If you’re like me you’ve become almost numb to headlines touting another Napa Valley auction that has brought in millions of dollars for some worthy cause. But what has become more interesting to me is how these raised millions are being used and what the generated-fund levels might indicate about broader trends, such as the economy or preferences in luxury items such as wine.
Of particular interest in this regard is the Premiere Napa Valley auction, which was held last weekend at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. Now in its 21st year, Premiere brought in $4.2 million, $500,000 of that coming from online bidding.
Premiere is not a typical auction in that the bidding guests are made up only of wine-trade professionals. The proceeds go directly to the Napa Valley Vintners, who use the funds in their general budget, spending the money, on administration and on their marketing efforts to promote the Napa Valley.
“Beyond generating proceeds that we use to help promote the Napa Valley, the event has many other benefits, too,” said Cate Conniff, communications manager at the Napa Valley Vintners, “This unique auction also provides the vintners the opportunity to mingle and build relationships with the wine trade and other winemakers while they sample a broad array of wines from a single vintage. This event also benefits the local hotels and restaurants during what has historically been a slower time.”
Another difference is that Premiere is essentially auctioning off wine futures, selling small lots of specially blended wine from more than 200 Napa Valley vintners, most of which are still in barrel and won’t be bottled for at least another year or two. This year’s focus was on the 2015 vintage, which made up 87 percent of the wine offered, most of that being based on cabernet sauvignon.
The attendees come to sample, commingle and purchase wine for their clients. Sure, they have fun, but many of them are on serious business missions to find rare wines from sought-after producers for their clients back home.
“This is my 21st PNV,” said Gary Fisch, owner of Gary’s Wine and Marketplace in Wayne, New Jersey. “The key opportunity [of this auction] is to buy the entire production of a unique one-of-a-kind wine for my clients — they give me a budget and I buy wine. The only thing I do is guarantee that they will get some of the best wines in the world, and I’ve never failed them. This year I bought 18 lots.”
Beyond the trade and NVV, the local vintners find value in getting time with the trade and exploring unique projects, some of which include collaborations.
“I think anyone in the trade will tell you they enjoy the opportunity to see everyone in the same room having fun and comparing wines,” said winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls, who has been collaborating with Ghost Block winemaker Kristi Koford for most of the last decade to make a special blend for the PNV. “Every year the wines get stronger and better — a testament to all of us who make the wines that we strive for that commitment to quality that is the Napa name.”
Nicholls and Koford’s collaboration is a result of the friendship between Andy Hoxsey and Bryan Del Bondio, whose families were early pioneers in Napa Valley, with more than 200 collective years of farming, each with vineyards in Yountville.
My sampling of the 2015 vintage highlighted that the vintage was a tough one for winemakers and will be a challenge for consumers to wrap their heads around since these wines have more drying tannins than is typical of a Napa Valley cabernet.
The vintage started off with some light rain and cold temperatures during flowering, and because the vines were already coming off three tough drought years, most vines struggled to produce fruit, with many vineyards down 20 to 30 percent.
Coupled with summer heat spikes and a bizarrely early harvest — with some sparkling wine producers picking grapes in July — the result is a tannic cabernet that caused many vintners to blend more than they normally would, using malbec, merlot, petite verdot and cabernet franc to help soften the wines.
The consequence is that the range of quality and styles is uncharacteristically varied, often highlighting the winemaker’s skill more than unique vineyard profiles. The bottom line is that when you find an exceptional 2015 wine from the Napa Valley you have probably found yourself an extraordinary winemaker.
Some of the standout wines from this year’s Premiere Napa Valley:
— 2015 Chappellet Vineyard. 100 percent cabernet sauvignon. Pritchard Hill. Rich with round tannins, spice and dark fruit.
— 2015 Corison Winery Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. St. Helena. Soft and supple with hints of cassis and sweet cherry.
— 2015 Notre Vin Malbec. Coombsville. Think juicy blackberry, sun-dried cherries and dark chocolate, all highlighted by natural acidity.
— 2015 Volker Eisele Family Estate 100 percent cabernet sauvignon. Chiles Valley. Fine-grained tannins, cherry cola and earthy notes.
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2015 Spottswoode Estate 100 percent cabernet sauvignon. St. Helena. Winemaking at its finest. Perfectly integrated oak with deep black and blue fruit and nutmeg.
To be fair, there were more than 200 wines to sample at this year’s auction, most of which were very good. Tasting wines from a gathering of Napa Valley vintners is like trying to grade a classroom full of smart Stanford or Lake Wobegon students — all of them are probably above average.
However, my assessment of the overall vintage appears consistent with not only the comments heard around the auction, but also the fact that the total take of Premiere this year was down 30 percent from recent years, when the 2012 and 2013 were on display.
The NVV are dismissive about the decline in this year’s numbers, saying it was expected and in part due to their new strategy of taking 20 percent of the bidding online. I am no business genius, but if you have a strategy that results in bringing in nearly $2 million less than your peak then you might want to rethink your strategy. However, I don’t believe their assessment is correct. Instead it is actually more a reflection of professional wine buyers making appropriate business decisions based on a modest vintage.
To highlight the relative weakness of the 2015 vintage compared to recent stronger vintages, the top lot from this year’s auction went to the 2014 Scarecrow Cabernet Sauvignon, 60 bottles of which sold for a whopping $200,000, or $3,333 per bottle.
This “cult” winery has only attended the Premiere auction three times, and each time it has walloped its competitors. How did they achieve their lofty results this year? Perhaps by having an unconventional strategy. This winery has Celia Welch as the winemaker and sources grapes from a vineyard planted in Rutherford in 1945. The winery has deep Hollywood roots and other wealthy clients who are willing to drop thousands of dollars on a single bottle of hard-to-procure wine. But the shrewd and savvy folks at Scarecrow came to this year’s auction not toeing the party line with a 2015 vintage, instead bringing a 2014, which was a wine from a stronger vintage that had been in barrel for one additional year. This produced a soft, luscious and consumer-friendly wine, especially compared to most of the other vintners in the room. That’s what I call strategy.
Of course, the results of this year’s Premiere auction also reflect the broader economic reality in that although the stock market is on a tear, there is general uncertainty as to how long this current bubble will last and what mayhem might ensue when it inevitably bursts.
“What I missed this year was having more heavyweight wineries with cult status,” said Kenneth Korsbaek, owner of KK wines in Denmark. “There were a lot of newcomers that have not yet established a name. Still, it’s a great event and I’ll be back next year to see if I can’t take a lot or two.”
Premiere Napa Valley 2017 is now history. Next up: June’s Auction Napa Valley, which is under the leadership of honorary chairs Francis, Eleanor, Roman, Sofia and Gia Coppola. Given that the Coppolas have serious star power and deep roots in the valley, one would expect this year’s auction to break records. What I’ll be watching closely is how the 2015 vintage will be showcased (or not) and what (if any) the impact of nearly $2 million less in the NVV’s budget might mean for service and staffing.
Originally published in the Napa Register, Local Tastes Column, March 2017