Monday, March 7, 2011

Premiere Napa Valley Barrel Tasting and Auction

So it is Saturday. Auction day.  The culmination of a weekend of partying, reconnecting, and making new connections.  Time to get down to the business of business.

We only had two tickets to the auction (tickets to this event are more tightly rationed than an invitation to the royal wedding) so @wineontheway and I were going to attend while the wives went off shopping.  We had neither of us been to this event before so Jack Bittner of Cliff Lede had agreed to meet us when we arrived at the Culinary Institute -- the site of the Barrel Tasting and auction -- to give us some pointers on maximizing the experience.  By the way, Jack is one of the nicest, and well-known, guys in Napa and, in addition, is one of the coolest dressers west of the Mississippi.  His style is "elegant nonchalance" and, invariably, consists of a perfectly fitted sports jacket over a nice shirt, a patterned hanky in the outside breast pocket of the jacket, blue jeans, fashionable shoes, and a hint of stubble on the face.  You go guy. 

The wives dropped us off at the Culinary Institute and drove off quickly for fear that we would change our minds and seek to accompany them on their shopping trip.  No chance.  The area around Greystone was a beehive of activity with people walking towards the facility from both directions; limos debouching bleary-eyed, ex-revelers into the cold morning air; the parking shuttle unloading its cargo of remote parkers in front of the building; and the valet parking attendants rushing back and forth to park the cars of those brave enough to actually drive to the locale.  We checked our coats and signed in on the lower level of the building upon which we were given a program and a bidders paddle with three large numbers emblazoned on the surface.

After signing in, we texted Jack to let him know that we were in the building and then made our way across the hall to the breakfast room.  Jack met us at the entrance to the breakfast area once we had completed our meal and then walked us up the stairs to the Barrel Tasting Hall on the second floor, all the while explaining how the tasting and auction processes worked.  As we were going up I saw Gary tight-lipped and with a pinched look on his face.  "Who is Gary?" you ask.  That was my question also when at every party that I attended people would point to a Ben-Stiller lookalike and say, in hushed tones. "There is Gary." I was mystified but, as the week wore on, I learned that he was a wine retailer from NJ (Gary's Wine and Marketplace) who had been the leading bidder at the auction for a number of years.  Well, he either had his game face on or his sphincter muscle was experiencing a severe case of over-contraction.

We stepped into the Barrel Tasting room and 200 opportunities to whet our palates -- with mostly Napa Cabs (74.5% of the Lots) -- stretched before us along three north-to-south corridirs as well as along the north and south walls.  Each of the wineries contributing lots had two or three of their top personnel pouring wines for the attendees.  The noise level was very high, with some stations packed three or four deep while other stations had staff patiently waiting for some attention to be paid to their offerings.  The tasting was scheduled to run from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm so we decided to ignore the lots that we had tasted at prior events (see preceding posts) in favor of "new" lots.  Even with this curtailed program, and being selective within that plan, we did not make it to the end of the line by the time the tasting was officially terminated.  New contacts, and reconnecting with old friends, were strong accompaniments to the actual tasting.  Plus, these wineries wanted to provide as much information as possible about their lots.  And each lot had a story to tell.  For example, Shafer Vineyards' offering was a 5-case Lot from its Sunspot Vineyard.  According to the PNV program, "Sunspot forms the backbone of Shafer's Hillside Select.  Here it stars solo in a quarter barrel (sic) lot from the 2000 vintage."

Tim Mondavi discussing Continuum Lot
 By the time we exited the tasting area, lunch was almost over.  Lunch was prepared by the students of the Institute and was served buffet-style between 11:00 am and 1:00 pm.  The selection on offer was wide and tasty and was accompanied by some phenomenal wines.  Kudos to the Culinary Institute and its students for a great job.

The Auction was well underway by the time we had completed lunch.  All of the available seating had been taken and latecomers were standing against the walls and at the rear of the room.  According to Napa Valley Vintners, 1000 people participated in the event, 500 vintner staffers and the remainder from the trades, media, and restaurants.  Lot sizes on offer were 5- (73%), 10- (15%), or 20-case (12%) lots deliverable in late 2011 or early 2012.  We took up positions at the rear of the room and watched as the two auctioneers tag-teamed the lots in rapid-fire succession.  As I surveyed the room, I saw a now-smiling Gary seated at the center of the room weilding a bidder's paddle with a large 1 on the surface.  The number 1 paddle signified that Gary had been the number one bidder in the preceding year.

According to Napa Valley Vintners, this was a recordbreaking auction.  Gross revenues of $2.366 million was was 23% higher than 2010 revenues and 5% higher than the previous record set in 2008.  Total cases auctioned in 2011 was 1530, 35 cases more than in 2010, leading to an average case price of $1546.  There were a total of 68 successful bidders, beating the record of 67 in 2006.  It should be pointed that the latter statistic shows only a 13% participation rate among potential bidders.  Gary was again the highest bidder, snagging 300 cases at a cost of about $500,000.  The highlight of the auction was the purchase of the Scarecrow 5-case lot for $125,000 by a Japanese businessman.  This price far surpassed the previous single-lot record of $80,000 set in 2007.  See @wineontheway's video of the bidding for the Scarecrow lot here.

This week was a memorable experience and I would like to thank @wineontheway for putting together a tight, meaningful program and Mrs@wineontheway for being such fun.  I would also like to thank Robin Lail (Lail Vineyards), Claude Blankiet (Blankiet Estate), Holly Anderson (Vineyard 29), Dana Johnson (Ovid), and Craig Camp (Cornerstone Cellars) for the personal experiences provided.  I would especially like to thank Jack Bittner (Cliff Lede) for his easy friendliness and Frank and Julie Husic (Husic Vineyards) for (once again) allowing us the run of their guest house during our stay in Napa.  And, finally, my wife for enabling me.

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