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Seminars, Tastings and Tributes : A Record $439,000 Spent at Sixth Annual Napa Valley Benefit Auction

July 24, 1986|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

Prompted by three days of seminars, tastings and tributes for Napa Valley vintners and their wines, bidders spent a record $439,000 at the sixth annual Napa Valley Wine Auction at the Meadowood Resort Hotel recently. Charity was the keynote as bid after bid benefiting two Valley hospitals and a community health clinic bore no relationship to value or quality. One frustrated bidder accurately quipped, "Never have so many given so much for so little."

A prime example is Charles F. Shaw's Gamay Nouveau, 1986, representing still-on-the-vine, unpicked grapes (estimated value of $200) sold for $1,000. It will be delivered in a 15-liter barrel on Nov. 15 to coincide with the offering of French, Beaujolais Nouveau.

Another example is six magnums of Shaw's Chardonnay, 1983 (estimated value of $150), which was purchased by entertainer Dick Smothers for $600. Dick and his brother, Tom, are wine producers in Sonoma and Napa counties. They regaled 1,300 bidders at the auction's lavish candlelight dinner with personal anecdotes of their wine experience. Both griped that as neophytes they ventured into the industry and immediately placed wood grape stakes into the soil at seemingly limitless expense, but were never instructed that vines had to be planted too.

'Got Off Cheap'

The highest bid of $13,500 went for Dominus, a new red, simply labeled as Napa Valley Red Table Wine. Three imperials, one for each vintage, 1983, 1984 and 1985, were sold to Edward Jonna, a Michigan wine merchant, who, as one local put it, "got off cheap." This is the much ballyhooed dry red produced by Chateau Petrus of Bordeaux and Napanook Vineyards under the direction of Christian Mouieux, the UC Davis-trained Pomerol scion who also directs Petrus production. Napanook is a tiny vineyard at Rutherford near Inglenook Vineyards and was the pride of the late John Daniels, the grandnephew of the founder of Inglenook, Gustave Niebaum. The '83 will be released in November at about $35 to $40 per bottle, whereas the 1984 will be released in 1987 and the 1985 in November of 1988. All are a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, hence the non-varietal red table wine designation.

Apparently it is an auction axiom that wines with a French connection command the highest prices. Similar high tabs went for the debut releases of Opus I, the Robert Mondavi, Baron Philippe de Rothschild co-venture; R.M.S. Brandy, a joint venture between Napa Valley's Schramsberg Vineyards and Remy Martin of Cognac; and Domaine Mumm, Cuvee Napa, the sparkling wine partnership of the Seagram Co. of New York and the French Champagne House of G.H. Mumm and Co.

A fascinating Cabernet, 1985, labeled Accord and made by Stag's Leap Winery and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, constitutes the resolution of a long-term bitter feud between their respective proprietors Carl Doumaini and Warren Winiarski over the use of the name Stag's Leap. For years both engaged in legal battles, but now have buried the hatchet because Stag's Leap as a region has achieved the special viticultural area status granted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tax and Tobacco, thus freeing the name for use by others similarly situated. An imperial, two double magnums and a case of 12 (750-milliliter bottles) will be made available in 1988 on a one-time-only basis, to the winning bidder for $8,000.

Some bids did make good economic sense. At an estimated value of $140, six bottles of each of two vintages of Cakebread Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon for 1978, 1979 and 1980 sold for $200. The 1978 is now rare and is indeed as fine a Cabernet as Cakebread has made from one of the Valley's finer vintages. Two bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve, Beaulieu 1958, went for $880, not a bad buy considering the vintage to be one of the region's greatest, and rare to the point of extinction. Such old, mature, exciting and complex wines rarely surface at auctions.

Exotic Packaging

Many bidders, however, seemed to be more interested in exotic packaging than in wine quality. Far Niente, a winery restored in 1979, offered a 1983 Cabernet collection consisting of a half bottle, full bottle, magnum, double magnum, jeroboam and an imperial in a beautifully crafted wooden box designed to cradle the bottles and resemble a grand piano. Estimated at a value of $500, the wooden encasement drew an incredible sum of $3,700.

Some new offerings were curiously interesting. Sterling Vineyards produced a small amount of unblended Petit Verdot, a Bordeaux grape used sparingly and only as a blending agent with Cabernet. A taste of the '84 revealed a peppery nose, soft, easy, fruity style, a lot of flavor and without structure and tannin. A half barrel was presented in the form of various case lots, most of which sold for about $350 a case. It is not likely the varietal will be offered in unblended form again.

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