Bull Market Reigns
at Premiere Napa Valley Auction
Five cases of 2001 Harlan sell for $35k
The sixth annual Premiere Napa Valley has once again proved itself to be a litmus test for the current California luxury wine market, which appears to remain strong and vibrant. The February barrel tasting and auction drew a nationwide collection of wine industry professionals to the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley to sip, swirl and spend.
After talking and tasting their way through some of the most famous Cabernets in the New World, the 250 restaurateurs, sommeliers, retailers and wholesalers bid $798,100 on 120 one-of-a-kind 5- to 20-case barrel lots that will be released within the next few years. The total was less than last year's $920,000, but it was hardly something to scoff at.
"Don't laugh," warned renowned auctioneer Ursula Hermacinski. "It's not funny at $35,000." She was referring to the day's high bid—five cases of Harlan 2001 Cabernet—for which a furious and somewhat amusing paddle battle broke out. The winner was Masaki Inoue, a distributor from Japan.
"The good news is that there's still money out there in Japan for our high-end wines," said Harlan Director Don Weaver.
Other high bids included $30,000 for 20 cases of Mondavi 2001 Cabernet from the To Kalon Vineyard; $24,000 for 20 cases of Saintsbury's 2001 Brown Ranch Pinot Noir and $24,000 for five cases of Darioush Winery's 2000 Petit Verdot.
Hermacinski and her colleague Fritz Hatton shared the podium, serving up a unique blend of Napa Valley wines made expressly for the occasion. Each participating winery creates a special blend or cuvée that can be later purchased by consumers exclusively through the winning bidder, who must be a licensed wine retailer or wholesaler.
Rare selections included Pine Ridge Winery's Tannat, made from a five-acre plot of this grape, which is found extensively in France's Cahors region, but almost never seen in Napa Valley. Louis M. Martini Winery created a blend of 50 percent Barbera and 50 percent Petite Sirah. It was a throwback to the old days, when these two grapes were traditionally blended in equal proportions.
Rising star Darioush provided a silky smooth, inky black Petite Verdot, a grape often used in blending, but rarely on its own. And vintner/restaurateur Pat Kuleto showed up with a Cabernet/Shiraz blend—a departure from his previous leanings toward mountain-grown Sangiovese.
By and large, however, the event focused on Napa Valley's premium red, Cabernet Sauvignon. Most barrels contained wines from the 2000 vintage. They were showing well, despite their youth, and offered an encouraging preview of the vintage.
"There is no event like this in the wine business," said Richard Driscoll, executive vice president for the East Coast-based distributor, Winebow. "If you want to be a player, you've got to be here."
But not everyone in attendance was a seasoned professional. Retailer Neil Krauter, from Angelbecks in New Jersey, entered the wine business only seven weeks prior to PremiereNapa Valley. When the former stockbroker took an early retirement from his job at the World Trade Center several years ago, he did not plan to reenter the workforce. But September's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C. caused him to reconsider his leisurely existence.
"I lost too many friends on 9/11," Krauter recalled. "And I realized life is too short not to do what you want to do. I've always wanted a wine shop, so I bought one and I'm having the time of my life." Krauter purchased five cases of Plumpjack Cabernet Sauvignon made from two distinct vineyard blocks for $9,000. At $150 per bottle, it's not cheap. "I've got enough money to do this right," the fledgling retailer commented.
Indeed, there were few bargains to be had at PremiereNapa Valley. But that's not the point of the auction. Created by the Napa Valley Vintners Association as a strictly promotional endeavor, the auction's theme is quality and exclusivity. Judging from February's results, it's a hook that effectively reels in the nation's key purveyors of California's most drinkable collectible.
Caymus Founder Charlie Wagner Dies
Napa Valley vintner Charlie Wagner, who transformed a once-failing orchard into the now-famous Caymus Vineyards, died on February 20. He was 89.
Wagner was born on a ranch not far from Caymus. His father, an Alsatian immigrant, had moved to Napa Valley in 1906 and opened Wagner Winery in 1915 only to see it close during Prohibition.
In 1943, Charlie purchased the property that would become Caymus. But he focused on growing fruit and nut trees. Grapes were just a sideline. When the market for fruits and nuts went south in the mid-1960s, the audacious Wagner—at age 60—pulled up his orchards and gambled on grapes.
He started with Pinot Noir, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon. But only Cabernet thrived on the rocky, red Napa soils, quickly becoming the hallmark variety for Caymus.
Before making his first vintage, however, Wagner had a near-fatal run-in with a disgruntled and mentally unstable former employee who arrived at the vineyard with a .22 caliber rifle and shot him six times at point-blank range. The vintner spent nearly a year recovering.
With the help of his young son, Chuck, Wagner was able to make a reasonable living growing grapes and selling them to wineries. But a life in agriculture still proved to be tenuous, and several financial reversals caused the elder Wagner to consider selling his property. He found a potential buyer (at a now-miniscule $3,000 per acre), but the deal fell through.
Fortunately, Wagner realized he could keep his land and earn a better profit by making wine in addition to growing vines. In 1972, he founded Caymus, named after an Indian village once located near the vineyard. Caymus produced 2,500 cases of wine its first year and sold it for $4.50 per bottle. Today, the winery's top wine, Caymus Special Selection, hovers around $150.
Charles Frederick Wagner is survived by his wife, Lorna; his son, Chuck; daughters Marlene Wagner Fisher and Connie Wagner Beitler; and nine grandchildren.
Alumni Flight Program Takes Off
At Napa Valley's Tra Vigne, waiters and greeters are tomorrow's winemakers
Law school students clerk for judges and writer-wannabes answer phones at publishing houses, but what are aspiring winemakers to do if they're looking to break into the business?
They work at Tra Vigne restaurant in St. Helena. There, you're as likely to find local winemakers as you are out-of-town guests who are so eager for a table, says ex-Tra Vigne host Greg Brown, "that they say they've had a reservation for three years," though the restaurant only takes them three months in advance. Brown, now winemaker and owner of T-Vine Vineyards, finds his own bottlings on the wine list at his former place of employment.
He's not alone. So many of the Italian eatery's former employees now make their own wines that Tra Vigne's wine program director, David Stevens, has a separate section on the Cantinetta Wine Bar's menu devoted to "alumni" wines. Brown's T-Vine Petite Sirah makes the Alumni Flights Program list, as does the Pavi 2000 Dolcetto, made by husband-and-wife team Rob Lawson and Pavi Micheli Lawson, a former Tra Vigne hostess. Ex-waiter Brian Page's 1998 Page Cabernet Franc/Merlot is also featured.
Is it accident or design that draws these winemakers-in-training to work at Tra Vigne?
"A little of both," says Stevens. "Obviously people who live here in the Napa Valley love wine," and they're drawn to work where they can learn all that they can about it, he says. A restaurant that has over 100 wines by the glass, and "5 or 10 winemakers stopping in for a sandwich or having a meeting on any given day of the week" is as good a place as any to start meeting the right people and learning the wine business.
Stevens isn't sure what he would do if a Tra Vigne alum's wine wasn't good enough to include on the list. "So far, we've been lucky," he laughs. "They all make really good wines."
The moral of this story? Tip those restaurant hosts and servers generously—one day you'll want to get on their allocation-only mailing lists.
Tra Vigne, 1050 Charter Oak Avenue, St. Helena. Tel: 707/963-8325. A flight of six wines from the Alumni Flights Program costs only $27, which is a deal considering that full bottles of these selections will run you anywhere from $48 to $265.