Signs of a perked-up economy were evident at the Napa Valley Vintners 16th annual Premiere Napa Valley wine futures auction, where a record-breaking $3.1 million was raised in just over three hours—up 31% from last year on bidding for 200 unique lots.
The midwinter trade event—staged at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena over the weekend (February 24–25) to raise funds for the non-profit organization—attracted some 1,000 restaurateurs, merchants, distributors, importers, winemakers and wine media, all of whom tasted, from barrel, the special lots the wineries crafted for the occasion.
The wines were mainly Cabernet Sauvignons, but there was a sprinkling of other reds as well as some white and sparkling wines. The biggest bidders were retailers, including Bounty Hunter (Napa, CA), The Wine House (Los Angeles, CA), Total Wine & More (Potomac, MD), and Beverage Warehouse (Marina del Rey, CA). While some of the top-earning lots were from familiar names like Amuse Bouche, Duckhorn, Silver Oak, Joseph Phelps and Shafer, the highest bid at Saturday’s auction went to Dana Estates. The lot, #180 out of 200, stole the spotlight, raising $70,000 for five cases of its 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine for the $1,167 per bottle bid is scheduled to be released in September 2013.
So who is this producer that drew such attention? Dana Estates farms three vineyards—Helms, Lotus and Hershey—and makes three small-production, single-vineyard wines. For Premiere Napa Valley, consulting winemaker Philippe Melka, did something special by blending Cabernet Sauvignon from all three vineyards to create an exclusive bottling that attracted bidders’ attention.
Having helped build such brands as Bryant Family (where he famously took over from another renowned consultant, Helen Turley), Seavey and Hundred Acre, it’s no surprise the winemaker tops the list. At Premiere this year, his name appeared alongside other top lots, including Moone-Tsai’s 2010 To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon ($31,000 for five cases), Lail Vineyards’ 2009 Henry II Cabernet Sauvignon ($19,000 for five cases), Parallel Napa Valley’s 2010 Fortune Teller Cabernet Sauvignon ($12,000 for five cases), in addition to cases of Gemstone, Vineyard 29, Cliff Lede Vineyards and ROY Estate.
Dana Estates’ owner, Hi Sang Lee—a South Korean businessman who runs the Woonsan Group conglomerate and in 2011 was the third-biggest importer of fine wine into Korea—got the idea to build a winery in Napa in 1999, while on a trip to find prospective wines to import. It didn’t take long for Lee to put Melka at the top of his winemaking wish list. He offered Melka the opportunity to design a modern, 27,000-square-feet winemaking marvel with the help of local architect, Howard Backen, in the heart of the Rutherford Bench, where the surrounding Helms Vineyard grows rich, concentrated Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Melka’s first wine for Dana Estates debuted in 2005.
Dana Estate’s other two vineyards are atop Howell Mountain—the rocky Lotus Vineyard is 1,200 feet high and west-facing, while the 24-acre Hershey Vineyard is 1,800-feet in elevation—and are planted with mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. One acre is devoted to Sauvignon Blanc.
For Dana Estate and Melka, Premiere Napa Valley sparked a cult following. As for critics, they got a glimpse of what to expect from the 2010 vintage—lower alcohol levels, yet wines that are still ripe and fruity.