Get Ready for the Wine World's Richest, Glitziest Weekend
One-of-a-kind jeroboams, a sleepover at first-growth Chateau Latour, dinner with Robert Parker, a meeting with Bulgari’s head watch designer, cool cars, and, above all, plenty of frenzied bidding for these over-the-top lots: That’s only part of what to expect at this year’s glitzy, wine-soaked Auction Napa Valley, which takes place the first weekend in June.
Last year 2,000 attendees at this annual three-day charity event splashed out a hefty $15.8 million, though not quite up to 2013’s $16.9 million or 2014’s record-breaking $18.7 million.
Behind the scenes, the pressure is on to bring in even more.
“The most intimidating part of being this year’s auction chair is meeting expectations,” said Agustin F. Huneeus. His father, a native of Chile, founded Quintessa winery as well as other wineries in Napa and Chile. The family is adding South American flair to the live-auction dinner by importing famous open-fire-cooking chef Francis Mallmann and a salsa band.
Perusing 2016’s mix of 318 auction lots, I notice more parties and more less-expensive (it’s all relative) opportunities for “irrational generosity” than at the many previous auctions I’ve attended.
“Not everyone can spend $800,000 for one big lot,” explained Huneeus. “We’ve added more ways for friends of Napa to ease in at $10,000 to $20,000.” (Oh, thanks!)
It’s tough to estimate how much these lots are actually worth in dollars because most include one-of-a-kind experiences or items that simply aren’t for sale. You’re expected to bid high since all the money goes to Napa County charities. Over its history the auction has donated more than $145 million.
Here’s a preview of how to play, whether bidding in Napa or absentee bidding from home.
The E-Auction, in which anyone around the world can bid, is a kind of warm-up that opens on May 29 with 168 lots. Bids wrap up on June 5.
The standouts for me are the Five Decades of Clos du Val (a rare collection of five 6-liter imperials of the winery’s reserve cabernet) and the weekend stay at Grgich Hills Estate, plus dinner with legendary winemaker Mike Grgich, who made the chardonnay that won the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976. Minimum bid for all e-lots is $250.
The Barrel Auction and the Big Board Auction
The official kickoff is June 2 with vintner parties under the stars, but more bidding starts the morning of Friday, June 3 with the 100-lot barrel auction and tasting at Robert Mondavi winery.
My picks are Lot 218 (2014 Chappellet “Pritchard 47” cabernet, a special blend for the auction) and Lot 222 (2015 Continuum Estate), because these wineries consistently produce stunning, complex reds that age brilliantly. Minimum bids are $200.
In the brand-new Big Board silent auction (a kind of live auction lite), I’d grab Lot 101, the chance for 10 couples to spend a day harvesting grapes and also groove at Napa’s wine-industry-exclusive harvest party on Aug. 2.
Friday evening, your ticket lets you attend a glamorous vintner dinner, with the chance to taste even more special wines. An example: the intimate one at very private Sloan Estate, with a chef flown in from Hong Kong and a candlelit reception in its fabulous caves, which I toured last month with Jenny Pan, daughter of Chinese billionaire owner Pan Sutong.
The Live Auction
But the live auction on Saturday afternoon, after a morning of yoga in the vineyard or bocce and brunch and various lunches, is the weekend’s spending climax.
The main auction has been held at Meadowood resort since 1981 when the temperature was 105 degrees, the auctioneer kept his bare feet in a tub of ice water, and wine lovers downed bottled water, not Napa cabernet.
Luckily the huge white tent is now temperature-controlled, with confetti provided for winners to throw when frenzied bidding ends.
The 36 live lots are more wine-centric than in past years. And I noticed that the cars included as elements in two of them (a restored 1966 Ford Mustang convertible in Lot 27 and a 1941 Ford Woody Wagon in Lot 22) are funkier than, for example, the Aston Martin DB9 Volonte that was part of one lot in 2013. But all lots still focus on unique insider “experiences” that even billionaires couldn’t buy without significant help.
“Many show the soul of Napa and let you be part of how we live here now,” says auctioneer Fritz Hatton, co-proprietor of Arietta winery and a classically trained pianist. At the intimate dinner at his historic St. Helena home (Lot 24), he’ll play Cole Porter and George Gershwin tunes and you’ll get to sing along.
The Robert Mondavi Winery 50th anniversary Lot 9 also caught my eye—the chance to host 50 guests for dinner at Michelin-starred The French Laundry and take away 50 bottles of Mondavi wine, including vintages of cabernet reserve back to the famous, elegant 1969. (I was wowed by it at a massive retrospective tasting at the winery last month.)
All the live lots contain multiple parts. For Lot 15, Tusk Estates and Amuse Bouche winery mix courtside seats with the Golden State Warriors’ owners, a diamond-studded Warriors NBA championship ring, dinners with the winery proprietors, and big bottles of a one-off wine created by their two respective well-known winemakers, Philippe Melka and Heidi Barrett.
Making the Magic Happen
How does such a top lot come to be?
“It took a couple of hours of margaritas for Heidi to agree,” admits John Schwartz of Amuse Bouche.
“Personal friendships count for a lot,” explained Michael Uytengsu of Tusk Estates, which has hosted the NBA players. The Warriors’ owners have a personal residence in Napa, but Uytengsu admits that getting the “priceless” championship ring was “a really big ask.”
Garen and Shari Staglin, co-owners of Staglin Family Vineyard, spent almost 18 months lining up Lot 34, a 10-day insider expedition to South Africa for four people, sure to be one of the top lots.
“There’s a lot of serendipity,” says Garen Staglin. The idea started when Mike Ratcliffe, owner of Warwick Wine Estate in the Stellenbosch region, bunked at the Staglins’ home during a previous auction. He and their friend Charles Banks, owner of Napa’s Mayacamas vineyards and two wineries in South Africa, helped them line up four nights at a private lodge in Sabi Sand Game Reserve, tastings and lunches at six wineries, guided tours, and much more.
To drum up bidder excitement, Staglin has already sent an advance brochure with gorgeous pictures to 100 big spenders.
How to Go
The auction is noted for major conspicuous consumption, but it’s also hugely fun—if you’re a wine lover, of course—and a way to see the Napa Valley from the inside. And if you bid big, it’s also a way to make your name register with top vintners and pave the way to special access in the future.
You can still buy into Saturday’s live auction and dinner for $2,000 a person. A few $4,000 VIP weekend extravaganza tickets are left as well, which admit you to all auction and dinner events.
Be sure to bring a very, very fat wallet.