Under sunny skies at the Napa Valley Wine Auction on Saturday, bidders in the big white tent on the lawn of Meadowood resort raised a total of $5.3 million. Impressive as this is by most charity wine auction standards, the crowd was subdued in its bidding and the total take was the lowest for the event since 1998.
Two lots tied for high bid of the day, both going for $220,000. For the first top lot, TV actor Henry Simmons, from NYPD Blue, took the stage to help auctioneers hike the total for a lot offered by the Napa Valley Vintners, the winery group that sponsors the auction. The combination of 109 bottles of Napa Valley wine, a wine cellar and a Cadillac XLR Roadster was purchased by veteran bidder Gary Rieschel of Palo Alto, Calif., who was also the event's top spender overall, contributing $299,575.
The other $220,000 bid came from M.K. Koo, a Hong Kong collector and auction regular who took home three 3-liter bottles of Screaming Eagle from the 1995, '96 and '97 vintages. "This was my chance," Koo said. "I was trying my best to get it."
The $5.3-million take was off slightly from the $5.8-million total in 2003 (though the difference is closer to $1 million when last year's $655,000 contribution by the Trinchero family is included.) This is the fourth decline in proceeds since the auction hit its $9.5-million record in 2000.
"The bottom line was that some of our usual top bidders weren't here this year," said auction co-chairman Hugh Davies, the general manager of Schramsberg Vineyards. "In talking to some of the top bidders, they said they would have bid higher, but there wasn't anyone else competing."
Two moments during the auction may have played into the low-key mood.
At one point, auctioneers Ursula Hermacinski, Fritz Hatton and David Elswood paused the bidding to watch the Belmont Stakes race; while the crowd roared when Smarty Jones took the lead, the mood soured as the favored horse fell behind and the Triple Crown went unclaimed again. Later, Jamie Davies of Schramsberg, who co-chaired the auction with her son, came to the microphone to announce the passing of former President Ronald Reagan and asked for a moment of silence. "He had a great love for California and the wines of California," she told the crowd.
Instead of expressing disappointment at the numbers, event organizers focused on a more positive milestone, at one point announcing that the auction had officially raised $50 million since its start in 1981.
Simmons wasn't the only star in attendance. Mira Sorvino, who won an Oscar for her role in the 1995 film Mighty Aphrodite, paid a visit to the live auction. There was the usual parade of prominent winemakers and vintners on hand, including Gina Gallo, Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke of Kendall-Jackson, Daniel Baron of Silver Oak, Naoko Dalla Valle, Jean Phillips of Screaming Eagle and Robert and Margrit Mondavi.
There were also collectors from around the world, like Ron Seward and his wife, Paula, of Burke, Va. "This is our sixth time here," Seward said. "It's a great party and a great cause, and it's an opportunity to meet people in the wine business."
This year's auction theme was "Isn't it Romantic: A Sparkling Toast to Napa." Festivities got under way on Thursday at the barrel auction at Domaine Chandon. Wineries and local restaurateurs offered samples on the winery lawn, while bidders tasted barrel auction wines in the cellar and browsed the live auction lots on display.
The Bubble Ball followed on Friday evening, with guests wearing black tie and gowns and the decor setting a mood reminiscent of the 1930s and '40s. Ron Siegel, the executive chef of Masa's in San Francisco and an Iron Chef alumnus, prepared a filet mignon dinner, and Michael Feinstein performed the music of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin on his grand piano.
Before the live auction got underway on Saturday, guests sampled wines and had a moveable feast as they grazed the offerings of local restaurants such as the French Laundry, Bistro Jeanty and Bistro Don Giovanni.
The auction will mark its 25th anniversary next year. On Saturday, organizers announced that all the previous auction chairpeople will share the job next year. To the fanfare of Richard Strauss' "Thus Spake Zarathustra," made famous as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the past chairmen came on stage.
The bulk of the $5.3 million raised this year came from the live auction, which brought in $4 million. The barrel auction raised about $1.2 million, with the silent and art auctions together raising about $111,000. Proceeds benefit an array of Napa charities, including local health, youth and housing programs.
Top 10 Lots
1. Screaming Eagle -- $220,000
Three 3-liter bottles of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from 1995 to 1997
1. Napa Valley Vintners Lot 75 -- $220,000
109 bottles of premium wine from Napa wineries and a limited edition Cadillac XLR Roadster convertible
3. Harlan Estate -- $180,000
Ten bottles of Napa Valley red wine from 1991 to 2000.
4. Dalla Valle Vineyards -- $150,000
Seven bottles of Maya 2001 and lunch or dinner for eight
5. Vineyard 29 -- $135,000
Three bottles of 2001 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and a red blend
6. Joseph Phelps Vineyards -- $100,000
A 30-bottle vertical of Insignia from 1974 to 2003, plus 45 liters of 2003 Insignia and dinner for 6
7. Napa Valley Vintners Lot 137 -- $95,000
365 bottles of Napa Valley wines, a vacation package to Florida and St. Thomas including airfare and accommodations at Ritz-Carlton resorts, and a 2005 Wine Auction package
8. Colgin Cellars -- $90,000
One 6-liter bottle of 2001 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
9. Stag's Leap Wine Cellars -- $80,000
52 bottles of wine, accommodations in Napa, dinner for six and a matching bid contribution to the Statue of Liberty foundation
10. Arajuo Estate Wines -- $75,000
One 6-liter bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, plus a day-long winery visit and blending session for eight people
10. Shafer Vineyards -- $ 75,000
23 bottles of wine, including a vertical of Hillside Select from 1983 to 2001, lunch for 26 people
Top Five Bidders
1. Gary Rieschel, Palo Alto, Calif. -- $299,575
2. Anonymous -- $293,150
3. Edward Weltman, East Hampton, N.Y. -- $288,850
4. M.K. Koo, Hong Kong -- $250,000
5. Anonymous -- $246,350