Sunday, June 1, 2008

Remembering the first auction of Napa Valley wines

Alex Dirkheising, owner of All Season’s Bistro and the Hydro Grill in Calistoga, stands behind three of many large bottles of wine — one of them a jeroboam of pinot noir — he has collected from the Napa Valley Wine Auction since it started in 1981. On the wall hang bid paddles he has collected from Napa Valley’s biggest wine event of the year. John Waters Jr. photo

A bottle of wine sold at the first Napa Valley Wine Auction, held June 21, 1981, remains unopened.

The successful bidder was Calistogan Alex Dierkhising, who paid $6,000 for a Jeroboam of 1969 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon. When contacted on Monday, Dierkhising said the large-format bottle that holds 4.5 liters of wine, never left the winery. He said he bought the 1969 wine because he had tasted it and thought “this is a great bottle of wine.” It was one of four made by the winery.
Dierkhising said he attended the 1982 auction and bought Chappellet’s next vintage, 1970, of cabernet sauvignon, also in a Jeroboam bottle. “I thought I’d put together a small vertical of the large format bottles,” he said, but instead he bought other large format bottles, including those from Mondavi, Phelps and others.

At the first auction, Dierkhising said he spent $9,000 on some 60-75 cases of wine. He added, “I bought wine at the auction for 20 years, but I’ve not been active buying for the last five. It’s been a whole different league in the last 10-15 years.” To show what he calls the inflation of wine, he said he did a study a few years ago. He claims the 60-75 cases he bought in 1981 for $9,000 would now cost $1.5 million.
What are the plans for the two Chappellet Jeroboams? Dierkhising said he had thought he’d throw a “Millennium” party and open the bottles of wine, but New Year’s Day 2000 came and went. Now, he said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with the bottles.” When asked how big his cellar was, he replied that he would “have to check his computer,” but added, he probably has a “couple thousand” bottles of wine.

Dierkhising and his partner, Gayle Keller, operate two Calistoga restaurants, Hydro Bar & Grill and All Seasons Bistro, across the street from each other at the intersection of Lincoln Avenue and Washington Street. Occasionally, some of the wines Dierkhising has bought at the auction, now called Auction Napa Valley, will be on the wine list at All Seasons. He said he will attend this year’s auction as usual and said it remains a spectacular event. All of his bidding paddles line one wall at All Seasons Bistro.
The inaugural auction of Napa Valley wines, hosted then and now by the Napa Valley Vintners, with proceeds going to Napa Valley charities, included 596 lots — barrels, bottles and library wines — from 44 vintners. The auction began at 10 a.m. with a break for lunch from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. and continued into the evening. Michael Broadbent was the auctioneer and the event was held at Meadowood.

1981 catalog found

In 1981, Earl Brown was one of the developers of Temp Trol, a temperature controlled wine warehouse with freight facilities in St. Helena. He said he attended the first auction and remembers the sale of the first case of Opus One produced. The winery was a joint venture between Robert Mondavi and Baron Phillipe de Rothschild and the case sold for $24,000, which Brown said was an unheard of price at the time. “People figured it might go for $10,000 or $12,000 for the case, but $2,000 a bottle was amazing. That was big money at the time,” he added. The second case, sold for $2,400.

Brown knows the figures because he owns an auction catalog from the first auction, along with his bidding paddle, an invitation to the auction and other memorabilia. The 96-page catalog lists the 44 vintners who participated, from Beringer to ZD, and gives a description of the 596 lots. He kept track of the prices paid, so he knows a double magnum of 1972 Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon reserve, for example, sold for $310 and two bottles of 1973 and 1974 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon sold for $320. A case of magnums of 1974 Martha’s Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, produced by Heitz Cellars, sold for $2,100.

Brown said he had the best time attending the auction, but added, he no longer needs the auction memorabilia, so he’s listed it on eBay. What is it worth? “I have no idea, I just put it on there. The main thing, though, is that it probably should go into someone’s archives,” he said.

Brown, who is 63, said when he worked in the Napa Valley, he lived in Belvedere and commuted back and forth, since it was only 67 miles away. He worked in the valley for eight or nine years and commented, “It was a wonderful place at that time.” He now lives in Santa Barbara.

2008 Auction Napa Valley

Terry Hall, communications director of the Napa Valley Vintners, said this year’s Auction Napa Valley has already begun with online bidding of 81 lots of wine. In four days of bidding, he said, there have been 2,000 bids from all over the world.

“It has already surpassed the bidding from three years ago,” he said, adding that both in terms of traffic and dollars, bidding is twice last year’s volume after four days. Bidding started Friday, May 23 and ends Friday, June 6. Items can be viewed and bids made at the Napa Valley Vintners’ Web site:

On Thursday, June 5, the four-day Auction Napa Valley begins, with vintners throughout the valley hosting afternoon and evening parties. These are available for participants who have bought tickets, which are available through the NVV.

Friday’s Taste Napa Valley is the signature event for local residents as it will include 150 vintners pouring wine under tents, 127 barrel lots inside a building at the Trinchero Family facility in St. Helena, and 60 food purveyors. The event is from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. During different times of the afternoon, the E-Auction lots will close. The barrel tasting and auction closes at 4 p.m. Some 3,000 people are expected to attend and Hall said all the 700 tickets for Napa Valley residents, at $125 apiece, sold in less than eight hours.

Thirty-two vintners throughout the valley will be providing intimate dinners for their guests and an additional 15 wineries will be hosting private luncheons at mid-day Saturday.

Live auction

An expected 900 people, including vintners, bidders and volunteers will attend the live auction, held inside a huge tent on the Meadowood grounds. The auction, which includes 44 lots, begins after dinner and a performance by Jay Leno, who is the master of ceremonies this year. The auction chairs are the Heitz Family and its auction lot includes an exclusive vacation for 16 people at a resort in the Adirondacks, including private jet transportation from Chicago and two cases of Heitz wines.

The Auction Napa Valley, The American Wine Classic, is the Napa Valley Vintners’ community fund-raiser and since the auction began, it has donated more than $27 million to fund health care, affordable housing and youth programs throughout the Napa Valley. Hall said, “All the vintners host the event and all the auction lots are donated. Whatever is raised goes back to local charities. Our goal is for this event to be a fundraiser, because there is such a great need out there.

“We want to welcome our out-of-town guests, because they are supporting the charities within Napa County. It is so great to roll out the red carpet for them,” he said.