Napa Valley Wine Auction

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When Michael Jordan, indulging his wife Juanita's penchant for collecting fine wine, attended the Napa Valley Wine Auction last year, he thought he'd arrive a little late and meld discreetly with the crowd. He hadn't planned on the reverse happening. With the guests for the black-tie affair all seated, the 6'6"star of the Chicago Bulls and Space Jam only increased the impact of his already oversize stature and presence. "He was absolutely elegant in his long-jacketed suit," beamed an observer. "He couldn't help but draw all eyes immediately to him."But everything about this auction, the largest and most successful charity wine event in the world, seems larger than life. Jordan's charismatic appearance eventually blended seamlessly with the rest of the stellar affair, which raised a record $5.5 million last year, surpassing even the famed Hospices de Beaune in Burgundy.

With its lavish four-day swirl of parties, wine tastings, dinners, and auctions, you might say the Napa auction is the world's most soigné charity wine event. But wine labels, not sneaker labels, are the prevailing source of the famous names at this affair. You may see Bob Mondavi talking animatedly about the role of wine in a healthy lifestyle, or Robert Sinskey hosting a luncheon in the caves dug into the rocky hill behind his winery. I've heard John Trefethen waxing enthusiastic about walnuts and wine, and Jack Cakebread proudly describing the culinary riches at his annual American Harvest Festival.

Though most of the crowd is affluent—technology executives, restaurateurs, and entertainment moguls—the event also draws schoolteachers, bank tellers, and the occasional basketball superstar. Many never raise a paddle to bid, but all share one common bond: They love wine, and especially the romance of wine. The 50-year-old Napa Valley Vintners Association has no shortage of romantic settings: rolling vineyards, ivy-clad wineries, old stone caves, enchanting modern ones. All the fun doesn't come cheap, though. A complete Wine Auc-tion package costs $1,000 per person. It gives you access to all the events (you'll have to pick and choose among those that overlap) and a bidding paddle.

For most events, the dress is casual chic for this mainly well-heeled crowd. Some of the evening events, such as Far Niente Winery's dinner, are black-tie, and a few, like the hot tub party thrown by Frog's Leap Winery a few seasons ago, are casual enough for bathing suits.

Over its 19-year history, the auction has raised some $20 million for medical and counseling services for farmworkers, low-income families and expectant mothers, women and children at risk of abuse, and people living with AIDS. Proceeds also go toward a Napa Valley Health Care Fund (totaling more than $8 million), which will provide a secure yearly endowment for the future health care of financially strapped valley workers and residents.

Each year a theme is set for the auction. Last year's was "Sentimental Journey," a trip back through time to the beginnings of winemaking. The focus was on the years after World War II when a handful of wineries—Charles Krug, Beringer, Louis M. Martini, Inglenook, Freemark Abbey, Beaulieu, Christian Brothers, and Mondavi—made most of the wine and laid the foundation for the resurgence of a wine industry that Prohibition had nearly destroyed. "Kaleidoscope 2000," the theme for this year's event (June 1-4) celebrates the unique role glass has played over centuries of fine winemaking, both as containers for the wine and as drinking vessels.

Two silent auctions, the barrel and private donor auctions, open the event. At the barrel tasting at Silverado Vineyards, guests sample wine from dozens of barrels of unreleased wines (mostly cabernet sauvignon) from the valley's top producers—wineries like Staglin, Pine Ridge, St. Clement, Shafer, and Sequoia Grove, among many others. Auction-goers then place bids for up to a maximum of 10 case lots.

This event calls for careful pacing—many people swirl, sniff, taste, and spit, rather than drink. Barrel auction bids are posted, with the final bids made on Saturday. Last year's top barrel auction bid was $161,950 for 10 cases of Staglin Family Vineyards Auction Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon—about $1,350 a bottle! A consortium, Dee Lincoln of Del Frisco's Steak House in Dallas and four other individuals, made the winning bid.

Private donor lots are also sold at silent auction. Donors offer rare and well-aged wines made by Napa Valley vintners. Last year, Joe and Eileen Small of Virginia Beach, Va., put up 33 bottles of Diamond Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon of vintages from 1977 to 1994. The high bid was $41,000—an astounding $1,242 a bottle.

With Napa's regional gastronomy ranking among the world's best, food plays a strong supporting role at the auction. Attendees sample specialties from the valley's restaurants and food businesses. In past years, Thomas Keller of the French Laundry offered crispy waffle-like cornets filled with salmon tartare; Bob Hurley of the Napa Valley Grille grilled quail; Gordons' Cafe filled focaccia with mozzarella; and dozens of stands offered high-caliber nibbles.

This noshing is just the start. Lavish party lunches and winery dinners created by some of the best chefs in the country, usually followed by music and dancing, go on for the entire Wine Auction. Last year, Beringer Vineyards imported chef Charlie Trotter from Chicago and transformed the winery's Hudson House into a dimly lit, atmospheric supper club. (Charlie Trotter's was recently voted "The Best Restaurant in the World for Food and Wine" by the Wine Spectator's readers.) Trotter's eight courses included a ragout of duck confit, oysters, pig's feet with a 1994 Beringer chardonnay, squab breast with black trumpet mushrooms with the winery's 1994 Howell Mountain merlot, and grilled loin of lamb, pickled tongue, and braised shank with Beringer's 1994 Private Reserve cabernet sauvignon.

