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Change Comes to the Napa Valley Wine Auction

For the 25th anniversary, the lots will be fewer and more spectacular and the ticket prices will be higher

Tim Fish
Posted: December 28, 2004

The Napa Valley Wine Auction, which until recently had been the nation's highest-grossing charity wine auction, is getting a major facelift for its 25th anniversary in 2005. While there has been minor grumbling about the plans within the valley's wine community, many people believe that the changes are just what the doctor ordered.

"A lot of vintners felt that it was getting a little shopworn," said John Shafer, founder of Shafer Vineyards and one of the chairmen for the 2005 auction, which will be held June 2-5 in St. Helena.

Vintners have been complaining for years that change was needed. Among the common criticisms were that the live auction went on too long, plodding through as many as 150 lots and spanning more than six hours, and that the black-tie gala held the night before was pointless. It didn't help that the auction's overall take in 2004 was the lowest since 1998, and that events such as the Naples Winter Wine Festival--which raised $6.67 million last year, the highest charity wine auction total in the United States since 2001--seemed to be stealing Napa's thunder.

The 25th anniversary, Shafer said, offered an excuse for the Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) association, which sponsors the auction, to reshape the event. The name has even changed: it will now be called Auction Napa Valley.

While the 2005 event is considered just a test run, among the changes that the NVV board approved unanimously earlier this month are:

  • The Friday night black-tie gala has been replaced by a new festival. That event will combine elements of the old Thursday barrel tasting and barrel auction with the Pride of Napa Valley, a walk-around tasting of food from local restaurants that previously preceded the live auction on Saturday.

  • The number of lots at the Saturday live auction will be limited to about 50, and those will be selected by an anonymous jury. Lots that don't make the cut will be added to a new e-auction; guests will be able to bid on those items during the Friday festival using computer kiosks placed on the auction grounds.

  • The live auction will be shorter, and the big white tent will be less crowded. With fewer lots, the new goal is two hours. Attendance will be limited to around 1,200 people--about half the size of previous crowds.

  • Ticket prices for the four-day event (Thursday and Sunday will still consist of winery open houses and invitation-only events) will increase dramatically, perhaps to as much as $7,500, about triple the price of previous years. There is one consolation: About 500 tickets for the Friday festival will be sold for $75 each, but only to valley residents.

    Shafer acknowledged that the new jury selection for the live-auction lots "is going to be a big challenge." One Napa vintner, who asked not to be identified, said the association is encouraging spectacular lots that will draw bids of $75,000 or more, and some wineries fear that they will be marginalized if they don't have the resources to compete.

    Increasing the ticket prices as a way to thin the crowd might be viewed with some skepticism, Shafer also acknowledged, but he thought it would be the best alternative. "We wanted fewer people, and we also wanted people who were big spenders. They can afford the price," he said. "It was sort of chaos; there were so many people. It got to the point that some of the guests and vintners were sort of turned off by it. We also had a lot of people who were coming and didn't bid. They just came for the party."

    The price increase, Shafer said, will hopefully cover all of the event's operating expenses through ticket sales and allow the association to give 100 percent of the auction proceeds to local charities. "In the past it has been only 92 or 93 percent," he said. This year, the percentage was even lower; the auction will be donating $4.6 million for Napa County charities.

    "The major idea is to improve the auction, and as a result we've done some fairly drastic changes," Shafer said. "We're fully aware that we run the risk of not raising as much money as we have in the past, but it's a risk worth taking."

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