When auctioneer Fritz Hatton knocked down Lot #12 — an exclusive 60-bottle lot of 2013 Shafer cabernet sauvignon from its Sunspot vineyards — for $80,000, or $1,333 per bottle, there was little doubt that momentum was building at the 2015 Premiere Napa Valley auction, held over the weekend. A couple of hours later, when the gavel fell on the last of the 225 member mini-lots made expressly for the annual event, the sponsoring Napa Valley Vintners had netted a record $6 million in sales to fund its outreach programs.
Unlike the NVV’s annual charity wine auction, which appeals primarily to private wine collectors, Premiere is a trade-only event that celebrates the vintners’ love affair with the middle men and women of the wine business: the retailers and restaurateurs who are the necessary cog between the people who produce the wine and those who drink it.
“All year long, I go out and visit these people,” says Scott Lloyd, national sales manager for Frank Family wines. “So this is the time I invite them to come see us.” Like many of the major wineries in the valley, Frank Family had invitation-only dinners and meetings with special trade customers and participated in a series of trade tastings hosted by groups of wineries.
For example, Oakville, Rutherford, Spring Mountain, and other regions boasted walk-around tastings featuring their wineries’ auction lots, each between five and 20 cases, as well as a few other widely available bottles. There were also similar tastings of wines by clients of super-consultants Heidi Barrett, Philippe Melka, and Paul Hobbs.
As is generally the case at these events, the parties themselves are the stuff of instant legend. For example, a performer with Cirque du Soleil poured sparkling wines while dangling from a cloth trapeze at Frank Family one night, while the next evening flamboyant Raymond Winery owner Jean-Charles Boisset donned the harness with less elegance but more zest at Raymond’s “Napa Gras” celebration.
The auction itself, the 19th annual, took place on Saturday at the old Christian Brothers winery in St. Helena that is today home to the Culinary Wine Institute at Greystone. It was a hard ticket event for the trade and media that started with all 225 lots available for pre-auction tastings. Many of winemakers and owners were on hand to pour, including such wine legends as Robin Lail and John Shafer. Most of the single barrels from the 2013 vintage were either made from the winery’s best fruit or were special creative experiments. Almost all were also based on Napa’s iconic cabernet sauvignon.
Starting at 1 p.m., an overflowing and quite boisterous crowd, some with wine glasses, had paddles ready when Hatton and alternating auctioneer David Elswood started a rapid-fire sell-a-thon. Two up-front spotters, a woman with a shrill yelp and an animated man barking out “yup-yup-yup” as he flashed hand signals, whipped up the bidders, who were ready for raw meat and cabernet. Some represented clientele looking for rare lots, while others were collecting trophies for their own sales floors and as rewards to pour customers.
Among the top bidders were Total Wine & More (whose Paddle #1 was often the final bid), Cliffewood Wine Syndicate, Gary’s Wine & Marketplace, and Wine Library and Beverage Warehouse. In addition to the Shafer lot, other wineries receiving top bids were Brand Napa Valley, Chateau Boswell, Fairchild Napa Valley, and Gandona Estate. Long-time favorites Silver Oak and Rombauer finished in the top 10. Average bottle price was $286, and there were 70 successful bidders.
Consumers interested in tracking down who bought lots of favorite wineries that may be available for resale can check these out at www.premierenapawines.com.