The third annual trade event, held on Feb. 21, grossed $630,500 on 108 one-of-a-kind, five- to 10-case lots of unfinished wines, made specifically for the auction. Last year's bids totaled $427,250, with an average case price of $589. This time, the average skyrocketed to $934 per case.
As in previous years, Harlan Estate fetched the highest case price -- with a $5,000 price tag this year. The wine was a Cabernet Franc 1997, purchased by California wine merchant Eddie Gelsman for the same anonymous Canadian collector who bought the winery's offering in 1997 and 1998. Five cases of Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 blended from wine made by Joseph Phelps and Shafer Vineyards received the second highest bid at $3,800 per case. Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 came in third place at $3,500 per case.
While Napa Valley vintners were delighted at the high prices, some of the 750 wine retailers and wholesalers in attendance were disappointed. "At this kind of pricing, it's hard for a restaurant to put the wines on their lists," said Joseph Nagan, a wholesaler from Minnesota. Nagan had purchased several lots in past years, but found himself regularly outbid at this latest event. "This is all up almost 100 percent from last year," he said, somewhat dismayed. "It's supposed to be for the trade, but there is a group here buying for private individuals."
Whether they were buying for themselves or their clients, some retailers seemed unfazed by cost. "It was a low price," said Japanese wine importer Masamichi Yamaguchi of his purchase of Dalla Valle. "My budget was $5,000 per case." Yamaguchi said he did not buy the wine for any private clients. "It's just for my own collection," he said.
Masaki Inoue, a Tokyo-based wine importer, spent nearly $35,000 on four different lots, including the Joseph Phelps/Shafer collaboration. The wine merchant imports many California wines to Japan and attended the auction with a small entourage of retailers and friends. His bobbing bidding paddle set the tone for much of the auction.
"I'm glad you guys' businesses are doing so well," remarked auctioneer Ursula Hermacinski from the podium. She was obviously impressed by the upward-spiraling bids. Hermacinski, formerly with Christie's, recently became an executive vice president at Winebid.com, an Internet auction house.
Despite prices that, on occasion, approached those of first-growth Bordeaux, some deals remained among lesser-known wines, where quality was also high. "I'm lucky," said Stan Stack of Beau's Wine Bin & Spirit Shoppe in Oklahoma City. "The two lots I bought last year doubled in price this year." As a result, the retailer ventured into new territory and purchased five cases of Larkmead Vineyards Merlot 1997 for $400 per case. It was the second vintage from this winery.
Another winery, Long Meadow Ranch, fittingly made its debut at Premiere Napa Valley. Owned by financial consultant Ted Hall and his wife, Laddie, Long Meadow Ranch grows 14 acres of vines perched 1,200 feet above Napa Valley. Its initial five-case offering of Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 was snapped up for $1,100 per case.
Premiere Napa Valley took place at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. Unlike the annual summertime Napa Valley Auction -- a charity event -- Premiere Napa Valley profits go toward further promotion of Napa Valley wines.
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