Monday, February 24, 2014

PREMIERE NAPA VALLEY: Or How The Best Wine Marketers in America Sell The Most Exclusive and Expensive Futures in California

Premiere Napa Valley features the poshest of the posh - one of a kind wines in a category that can only be described as "super, super, super premium"  - in a triumph of wine marketing in America, commanding prices that soar above rival regions.

Cult wines like Continuum and Scarecrow and established brands from To Kalon fruit - including Mondavi and more - all sold here for generally north of $8,000 a case. In fact, the Scarecrow, sourced from a vineyard on what was once the Inglenook estate, took the lead at $260,000 for 5 cases (or $4,333 a bottle), bought by an LA buyer (in a bidding contest with a Japanese gentleman) who wanted to "keep the wine in America."

At this year's event sales were double last year's prices with $6.9 million in sales. Does that tell you something about the market for luxury goods? Premiere Napa Valley should be one of the economic indicators tracked by the Davos attendees at the World Economic Forum.

There were more than 225 lots ranging from 60 bottles to 240 bottles (5-20 cases) from many of Napa's finest producers. As interesting as the wines were, I was personally captivated by the vastly more diverse community of buyers - from the  big boys of Texas oil and the frackers of Oklahoma (the auctioneer got into fracking jokes) to Korean wine powerhouse NaraCellars (owned by Napa vintner Hi Sang Lee, proprietor at Napa's DANA) and an independent Chinese buyer I met at lunch (Paddle #107).

Premiere Napa Valley takes place over several days and includes opportunities for buyers to peruse the wares widely one day and to do a comprehensive, intense but complete sampling of the wines for sale on the following morning before the afternoon auction. Here's what the schedule looks like:


20+ wines were available to taste
with 2009, 2010, and 2011 vintages side by side

Tastings that focus on the quality of past vintages

--A recent vintages tasting focuses on the last 3 years (i.e. retrospective of 2009, 2010 and 2011)

--A more historic tasting focuses on vintages in 10 and 20 year intervals, showcasing the ageability of these wines

This demonstrates to buyers that there is stylistic continuity over time from 2009-2011 wines and depth and complexity (let's hope) achieved by the older wines.

My personal favorite (as well as the favorite of several other wine writers) was the 1984 vintage Brut from Schramsberg. (Yes, I am prejudiced for personal reasons - but it was hard for the Cabs to compete with the singular sparkler in the house and such an old, beautifully complex one at that).


Tastings by AVA

--The AVAs, scattered throughout the valley, put on group tastings, usually with a beguiling assortment of wine bites, from prosciutto to triple creme cheese from Burgundy.

Tasters would be hard pressed to get to all of these geographically disperse gatherings, so some AVAs put on their tastings in rented halls in downtown St. Helena to consolidate the rounds.

With my posse of new friends from the Wine Writers Symposium, I visited the Pritchard Hill tasting (with gorgeous views of Napa Valley) and back in town hit the Spring Mountain and Oak Knoll tastings. The more prepared would be bidders hit the Oakville and Rutherford tastings held in their own districts.



Tasting of all the wines for sale

-- 225 wines are available to try, all from individual vintner stands.

Can you drink 225 wines in 2 hours? Probably not. I heard of people who made it through 75 - that would be around 1.5 minutes per wine?

The best part of Saturday's tasting is that vintners and winemakers man (or woman) the booths so you can get the info - and the wine - straight from the horse's mouth. I dare say most of the serious buyers already know which wines they're going for, well before the barrel tasting morning, so this is last call for many.

The tasting is held at Greystone, the CIA, and features a buffet lunch from their gourmet team - foie gras, and all the Continuum-Shafer-Cakebread-Keever et al you can drink. The vintners have got to get these paddle holders ready for The Big Buy.


The auction

With rousing hard rock music cranked up, the games begin. A screaming Premiere Napa Valley committee chairman (this year it was Hugh Davies of Schramsberg) incites the crowd. I feel as if I am in ancient Rome.

The auctioneers appear - two rotate. A short, leaning-toward-stout guy is up first, followed by a classy lady who's almost a dead ringer for Grace Kelly in a form fitting black dress that is unmistakeably classic Kelly, worn with petite diamond earrings. The pair present an amusing contrast in appearance, but perform equally when it comes to brass tacks - the bidding is fair, spirited and one of the greatest shows in town.

It seems they might know these buyers…from the fracking versus petroleum jokes (two bidders, one from Oklahoma and one from Texas) or the references to various towns or countries. Perhaps this is an annual migration for all of these players.

I sat dead center in the front row, just in front of my new friend Paul Franson (a prolific Napa wine writer) and his friend James Conaway (author of the definitive nonfiction narrative of Napa called Napa: An American Eden.)

To my left was a dashingly handsome fellow who bore a striking resemblance to George Clooney. He was a salesman from Massachusetts, who was madly texting through the first 70 or so lots until the lot his buyer wanted came up for sale. He didn't even get a bid in as his limit was below the first price. Later he bid on another wine - and at least got a first bid in, although that was quickly the end of that as the bidding escalated to heights beyond his buyer's reach.

Sasha Vaynerchuk of Wine Library 
To my right was a threesome from Wine Library, New Jersey's most famous wine seller, thanks in part to the YouTube and social media marketing moxie of founder Sasha Vaynerchuk's son - Gary - who had the biggest YouTube following in recorded history for his wine tasting show, featuring his trusted football team helmet (the Jets, baby) and all star guest lineup.

It was good to be reminded that the family's real business is wine, not YouTube videos.

I watched Sasha (paddle #169) throughout the proceedings as he defeated rivals in the early bidding for Lot #13,  20 cases of Robert Mondavi's To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon (2012). Vaynerchuk dropped out on a few other lots, bidding $40,000 for lots that eventually went for $90,000. He rebounded to get one of the finest lots for sale - Lot #150, the Bevan Cellars & Chateau Boswell Cab blend, from two mountain vineyards, paying twice as much for it as he had for the Mondavi - $85,000 for 10 cases. (That works out to $708 a bottle versus $354 for the To Kalon).

The guy on my left leaned across me to congratulate him, saying he thought that was one of the best wines on offer.

At the end, I had a quick word - very quick - with Sasha. He said it had been his first year at the event. "No bargains here," he said.

Maybe last year - but that was all from the 2011 vintage, an admittedly difficult year, which no one was particularly enthusiastic about.

The 2012s have put The Valley - Cab City - back on track.

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