The auctioneer tries vainly to quell the noise at least a little, but the excitement is at fever pitch—partially, it seems likely, due to the fact there had been a barrel tasting for two hours previous to this auction. Paddles sway, or are tapped against nervous chests, waiting the auctioneer’s first urgent call for bids, barked into the microphone and somehow heard above the din. And then, like greyhounds bursting from the starting gate, the bids begin, starting usually in the $25,000 range; but as paddles rise into the air like hand-held flags at a Fourth of July parade, the prices rise, too. And when the amount tops $100,000 for a single lot, the cacophony is deafening.
This is the Napa Valley Vintners’ Premiere Napa Valley barrel tasting and auction. It is a unique annual weekend in which the stars really do come out, offering their own wines for barrel tastings while amiably trying others’ as well. Where else can you see the legendary John Shafer nodding his head after tasting Tim Mondavi’s wine, or Mondavi waving at Raymond winery owner Jean-Charles Boisset, who, as is typical of the event, is pouring his product himself?
“We are able to make a unique, once-in-a-lifetime wine, and then taste what everyone else is doing. It’s fantastic.”
The proceeds from Premiere Napa Valley support the Napa Valley Vintners’ mission to promote, protect, and enhance the region. One fascinating aspect of the auction is that each winery makes an exclusive wine specifically for sale here; attendees are comprised of restaurateurs, private club owners, retailers, and wholesalers, all of whom are bidding on behalf of their most prized clients. “This is the most important event of the year,” says Elizabeth Vianna, chief winemaker at Chimney Rock estate. “We are able to make a unique, once-in-a-lifetime wine, and then taste what everyone else is doing. It’s fantastic.”
That grand barrel tasting of the wines to be auctioned takes place on the second floor of The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena while the auction itself is primed on the third floor. Just a few examples from 2017: Joseph Phelps blended select lots from its Backus vineyard, 60 bottles; Shafer made a wine exclusively from the prized Sunspot block, 60 bottles; Frank Family made a wine exclusively from the Heart Block of its estate, 60 bottles; and Chimney Rock made 120 bottles from select rows in its Tomahawk Vineyard. Antinori’s Antica Estate brought a cabernet sauvignon dubbed A3, from a single block atop Atlas Peak, and Stag’s Leap brought an S.L.V Grande Dame, made from Block 4, which was planted in 1972. The list obviously could go on.
People tend to know exactly what wines they want, and every so often three or more bidders might chase a particular lot. It can get pretty heated, and the dusky buzz in the room reflects the passion with which these people pursue their wines. The auctioneer rarely has to incite interest in the crowd; each lot is quickly going, going, then gone.