I don’t think there is a better way to take the pulse of the Napa Valley than to attend the wine auction, the joyous, boisterous, modestly garish celebration it throws for itself each June. Held at Meadowood, the Valley’s premier resort, Auction Napa Valley is an opportunity for the community to garner funds for the region’s less privileged, and in this it was a very successful year, raising more than $8 million to support everything from medical and dental clinics to music programs in Valley schools.
Excess has always been built into the auction. Excessive bidding, of course, is encouraged: From the moment a lot is announced, the bidding sets off at a furious pace, the increments are steep and quickly reach the stratosphere in $5,000 and sometimes $10,000 leaps. When the gavel falls, anywhere from $100,000 to $400,000 later, some humanitarian has pulled off in a few seconds what most fundraisers take months to accomplish. Its value, then, cannot be overestimated.
This was my first Auction in eight years, and what struck me was how much the event had evolved in that time. It is still one of the grandest events in the world for oenophiles, drawing potential buyers from all over the country and the world — I met attendees and potential bidders from Tulsa, Okla.; Boston; Washington, D.C.; Cape Town; Tokyo; Shanghai; and Seoul, ready to show off their largesse.
And yet, displays of largesse were relatively nominal this year. There seemed to be fewer fat cats in attendance, or maybe the cats aren’t as fat as they used to be. A balky economy is partly to blame. Cult wines once in short supply are now much more widely available, and don’t command the interest or the prices they once did. Having said this, barrel lots from Scarecrow and Melka Wines, with Shafer, a perennial powerhouse, went for spectacular sums. Were they worth it? In the 2010 vintage they were excellent wines, and it hardly mattered.
In auction lots there was a curious development: the Valley’s putative central output, wine, was frequently relegated to a supporting role, just one enticement among many in sumptuous, heaped upon packages of untold extravagance. Each lot seemed more grandiose than the next, so much so that old-fashioned lots, involving lunch, a little face time with a winemaker and a nice bottle or three, seemed almost quaint, or relatively unimaginative.
This year, packages included vacations in Tuscany, Thailand, New Orleans, Paris, Bordeaux and London. There were African safaris (for which a cheetah was flown in and displayed) and jaunts on an America’s Cup catamaran. Even the trips themselves came with impressive swag; a trip to Monaco included a luxury watch and a 1.02 carat diamond ring. It was a year when you could bid on dinner with football legends such as Joe Montana, or drive home in a refurbished 1960 Jaguar XK Roadster, with three jereboams of cabernet rattling around in the boot. The top lot, which went for some $460,000, involved a private concert for 28 people by the Grammy-Award winning country pop band Lady Antebellum, in the company of six prominent Napa winery families and their wines. That’s a bit less than $17,000 a ticket, if you’re counting.
It was, in short, all about the loot, with conspicuous enticements overshadowing the Valley and its wines, which, lest you missed the messaging, are synonymous with luxury. While this may be a trend for wine auctions (the recently held Naples auction, purportedly the largest in the country, offered similarly flamboyant bibelots), sitting there, it occurred to me that if Auction Napa Valley took “wine” out of its name (and the official title on the auction’s website came close to doing just that), the omission might go unnoticed. The Auction is now more synonymous with aspiration than anything else, and there is a bittersweet disconnect between the message and the medium. And that medium, in case you couldn’t tell — that vibrant, powerful, expressive, moving medium-in-a-glass, produced in one of the most spectacular wine regions on earth — is what I’m in the game for.
That is why the barrel tasting, held at Jarvis Winery on the Friday before the gavel auction, and showcasing the 2010 vintage, was worth more to me than any one-carat diamond. The 2010 vintage is going to be one of the benchmark vintages in California for years to come, a cool vintage that resulted in cabernets of almost effortless balance, low alcohols, natural elegance even in youth. Great wines from Honig, Meteor, Chappellet, Cardinale, Tetra, Spottswoode, as well as the top-bid wines Shafer and Scarecrow, serve to remind that Napa’s messaging can sometimes transcend the merely aspirational.
Top photo: Bidders compete at Auction Napa Valley. Credit: Courtesy of Auction Napa Valley.