Marisa D'Vari on what really goes on at the Napa Valley wine auction

Casually dressed yet deep-pocketed bidders placed higher and higher bids after tasting the landmark 2012 vintage, characterised by rich ripe deeply concentrated fruit and excellent structure – the result of a perfect growing year - at the 34th Napa Valley Barrel Auction held earlier this month. 

“I call the 2012 a ‘forgettable year’,” joked Doug Shafer, meaning that the conditions were perfect – no frost worries, no heat spikes, just welcome cool mornings and sunny afternoons.

Shafer Vineyards won the second spot during the barrel auction, raising $55,200 for charity, with BRAND Napa Valley coming in for the number one spot at $83,050. I met proprietor Ed Fitts and partner Deb Whitman at the Thursday hospitality event for Pritchard Hill producers, including Chappellet, Continuum, David Arthur Vineyards, and Montagna Napa Valley. The intimate party was actually held at Montagna, a gorgeous winery overlooking the valley where guests could try (and yes, compare) the top wines of the region along with barrel samples. One could say it was something of a beauty contest, yet every guest had his or her favourite style, even though these high elevation wines were characterised by a dramatic intensity of rich ripe fruit.

The centerpiece of the weekend was the Live Auction Celebration on Saturday, where guests bid on not only wine (in some instances, only a single bottle was offered) but “experiences” such as trips to Paris, luxury hotels, two week cruises on the World Yacht, and even a customized $40,000 piece of jewellry from Bulgari.

The change from auctioning off cases of wine to “extraordinary, once-in-lifetime wine and experience lots” occurred in 2005, according to Patsy McGaughy, the Napa Valley Vintner’s Association (NVV) marketing director.  “All lots must prominently feature Napa Valley wine, but many now also feature grand experiences that with the result that we’re able to give even more to charity.”

During the auction, bidders sat at pre-assigned tables hosted by vintners, with the room an explosion of noise and colour as a rain of bright confetti and music accompanied each winning bid.

Jean-Charles Boisset of Raymond Vineyards was generous enough to donate two “experiences” valued at $410,000 each  (in this case, a weekend of Oscar glamour) so each of the competing bidders and could enjoy the Academy Awards with a guest and all the trimmings. This $820,000 total package was the top lot, followed by $660,000 from Mayacamas (a very wine-centric offering, with a six-decade vertical tasting, dinners, and stays at the winery).

The third top lot was $600,000 raised in a very heated bidding war by Promotory (established by William Harlan in 2008). This offering was very wine-centric with 125 bottles of wine and the opportunity for the bidder to host a lunch or dinner for 30 guests at the winery.  The 2014 online auction also broke records, raising $490,900 with the top lots from Continuum Estate, Freemark Abbey, Maycamas Vineyards, and Staglin Family Vineyard.

New Napa trends

In chatting with the various producers over the three days of the auction, the only real “new news” was increased reliance on technology in order to push quality even further. Elias Fernandez, winemaker at Shafer, is now using a software program called Fruition Science to improve quality by “safely stressing” the vines as well as utilsing an optical sorting machine so he can exactly program the desired size, shape, and density of the berry.

Swiss-born winemaker Jean Hoefliger of Alpha Omega revealed that when he read that most wine is bought to drink the very night it is purchased, he experimented with ways to make the wine approachable sooner.  So now he matures his wine in a mix of new French oak, stainless steel, and cement so it can be enjoyed upon release and also continue to improve with bottle age.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was that in chatting with winemaker Christopher S. Carpenter of Cardinale it turns out he bartends Friday nights at the Rutherford Grill, a local hangout. It might seem unusual that someone who once worked at a harvest enologist at Domaine Carneros and has an MS from UC Davis has to moonlight in this fashion. Christopher, though, says he loves people, talking about wine, and mixing up drinks.

Attendees were largely American for the most part, from nearby San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, as well as Chicago and Dallas, increasingly a key American market for upscale wine. In addition to the “big names,” many smaller boutique wineries, such as Vineyard 7 and 8, owned by a New York investment banker and managed by his son, have become active in the Napa community as well as the auction by virtue of their generous lot offerings. Given the $3,000 per  person ticket price, some attendees felt no compulsion to even place a bid, with their objective being able to meet famous top end Napa Valley winemakers and owners at intimate dinners, parties, and open houses.

UK view

As far as the UK market is concerned, the excellent 2012 vintage combined with the increasing notoriety of Napa Valley wine suggests that prices at the top end will continue to climb further. London-based sommelier Crispin Sugden of Goodman’s Restaurant suggests that high prices are no barrier for top end customers.  “I list over 80 bins of Napa wine and there is a definite increased interest and sales. People are becoming far more familiar and recognize the top houses, such as Silver Oak, Stags Leap, Phelps, etc. The average spend is high in Goodmans so I can list and expect to sell Opus One for 400 pounds.”

According to Sugden, the buyer of Napa Valley wine is typically a bit younger and more open-minded, possibly because more mature individuals were raised with a European palate and have an expectation of what a high-end Cabernet or blend should taste like. What he – and other young sommeliers – seem to value most about Napa valley wine is that it offers a fresh approach to the wine experience, from the often ‘quirky’ labels to the taste and structure of the wine itself.


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  • Ed Fitts and Deb Whitman of BRAND
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