Cult wines ruled on a warm California weekend in early June, as this year's 20th annual Napa Valley Wine Auction blew away all previous bidding records: total money raised for charities, the highest price ever paid for an individual bottle of wine, highest bid on a single lot, and highest cumulative individual total.
For proof that times are good in the infant stages of the new millennium, one had only
to witness the seven-hour live-auction marathon—the Saturday main event—which provided a front-and-center stage for a half-dozen high rollers to aggressively compete for trophy lots from the likes of Araujo, Colgin, Dalla Valle, Harlan, and Screaming Eagle.
If any one lot captured the mood and excitement of the event—and that's what the Napa auction has become—it was the six-liter bottle of the inaugural vintage of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon, arguably the wine currently sitting atop the cult heap. The Screaming Eagle ignited a take-no-prisoners bid-a-thon between Texas steakhouse magnate Dee Lincoln, last year's top bidder, and newcomer Chase Bailey, who triumphed with a jaw-dropping bid of $500,000, on his way to more than $1.7 million in purchases and the all-time individual donor record.
"There was no limit on the Screaming Eagle," Bailey later confirmed. The retired co-founder of SGI and Cisco Systems explained that "this auction falls right into our two loves—charity and wine. My wife [Susan] and I have the money and we love spending it on great wines and the charities this auction supports. It just makes you feel good. And you can't take it with you."
But the Baileys, who reside in Incline Village, Nevada, did take the Screaming Eagle with them, and what a rare wine it is. It's one of only two six-liter bottles from the winery's first vintage (1992), and owner Jean Phillips insists that its mate will never be sold or auctioned off. Gazing admiringly at the Bailey's prized bottle, one wag observed, "I just hope it isn't corked."
"Kaleidoscope 2000," from the Greek for "beautiful form," was the festive theme of this year's auction, chaired by Nancy Andrus of Pine Ridge. From the writhing, twisting, multicolored installations by Northwest glass master Dale Chihuly that graced the grounds of Meadowood, the auction's perennial host, to a high-decibel Friday-night performance by Patti LaBelle, to countless nibbles, noshes and Napa wines, this auction once again proved that the art of gracious living is alive and well in the heart of California wine country. A total of $9.5 million was raised for various Napa health care charities, simply a staggering amount when you consider that the first auction, in 1981, raised $140,000.
This year's staging of the world's largest charity wine event (attendance topped 2,000 people) hewed close to tradition, while still managing to embellish the tried-and-true formula with inspired new touches. The official kick-off, Thursday's barrel tasting and auction, held at Silverado Vineyards, invited strolling, munching, and sipping amid the cool barrel rooms of the winery. Inside, bidding on case lots gleaned from half-barrels donated by 66 wineries got off to a raucous start. (Advice to newcomers: Arrive early and hit the barrel tasting room first, before the crush arrives.) It's a great opportunity to chat with some of the world's best winemakers while sipping their crown jewels right out of the barrel.
Among the stellar wines being sold and sampled from the barrel this year: the sensuous 1999 Dalla Valle Maya (which ultimately brought in a record-breaking $33,000 for the first case, and $198,000 for the ten-case "barrel"); a dense, spicy 1998 Joseph Phelps Auction Reserve Insignia; and a stunning 1997 Staglin Family Cabernet Sauvignon (which sold for $131,500, down slightly from last year's $161,250). Clos Pegase winemaker Steve Rogstad was pouring his 1998 Hommage Artist Series Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which will be bottled this fall with the same label as the original 1988 wine. That controversial image, a reproduction of Jean Dubuffet's brightly tiled nude male, was censored by the BATF. "This time," promised Rogstad, "we'll reissue it in the 'Full Monty' version."
Also on display Thursday were smaller lots in the silent Cellar Builder and Private Donor auctions, open for bidding at the barrel tasting for the first time. They ranged from the simple (Lot 401, a single bottle of 1995 Screaming Eagle, which ultimately sold for $9,000) to the sentimental (Lot 407, a signed vertical of all of the Heitz Cellars Martha's Vineyard Cabernets from the original, prephylloxera plantings) to the sensational (Lot 413, a mind-boggling collection of 107 magnums, which went for $50,000).
On Friday evening, with the sun shining and a breeze wafting across the Meadowood grounds, a tent city was inhabited by a sea of "penguins," as formal attire was in full force for the Vintners' Gala. A brilliant orange-red Chihuly glass sculpture, looking like some huge sea vegetable, dominated the surroundings, with smaller pieces planted in the gardens and floating in the fountains. The artist himself, strikingly attired in a cobalt-blue shirt and lime-yellow pants, provided a kaleidoscopic counterpoint to the tide of black and white. Also breaking the mold was winemaker Robert Sinskey, whose black slacks and jacket only partially covered a luminous tie-dye T-shirt. "I thought they said it was black tie-dye," he joked. (Apparently, Sinskey was still recovering from his own Thursday night party, dubbed the "Electric Pinot Acid Test," for which guests were required to dress as dead rock stars. "We had two Janis Joplins, two Jim Morrisons, a pair of Jimis, a Mama Cass, and me as John Lennon," he reported.)
