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Napa Valley Wine Auction 2000: a view from table 24

Saturday June 3rd 2000

By David Elswood

After 16 years with Christie's, David Elswood is now managing director of www.winebid.co.uk, a company specializing in internet-only wine auctions. This is his report for the wine anorak on this year's Napa Valley wine auction.

The annual Napa Valley Wine Auction is without doubt, the biggest and ritziest wine event on the calendar, when the winery owners, winemakers, residents and supporters of the ‘Valley’ get to show off their product, entertain the world and revel in the increasingly global influence and excellence of Napa Valley wines – oh and also pay excessive amounts of $$ for one-off lots supplied by the wineries in the interest of local charities. The event is held in the manicured splendour of the Meadowood Country Club, deep in the heart of vineyard territory and hosts over 3000 individuals to a relentless procession of winemaker events, tastings, black-tie galas and silent, barrel and live auctions. Tough work. Having been on the rostrum myself for last years record-breaking event when $5.5 million was amassed, I was looking forward to the opportunity of viewing the event from the floor as a guest, thus giving me ample chance to consume decent wine throughout the 6-hour, 166-lot live sale marathon rather than the Calistoga mineral water which comes your way as sober-minded auctioneer!

Sharing a prime front-and-centre table with baseball legend turned winemaker, Rusty Staub and the owners of Staglin Family Vineyards, Garin and Shari Staglin, gave me ample opportunity to achieve this as we slurped our way through the Staglin range and Dalla Valle 93 and 95 interspersed with cold beers courtesy of the excellent Mr Staub.

The auction was, as always an overt attempt to top the previous year’s activities, both financially and stylistically (well, US style at any rate – for some an oxymoron no doubt). And boy they achieved it – highlights included $500,000 (yes, half a million) for a SINGLE six litre bottle of SCREAMING EAGLE 1992 – a new world record for a single bottle of wine and $700,000 for a modest 10 vintage vertical of HARLAN in magnums – this being a new world record for any lot of wine ever sold – it was that kind of day. I confirmed later in a St Helena real estate office that you could actually purchase a decent 4 bed house with 3 acre vineyard in Napa for a similar sum….other $200,000 plus buys came from COLGIN, STAGLIN, DALLA VALLE, ARAUJO, BERINGER, VINE CLIFF and PINE RIDGE – (co-owner of Pine Ridge, NANCY ANDRUS was the enthusiastic Chair of the event – an honour which some candidates may view in future as a potentially poisoned chalice as pressure to succeed becomes more onerous – I’m sure Bob Mondavi will be more than equal to the task in 2001). Total cash raised was $9.5m.

So, all in all, not a bad day’s work – throw in Patti Labelle as the cabaret turn, non-stop food and wine in the balmy California sunshine and Bob Mondavi astride a snarling Harley at one point riding through the tent and you get some idea of proceedings. Perhaps you should be there next year – I plan to be. I’ll be the English guy UNDER table 24 if you need me.

David Elswood, Winebid UK