Ode to Joy at Napa Auction 2001
The dot-com bubble may have burst in Silicon Valley, but in Napa Valley, the sky’s still the limit when it comes to fine wine. With dinners, dances and special winery events lasting from June 7-10, the 21st annual Napa Valley Wine Auction raised $7.6 million in what has proven once again to be the highest-grossing charity wine auction in the world.
Billed as an "Ode to Napa Valley," this year’s four-day event was chaired by auction founders Robert and Margrit Mondavi, whose grace and legendary hospitality touched every participant connected to the extraordinary affair. Friday night’s black-tie gala at the prestigious Meadowood resort took on the air of a family gathering, as some 2,000 wine lovers formed a wedding-like receiving line to greet the Mondavis. With celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck at the helm of an impressive kitchen ensemble, it was indeed a marriage of wine, food and the famous Napa Valley lifestyle.
"As Bob always says, ‘Fun is the biggest part of it,’" said the ever-smiling Margrit Mondavi. In the spirit of good fun, Robert donned various costumes during the festivities, including a vamp-like "Vanna White" outfit for a bidding game billed as "The Wheel of Fortune."
The Mondavis also marked two decades of auction successes by inviting actor Joel Grey to appear in a repeat performance of his opening act at the first Napa Valley Auction, 21 years ago. "Back then, I knew we needed personalities to create an image of Napa Valley, which was unknown worldwide," Robert Mondavi recalled with some irony.
Grey obliged his host by singing an a cappella version of his opening number from the musical, Cabaret. The actor and singer then produced a 25-year-old T-shirt from the Robert Mondavi Winery. The shirt was emblazoned with the image of a younger Robert Mondavi sampling wine. Setting the tone for the weekend, Grey spontaneously auctioned it off for $17,000. (The winning bid came from Mondavi’s daughter, Marcy.)
It was an auspicious beginning. Ron Kuhn, a road construction contractor from Wheaton, Illinois, led the charge with $995,500 worth of bids, including $650,000 for eight 3-liter bottles of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon, spanning the vintages 1992 to 1999. Kuhn and his wife, Teri, have been bidding at the Napa Valley auction for years. But they also caught the wine-growing bug along the way: They purchased vineyard land in the Rutherford district in 1995. (Their real estate agent was none other than Jean Phillips, owner of Screaming Eagle.)
"I feel you need to pay back," Kuhn said, explaining his extravagant bids. "Jeannie [Phillips] just got married in May, and my bid on her wine was kind of a present to her."
Despite their freewheeling largesse, not everything has come easily to the Kuhns. They are planning an initial fall release for Pillar Rock Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, the fruits of hard labor at their vineyard. However, their excitement has been somewhat tempered by the fact that their entire first vintage—1998—was lost in a fire only three days after bottling.
Kuhn was not alone among top bidders who have become vintners. Silicon Valley high-tech executive Chuck McMinn won a 15-liter bottle and six 750-milliliter bottles of 1997 Maya from Dalla Valle Vineyards for $220,000. He also recently purchased the renowned Vineyard 29, in St. Helena, where he is currently building a new winery.
Another high bid—$260,000—went for the Chairs’ Lot, a day of "Winemaking 101" with Robert and Margrit Mondavi. The package also included sumptuous meals with the Mondavis at their magnificent home as well as three signed works of art by Wayne Thiebaud, Dale Chihuly and Nathan Oliviera. This prize went to San Francisco venture capitalist Luke Evnin and his wife, Deann Wright, who recently purchased a second home in Napa Valley. "You can spend a lot of money on wine," Evnin commented. "But it’s hard to find this kind of experience anywhere at any price."
In addition to consumers and vintners, the auction attracted politicians such as democratic Congressman Mike Thompson, who represents Napa County in Washington, D.C. Thompson is a native of Napa Valley whose first job was repairing tractors at Beringer Vineyards. The congressman could be seen in a bright green apron working alongside 1,000 other volunteers who made the marathon event possible.
As it does each year, the auction featured an array of winery hospitality dinners and dances that provided consumers with intimate connections to their favorite vintners, who opened their hearts, homes and wineries to the public.
