It looked all too familiar: Premiere Napa Valley 2009, on a sunny Saturday last.
Knee-high mustard rising from the vineyards, brilliant splashes of yellow and green. A rainbow-colored hot-air balloon drifting lazily above the Veteran’s Home in Yountville. A sign here and there along Hwy 29: "Winery for sale; vineyard too." Piles of ripped out vineyards waiting for a dry burn day. Some vines still waiting for the pruning shears. Even the sneaky California Highway Patrol unit, tucked neatly off the highway, ticket book no doubt in tow, ready to write if one were exceeding the limit en route to St. Helena for the day’s tasting and auction.
Inside the Culinary Institute of America building, the barrel-tasting room—where perspective bidders, media types, bloggers, retailers and distributors can sample the auction lots—filled to capacity. It was by all accounts a tremendous turnout.
Most of the 200 wines being sold to raise money for the host Napa Valley Vintners were from the 2007 vintage, and there were many exciting wines. But looking over my notes and comparing them to the 2006 vintage poured a year ago, I can’t say I was more impressed with the 2007s than the 2006s. I tasted about 60 samples. These are one-of-a-kind offerings, often unique blends that are different from a winery’s normal lineup, and not wines consumers can buy.
The auction sale was solid, all things considered, with a total of $1.5 million, though well off last year’s record $2.2 million. Most of the lots were a mix of five cases to a full barrel, or about 25 cases.
The top bid went to Scarecrow Toto’s Opium Dream 2007 ($80,000, or $16,000 a case). Ovid Apotheca 2007 garnered $42,000 ($8,400 a case). Other notable sales included Shafer Vineyards Sunspot Vineyard 2007 ($24,000/$4,800 a case) and Lewis Cellars 2007 ($20,000/$4,000). I liked all of these wines.
For comparative purposes, the 2006 Shafer Sunspot sold for $62,000 ($12,500 a case) a year ago.
Talk among vintners about the economy was upbeat. Everyone’s waiting for the bottom. Everyone’s tired of snowballing bad news. Everyone likes 2007.
No one I spoke with said they were lowering prices. But many acknowledged terribly slow sales. Wineries with lower-priced wines said that that niche helped them. Others said that wineries without any brand recognition or loyal customer base were headed into tough times.