ST. HELENA, Calif. — The real story of the Napa Valley Wine Auction's ninth incarnation should have been people like Buck Mandigo. Instead, it turned out to be high-rollers who understand the word publicity.
Mandigo, a San Antonio, Tex., wine collector, bought both auction lots of Stony Hill Chardonnay, two cases of wine, and was not unpleased to spend a total of $12,000 for the two lots.
"I tasted Stony Hill Chardonnay only once, at Square One Restaurant in San Francisco, and I liked it a lot," said Mandigo. "I know it's hard to get, and I came here to get some."
Such a bid, which would have raised eyebrows in past auctions, was a mere twitch on the pachyderm here last Saturday as bidders from around the country went slightly insane.
The best example of wackiness came midway in the auction held under a giant white tent on a lawn at Meadowood Country Club here. Robert Woolley, the Dallas founder of the Embassy Suites chain of 97 hotels, won three 18-liter bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag's Leap Wine Cellars for a bid of $55,000.
To show how high that single bid was, think about it this way: in eight previous auctions, the all-time high record bidder for an entire auction was Alan Shugart, who in 1984 spent a total of $56,158 all day.
This year, however, when Paul Smith of Northridge, owner of a fine wine shop, bid nearly $20,000 for two lots of wine, from Robert Mondavi and Hess Collection, his purchases were ignored.
The fact is that Smith will be selling the 20 cases of wine he bought, so the public will be able to get them. Others bought icons, pieces of art that will be showed off and cherished. But they were one-of-a-kind artifacts.
Woolley said he intends to donate the Stag's Leap wine back to the auction again next year "to see if anyone will top my bid."
In any case, the high bid had to be a bit of good news and a bit of bad for Warren Winiarski, owner of Stag's Leap, who vowed to match the winning bid with a donation to the wine-making program at the University of California at Davis. He had said the bottles might fetch as much as $7,000 to $10,000.
A tip-off to the fact that this auction was going to be a mania of auction-tent frenzy came with the first three lots offered for sale by enthusiastic auctioneer J. Brian Cole of Christie, Manson and Woods of London. The wines, all from Silver Oak Cellars, brought successive bids of $1,100, $1,500, and $1,700.
Clearly, there were no Easy Goers at this horse race.
The first real excitement came with the auction less than an hour old. Eight dramatic six-liter-sized bottles of wines from eight different wineries, all sand-etched and hand painted by local artist Gaye Frisk, were up for bid.
In his auction catalogue, William Woolley of Boca Raton, Fla., had written, "AAA, Must." And his paddle kept popping up just as Cole looked to the rear of the tent where Charles Sweeney's arm was being held aloft by none other than Robert Woolley, no relation.
The Sweeney/Wooley team's paddle never wavered. Each time Cole shouted out a new bid, William Woolley hesitated, then matched it. "Twenty-eight thousand . . . 30,000 . . . 32,000. . . ."
When the bid reached $35,000, Cole looked down to William Woolley and said, " . . . and?" To which Woolley responded with a weak nod and an upraised paddle. At that, the Sweeney/Woolley team capitulated.
The new record for a single lot of wine, $38,000, had shattered the old single-lot record here, $24,000, set at the first auction (1981) by Charles Mara, a Syracuse, N.Y., wine merchant who sat across the tent and grinned.
Later, Mara said, "I met him (William Woolley) at dinner the other night and the guy said he wanted to be the biggest bidder here. He knows how to play the game."
Publicity Is Name of Game
Mara said that the "game" is national publicity. "The quickest way to get attention in the wine business today is to buy the big lots. After I bought the first case of Opus One for $24,000, all the doors opened for me."
Mara first learned the joys of buying wine for a lot of money when he bought a large bottle of 1806 Chateau Lafite in 1978 for $28,000 and then poured the wine for a charity event. He later said the whole thing cost him very little out of pocket (after tax deductions, of course).
"Sure, I could have spent that ($28,000) in a local newspaper in half a year, but this is the fastest and cheapest way to get national attention, and in a heartbeat. Hey, we're all in the commodities game, and Woolley's now a player."
Woolley, who owns a chain of Food Town grocery stores in the northeastern part of the United States, opened his Woolley's wine and deli in Boca Raton about a year ago. He said: "I have the best wine selection of any shop in the United States."
Sitting at his table during the first spirited lot bidding was Jim Mancbach of Pompano Beach, Fla., a veteran bidder at these auctions.