Premiere Napa Valley has become something of an institution among U.S. wine events since its launch in 1997. It serves not only as an indicator of what’s to come in the high-end wine market, but as a barometer for the U.S. economic recovery as a whole. The wine auction revenues this year exceeded 2011 by 31% and set a new all-time record with bidders paying $3.1 million for the 200 wine lots comprised of 1,495 total cases. (Premiere Napa Valley took place on Saturday, February 25. On Tuesday, February 28, the Dow rose above 13,000 points for the first time since May 2008).
According to Pine Ridge Vineyards CEO and PNV 2012 Chair Erle Martin, “The way our customers reacted, it strikes me that it was just that: a market response. The result of this auction is a true measure of the market. Clearly, even in a still challenged economy, the retailers and restaurateurs have voted. The buyers for these wines would not have put forth this kind of investment if they didn’t feel–with real security–that they could sell these wines.”
The event began earlier in the week for many, arriving in the valley to be wined and dined and reacquaint themselves with the Napa experience. Winery wisdom says to know who is going to buy your lot and for how much before the auction begins, and the week-long lead up provides one last opportunity to woo potential buyers. Martin adds, “The energy was high all week leading up to the event on Saturday. Our retail, restaurant and wholesale clients were arriving as early as Monday to the Napa Valley to join vintners at private tastings and we could feel the excitement grow day by day.”
Today, patrons arrived at 9am to began tasting samples from the lots that will be auctioned later in the day. It is a frenzied tasting, with palates fighting a battle for survival sampling so many young and aggressive wines.
At this event, everybody is somebody of some formal fine beverage capacity. It’s a who’s who of Napa Valley and beyond, with iconic wine makers mingling with consumer attendees and national level buyers alike. I even run into my old arch-nemesis Steve Heimoff, it’s that kind of party. Every introduction has the potential to lead to something big, and with an endless supply of wine to provide social lubrication and the beautiful aesthetic of the CIA Greystone to serve as a backdrop, anything is possible.
For the foolish that skip breakfast, the 11am buffet lunch prepared by the Culinary Institute of America cannot come soon enough. Braised vegetables, mushroom risotto, squash ravioli and other hearty winter dishes provide much needed comfort-food nourishment and a perfect pairing with the hearty Napa red wines.
After lunch, bidders and spectators mill into the auction space with hopes of securing a seat. Some have paper cups full of espresso in an attempt to regain focus after a morning of big wine and big food, while others sport heavy glasses of wine in a clear effort to throw inhibitions out the window. Winery representatives greet bidders as they arrive for one last round of back-slapping, hand-shaking, cheek-kissing and bear-hugging before bidding begins. Grand wines and even grander egos are on the line; the collective buying power of the audience is massive, with 88 retail outlets, 84 restaurants and 86 distributors / importers competing for 200 lots of wine. Every effort must be made to ensure success.
Quirky statistics about Napa Valley appear on a slideshow on monitors around the room and John Mellancamp blares over the PA speakers. The mood is electric and iconic wine auctioneers Fritz Hatton and Ursula Hermacinski get the auction rolling. A joke is made about the economy returning to pre-recession highs and stock[piles] of Napa wine being at an all-time low, so the time to buy is now. Laughter ensues. Let’s do this.
Pine Ridge Vineyards is the Chair winery this year for Premiere, so it gets to go first, fetching $30,000 for 20 cases (one barrel) of 2010 cabernet sauvignon blend called “5 x 5″ in honor of the five classic Bordeaux varietals used. Duckhorn Vineyards ups the ante a few lots later bringing in $40,000 for 20 cases of its 2010 “Three Palms Vineyard” cabernet sauvignon blended with a little merlot from the same vineyard.
Side chatter is constant, but it doesn’t slow down the auctioneers a bit. Their voices boom as five-figure bids are slung with enthusiasm. Amidst all the big business, the auctioneers keep the mood light, yet focused. Ursula calls Fritz “Fritzy” as she hands off the microphone between lots and he responds with calculated banter that conjures up smiles while strategically leading into the next lot. It’s like herding slightly intoxicated cats with expense accounts, and the two do an impressive job.
Lots vary from 5 to 20 cases. Lot 26 is Realm Cellars 2010 “PNV Cuvee” featuring cabernet sauvignon fruit from the Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Vineyard, and it earns $28,000 for a mere 5 cases. Lot 97 from Kapscandy Family Winery offers 10 cases of 2010 cabernet sauvignon from the Kapscandy Family State Lane Vineyard and takes in $65,000.
Participating wineries approach the opportunity to create the unique wine lots for the auction in a range of different ways. Some embrace specified minimalism, offering single varietal wines from single sections of single blocks of single vineyards. On the other end of the spectrum, vintners experiment with blends that might not otherwise have a place in their portfolio, mixing varietals and vineyards from around Napa Valley in hopes of capturing the hearts and palates of bidders. The overall varietal breakdown by lot includes 145 cabernet sauvignon, 28 red wine blends, 8 cabernet franc, 6 pinot noir, 5 merlot, 3 malbec, 1 chardonnay, 1 sauvignon blanc, 1 pinot meuneir and 1 sparkling wine.
“Premiere provides an outstanding stage from which to showcase the innovation and quality of wines from the Napa Valley. The wines crafted for this auction truly are the best of the best. As a winemaker, I look forward to creating something unique each year–and tasting what my friends and neighbors have made as well. Then to see the overwhelmingly positive results from our trade partners with their confidence in these wines is truly heartwarming,” says PNV 2012 co-chair Michael Beaulac, Winemaker and General Manager of Pine Ridge Vineyards.
The Schramsberg Vineyards lot of 1996 “J. Schram Late Disgorged” sparkling wine comes up and we are reminded that today is the 40th anniversary of when President Nixon historically toasted Chairman Mao Zedong of the People’s Republic of China on February 21, 1972. The producer of the beverage used for the toast was Schramsberg. Fine beverage shivers go down my spine.
Each raise of the paddle reaffirms Napa’s domination of domestic high-end table wine. If it wasn’t all for charity, the public spectacle with big money and big buyers would seem like a contradiction to the yesteryear traditional farming values that Napa so enthusiastically embraces. At the same time, however, the pageantry of Premiere Napa Valley is a personification of what makes Napa, well, Napa. Blue jeans and glamour brought together in an almost whimsical way. The region as a whole is the proverbial (and in many cases, literal) mansion on the hill that other U.S. wine regions can gaze upon with aspirations of grandeur and that everyday drinkers can experience for themselves, one bottle at a time.
Photos by Ashley Teplin