From the moment the Amici Cellars name first appeared on the flat-screen monitors, to the sound of Auctioneer Fritz Hatton’s gavel banging down, perhaps 45 seconds had transpired. And just like that, for one vintner anyway, Premiere week was over.
After a frenzied week of lunch and dinner meetings, tastings and parties, owners Bob Shepard, John Harris and Joel Aiken could finally breathe a sigh of relief. Their five-case lot of 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Spring Mountain District had fetched $15,000 at the auction, a 25 percent increase over the prior year. While not the highest price paid for a lot, it still exceeded the comparative prices of a number of bigger and better-known vintners. And while owners may not gloat, they definitely do pay attention.
But for winemakers like Amici, the auction is not just about the price that can be coaxed from interested buyers. It’s Amici’s way of giving back to the Napa Valley Vintners organization for the work it does for wineries big and small.
Amici is no newcomer to the Napa Valley, having produced wine since 1992, but has largely flown under the radar until recently. The winery started as a partnership between Shepard and Harris, neighbors on the San Francisco peninsula, who wanted to buy grapes and make wines for their personal consumption. As their friends expressed interest in acquiring some of the wine, the hobby became a small business, with gradual increases in production.
It didn’t take long for the wines to become noticed by connoisseurs, and favorable scores and ratings followed. This helped drive further increases in production, and the creation of distribution channels for the finished product. Still very small by comparison, Amici was becoming a full-time business for the owners, who decided to jump in with both feet.
A major catalyst for growth was an introduction to winemaker Joel Aiken in 2009. Formerly vice president of winemaking at Beaulieu Vineyards, Aiken had left the Rutherford winery after
25 years to start his own label.
In Shepard and Harris, Aiken found two owners who shared his dedication to making handcrafted, limited production wines, especially from single vineyards. Aiken became Amici’s winemaker, and a part owner, in late 2009.
The final cog in the venture’s growth was the purchase of a winery and residence on Old Lawley Toll Road in Calistoga in 2011 in time for the fall harvest. Now with the ability to host tastings by appointment, as well as house the winemaking operations, the Amici team is fully functional, and will produce about 6,500 cases of Napa Valley Cabernet, limited-release single-vineyard Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc this year.
Even when production was small, Amici saw the benefit of belonging to the Nava Valley Vintners association, and has participated in the Premiere auction 10 times over the past 11 years.
“Before the Napa Valley Vintners was formed, Louis Martini, John Daniel, Jr. and other valley pioneers worked very hard to talk not just about their wines, but Napa Valley wines,” says Amici’s Shepard. “When someone’s tractor would break down, they would share equipment and help each other out. That spirit of cooperation is still prevalent up here. The Vintners Association, I think, is an extension of that; they’ve taken that mantra and they’ve grown it.”
Shepard and Harris said that most wineries don’t have anywhere near the resources or expertise to handle the various activities that the Vintners group provides. Said Harris, “From legal protection, to marketing, worldwide exposure, education for wine and food writers and Somms — it’s amazing, and it takes a lot to reach out to all those people and explain why the Napa Valley is so unique.”
“We used to be a very small winery,” Shepard said, “and now we are a couple rungs up on a very tall ladder. But we get a spot; we get a chance to put our wines out there. They don’t take the little guys and put them in a corner. The Vintners are more than fair to the little wineries. So naturally, we want to support the organization, and Premiere is our way of doing so.”
Like other winemakers in the valley, the Amici crew spent Premiere week entertaining trade guests from all over the country in a series of gatherings up and down the valley. The biggest event was a party Thursday night at the Uptown Theater in Napa, where event chair Steve Reynolds and 20 celebrated vintners (including Amici) hosted buyers at an elaborate “Rocky Horror Picture Show” gala.
But did the party help sell the wine?
“The meetings, the parties — for us they are not about selling more wine, or even our auction lot,” said Harris. “It’s really about forming and maintaining relationships. And that’s true not just for us, but for the entire Napa Valley. That’s what Premiere week is really all about.”