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Despite Slow Economy, Cash Still Flows Freely at the Napa Valley Wine Auction

Napa's annual charity event raised $7.6million, its second-highest total ever.

Daniel Sogg
Posted: June 13, 2001

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Napa Valley Wine Auction 2000

Investors might be taking their lumps on Wall Street right now, but eager wine buyers didn't flinch at the high prices commanded at the 2001 Napa Valley Wine Auction, held June 7 to 10. Bidders spent $7.6 million -- the second largest total in the 21 years of the charity auction -- on hard-to-obtain prestige labels and luxurious dining and travel packages.

The final tally fell short of the astonishing $9.5 million raised by the 2000 Napa Valley Wine Auction, which nearly doubled the total from 1999. But vintners and event organizers said they were pleased and acknowledged that they surpassed their Nasdaq-diminished expectations. "I'm actually surprised that the average was so close to last year," said auctioneer Fritz Hatton. The 141 live lots on the block -- 24 fewer than last year -- brought in an average of $43,840 each, compared with $47,195 each in 2000.

Bidding began on a promising, though unofficial, note on Friday night, after the Meadowood resort's black-tie dinner, prepared by guest chef Wolfgang Puck of Spago fame.

Actor Joel Grey got the crowd of 2,400 excited, auctioning off a T-shirt that vintner Robert Mondavi gave to him following the first Napa Valley Wine Auction in 1981. Robert's daughter, Marcia Mondavi, bought the shirt for $17,000.

"Twenty years ago, this was the first T-shirt sold at the winery. I didn't have the foresight to see that that was a good idea, and was incensed at the idea of selling shirts with my father's face on them. So I bought all of them," said Marcia, who was egged on during the bidding by her brothers, Michael and Tim, chairman and winegrower­vice chairman of the winery, respectively.

But Napa Valley's priciest T-shirt ever was just a warm-up for Saturday's live auction, where the high bid was $650,000 for eight 3-liter bottles of cult sensation Screaming Eagle, from its inaugural 1992 vintage through 1999. "I guess I was over budget," said winning bidder Ron Kuhn, owner of Pillar Rock Winery in Napa's Stags Leap District, who was the biggest spender of the event. "But [Screaming Eagle owner and real estate agent] Jean Phillips had a big part in bringing me to the Valley."

Phillips' success with her tiny label, produced in quantities of about 500 cases a year, mirrors the explosive growth of Napa Valley's reputation over the last 10 years. Her 1992 vintage was released at $50 per bottle; the current 1998 release sold off the mailing list for $250. Winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett was hard-pressed to account for Screaming Eagle's continued, almost hypnotic allure. "It's a magic little place, a magic little winery," she said.

The visibility of famed vintner Robert Mondavi and his wife, Margrit Biever Mondavi, helped give a big boost to this year's event. The couple, who conceived the idea for the first Napa Valley Wine Auction, which was held in 1981, returned to serve as this year's co-chairs. At one point, Robert even appeared on stage in drag, and his energy inspired participants throughout the festivities.

Mondavi-donated lots brought in three of the five highest prices of the live auction. Bidder M.K. Koo of Vancouver, British Columbia, spent $260,000 for a 20-year vertical of 3-liter bottles of Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve.

Luke Evnin of San Francisco anted up the same amount for a lot that included 26 cases of Mondavi To Kalon Cabernet along with lunch, dinner and a chance to make wine with Robert and Margrit Mondavi. Kuhn forked over another $220,000 for a party and a 20-year vertical of 3-liter bottles of Opus One, Mondavi's joint venture with Bordeaux's Château Mouton-Rothschild. A 15-liter bottle of 1997 Dalla Valle Maya, along with six 750-ml bottles of 1997 Maya, carried the same $220,000 final price tag.

The 1998 Staglin Family Vineyards Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon brought in the highest bid for a barrel lot, selling for $102,050 for 10 cases.

But with the notable exception of the Screaming Eagle, the bidding didn't have the giddy euphoria of the 2000 auction, which was largely fueled by dot-com and Silicon Valley money. Last year, three lots garnered at least $500,000, but only Screaming Eagle this year surpassed $260,000.

"Last year was almost unreal, but this is a little more sober," said Harlan Estate owner Bill Harlan, whose donated lot of one 9-liter bottle of 1997 Cabernet went for $160,000 this year. At the previous auction, his lot -- a 10-vintage vertical of Harlan Estate in magnums -- brought in a record $700,000.

Still, it would be shortsighted to consider the results a letdown. If anything, the strong average price per lot, even in the absence of last year's astronomical bids, demonstrates Napa Valley's enormous popularity. This year's final tally is even more impressive, considering the absence of last year's top two bidders, retired Cisco Systems executive Chase Bailey and longtime auction attendee B.A. "Red" Adams, from Louisiana -- who spent a combined total of $3.1 million at the 2000 auction.

The four-day event was officially kicked off on Thursday morning at Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, where casually attired attendees braved the scorching sun to snack on homemade sausages, raw oysters and grilled duck breast, washed down with an array of current Napa Valley wine releases.

The guests escaped the heat inside Mondavi's newly completed To Kalon winery, where producers offered a sneak peak at their upcoming wines, with 77 barrel samples, mostly from the 1999 vintage.

The tasting and dining picked up steam that evening and Friday afternoon at wineries throughout the valley, as participants enjoyed black-tie parties complete with live bands and dancing, or relaxing meals overlooking the vines.

While the focus was on celebrating all that Napa Valley has to offer in the way of fine food and wine, there was a larger purpose behind it all. Proceeds from the auction, which is organized by the Napa Valley Vintners Association, will go to benefit a variety of health care, youth and housing organizations throughout the area. So far, the event has donated nearly $19 million since 1981.

After the last bid, Robert Mondavi thanked the area's vintners and bidders for their generosity, saying, "This event is one reason that Napa Valley is now recognized to produce wines that match the best in the world."

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