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.