Friday night's sit-down dinner, ably orchestrated by Holly Mondavi, was followed by a brief, galvanizing performance by the multioctave Patti LaBelle, and dancing into the night.
Unlike last year when Michael Jordan towered over the crowd, celebrities were in short supply, though former Saturday Night Live cast member Rob Schneider was spotted holding court among a group of admirers. Winemaker Michael Martini, whose father Louis was the first auction chairman 20 years ago, noted how the crowd has changed over the years. "It's an evolution. I think we're just starting to become an international auction."
On Saturday morning, party-goers intent on rehydration and fueling themselves on a superb brunch regrouped and reassembled for the main event. It lacked only boxing ring announcer Michael Buffer to declare it a rumble, because bidding at the live auction would be fierce. Lead auctioneer Fritz Hatton of Christie's banged the gavel shortly past noon, opening the proceedings with the energy and gyrations of a human windmill, pointing, pushing, and prodding the crowd into a wine-swilling, paddle-pumping frenzy. Lot 1, a magnum from each of the 66 barrel-auction wineries, went to Lincoln, co-owner of the Del Frisco's steakhouse empire, for a healthy $60,000, and the race for who would be bestowed with next year's paddle number one was on. "It's a long day, there's a lot of heavy hitters in this crowd," said Lincoln, pretty in pink and ready to party. "We're gonna participate, buy smart, and see what happens."
By the time the gavel came down on Lot 10, a ten-year vertical of Araujo Estate Cabernet Sauvignon in magnums that went to Chase Bailey for $270,000, it was clear that the week's renewed NASDAQ ebullience was going to carry over into the auction itself.
It didn't take long for Lot 17, a case of 750s and one nine-liter bottle of 1997 Montagia Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon made by Beringer winemaker Ed Sbragia and legendary San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, to ramp up to $210,000, especially when dinner for six with the winemakers was tossed in. Lot 25, a six-liter bottle of Colgin Cellars 1997 Herb Lamb Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, brought the crowd to its feet with a short-lived single-bottle record bid of $220,000 by Ona Roth of Santa Barbara, who proclaimed it "a damn good wine," and herself "a happy camper."
In between the Colgin and the Screaming Eagle blockbuster there were still more high points: $270,000 for Lot 30, lunch for six at Dalla Valle and eight magnums of Maya—1990 through 1997; $230,000 for the Chair's Lot, which included a large Chihuly bowl and 20 different Pine Ridge Cabernets; $170,000 for Lot 90, dinner for eight at Far Niente with four six-liter bottles of the winery's Cabernet.
As the afternoon began to wear down, big bidders vying for the top spot waited for two trophy lots to come up. Lot 164, a ten-vintage magnum vertical of Harlan Estate in a gorgeous turn-of-the-century leather-bound carrying case, went to B.A. Adams of Patterson, Louisiana, last year's second-place bidder, for an all-time single-lot record of $700,000. The final lot (166), a full-tilt Napa Valley "experience" for two, brought another half-million dollars from Bailey, propelling him over the $1.7 million mark and earning him the rights to paddle number one should he return next year. Will he be coming back in 2001 to defend his title? "I certainly hope so," he grinned, "but we had a hard time getting a ticket this year." Note to auction 2001 co-chairpersons Robert and Margrit Mondavi: You might want to set aside tickets for the Baileys right now.
By any standard the 20th incarnation of this increasingly high-profile gathering was a smashing success. First-time visitor Georg Riedel, the Austrian glassware guru, summed up his feelings this way: "I'm amazed. I've never seen a gathering of people who are so crazy, and blowing all this money for seriously good purposes. It shows that wine has reached a level of perception where there are no limits."
"I'm totally overwhelmed. Never in my wildest imagination did I anticipate this incredible result," said auction chairperson Nancy Andrus. "It reflects the generosity of the vintners, the dedication of more than 1,000 community volunteers, committee members, and the bidders—both longtime supporters and new friends."
As everyone cooled down under clear skies at an event-ending outdoor salmon roast, Robert Mondavi, charged with upping the record again next year, gave the benediction. "I've always said that the difficult things we do right away; the impossible takes a little bit longer. Go home and earn lots of money," he advised all within earshot, "and come back next year [Ed. note: June 7-10, 2001] ready to spend!"