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Napa Auction Feels Recession's Pinch

One of the country's premier annual wine charity events, Auction Napa Valley draws great crowds but earns $5.7 million, half of last year's take

Tim Fish
Posted: June 8, 2009

There was pageantry and hoopla to spare at Saturday's Auction Napa Valley, but the bids were not as plentiful. The economic times finally caught up with the popular charity auction. The live auction brought in $4.3 million, capping a four-day event that raised a total of $5.7 million. That's just over half of 2008's total of $10.4 million.

None of the 600 bidders or 200 vintners who gathered for Saturday's live auction at the Meadowood Resort in St. Helena were kidding themselves. A market correction was unavoidable. In February, the Naples Winter Wine Festival, which passed Napa a few years ago to become America's top charity wine auction, raised only $5.06 million at its live auction, down from $14 million in 2008.

This year's Napa auction saw fewer high rollers from Silicon Valley—or if they were there, they were sitting on their hands. Many of the winning bidders were the vintners, bidding on lots offered by their friends and neighbors for a worthy goal.

But considering the climate, Napa's organizers felt the event was still a big win for their cause—the money will go to several local charities, including Community Health Clinic Ole, Boys & Girls Clubs and Napa Valley Community Housing. Echoing the common sentiment of the evening, winemaker Tim Mondavi said, "We just have to look at the positive." One big bright side was attendance—all the weekend's events sold out.

There were no Oprahs, Teri Hatchers or Jay Lenos lending star power this year, though Italian vintner Piero Antinori and San Francisco mayor and California gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom turned heads. The organizers decided to give the vintners more of the spotlight this year. But there was still plenty of entertainment—a live band with dancers kept the energy high while performances from a trapeze troupe drew oohs and ahhs.

Auctioneers Fritz Hatton and Viveca Paulin worked the center of the room, moving along a catwalk surrounded by bidders. Hatton noted that Paulin's husband, actor Will Ferrell, had to be in New York instead of Napa because he was nominated for a Tony Award.

The top single-bid was $400,000 for a lot put together by Antinori, which included a lavish nine-day trip with tours of some of his family's estates—Antica Napa Valley, Tenuta Tignanello in Chianti Classico and Guado al Tasso in Bolgheri.

Mary Miner, owner of Oakville Ranch winery, was the top bidder, but Antinori agreed to accommodate the two runner-up bids by Karin and Paul Wick of Menlo Park, Calif., and David and Donna Reis of Westchester, N.Y. That brought the total to $1.1 million. "I just wanted to go to Italy and experience Chianti and all those things," Miner said of her bid.

Staglin Family continued its streak of delivering one of the auction's top lots. The Staglins joined with the Hyde and de Villaine families (HdV) to offer 10 cases of Chardonnay and a weeklong tour for two of Napa, Paris and Burgundy. Lee Hudson, whose Carneros vineyard is just down the road from Larry Hyde's, was the top bidder, offering $201,000. The runner-up bid of $200,000 was also honored, bringing the total to $401,000.

"This is a great auction and a great cause," Hudson said, "and Napa Valley is my bread and butter."

The top bidder for the third-place lot from Harlan Estate wasn't even under the white tent. Hong Kong financier Didier Li bought the lot over the phone, paying $130,000 for a 20-magnum vertical and dinner for eight. "He's a huge fan of Harlan," said wine importer Mario Sculatti, who did the bidding for Li. "Asia used to be dominated by Burgundy or Bordeaux, but now people are really coming to California wine."

The live auction opened with sparkling wine and canapés on the lawn. Christopher Kostow of the Restaurant at Meadowood offered corn fritters with truffle and rabbit confit with Serrano ham and pickled onion. Dinner was prepared by several chefs, including Charlie Trotter and Joachim Splichal. Trotter's creation was slow-roasted ocean trout with Madras curry, while Splichal constructed a seared tower of tuna, onions and avocado.

Auction events kicked off officially back on May 22, when bidding was opened for an online e-auction. The top e-lot was $13,500 for three 6-liter bottles of Arietta.

The formal schedule of activities began on Thursday as bidders hopscotched through a series of winery parties. Rain and cool weather threatened to dominate the festivities. Clouds were dark and skies breezy on Friday at the Taste Napa Valley and annual barrel auction at Robert Mondavi Winery, but the rain held off. Chefs from all over the valley offered nibble-friendly eats while dozens of wineries poured everything from rosé to Cabernet.

French Laundry chef Thomas Keller cheerfully handed out cones of refreshing watermelon ice while a few steps away the chefs from Go Fish restaurant offered spicy tuna rolls. Hungry guests could follow their noses to two of the most popular food tables—Bounty Hunter served up its trademark meaty ribs while chef Stephen Barber of BarBersQ offered pulled-pork sliders.

The 1,100 guests also milled through multiple levels of the Mondavi facility sampling wine from barrels up for bid. The top bid was $45,250 for a barrel of Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select 2007. (The Shafer lot was a 10-case barrel, translating to about $375 a bottle.)

Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of Auction Napa Valley, which is sponsored by the Napa Valley Vintners association. In its first 28 years the event raised more than $85 million for Napa non-profit groups.

Top Five Live-Auction Lots

1. Antica Napa Valley & Antinori Family:—$1.1 million
A nine-day trip, including airfare, lodging and meals, as well as tours of Piero Antinori's wineries in Napa and Italy. Winning bid was $400,000, but two runner-up bids paid $350,000 each for identical lots.

2. Staglin Family & HDV:—$401,000
A weeklong tour of Napa, Paris and Burgundy along with 10 cases of Chardonnay from a special blend by Staglin and the Hyde and de Villaine (HdV) families. Winning bid was $201,000, but runner-up bid paid $200,000 for an identical lot.

3. Chappellet Vineyard:—$140,000
Ten-day tour of Napa and Chile along with a five-bottle vertical of Cabernet Sauvignon.

4. Harlan Estate:—$130,000
A 20-magnum vertical, 2006 to 1987, and dinner for eight at the winery.

5. Trefethen Family:—$130,000
Eight bottles of wine and a behind-the-scenes tour of the 2010 Indianapolis 500.

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