Premiere Napa Valley Approaches Record

Annual spring wine auction week brings 750 trade and media to bid and taste

by Paul Franson
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The average bottle price at the Premiere Napa Valley Auction was $160.75.
St. Helena, Calif.The Napa Valley Vintners’ 17th annual Premiere Napa Valley brought in $3.04 million, nearly matching last year’s record-breaking $3.1 million. The auction results are only part of the story, however. The Napa Valley Vintners, local wine associations, wineries and partners combined to create a week-long celebration of Napa Valley wines that concluded Saturday with the auction.


The 211 lots donated by 218 members of the Vintners were bought by 67 winning bidders from about 600 trade buyers and media members and others who crowded the historic barrel room of The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. The auction is not open to consumers.

The top lot was $75,000 for a Cabernet blend from Bevan Cellars and Chateau Boswell Winery. The 120 bottles averaged $625 each. Other top lots were $50,000 for the Reynolds Family Winery and Shafer lots, $45,000 for 120 bottles of Robert Keenan Winery at $375 and $40,000 for 60 of Kapcsandy Family Winery and 240 of Rombauer Vineyards.

The amount of the lot is what matters to the Napa Valley Vintners, since the funds raised help them promote Napa Valley wines, but the prices per bottle are more telling to observers.

Shafer takes top bottle price
Because the lots varied from 60 to 240 bottles, there was huge variance between bottle prices for many similarly priced lots. By this measure, Shafer was a clear winner, snaring $833 per bottle.

The average price per bottle sold was $160.75, and even the lowest price of $33 per bottle was respectable.

More than 80 percent of the lots featured were from the 2011 vintage, a cool year, or 2010, another atypical year. A few, including Quintessa Vineyard’s, were from 2012, the third cool year in a row in Napa Valley.

In general, the 2011 wines had restrained, “Bordeaux-like” character, welcome news for those who’ve clamored for a retreat from the high alcohol and highly extracted style that have come to dominate high-end Napa Valley wines.

For example, Ackerman’s Cabernet from Coombsville was only 13.2% alcohol, yet is an elegant wine with no trace of unripe green flavor.

Other trends noticed besides the more elegant wines were wide diversity. Vintners presented many grape varieties besides the usual flood of Cabernets — even a field blend of traditional varieties from Casa Nuestra Winery & Vineyards.

Seven white wines competed in Cabernet country and two sparkling wines. The 1987 late-disgorged Schramsberg J. Schram garnered an impressive $433 per bottle.

A surprising number of lots blended wines from different producers, like the wine labeled “3 some” from wineries Howell at the Moon, Kelleher Family Vineyard and Peacock Family Vineyard.

Napa Valley’s newest appellation, Coombsville, was especially visible, with many excellent wines from that area. The cool area is clearly hot as people appreciate its more restrained wines.

Ironically, its moderate climate didn’t seem as affected as that of the upper valley by the last few years’ dramatic weather shifts. It is already cool, and didn’t really change much.

Overall, the auction elicited excitement and enthusiasm from buyers. At the start of the bidding, auction chairman Steve Reynolds welcomed buyers, then irrepressible auctioneer Fritz Hatton (who shared those duties with Ursula Hermacinski) announced that Premiere Napa Valley was trending ahead of NASCAR and the Oscars on Twitter.

Wine week in Napa Valley
The Napa Valley Vintners call it Premiere Napa Valley Week and the festivities actually started Monday, Feb. 18, with the annual induction for The Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame inducted the late labor leader Cesar Chavez, pioneering female winemaker Meredith "Merry" Edwards, wine critic and writer Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the late writer and wine merchant Frank Schoonmaker.

The Vintners Hall of Fame also unveiled plaques for last year’s honorees: Joseph Heitz, Eugene Hilgard, Peter Mondavi Sr., Myron Nightingale, John Parducci, Richard Sanford and Albert Winkler. Since it was Presidents Day, the reception featured Napa Valley wine and food pairings from White House menus.

Next came a host of activities leading up to the Premiere Napa Valley Barrel Tasting and Auction. More than 65 members of the wine media attended the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley, an annual non-profit gathering whose backers are Meadowood, the Vintners and the CIA.

The Vintners also hosted 20 top trade and media guests from the United Kingdom, Canada and Hong Kong to Experience Napa Valley, a week-long immersion on the Napa Valley appellation. On Wednesday, the Vintners premiered its Napa Valley Rocks video series at the local Cameo Cinema.

Overall, more than 750 influential members of the domestic and international wine trade came to the valley to try new wine, buy wine and dine. Bidders had to pay $100 just to attend the auction, and tickets sold out in a few weeks.

To entertain and impress this crowd, wineries and groups of wineries held tastings, lunches, dinners, receptions and parties on Thursday and Friday before the auction itself.
Some of the events featured wines made by star winemakers Stephane Derenoncourt, Mark Herold, Philippe Melka and Heidi Barrett. Others were arranged by appellations within Napa Valley such as Oakville and Coombsville, while others were organized to highlight family-owned wineries or other top winemakers with multiple clients.

A few wineries hosted individual tastings, dinners and parties, notably Raymond Vineyards’ blow-out Napa Gras festival.

Many of the wineries at these events were not focusing on their Premiere lots, but on their other wines, the ones people can buy more easily (though the Vintners post information for consumers to find the auction wines). The week was a great opportunity for them to present their wines to important buyers and members of the media.

To make sure auction attendees try plenty of local wines, the Napa Valley Vintners even convinced many local restaurants to feature an all-local, 100-percent Napa Valley wine-by-the-glass list last week, too.

The Napa Valley Vintners put on a very well-organized show that seemed to spare little expense. Do the member wineries get their money’s worth in exposure? Comparing the prices on the Napa Valley wines sold with those of other California appellations seems to indicate that the organization overall is doing something right.

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