California's heat wave cooled off just in time for the Sonoma County Wine Auction on Saturday, but the bidding was hotter than ever. The live auction held at La Crema Estate at Saralee's Vineyard in Windsor pulled in $5.2 million, breaking last year's record of $4.6 million. The proceeds will go to more than 70 local charities.
The auction was the highlight of two wine-fueled days of festivities that kicked off Friday with a preview party at Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates and Gardens, as well as vintner-hosted dinners at wineries throughout the county. The following afternoon, 500 guests gathered on La Crema's lawn to sip wine and nosh on bites from local restaurants.
This year marked a new format for the live auction. For the first time in a decade, the auction was held separately from the wine and food event Taste of Sonoma, which took place over the Labor Day weekend. The organizers, the Sonoma County Vintners and the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance, said the change was part of an effort to increase attendance and awareness of the auction.
Inside the auction tent, there was a festive mood as energetic auctioneer John Curley capered about the stage, urging the crowd to bid generously. The crowd responded. A bidding war broke out over one of the top lots, sponsored by auction chair Barbara Banke of Jackson Family Wines. The package included a trip for two couples to the Kentucky Derby with four nights' accommodation at Banke's thoroughbred farm, as well as large-format bottles from Stonestreet Winery. Banke doubled the lot, and the two winning bidders paid $210,000, raising $420,000.
George Hamel Jr. and his wife, Pamela, owners of Hamel Family Wines, made one of the winning bids. "It would be anyone's trip of a lifetime," said Pamela, who started riding horses at age 50 and wanted to take her family to the Kentucky Derby. Her son George Hamel III, who manages the family winery, added that they support the auction because they want to do their part to strengthen their community. "We want Sonoma County to be a place where people can work and thrive," he said.
Paddles were raised high for Williams Selyem's lot featuring four VIP tickets to the Broadway show Hello Dolly! starring Bette Midler, and tickets and a backstage reception with the cast of Dear Evan Hansen, along with accommodations and a winemaker dinner at the NoMad hotel. The lot was also doubled, raising $420,000 from two winning bidders. Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Shimmon was one of the winners. "It's all about the organization and all about the charity," Shimmon told Wine Spectator. "And who doesn't love Bette Midler?"
Other hot-ticket wine experiences included a trip to London with VIP tickets to three plays including Harry Potter, Dreamgirls and a meet and greet with the cast of Hamilton, donated by Knights Bridge Winery and Carole Shorenstein Hays and Dr. Jeffrey Hays. The winning bid was $85,000.
The most touching moment of the afternoon came as more than a dozen children took to the stage for the annual Fund-the-Future lot, which benefits childhood literacy. The Jackson family showed their support by donating $250,000, which was quickly matched by E. & J. Gallo and Lytton Rancheria. Other bidders stepped up with donations ranging from $1,000 to $100,000. When the final tally was in, the lot had raised $1.8 million.
"The wine community is an amazing group of people," said Rep. Mike Thompson, who represents Napa and portions of Sonoma. "This event is going to help a lot of people in the community."
Established in 1993, the auction has raised $29 million for non-profits focusing on education, environmental preservation and health and human services in Sonoma County. The live auction has been growing steadily over the past four years.
"We are really trying to up our game in Sonoma to compete with our kindred spirits in Napa and Naples and their charity events," said Banke, who earned Wine Spectator's 2017 Distinguished Service Award for her contributions to the wine industry. "I think people recognize that it's getting to be a world-class auction."
That sentiment was shared by many of the vintners in attendance. Dan Kosta, one of the founders of Kosta Browne and last year's honorary chair, noted that early Sonoma auctions were mainly homegrown events, but they have been expanding in recent years. "We have had a renewal of energy," he said. "Now we are in the lens of the whole country."