The bidding started off strong at the Sonoma County Wine Auction on Saturday and it didn't let up until the event's record books had been rewritten. By the time the last paddle fell, the auction had raised $6.1 million, surging past last year's haul of $5.7 million and setting a new benchmark for the event.
The live auction, which raised more than $3.2 million excluding a fund-a-need lot, was the culmination of three wine and food–fueled days organized by the Sonoma County Vintners Foundation. (Wine Spectator is a sponsor of the event.) The festivities started on Thursday with a welcome party at Jacuzzi Family Vineyards, followed by vintner dinners throughout the region. On Saturday, 400 wine lovers gathered at La Crema Estate at Saralee's Vineyard in Windsor for the live auction under a nearly cloudless sky.
Sonoma winemakers were busy harvesting and crushing their grapes, but that didn't keep many from coming out to show their support. "To raise money for our community is what it is all about," said Kosta Browne founder Michael Browne, who had harvested 25 tons of grapes that morning at his Cirq winery in the Russian River Valley.
The event raises money to benefit local charities and help underserved people in Sonoma. "I couldn't make wine if I didn't have people to help me in the community," said Gina Gallo of E. & J. Gallo, who co-chaired this year's auction with Christopher Jackson of Jackson Family Wines. "It's really a collaborative effort and every one of those individuals lives in the community."
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The action really heated up inside the auction tent, where a bidding war broke out over the top lot of the day, a 378-bottle collection that included 3-liter bottles and magnums from some of Sonoma's top producers, including Peter Michael, Vérité and The Setting. The crowd cheered on as the paddles flew up at such a frenzied pace that auctioneer Humphrey Butler joked he was going to have a heart attack. In the end, attendee Bill Sanders of Virginia cast the winning bid. The final price was $520,000, making it the most expensive single lot in the auction's history.
"It's all the rock stars of Sonoma," said Sanders, who was attending the auction with his wife, Rebecca. "It's an amazing event and an amazing cause."
Among the other top lots of the day was a 3-night stay in Nashville for six couples plus a private acoustic concert with country music star Brad Paisley and a 60-bottle collection of Lasseter Family wines; it sold for $320,000. Bidders also cast their paddles high for a lot that included a private evening with Grammy-winning band Lady Antebellum at Wing & Barrel Ranch in Sonoma, donated by Stonestreet winery, which pulled in $300,000.
In between the action, guests sipped on Sonoma wines and noshed on small bites such as mini Reuben sandwiches and lamb Merguez sliders, as well as locally made cheeses. Butler and fellow auctioneer John Curley kept the 40 lots moving at a brisk pace, revving up the crowd with a mix of music and lively banter.
The most emotional moment came at the end of the evening during the annual Fund-a-Need lot, when special guest Juliette took to the stage. A former foster child, the 12-year-old told the audience how the Boys & Girls Club had helped her learn that adults really cared about her. She then launched into a heartfelt rendition of the song "Make You Feel My Love" that had the entire crowd wiping tears from their eyes.
In a sign of solidarity, Christoper Jackson and Gina Gallo both donated $250,000 to start the bidding for the lot, with donations going to help construct a new Boys & Girls Club in the Roseland neighborhood of Santa Rosa. Other prominent Sonoma vintners got in on the act as well—Barbara Banke of Jackson Family Wines, Jean-Charles Boisset of Boisset Collection and Joe Anderson of Benovia donated $100,000 each. When the final paddle dropped the lot had raised more than $1.6 million.
"It's an exciting holistic opportunity to support the children," said Christopher Jackson, himself a father. "It is an opportunity to have money well-spent because they are the future of the community, and we can put them on a solid foundation."