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Sonoma Barrel Auction Weekend Brings Out the Big Boys

The three-day event of wine tastings, seminars and bidding raised $693,800
Wendy Heilmann, director of wine and spirits for Pebble Beach Resorts, bids on a lot at the Sonoma Barrel Auction.
Photo by: Will Bucquoy
Wendy Heilmann, director of wine and spirits for Pebble Beach Resorts, bids on a lot at the Sonoma Barrel Auction.

Posted: May 4, 2016 1:00pm ET

Any weekend in Sonoma County is a good one for wine lovers—there's always a festival or shindig going on somewhere, but the big boys came out to play this past weekend. Sonoma County Barrel Auction is the big spring event put on by the Sonoma County Vintners, and it spanned three days of tastings, dinners, seminars and, of course, lots of bidding.

The county honored four of its wine icons: Tom Rochioli of Rochioli Vineyards; 90-year-old Helen Bacigalupi, whose family has grown grapes in Russian River for 60 years; Tom Klein, longtime owner of Rodney Strong Vineyards, and Dave Rafanelli of A. Rafanelli Winery.

The Bacigalupi family on Saturday also marked the 40-year anniversary of the 1976 Judgment of Paris with a comparative tasting of recent California and French Chardonnays. Many don't know that Bacigalupi grapes made up 40 percent of the winning white wine in 1976, the Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay.

The big news of the weekend was how much Friday's auction raised: $693,800, more than a 50 percent increase over 2015, the auction's inaugural year. The auction drew about 250 members of the wine trade, who gathered under a white tent at Vintners Inn in Santa Rosa. (Auction proceeds go toward promoting Sonoma wine.)

All 75 lots were one-of-a-kind, created exclusively for the auction, and focused prominently on Pinot Noir but also included Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and more.

The top lot of the day was 10 cases of a Kosta Browne special bottling dubbed "The KB Elixir" 2015, a 50-50 blend of Russian River and Sonoma Coast fruit. It sold for $46,000, or about $383 a bottle, to a Texas-based grocery chain.

Other big lots were the $40,000 bid for 20 cases of Williams Selyem's "35th Anniversary Blend" Pinot Noir 2015, which pulled fruit from many of the winery's cherished vineyard sources: Allen, Hirsch, Rochioli and more.

"This is a showcase for the diversity of Sonoma County," Kim Stare Wallace, president of Dry Creek Vineyard, said. "It also gives the winemakers a chance to experiment to their heart's delight."

Drawing the festivities to a close on Saturday night was the fourth-annual Russian River Valley Paulée dinner at Arista winery near Healdsburg. Several hundred guests and winemakers drank new releases as well as old vintages dating back decades.

Mark McWilliams, co-owner of Arista, shared a bottle of Dehlinger Pinot Noir Russian River 1991. It was still sleek and full of life. Eric Flanagan of Flanagan Vineyards brought a 3-liter bottle from across the mountain, Forman Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1987. It still had plenty of backbone. The big surprise of the night was what Donald Patz of Patz & Hall poured: Lytton Springs Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 1977. The bottle was in good condition for a 39-year-old wine, and it was amazingly bold and youthful. Who says Zins can't age?

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