Sweet 16 for annual auction

Record $3.1 million in wine sold at Premiere Napa Valley event

Kip Davis | Posted: Sunday, February 26, 2012 12:30 am

About two-thirds of the way through the bidding at the Premiere Napa Valley trade auction Saturday, auctioneer Fritz Hatton announced that the event’s total wine sales had already surpassed the previous year’s record proceeds. When the last of the 200 special lots of Napa Valley’s finest was sold, total sales for the 2012 auction were close to $3.1 million, a 29-percent increase over last year.

“This is incredible,” said Terry Hall, communications director for the Napa Valley Vintners. “I mean, this is the first time we’ve ever broken $3 million. That’s just phenomenal.”

Saturday’s record-breaking proceeds continue the upward trend for the midwinter trade auction, staged each year by the Napa Valley Vintners as both a fundraiser and outreach to wine retailers and restaurateurs from around the world. The 1,000 tickets to Saturday’s daylong barrel tasting and auction sold out early this year. Held at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Premier Napa Valley caps a week filled with tastings, parties and other events at wineries and restaurants throughout Napa Valley.

Hall said that preliminary figures showed a more even bidding throughout the 200-lot auction. While last year’s auction seemed dominated by a few high bids, including the record $125,000 paid for one five-case lot, the 2012 auction brought higher prices across the board.

The highest bid at Saturday’s auction was $70,000 for five cases of Dana Estates 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The top-10-selling lots included bids ranging from $30,000 to $60,000, Hall said.

“There were two brand-new vintners that were in the top 10, which is interesting,” Hall said. “Checkerboard and Vine Hill Ranch, which each sold for $50,000 (per lot).”

On a local note, Hall said the top cumulative bidder was Mark Pope of Napa’s Bounty Hunter Wine Bar.

Generally regarded as a bellwether for the wine industry, in recent years the annual trade auction has also reflected the general state of the U.S. economy. Many Napa Valley vintners are optimistic after a week of hobnobbing with important trade customers, according to Premiere Napa Valley’s 2012 co-chairmen Erle Martin and Michael Beaulac, both of Pine Ridge Vineyards.

“Frankly, there’s a lot of enthusiasm,” Martin said. “It just seems like the (retail) marketplace is rebounding and the on-premise (restaurant sales) is rebounding. Every vintner I’ve talked to is echoing the same thing. I don’t think we’re just talking to ourselves; we’re all seeing it. We can see it in our direct-to-consumer business, we can see it in our retail business, and the on-premise segment is also strong.”

“Things are moving forward very well,” Beaulac added, “and here, everyone is so jazzed.”

Premiere Napa Valley was launched by the Napa Valley Vintners in 1997 primarily as a fundraiser for the organization. Each year, winemakers from 200 Napa Valley wineries craft small lots — from five to 20 cases each — of unique wines that are bottled under the Premiere Napa Valley label and donated to the auction. Each lot is then sold at auction to members of the wholesale wine trade looking for an ultra-exclusive label to add to inventories or restaurant wine lists. Proceeds from the auction are used by the vintners association to “promote and protect the Napa Valley wine appellation,” Hall said.

The auction and surrounding events also deliver a boost to Napa Valley’s midwinter economy, Beaulac said.

“It used to be just this event,” Beaulac said, referring to the auction. “Now people are coming in on (the previous) Sunday and staying until the following Monday. They really see the whole valley and experience what’s going on. All of the restaurants are full, the hotels are full and people are out and about. … The vibe is very powerful.”

Hall said that the auction’s record sales are particularly meaningful to the health of the Napa Valley brand and overall economy.

“Because the Premiere auction is a business auction,” he said, “it really is about trade confidence in the Napa Valley and its ability to sell. These are business people who are spending a lot of money to buy these wines, and they have to know that they can resell them. (The record sales) indicate they are confident that they can sell these Napa Valley wines today and in the futures market. … That’s a really great sign for the economy.”