The Sonoma County Wine Auction is an annual chance for vintners to help those in need and celebrate the region's bounty. But this year, the need for help was close to home—the event focused on rebuilding efforts following last October's devastating wine-country wildfires. Attendees responded by bidding generously for a collection of world-class wine experiences at the live auction on Saturday, Sept. 22, raising $5.7 million for charity, surpassing last year's high of $5.2 million.
The auction, held this year at La Crema Estate at Saralee's Vineyard, in Windsor, is one of wine country's top charity events. Organized by the Sonoma County Vintners, it has raised nearly $35 million since its inception, with proceeds going to more than 70 local nonprofits supporting education, literacy, health and environmental services and the arts.
The theme for this year's event was revival, with a focus on recovery efforts and building affordable housing for the thousands of local residents who lost their homes during the fires.
"We believed it was really important for this auction to help rebuild and revitalize Sonoma County," George Hamel Jr., the auction's honorary chair and founder of Sonoma's Hamel Family Wines, told Wine Spectator. The fires only damaged a few wineries and vineyards in Sonoma County but they destroyed more than 5,300 homes, including Hamel's.
Emotions ran high for the annual Fund-a-Need lot, with guests raising their paddles to donate at various price levels to help rebuilding efforts in Sonoma. The Hamel Family Foundation set the tone, donating $300,000. Christopher Jackson of Jackson Family Wines quickly matched that amount on behalf of his company. E. & J. Gallo donated $150,000, while other prominent Sonoma vintners and wineries each bid $100,000.
Chef Nancy Oakes of Boulevard in San Francisco, who was an honoree at the event, got in on the action as well, offering to hold a truffle dinner for guests who agreed to donate $50,000 to the Fund-a-Need lot. Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Shimmon offered to increase the final bid for the lot to an even $2.5 million.
The live auction was the capstone to three days of wine- and food-fueled events. The festivities started Thursday night with a party at Paradise Ridge in the Russian River Valley, a Sonoma winery that was heavily damaged by the fires but has begun rebuilding.
On Saturday, the mood was festive inside the auction tent as 350 wine lovers gathered to celebrate. Auctioneer John Curley entertained the crowd, keeping the energy high and the paddles flying. "There was a feeling in the tent like there has never been before," said Hamel. "The generosity of the people just blew everyone away."
Bidding was generous for the top lot, a five-course dinner at the Charles M. Schultz museum and a private concert by Grammy Award winner George Winston, sponsored by Hamel Family Wines. When the gavel fell, 46 couples had paid $10,000 each for the opportunity, for a grand total of $460,000, making it the highest amount raised for a single lot in the auction's history.
There was a tie for the other two top-grossing lots of the day. Shimmon paid $190,000 for a trip for four to the 2019 men's Wimbledon final, including accommodations and a dinner with Wimbledon legend Tim Henman. That was matched by a dinner for eight with Nancy Oakes, prepared by fellow chefs, including Gary Danko, Michael Tusk and Tyler Florence, that pulled in $95,000. Oakes then doubled the lot, for a total of $190,000.
The highest wine-only lot came from Michael Browne, owner of Cirq winery and a founder of Kosta Browne, which included a 21-bottle library selection of Pinot Noirs ranging from standard-size bottles up to 5 liters. The winning bid was $80,000. "To have this in our hometown is huge," said Browne, who noted that the fires brought the community closer together. "It hits close to home for everyone in the community, since everybody knows someone that was affected."
Want to get the latest news on collectible wines and the auction market? Sign up for Wine Spectator's free Collecting e-mail newsletter and get a new top-rated wine review, collecting Q&As and more, delivered straight to your inbox every other week!