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At the Napa Auction Friday Provides Barrels of Fun

by Monty and Sara Preiser

Recent years have seen the emergence of a wonderful new rivalry. No, it is not the conference-best defining football games between West Virginia and Louisville, or between Auburn and LSU. In fact, it is not related to an athletic contest at all. It revolves around wine and charity, and is known as the Napa Wine Auction vs. the Naples Winter Wine Festival.

While the vintners in Napa have long been responsible for millions of dollars each year finding their way to the coffers of the needy, the city of Naples has accepted the metaphorical challenge to not only match the huge amount raised in the west, but to surpass it. Thus, a good natured competition has arisen wherein each group attempts to outdo the other in terms of fundraising for charities at their signature events. And to put it quite simply, there cannot be anything wrong with that.

For the past few years these two mammoth organizations have squared off in the name of selected charities to each raise between $10,000,000 and $15,000,000 at gala auctions dominated by the incredibly wealthy, who also happen to be extremely generous. As you might imagine, however, the vast majority of the “common folk” who attend these fundraisers are unable to place even one meaningful bid at an event where in 2006 a Staglin Family hosted trip for ten to Italy commanded over $1,000,000.

And 2007 broke new records for individual purchases in Napa. Bidding for this year’s lot donated by the Staglins, a package that included not only wine, but a six-day driving trip with the Staglins in Italy with the use of two Maserati sports cars, stalled at $900,000 until winery owners Shari and Garen Staglin added ownership of one of the Maseratis if the bidding advanced to $1.1 million. Soon thereafter, a California couple from Woodside, who asked to remain anonymous, raised their paddle and set a new auction benchmark by taking up the Staglins’ challenge.

So the auction, despite being an indescribably wonderful boon to charity, is not for all of us. However, thanks to the Napa Valley Vintner’s Association, which sponsors the Napa Auction and all the weekend activities surrounding it, this event has taken two giant steps toward making it possible for the merely rich and not so rich to participate in the weekend, albeit in areas outside the monetarily restrictive, yet vitally important, Saturday night live auction affair.

Step one involves an e-auction that lasts for a relatively long time period, and opens the door for the worldwide  public to bid on wines, travel, and lifestyle packages – most being sold at prices far less than at the other events of the weekend. 

On Friday afternoon of auction weekend, we see step two.  Here the Vintners showcase what in our opinion is the finest single pure wine function of the year – anywhere. It is for everyone who is swift enough to make timely arrangements. From casual wine lover to professional, and from the bargain hunter to the collector of the rare, there is no other event quite like the Napa Barrel Auction and tasting day.

On this exciting day in early June, when the weather is usually Napa perfect, over one hundred wineries come together and offer tastings from special barrels filled with some of their finest wines – many of them created solely for this function. Every person who has purchased tickets may taste any or all of the wines on display, meet the vintners and winemakers who almost always attend, gawk at the celebrities and beautiful people who travel to Napa for this special weekend, and, if one wishes, even bid on a case of wine (12 bottles) from the barrel they just tasted. A barrel of wine holds about 24 cases, of which each winery has donated ten from its own barrel to be sold for charity to the ten highest bidders for that barrel among the Friday attendees. Thus, the ten people who bid the most for a case from any particular barrel will make a worthy donation to charity, and receive some fine wines in the process. With the number of barrels in the auction, that means over one thousand wine lovers are buying wine at reasonable prices, and being part of the weekend benefiting worthy charities at the same time.

This is a day for those with good palates and confidence in their analytical skills to find some of the best bargains of the year – anywhere. While the wines from the better known wineries (some living on reputation and some still terrific) always go for serious money (often above $500/bottle), those from lesser known and/or improving and/or new producers can often be “stolen” for under $50 per bottle, or luckily obtained for about $75. We like to think our own taste is in the mainstream, and, to give an example of the great buys one might find, in the past three years we have taken home cases of Paradigm, Honig, Reynolds Family, Rombauer, Palmaz, Anderson Conn Valley, Frazier, Truchard, Keenan, Sonador, and Gustavo-Thrace. Our total out of pocket for these great wines has been much less than one might suspect.

As much fun as it is to schmooze and taste, we also like searching for, and saying hello to, easily recognizable celebrities such as Teri Hatcher, Rusty Staub, Geena Davis, Dana Carvey, and Stacie Keibler. Though a more difficult task, solving the quasi mystery of who else of note is in the building is also a nice diversion.

While the top of the line barrels are inside a huge, temperature controlled warehouse, on the expansive lawn outside await culinary delights from the Valley’s finest restaurants, as well as more wine. Why more wine? Because most wineries produce more than just the one special wine placed inside for auction, and are anxious to show off the rest of their current releases. All this outside activity means that if you are not into tasting big, expensive reds and bidding, you can enjoy an incomparable afternoon eating fine food and sipping gentler priced wines that will be found more easily in retail shops than will the wine up for auction on the inside.

We have purposely not told you yet what the Vintner’s Association charges for this magnificent day. It is only $200 for visitors to the Valley. Napa residents receive a substantial discount.

So tell us . . .  Can a wine lover find a day somewhere else that offers so much for these relatively low ticket prices? Doubtful, for even at the rival auctions, fests, and galas now held nationwide, no where does there exist that one collective resource that allows Napa to boast that they put on the best event – that unique resource being the members of the Napa Valley Vintners Association. They are right there, and no venue outside “wine country” can bring to their public the sheer numbers of wines, vintners, and winemakers that make a function like this work on all cylinders.

Let us not diminish what is being done elsewhere, especially in Naples, where we hail its organizing committee for the significant funds it raises for needy organizations. But we award special kudos to the Napa auction, which has found a way to allow the general public to participate in something just as special, and, to our way of thinking, even more fun, than super auctions for the super wealthy. Thanks, Napa Valley Vintners. You are, at least for now, one up in this great rivalry.


Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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