The lifestyles of the rich and raucous at Auction Napa Valley

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on May 6, 2019.
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Katy Perry headlining is the least over-the-top thing about this year’s wine world mega-event

On the grassy fairway at Napa’s Meadowood Resort, retired race car driver turned vintner Danica Patrick held court, sharing memories of her racing days with a gaggle of rose-gulping auction attendees thinking of bidding on her lot. One wandered off, fell over drunk, was carried to a nearby chair and handed an espresso.

Later, a recent college grad from Houston got so carried away by the 2006 Aston Martin in one lot that he bid US$280,000 and nailed it. His mother paid up.

These are the sorts of things that happen at Auction Napa Valley, the Super Bowl of annual wine charity events, where millions of dollars are raised and celebrity chefs and vintners gather with Hollywood stars and wealthy wine lovers to toast, drink, eat, and bid on fabulous experiences and wines.

Last year’s auction brought in US$13.6 million. Since 1981, the event has contributed a total of US$185 million to community health programmes and local charities that focus on children’s education.

To celebrate their 75th anniversary, the Napa Valley Vintners, the trade association of wineries that organises the auction, is going full red carpet in 2019 with a double header of star power. Pop singer-songwriter Katy Perry will kick off the live auction bidding on Saturday afternoon with a set of her hits (California Gurls, Roar, Dark Horse) intended to make everyone go wild, open their wallets, and bid big-ly. The culinary headliner, food media star Ayesha Curry, wife of Golden State Warriors player Stephen Curry, will preside over her versions of global barbecue at the post-auction dinner.

This year’s days of decadence are from May 30 to June 2 and pressure is on to top 2014’s record of US$18.6 million.


Beginner’s guide

Plenty of stretch limos will snake their way up to Meadowood for Saturday’s live auction. A long table of polished glasses, bearing gorgeous wines such as Stony Hill chardonnay and lush Azur rose (the weather will be hot), and cute kids representing various charities greet you on the green lawn.

This is no black tie affair. Think smart wine-country attire and maybe a Panama hat because of the sun. Glass in hand, you grab some delicious food, chat to vintners, who will be offering tastes to anyone who says hello, and wander through creative displays for each live lot until it is time to head into the big, white, blissfully air-conditioned auction tent.

The weekend’s format includes vintner-hosted dinners on Thursday and Friday, a Friday afternoon barrel auction, an e-auction, and Saturday’s live auction, dinner and after party. (You do not have to be there to bid. Registering as an e-bidder is free.)

The barrel auction (minimum bid US$200 [RM828]) is your chance to taste and bid on 112 wines from top Napa estates that are still ageing in barrel. Made especially for the event, they are mostly cabernets from the 2017 vintage that will not be available anywhere else.

Winemakers will be pouring tastes of these cuvees at upturned barrels, this year in the newly renovated Louis M Martini winery, which now looks like a posh hotel. You bid on your faves via an easy-to-use downloadable app. I have been tipped off that one hot pick is Amici Cellars’ special cuvee made from the famous Beckstoffer To Kalon vineyard’s grapes.

The casual atmosphere gets noisy quickly, as bidders check electronic screens to see if their bid for a lot is still in the top 10; at the end of the day, rather than winner-takes-all, each of those 10 get one case of the wine each. Outside, under 85-year-old olive trees, a jovial scene unfolds as indulgent dishes from local restaurants are eaten and much fantastic Napa wine is consumed. (Last year, at the dessert table, I sampled my fair share of a dozen kinds of chocolates that were great with cabernet.)

Prices can go high. The 10 buyers of last year’s top lot, the elegant VGS Chateau Potelle Fourmeaux cabernet blend, paid the equivalent of nearly US$1,000 a bottle.

Once the day gets long, intimate dinners at vintners’ homes are your chance to play valley insider. All are heavy on laid-back Napa charm, local chefs and ingredients, and usually fabulous views. At Barnett Vineyards, 2,000 feet up on Spring Mountain, I could see the sweep of the entire Napa Valley while I sampled their luscious Rattlesnake Mountain cabernet. My pick this year? Kenzo Estate’s authentic Japanese multi-course Kaiseki dinner in their pool house, accompanied by their subtle, elegant wines.


Wave that paddle

But Saturday’s live auction is the most riveting, emotional part of the weekend. Attendees sit at 10-person round tables with vintners who share their wines, then table hop to try more. Old vintages of Chappellet cabernet, for example, are common in this quickly escalating round robin.

Confetti and flying gold ribbon streamers start flying once bidding starts and amounts go high. Cheers and chanting accompany paddle wars. Waiters hover, delivering pizza, tiny sandwiches, even M&Ms, to keep those paddles raised.

Each of this year’s 30 lots features a mix of exclusive experiences, exotic travel, jewellery, and rare Napa wines.

After Perry revs up the crowd, I will have my eye on Continuum winery’s Lot No 1, an ultimate nine-day heritage tour of Italy with private visits to the Sistine Chapel, Bulgari’s collection of vintage cars, and tastings at the Ornellaia winery.

But I am also looking at Napa’s French connection lots: Opus One’s features a private dinner with the Rothschilds at Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, while Rudd estate’s includes dinner at Chateau Petrus with its charming winemaker Olivier Berrouet, and Colgin Cellars’ features a stay at the new Cheval Blanc hotel in Paris and a helicopter trip to Christian Dior’s home in Normandy.

Famished after all that spending or cheering, the rev’d up crowd streams out of the tent after the final gavel bang for a dinner on the lawn under strings of tiny white lights that look like stars. People mix and mingle, glasses of Napa reds and whites in hand, and successful bidders look jubilant or shell-shocked at how much they have spent.

According to Curry, also on the menu will be the big, bold Domaine Curry cabernet that she launched a year and a half ago with Stephen’s sister Sydel, made in collaboration with Napa’s Coup de Foudre winery. “Our Femme 31 Cabernet was tailor-made to pair with BBQ,” Curry emailed. “The oak in the wine goes so well with the smokiness.”

The night ends with music and dancing. At previous auctions I have swayed to Leon Bridges at one and danced to the jazzy beat of Le Van Van’s Cuban band at another.  Which means the party goes on as late as you want it to — provided you have enough espresso.


The Perry/Curry backstory

Curry has that Napa connection, but how did Auction Napa Valley nab Super Bowl performer Perry? The same way they obtained the most extravagant items for the live auction lots, explained Napa vintner Robin Lail of Lail Vineyards: “Somebody knows somebody who knows somebody.” She admits her suggestion of Perry was a long shot, but adds, “It’s win-win. She’s very philanthropic, and the vintners will do things to help with her charities.” On April 11, Perry accepted the Inspiration DVF Award at the Brooklyn Museum for her work with Unicef, LGBTQ advocacy and other causes.

“Everyone we considered for big roles had some kind of connection to charity,” says Paula Kornell, head of the live auction celebration committee. “Ayesha Curry has a tireless commitment to kids, including the 13 million children in America struggling with hunger.”

Over-the-top the auction may be, but hey, it is all for a good cause. — Bloomberg