First came the fireworks. Then the fire.
Twenty-four years ago this month, two days shook up Napa Valley like never before.
The first occasion was the inaugural Napa Valley Wine Auction, held Sunday, June 21, 1981. This marathon 590-lot extravaganza at the Meadowood Resort lasted nearly seven hours and saw several records for the sale of California wine shattered in sweltering 107 degree weather. It exceeded everyone's expectations. This Saturday will see the 25th edition of the event, now renamed Auction Napa Valley.
As dramatic as the Napa auction was in the eyes of the wine world that Sunday, the ensuing day, June 22, eclipsed it for Napa residents.
An arsonist set a series of fires along the eastern boundary of the valley floor, and they quickly erupted into a blazing inferno that scorched hundreds of homes and more than 25,000 acres. At the time, the fire burned nearly as much land as the valley had in grapevines.
Both happenings attracted international attention, putting Napa Valley on the front pages of hundreds of newspapers worldwide and in the lead spot on many TV newscasts.
The auction, a charity affair that benefited local health organizations, was filled with dozens of exciting moments. The final tally, announced to cheers by auctioneer Michael Broadbent, amounted to $324,000—impressive at the time, but a figure that many individual lots have eclipsed in recent years at the auction.
While many records fell that day, the showstopper was the first sale of Opus One. The then-new venture between Napa vintner Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Bordeaux's Château Mouton-Rothschild had been anticipated to be a favorite at the auction.
At the barrel tasting, held outside at Meadowood in simmering sunshine the day before, big spenders guessed that the lot—the first case of wine produced by the joint venture—might sell for between $10,000 and $12,000, $15,000 tops.
But as the bidding opened and Broadbent urged bidders on, it became apparent that auction fever had gripped many of the high rollers. The price rapidly escalated. Charles Mara, 33, a Syracuse, N.Y., wine consultant, claimed the prize for $24,000.
At $2,000 a bottle, the Opus One 1979—a wine no one outside the winemaking team had tasted and then known only as "Napamedoc"—became the most expensive California wine ever sold at auction. The previous record had been the sale of an 1891 Inglenook Zinfandel Napa Valley for $1,150.
But the adrenaline rush that had gripped bidders quickly dropped, and the second case of the Mondavi-Rothschild Cabernet sold for $2,400.
As a toast to Mara, the Mondavis invited him and a handful of guests to the Mondavi winery in Oakville on June 22 for a vertical of Mondavi Reserve Cabernets.
As I had worked both weekend days as Napa bureau chief of the Vallejo Times-Herald and a correspondent for Wine Spectator, my editor at the Times-Herald told me to take Monday off, and I joined in the tasting.
At about 2 p.m. I stepped outside Mondavi and saw the first funnels of white smoke billowing into a brilliant blue sky somewhere near the Stags Leap District.
Several of those at the tasting joined me outside and commented on the obvious fire danger. The weather had stayed unseasonably hot—well into the 100s—and a dry, 25 mph wind swept through the valley, breathing life into what investigators later determined were four separate fires that the firebug had set. His timing could not have been more perfect—the hills were parched and the blaze raced through the underbrush and trees, leaping through narrow canyons and folds in the hills.
Leaving the winery, I drove back to my office in downtown Napa and called the story in to the city editor. By then, the fire had forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes from Stags Leap to the Silverado Country Club. We sent our team of reporters into the area as air tankers loaded with pink fire retardant made repeated dives over the raging inferno and homeowners stood atop their roofs with garden hoses, hoping to ward off the flames. We all came back to the office with pink-stained, sweat-soaked shirts and smoky black faces, as if we'd been in a combat zone.
By nightfall, the sky had blackened into a massive smoke mushroom, and by the next day an army of 800 firefighters had descended on Napa to battle the blaze. But because of the hot weather and dry winds, firefighters had little hope of stopping it. They hoped the winds would subside and then perhaps they would have a chance to contain the fire.
By Wednesday, as the winds died out, the blaze began to lose momentum. By Thursday, it had been contained. Miraculously, no one had been killed in the swift, raging fire, though scores lost their homes.
On Friday morning, I got my first call from London. A reporter at one of the major dailies was wondering how badly the vines had been damaged.
His query seemed absurd in light of the catastrophe. As far as I knew, no one was the least bit concerned about vine damage, but I repeated one observation I'd heard from a grower: Vineyards don't typically burn easily.
In the days that followed, people joked about unusually smoky Fumé Blancs from the upcoming 1981 harvest. But for those who lived through the auction and fire, those two days remain fresh in mind.