The 38th annual Auction Napa Valley took place this past weekend (May 31-June 3), and it was a wild ticket, drawing Michelin-starred chefs, oenophiles and Steph Curry’s mom to the lawn at Meadwood Resort in St. Helena. The wine flowed like water, which may explain the bidding: Lot 20, which promised a VIP experience at the 2019 U.S. Open Golf Tournament at Pebble Beach, sold for $1 million.
Celebrated racecar driver Danica Patrick, who owns the ambitious Somnium Wine, enjoyed her first-ever trip to the auction in Napa, where it was 95 degrees in the shade on Saturday. Somehow Patrick kept her cool, even when asked how her boyfriend, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, enjoys his wine: “He’ll drink whatever I drink,” she said with a laugh. “He likes wine, too. He’s got a good palate for it.”
Auction Napa Valley (which attracts some 2,000 spectators) is the largest wine fundraiser in the world—a three-day event that raises money for local charities that provide healthcare for migrant farmworkers, mental health services, and early education for children. Since its launch in 1981, the auction has raised close to $200 million.
Patrick’s Somnium was part of Lot 28, which promised (among other thrills) a hayride with Tom Gamble of Gamble Family Vineyards, a signed guitar from Toby Keith, and the chance to be raced around a Sonoma track by Patrick herself, behind the wheel of a… Toyota Camry? From the stage, Patrick—the only woman to ever win an IndyCar Series race—promised potential paddle-raisers that she’d find a car with a little more kick to sweeten the pot, adding, “I definitely won’t drink before I drive.” Winning bid: $300,000.
Auction Napa Valley is famous for surprises like that. Eduardo Dingler, a celebrated sommelier and former Global Beverage Director for Morimoto, has been coming here for a decade. He recalled watching Chef Morimoto “feed bites into vintners’ mouths.” Will Harlan, managing director of the excellent Promontory and son of wine star Bill Harlan, recalled a spirited guest firing off “squirt guns filled with 200-year-old rum.” That’s the vibe here: Don’t take yourself too seriously. At last year’s event, honorary co-chair Sofia Coppola told me to forget what I’d heard about “rosé season. I like rosé all year-round,” she’d said. No argument here.
Every honorary chair wants to put their own spin on Auction Napa Valley. This year’s hosts, the Mondavi sisters—fourth generation wine-makers Riana, Giovanna, Alycia and Angelina—were no exception, serving as the youngest hosts in the event’s history. It was a long time coming; their great-grandparents were Italian immigrants Cesare and Rosa Mondavi, who bought Charles Krug in 1943. The Mondavi sisters recalled volunteering at the auction as kids. When asked about taking the reins this year, the sisters talked about honoring Napa’s roots before Alycia summed their plains up simply: “We wanted to make it fun.”
And so, a marching band playing Pharrell’s “Happy” escorted festivalgoers into the tent. Sommeliers materialized out of thin air to pour insanely delicious wines like a 2009 Promontory, a 2005 Cabernet from Silver Oak, and an aging Cabernet from Screaming Eagle that retails for close to $3,000 a bottle. And the sisters—partners in a serious wine, Dark Matter—began the auction with Auction Napa Valley’s first-ever selfie from the main stage. A rosé popsicle cart made the rounds and dessert trucks idled nearby. The sisters were particularly excited about moving the event’s after-party off campus; for the first time, it would be held late-night at The Charter Oak in St. Helena, recently named one of GQ’s Best New Restaurants in America.
But first, the bidding. The Mondavi sisters were responsible for the Chairs’ Lot, Lot 1, and they’d agonized over how to make it break the bank. “We’d been helping everybody else put their lots together; we had to scramble to get ours done!” said Alycia. “But I wanted it to be something memorable.” She’d been venting to a friend who’d worked in Dubai. “Right then and there, she got on the phone,” ringing up a friend in Dubai who’d “founded beach polo with the Crown Prince of Dubai,” Alycia recalled. “He said, You’ve got a table for 12, VIP experience.” From there, she built out the auction’s first-ever trip to the United Arab Emirates, which would include four nights in Dubai, two nights in Abu Dhabi, and a luxe tour of the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa. The lot sold for an impressive $220,000. Cue the confetti cannon.
Lot 11 included tickets for two to a masked ball held at Versailles. (The catalog read: “Party Like It’s 1789 with Opus One.”) The winning bid was $700,000. But when the second-place bidder offered to match that price, the auctioneer doubled the lot for a total of $1.4 million.
But for all the theatrics, one never forgets Auction Napa Valley is all about raising money for the community. This year’s auction was particularly poignant coming so soon after October’s devastating wildfires that burned more than 200,000 acres and left 43 people dead. The devastation was certainly top of mind on Saturday, when some children who’d taken refuge at the Calistoga Clubhouse in the wake of the fires were on hand to thank the community and to make a plea for bidders to give to organizations like the Boys & Girls Club of St. Helena and Calistoga. The total haul for the weekend: $13.6 million.
Vintner Jean-Noel Fourmeaux, owner of VGS Chateau Potelle, was all smiles on Saturday, despite the fact that he lost 60 percent of his crop in the fires. It helped that VGS—which he told me stands for “very good shit!”—took the top prize at the barrel auction on Friday, where he debuted the inaugural release of his Fourmeaux red wine. Said Fourmeaux himself: “As long as we are alive we can continue to do something. Naturally, at my age I would rather not have shit happening. But it happened. There is nothing I can do. So, let’s absolve it and smile.”
“For me, the best thing that results from such a difficult and harrowing experience for the industry is how well everybody has stuck together and helped each other out through the fires,” said Remi Cohen, the general manager and vice president of Lede Family Wines. “This is yet another example of the vintners getting together, supporting each other, supporting our community. It does feel special.” Her message: Come visit.
After the nearly four-hour auction, guests were served dinner out on the lawn, courtesy of James Beard award-winning chef Nancy Oakes from Boulevard. If one was somehow still hungry, there was the after-party, where Chef Christopher Kostow, who earned three Michelin stars at The Restaurant at Meadowood, cleared out his casual spot in town, The Charter Oak, to make room for 700-plus ticketholders who were given kitschy slap bracelets in lieu of paper passes. Under twinkly lights he served comfort food like cheeseburgers, oysters, chicken sandwiches, and hot wings. The party raged until 2am, with guests dancing in the restaurant’s courtyard.
But one thing was noticeably absent from the after-party: wine. There had been champagne flutes but it was otherwise a serious cocktail party. Said The Charter Oak’s co-owner, Nathaniel Dorn, with a smile: “It’s been a celebratory week of wine. Let’s finish with a cocktail.” Cheers.