Although last year’s proceeds totaled $9.5 million, this year’s $7.6 million was still a staggering $2.1 million more than 1999’s total. Given the nature of today’s fickle economy, it would seem that Napa’s vintners have much to crow about. The best news is that as much as 95 percent of the total proceeds will benefit health care and other charitable organizations in wine country, making the 21st annual Napa Valley Wine Auction a stellar success in everyone’s minds.
Nude And Improved
Artist Sculpts Lane
Recognize the female Bacchus below? The model for the piece was Lane Tanner, owner and winemaker of Lane Tanner Winery in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Maria Valley. "It was Lane Tanner’s exuberant spirit, her joy for life and her love of winemaking that was the inspiration for this sculpture," says the statue’s sculptor, Robert Houghtaling. We have no reason to doubt this talented artist, but the truth is that, at least in part, the inspiration was literally "off the wall"…of a men’s restroom in Los Olivos.
As Tanner herself tells the story, she was photographed five years ago for a Sunday magazine article on local winemakers. The photos so impressed her friend Bob Senn, owner of the Los Olivos Wine and Spirits Emporium, that he cut them out, assembled them into a collage and posted the collage on the wall in the men’s room. Four years later, artist Houghtaling happened to be in the Emporium, heeded nature’s call—and emerged from the men’s room, inspired.
Houghtaling contacted Tanner and she agreed to pose for him. Her understanding was that she would be adorned in a toga and grape vines, but when the videotaping-modeling session began, there was no toga in sight. Asked if the nudity gave her pause, Tanner is forthright: "I’m 45 years old, 5-foot-2 and 145 pounds. I’m not what you would call model material. But Robert wanted a normal woman to represent this theme. That alone inspired me to want to do it."
The original design called for Tanner to be reclining, but the artist told her, "You have too much energy for that." And she is grateful that he put her on tiptoe: "In any other position you would notice that my hips are a bit larger than that."
Only twenty 8 1/2-inch clay statuettes are being issued, and sell for $800 each. For more information, click on www.polymerclaycentral.com. You’ll find Houghtaling as one of the featured artists.
BORDEAUX’S BIENNIAL BIG BASH
Shoe leather, plenty of stamina and party spirits were in demand in equal measure at the 11th annual Vinexpo, which took place June 17-21. Bordeaux’s biennial celebration of the world of wine and spirits is, for many of its 55,000 trade visitors, a week-long chance to taste wines from all over the world, cement deals with any number of the 2,400 exhibitors, and stay up late at the dinners and parties thrown at the big Bordeaux chateaus.
Some parties were formal, such as the final event, the Fête de la Fleur—Bordeaux’s celebration of the flowering of the grapes—held this year at Château Carbonnieux for 1,800 people. On the other hand, the party hosted by California vintners at the magnificent Château de Vayres was a chance to relax and dance to a French blues band.
Trend watchers noticed that organic wines, especially from French producers, are becoming increasingly fashionable. They also noted a tendency to promote some wines as being "for women." On closer investigation, this turned out just to be an interest in packaging more wines in 50-centiliter bottles, an idea that is welcomed by both sexes.
For many visitors, it was the recognition of food and wine pairings that was most innovative at this 2001 Vinexpo. The pioneers of the reaction against fast food—the Italian organization, Slow Food—presented some fascinating food and wine matchings. These included goat cheese and Sauvignon Blanc, chocolate and Sherry, cheeses and Grenache, foie gras and sweet wines, and, most rewarding of all, matching wines and charcuterie typical of specific countries.
ALLIED DOMECQ EXPANDS ITS
In late June, Allied Domecq, the British-based firm that is the world’s second largest wine and spirits company, purchased Buena Vista Winery and 718 acres of its Sonoma-Carneros vineyards, from Racke & Co., Germany’s largest wine distributor, for $85.5 million. The deal also includes the Haywood brand. Last year, Buena Vista and Haywood sold more than 415,000 cases of wine.
