A six-pack wine cooler that sold for $2,800 upstaged big-name Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays at the recent seventh annual Napa Valley Wine Auction. Produced by Far Niente Winery and labeled "Dos Okies" for its two Oklahoma-born proprietors, Beth Yorman and Gil Nickel, it was proclaimed as the world's most expensive wine cooler.
Another first is that it is the only cooler made from a costly barrel fermentation process utilizing 50% Chardonnay blended with orange, guava and passion fruit juices. Well made and less sweet than most popular coolers on the market, it is what may be best described as a serious cooler, which may be the forerunner of others. Yorman and Nickel made it specifically for the auction, as a kind of palate-in-cheek gesture to add a bit of fun to the sometimes overly competitive and intense auction atmosphere.
Another new Far Niente product, "Dolce" (sweet), attracted a successful bid of $1,000. This is a superbly fashioned dessert wine, a la a French Sauternes, with concentrated tropical fruit flavors from a blend of two-thirds Semillon and one-third Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Besides an extended barrel fermentation, the wine was aged for more than one year in all-new French Bordeaux-style barrels. Since this is a rich botrytised wine, it may be better enjoyed in small doses, such as 375-milliliter half-bottles at the current retail price of $30.
Capped off by a week of wine tastings, seminars, tours and dinners in what can be best described as Napa Valley's wine fiesta, the auction raised more than $440,000 for local health-care facilities. Much of the wine sold was new, unbottled, with delivery not expected for at least a year or two. Bidders were presented with an opportunity to taste these wines in the morning preceding the afternoon and evening sale.
Consumer Preferences Noted
Most fascinating was observing the changing bidding preferences of consumers, who in earlier auctions opted for older red vintages from leading, well-established wineries like Beaulieu, Inglenook, Charles Krug, Heitz and Beringer. Starting last year, a kind of changing-of-the-guard bidding practice has occurred, with newer, more recently established names like Merryvale and Robert Keenan enjoying high bids.
A prime example is Keenan, celebrating only his 10th anniversary, who sold a barrel (20 cases) of his 1986 Chardonnay for the lofty sum of $12,000, which included the pleasant prospect of the bidder given the opportunity to taste, blend, finish and label the wine to personal specifications. John H. Anderson of Fort Lauderdale, co-owner of Sonoma's Mission Inn, purchased the lot.
Paul Smith, a Northridge wine merchant, paid $13,000 for one puncheon (66 cases) of 1986 Cabernet Sauvignon, the inaugural vintage produced by Merryvale Vineyards at its fully restored Sunny St. Helena Winery. This was the first winery to be built in the Napa Valley after repeal of Prohibition in 1933, later operated by Cesare Mondavi, the father of Peter and Robert.
Another youthful Cabernet buy was made by Sun Valley importer Jim Cimino for an imperial (eight bottles) of Diamond Creek Lake, 1984, for $7,500, which also included two 1984 magnums and two bottles of 1978 from the same vineyard.
As it is with auctions of this type, bids are chiefly motivated by charity rather than wine. But that did not stop a number of the old-guard wines from going at relatively low prices, such as Inglenook's mixed case of vintages spanning three decades, beginning with 1959 and ending with 1970. This is a veritable treasure trove of Napa Valley Cabernets. It sold for a mere $3,200, inexpensive considering that these rarities are virtually impossible to find. A bottle of Inglenook's best-ever Cabernet, 1941, a truly priceless gem, sold for $1,700.
A similar example was a marvelous lot of 43 magnums donated by one of California's finest collectors, Walter Emery, featuring such cellar treasures as Robert Mondavi, Cabernet Reserve, 1974; Louis Martini, Special Selection, 1976; Heitz Cellars, Martha's Vineyard, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, and a host of other red and white selections. Purchased for an inexpensive $2,400, most of the wines cannot be duplicated at twice the price. A fascinating grouping of Heitz Wine Cellars, Martha's Vineyard, vintages 1973 through 1982, went for $3,200, while Freemark Abbey's 20-year-old inaugural Cabernet, 1967, went for only $90. A vertical lot of Robert Mondavi, Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve, featuring vintages 1974 through 1985, went under the market price at $1,750.