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Anne Krebiehl reports back from wine auction Premiere Napa Valley-style

Published:  26 February, 2013

You have to hand it to the Americans - when they take an idea and run with it, it's going to be bigger, better and faster. Premiere Napa Valley, or to call it by its full name "The Napa Valley Vintners Barrel Auction for the Wine Trade" is just that, a wine auction with bells on.

You have to hand it to the Americans - when they take an idea and run with it, it's going to be bigger, better and faster. Premiere Napa Valley, or to call it by its full name "The Napa Valley Vintners Barrel Auction for the Wine Trade" is just that, a wine auction with bells on. The Premiere, now in its 17th year, is a focal point of what otherwise would just be another slow February weekend.

The full-day event in St Helena, Napa Valley, has spawned a long weekend of tastings, dinners and parties, just to make sure that visitors get the most of their time in the sunshine state. The build-up starts on Thursday with numerous 'preview parties' at individual estates, continues on Friday with a multi-vintage perspective (blind) tasting of three vintages each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay and more preview parties and tastings to culminate on Saturday with the barrel tasting and live auction of extra-special lots: numerous Napa wineries make a special auction lot for the Premiere and this is what draws the visitors: we all may know Shafer Vineyards' Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, but for the premiere they donate 60 bottles - taken from the very heart of the vineyard called "Sunspot".

Likewise, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars came up with "Ignem et Aquam", a lot of 120 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon aged longer (26-30 months) than the estate's other wines. Every winery donates something unique which guarantees good attendance: where else would you get your hands on that sort of stuff?

Nicky Pruss, winemaker at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars says: "This auction is the wine world's equivalent of a bake-sale. It's a way to help the valley, the Napa Vintners and it helps us to build great relationships and showing who we are. The auction gives you ideas, these are special, one-off wines. Creating the auction lot gives me a chance to experiment; it's something classic with a twist."

But you don't have to be a bidder with deep pockets to partake: all the lots can be tasted in the morning and this draws crowds. The barrel hall of the castle-like structure of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone (lovingly called the CIA), a pre-prohibition co-operative stone-built winery, is eminently suited.

Every participating winery has an upturned barrel on which to showcase the auction lot and all the winemakers are on hand to explain what they've come up with. And while King Cabernet undoubtedly rules, the tasting showcases Napa Valley's often underestimated diversity.

Schramsberg Vineyards wowed with a poised and honeyed 1987 Blanc de Blancs, aged on lees for 25 years and disgorged especially for the auction. Arietta showed a 2012 Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend of astonishing complexity. Rocca Family Vineyards donated a seductive, spicy and very floral Syrah from their Grigsby Vineyard while Ancien Wines blended a Pinot Noir from their three single (and thrilling) vineyards that are usually bottled separately.

Several wineries offered fragrant 100% Cabernet Francs. The trade-only punters love it. Andrea Gunterman from the Central Liquor Company in Oklahoma attests: "We always enjoy this, it's important to be here and be a part of it, it's a celebration of American wines." Tellingly, her name badge - like so many on the floor - bears a red sticker proclaiming "previously successful bidder".

The attendant winemakers taste as much as they pour and for Cathy Corison the Premiere is "a wonderful opportunity for Napa Valley Vintners to fundraise but I love it because I get an overview of the whole vintage".

Throughout the swirling and spitting the CIA's students are hard at work to lay on a sumptuous buffet lunch on a different floor so everyone is suitably fortified for the afternoon auction. There's hardly a seat on the floor, standing room only for late-comers, and bidders are furnished with numbered bidding paddles.

Two auctioneers take turns in ultra-quick sales: the first lot, a whole barrel of 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Reynolds Family Winery promptly fetches $50,000 and the sound of the gavel is drowned out by whoops and cheers.

Certain lots cause a bidding frenzy - strategically placed helpers scan the floor and holler bids from the back of the room to the auctioneers who dispatch about a lot per minute. Several bidders are cajoled into spending by the all-singing, all-dancing auctioneer.

This year's auction of 211 lots donated by 218 NVV members fetched a total of $3.04 million - slightly less than in the previous year - but astonishing as 80% of the wines were from the tricky 2011 vintage.

Napa Valley Vintners reports that tickets sold out six weeks in advance, drawing more than 1,000 attendees from 35 states and nine countries. The proceeds, according to Bruce Cakebread, president and COO of Cakebread Cellars and 2013 president of the NVV's board of directors, go towards "expanding NVV's activities and programs, including environmental leadership, outreach to the local community, efforts to promote the appellation worldwide, and the vital protection of the Napa Valley name on a bottle of wine".