Dozens of wineries offered special dinners. Long Meadow Ranch featured music by Dimitri Matheny who played the jazz flügelhorn. Quintessa Winery put on a huge display of fireworks. And at Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery, Francis Coppola put on an extravagant Italian dinner "fit for Don Corleone himself," according to the invitation. Chef Reed Hearon of San Francisco's Rose Pistola restaurant made grilled octopus with lemon, rôti of milk-fed lamb, and testarole with pesto, among other courses. The featured wine was Niebaum-Coppola 1979 Rubicon.

The lots that go up for bids at the live auction, held at Meadowood Resort in St. Helena, are the stuff oenophiles dream about. And the auctioneering itself can be an event. Last year, as auction fever neared its crescendo, actor and comedian Robin Williams—a local resident who owns a vineyard—took the microphone. He shocked the crowd with some of his manic profanity, then brought the house down by announcing that a white Land Rover (this crowd's vehicle of choice) had left its lights on in the parking lot. He did the job, though. When the bidding slowed, he raised it with $50,000 of his own money, which drove bidding to new highs.

"Robin was so funny and the dollars go for such a great cause," said Ronald Kuhn of Chicago, the day's top bidder at $130,000. For his money, Kuhn won for himself and three guests 11 days and nights of recreation in the Napa Valley, at the sumptuous Kea Lani Hotel in Maui, and on the slopes in Vail, Colo.—plus 20 magnums of wine. When the dust settled, the live auction alone had cleared more than $4 million.

Sonoma Uncorked

Sonoma County, in the valley west of the Napa Valley, has its wine auctions and soirées, too. Because Sonoma has 10 distinct viticultural appellations and climates from cool coastal hills to hot, dry inland mountains, it's no surprise that the county boasts two wine functions, both benefiting charities. The larger of the two, the Sonoma County Showcase of Wine and Food, features wines, of course, and the county's eclectic agriculture with foodstuffs as diverse as apples and oysters, lamb and ducks, olive oil and cheese, plus gourmet vegetables like tiny Japanese eggplant, heirloom tomatoes, and super-sweet French cantaloupes.

The showcase, July 13–15, is more relaxed and informal than Napa's auction. It begins with a dinner at one of the large wineries. Last year that was at Kendall-Jackson, north of Santa Rosa. The next day there's golfing, touring, and tasting in the county's 10 appellation divisions, with casual lunches at many wineries. That evening is devoted to fancy winery dinners.

Last year, Food & Wine magazine and Share Our Strength, a charity that works to alleviate hunger and poverty, brought in some of America's best chefs, including Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit in New York, to cook at DeLoach Vineyards; Susanna Foo, of her eponymous restaurant in Philadelphia, at Pezzi-King Winery; and Susan Goss, of Zinfandel in Chicago, at Gallo of Sonoma.

Two tickets to the Sonoma County Showcase cost $1,200 ($650 for one) until May 15. For more information on prices and events, call (800) 939-7666.

The Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction is even more laid-back than the showcase. It bills itself as "the perennial lamp shade on the head of the wine industry." It is profoundly silly, and attendees are "heavily discouraged from normal behavior." Chris Finlay, director of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance, says, "All those stuffy wine auctions belong in a valley far, far away. Ours is an event that has always boldly gone where no other wine auction dares to go."

Last year's theme was "Take Me to Your Liter," featuring a poster of aliens with bidding paddles emerging from a spaceship in Sonoma Valley, which includes wineries like Buena Vista, Ravenswood, Kenwood, Souverain, Rodney Strong, Chateau St. Jean, Gundlach-Bundschu, St. Francis, Benziger, Kunde, among others.

The auction itself is a lot of fun. Last year, Erin and Matt Cline of Cline Cellars showed up as Teletubbies, and the contingent from B.R. Cohn winery came as pointy "Cohn-heads." A few guys, dressed as Canadian Mounties, performed a partial striptease—not quite "The Full Mounty." One can only guess at the antics that will spring from this year's event, September 2-4, with its theme "Cirque du Sonoma—A Different Kind of Circus." Last year's auction raised $600,000 for local charities, most of them offering health and medical assistance to farmworkers and their families. Events run from about $50 for the vintners' picnic to $290 per couple for the main event. Information: Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance, (707) 935-0803.

Photos by Faith Echtermeyer, and Richard Gillette

This article was first published in May 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

If You're Going: 

For invitations, call (800) 982-1371. At press time there was a waiting list for tickets to the full event, but day passes were still available: $800 per couple for Thursday and Saturday (barrel and live auctions); $275 each for Friday night's gala dinner. For information on lodging, contact Napa Valley Conference and Visitors Bureau, (707) 226-7459.

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