Every year Auction Napa Valley brings ultra-high-rollers together with Napa royalty (the in-the-biz term for the Valley’s most significant winery owners) for several days of charitable fund-raising. The currency is, of course, wine.
This year’s auction took a Latin theme, thanks to honorary auction chair Agustin Huneeus, Jr, of Quintessa winery and Huneeus Vintners. “I really wanted to infuse this year’s event with my cultural upbringing,” Huneeus said. “That’s why we brought in chef Francis Mallman from Argentina, that’s why we brought in Los Van Van [the Grammy-winning Cuban dance band], that’s why people were greeted with a Pisco punch as they came in. We really wanted to infuse it with Hispanic culture because we’re a big part of Napa Valley, too.”
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The temperatures probably helped contribute to the Latin feel—on Friday, it was 99˚ on the grounds of Robert Mondavi Winery, where the barrel auction part of the event was held. That didn’t stop bidders from going long on special barrel lots from the acclaimed 2014 and 2015 vintages, with the top amount going to star winemaker Philippe Melka’s 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Metisse Montbleau vineyard ($62,100).
The main event of the weekend, though, was the live auction at the Meadowood resort. Bidders were greeted by star chef Mallman’s dramatic live-fire cooking—eight-foot tall wire domes from which dangled over 750 pounds of whole rib roasts and whole chickens (to check out some of Mallman's great recipes on F&W, look here). “The vintners and I convinced Bill Harlan to dig a 100’ by 10’ trench through the Meadowood golf course,” Huneeus, Jr. observed. “How we did that, I’m still not sure.”
As bidding got underway in the big tent, things were loud, lively, and successful, with over 900 guests raising more than $14.2 million total. Each year there seems to be a competition among wineries to outdo each other on the bling-factor of the auction lots. This year, though, offered fewer extravagant, far-flung trips and more one-of-a-kind experiences in Napa Valley, such as dinner for fifty guests at Yountville’s acclaimed French Laundry restaurant, offered by Robert Mondavi Winery in honor of its 50th anniversary (also included, rare vintages of Mondavi wines at the dinner; the lot sold for $520,000).
Nevertheless, the top lot did feature international travel: Staglin Family Vineyard’s “Into Africa, Incomparably,” a multi-day luxury tour of South Africa ending up with a four-day safari. The trip for three couples went for $1.05 million. Shannon Staglin, the winery’s president, remarked after the auction, “We’re thrilled our lot could inspire such over-the-top generosity of the winning bidders to benefit our community, and we thank our contributing vintners Mike Ratcliffe, Charles Banks and others for making an amazing South African experience possible. We’re truly fortunate to be able to share our philosophy of ‘great wine for great causes’ with a community of vintners around the world.”
That’s the key takeaway from the auction, because despite all the bling and big bottles of cult Cabernets, all the money raised by Auction Napa Valley goes to local charities: healthcare for migrant farmworkers, mental health, early education for kids, and more. Over the life of the auction, those donations have amounted to more than $150 million raised for charity. And, as vintner Tim Mondavi—whose father Robert Mondavi came up with the idea for the auction 36 years ago—wryly observed to me at the barrel auction, “You know, one hundred and fifty million dollars is not chicken-feed.”