Bid Big Against COVID-19: Your Charity Wine Auction Guide

From WWII-era German Riesling to magnums of cult Napa Cabernet, auction houses are finding and offering ultrarare bottles from donors who want to help those affected by the coronavirus
Bid Big Against COVID-19: Your Charity Wine Auction Guide
Cellar treasures are coming out of the woodwork for these auctions, including these bottles, donated to the Wine Country for Restaurants #86LostWages sale. (Courtesy of Wine Country for Restaurants)
Apr 21, 2020

Some things are becoming clearer about the state of the wine and dining industries as the United States enters its second month of coronavirus lockdowns, and one is that few are facing direr prospects in the business than restaurant workers. As chefs, somms and other hospitality workers grapple with prolonged unemployment and economic hardship, their comrades in other segments of the industry are stepping up, most recently in the form of online charity auctions to benefit restaurant worker relief organizations.

These auctions, either online now or coming soon, give you the chance to acquire dream bottles offered up from the cellars of magnanimous wineries and collectors, or even the restaurants themselves, in the service of the folks who have served you well over the years.

Rieslingfeier #WineLoversAgainstCorona
Ends April 24

Rieslingfeier, an annual tasting and dinner event celebrating rare (mostly) German Rieslings, is hosting an online charity auction with special appeal to collectors who like their Riesling bottles big and old, with plenty of large-format offerings and vintages back to 1945. The auction benefits charities assisting hospitality workers in need and small, independent restaurants, primarily the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation COVID-19 relief fund and the James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund.

“A large number of our relations and friends and family are in the restaurant industry,” said Stephen Bitterolf, founder of both Rieslingfeier and importer vom Boden. He was talking with a friend, German winemaker Klaus Peter Keller, who’d helped kickstart charity auctions around the world. “So we were talking about, what can we do? It was kind of a spontaneous thing, [him] very much just like, ‘I’m happy to donate some wine. I’ll do that and see if I can get some other people.’”

The first week of the auction brought in nearly $23,000, and this week features even more lots, from donors “who have access to rarer, stranger things,” as Bitterolf put it. Standouts include a set of 12 German dessert wines from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s; 1970s trockenbeerenauslesen from Schloss Johannisberg and Görz; and, among non-Rieslings, a 1995 Pétrus from the cellar of CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria, a friend of Keller’s.

Wine Country for Restaurants #86LostWages
Ends April 26 (new auctions each week)

Some friends in the North Bay wine industry were among the first to snap an auction into action, forming the group Wine Country for Restaurants and putting up their first set of bottles up for bidding through WineBid April 5. With all proceeds going to the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation fund, the group gaveled off dozens of lots for $45,100 in the first two weeks.

Week three (out of five scheduled so far) is the most ambitious yet by far, with 49 lots. Top lots, all donated by local wineries, restaurants and collectors, include magnums of Bond Quella, Cardinale and Screaming Eagle The Flight, plus verticals of Groth Reserve and Hourglass. “As vice president at Frog's Leap, I have spent the past 17 years traveling the country selling lots of wine to lots of restaurants,” said Jonah Beer, one organizer, to Unfiltered via email. “And for all of these years our restaurants have been the place where we go to celebrate success, or to mourn tragedy. It was at Tra Vigne where I fell in love with my wife. It was at Compline where we went during the fires. ... The wine world is, quite literally, soul-tied to the restaurant world.”

Zachys: Rare Wines from the Cellars of Gramercy Tavern, The Modern, Union Square Cafe, Maialino & Marta
Ends May 3

Not long after New York City restaurants were forced to shut down on March 16, Union Square Hospitality Group founder Danny Meyer organized the nonprofit USHG HUGS to raise money and send grants to USHG employees suddenly and unexpectedly facing financial shortfalls. The fund has distributed $600,000 so far, and starting April 21, it plans to ratchet that number up by $1 million, via an auction of gems from USHG’s top restaurant cellars, including Wine Spectator Grand Award winner the Modern and Best of Award of Excellence winners Gramercy Tavern, Maialino, Marta and Union Square Cafe. New York’s Zachys Wine Auctions will host the sale.

Bidders can expect Piedmont stunners from Mascarello and Giuseppe Rinaldi and Rhône stars like Guigal and Chave. But, Zachys president Jeff Zacharia told Unfiltered, “it’s just an incredible list of Burgundies here that makes me very excited for the sale”—grands crus and much more from Roumier, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Dujac, Rousseau and others. “My father and I have known Danny [Meyer] for over 30 years. When this happened, we obviously wanted to help people in the restaurant trade any way that we could,” said Zacharia. “And we’re honored that their charity chose to work with us for this auction.”

Acker Merrall for the United Sommeliers Foundation
Start TBD, this week or next

Somms are also among those whose livelihoods have been upended. “Sadly, thousands of my sommelier friends and colleagues are now unemployed,” said vice president of the new United Sommeliers Foundation and founder of the hospitality consulting firm Somlyay Erik Segelbaum, in a statement. “They are at home, struggling to make ends meet and hoping that they have a job to return to when this crisis is behind us.”

The group has been soliciting donations of both money and wine from consumers, collectors and businesses in the drinks industry. On the money side, they’ve brought in $60,000 in a month, with $14,500 in grants sent out so far. The wine gifts will fuel a rolling charity auction with Acker Merrall, which will donate 100 percent of proceeds and match an additional percentage; it is slated to go live within a few days.

Among the first lots, enticements include 22 bottles of Hundred Acre; a 6-liter bottle of Domaine Ponsot Clos de La Roche, and magnums—or larger—of Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Mayacamas, Peter Michael Les Pavots, Chateau Montelena and Quilceda Creek. "Here's a way to support the people who can keep wine in your hands and in your glass, and take care of you when you go out," Segelbaum told Unfiltered.

Les Vins de Bordeaux Leur Disent Merci—the Wines of Bordeaux Say Thank You
June 15 - 21

Over in France, Bordeaux has cancelled its popular annual wine festival this year, previously slated for June. In its place, the Bordeaux Tourism Office and members of the wine trade are launching a major online charity auction, Les Vins de Bordeaux Leur Disent Merci: “The Wines of Bordeaux Say Thank You.” The organizers are accepting donations of wine from producers and brokers through May 30.

The beneficiaries here are not hospitality workers, but hospital ones: All proceeds will go toward supplies and equipment to improve the work conditions for medical professionals in hospitals around the Gironde region during the COVID crisis. The lots will consist of wine and enotourism offerings, like a château stay, tour or tasting. The details are available online (in French).

—with reporting by Suzanne Mustacich

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