war and the price keeps going up, but on the whole it can be rather dull.

I suppose a lot of people go for the people watching, which was certainly in rare form for country-town Napa, and of course many of the vintners are there to show support for the event itself, but honestly I suspect most everyone is happy when the auction is done and the after party begins. This year we certainly were all happy to get out of the tent and into the cool night air.

After the auction everyone moves outside for (if you can believe it) more food, and, of course, more wine. While we were all inside, the grounds outside the tent had been turned into a multi-level outdoor nightclub with three bars, a dance stage where an 8 piece Motown band cranked up and was still playing strong when I left at 11:00 PM. The bars, at this point, were pouring what can only be described as top shelf wines. I finished my evening with a glass of 2001 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet chased by a small pour of 1999 Dolce, just to give you a sense of what was on offer. The dancing and drinking goes until midnight.

The next morning, various wineries open their doors for visits and tastings, but I can’t imagine they got much traffic, as 95% of the previous evenings revelers were hung over and sleeping with their heads under their pillows.

Or maybe that was just me.

In any case, there’s the scoop on the auction. I’ve always been curious about what happens and how it works, and I’m sure some of you were as well.

Is it worth the money for a ticket? That’s hard to say, especially as someone who could never afford to go myself, but it’s a darn fine way to spend a long weekend for wine lovers who can manage it.

Ask me if there’s anything else you want to know!