Vail Wine Ink column: Barrels of fun at the Premiere Napa Valley Wine Auction
“OK, next up is lot No. 41 from Realm Cellars with an opening bid of $50,000,” auctioneer Fritz Hatton announced with enthusiasm to the amped-up room of bidders at the 2016 Premier Napa Valley Wine Auction at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.
With a drop of the gavel, the bidding commenced. “Do I hear 50? Fifty over here on the right. Fifty-five from the gentleman just here in front of me. Sixty on the left again, and a bid of $70,000 on my right, thank you sir,” he continued without missing a beat. “What’s that? $75,000 from the gentleman in the back. Do I hear eighty? Do I hear $80,000?” The gavel rapped with finality. “Lot 41 from Realm Cellars is sold to the gentleman in the back for $75,000. Congratulations, sir.”
And just like that, 60 bottles of a special release of Realm Cellars 2014 flagship wine, called Absurd and double-dubbed with the name The Rhinoceros for these proceedings, was sold to a member of the trade for $1,250 a bottle. The purchaser will receive his wine upon release in 2017. He may sell it as a special, one-of-a-kind bottling from winemaker Benoit Touquette’s much sought after Bordeaux blends of cabernet, cab franc, petit verdot and merlot. Or, perhaps more likely, he will keep the bottles for his cellar or as gifts for friends and business associates.
THE NAPA AUCTIONS
The above scene was repeated 200 times during a three-hour span on Saturday, and at the end of the day, $5 million had been spent on the lots (collections of 60, 120 or 240 bottles of wine, depending on the size of the lot) prepared exclusively for the auction. The proceeds benefited the Napa Valley Vintners, a nonprofit trade association that represents 525 Napa Valley wineries and promotes the region and its wines globally. This year’s auction generated the third-highest total proceeds in the 20-year history of the Premiere Napa Valley Auction. Last year’s handle set an auction record with $6 million in sales.
In Napa, there are two significant wine auctions held each year. Auction Napa Valley, which takes place in June, has been a must-stop for collectors since its inception at Bill Harlan’s Meadowood Resort in 1981. Proceeds benefit a plethora of Napa Valley community initiatives, and since its founding, more than $150 million has been donated to different organizations.
The second, Premiere Napa Valley, is restricted to the trade and those who have reseller licenses. This includes retailers, restaurateurs, hoteliers, distributors and importers. It means the crowd of more than 1,000 who descend upon the grounds of the Culinary Institute of America for the auction has major wine bona fides. Winemakers are selling wine to wine sellers, if you will.
The day began with a grand tasting session in the Napa Valley Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America. Some 226 barrels of wine were lined up in the historic room, and behind each stood a winemaker or representative from the winery. Tim Mondavi, who poured his Continuum wines, stood alongside the likes of Doug Shafer, Cyril Chappellet and Cathy Corison, all legends in Napa winemaking. The best of the next generation of winemakers, including Aaron Pott, Phillipe Melka, Celia Welch and Thomas Rivers Brown, also had a number of wines on display. For two hours, the bidders walked the room, trading barbs with winemakers and tasting wines to determine which lots they wanted to bid on.
For their part, the winemakers have put together unique, one-of-a-kind wines that they will not be selling to the general public but exclusively for this auction. This means that this is the only place where you will ever find these wines. Once the lots are purchased by the buyers, the winery will age and bottle them with special labels before sending them off to the purchasers.
The bidding can be raucous, fueled both by wine and testosterone — and the stakes are high. Tech money, Swiss money, Asian money, Texas money and funny money all drive the proceedings. When special lots come to the fore, you can feel the tension in the room ratchet up a notch or three.
This year’s auction not only started with a bang — $130,000 for the fourth lot of the day, a Memento Mori Cabernet — but ended with a pair of booms, as well. Shortly before the final gavel fell, there were back-to-back $130,000 purchases of lots No. 196 and No. 197 (a five-case cabernet offering from Italics Winegrowers in the nascent Coombsville AVA and a Nine Suns Cabernet from winemaker Sam Kaplan).
Once again, Fritz’s gavel struck the podium. With vigor.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab, Vino. He can be reached at email@example.com.