Racke had owned Buena Vista for 21 years. The sale greatly strengthens Allied Domecq’s position in Sonoma County, where it owns Clos du Bois, in the Alexander Valley. The company also owns Atlas Peak and William Hill, in Napa Valley; Callaway, based in Central and Southern California; and, overseas, Cockburn’s Port, Domecq sherries and Harvey’s Bristol Cream, Champagne Mumm and Perrier-Jouët, and table wine brands from Spain and Argentina.
A bid for New Zealand wine concern, Montana, is still up in the air; whether it succeeds or not, Allied Domecq’s announced plans are to become a global wine powerhouse.
Allied Domecq’s USA spokesperson, George Rose, says the newly-purchased Buena Vista vineyards "sit in one of the world’s great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir regions," and will thus give the company added market presence in wines made from those varieties.
The sale also gives Allied Domecq ownership of Buena Vista’s unique heritage. Founded in 1857, it is California’s oldest commercial winery. The property was planted by the colorful and eccentric California pioneer from Hungary, Agoston Haraszthy, on the southern edge of Sonoma Valley, where it once comprised 6,000 acres running up the side of the Mayacamas Mountains to the Napa County border. Haraszthy claimed to have planted more than 1,400 European varieties in the vineyards. "California can produce as noble and generous a wine as any in Europe," wrote Harazsthy, who is credited with being "the father of California wine."
Is Merlot Still Hot?
Retailers Sound Off
Josh Wesson, founder of Best Cellars wine shops, likens Merlot’s popularity to that of New York City housing: It’s "stabilized, but it hasn’t come down yet." At his Best Cellars shops—where the most expensive bottle of wine costs just $15—wine drinkers "flocked to Merlot" a few years ago because they were "looking for a Cabernet with training wheels," but this doesn’t hold as true today.
So, we asked Wesson, how’s the quality of the Merlot that’s on the shelves now? "One must wade through the tidal pond of mediocre Merlots to find the ones that stand out and offer true value," Wesson replies tactfully. "And value really has nothing to do with a low price." He recommends these $10-and-under Merlots, all of which are available at Best Cellars: Pay d’Oc’s Domain Divan, Washington’s Salmon Harbor, California’s Morgan Bay, Chile’s Casa Julia and Argentina’s Santa Julia. At Best Cellars’ store-within-a-store, Beyond the Best, where wines start at $15, his top-selling Merlots are Napa Valley’s 1998 Leducq Vineyards Sylviane Merlot ($30) and Lalande de Pomerol’s 1998 Château Fleur de Jean Gué ($19).
Ed Cook, wine buyer for Harris Teeter, an upscale supermarket chain in the South, says that Merlot accounts for 14 percent of the chain’s wine sales, but that he doesn’t "attribute those sales to the category as much as to particular brands." And imported Merlot doesn’t figure into the scheme at Harris Teeter: "Our customer are brand-oriented," says Cook. Hot brands at Harris Teeter these days are Blackstone and Bogle, both of which are from California and cost around $10 each.
Just how popular are they? Cook replies that "Merlot sales as a category are up 6.8 percent, but I’d guess those two brands are up 30 to 40 percent. Of course," Cook notes, "the number-one selling red wine in the entire chain is Woodbridge Merlot in 1.5-liter bottles," which sells for $13.
At Aspen Wine and Spirits in Colorado, owner Bob Greuter says brand obsession isn’t a problem. "We have a pretty sophisticated market. Instead of focusing on a brand, my customers will search to find a wine that they like." Though high-quality California Merlots, such as Arrowwood and Flora Springs (approximately $25 each) are still very popular, Greuter thinks that Merlot’s popularity is waning. He says that "people have gotten turned off by the uneven quality of Merlot."
Strangely enough, Greuter is noticing that Cabernet Franc is becoming more and more popular with his clientele. "My customers are willing to try a lot of different things and when they taste [Cabernet Franc], they find that it’s softer and more pleasant than they expected." At $11, 1998 Hahn Cabernet Franc is selling briskly, as are two Cabernet Franc-based Chinons from France: Domaine Couly-Dutheil ($20) and Château de la Grille ($24). If Cabernet Franc turns out to be the next hot varietal, remember that the trend started in the rarified air of Aspen, Colorado.