ST. HELENA — Under a magenta-ceilinged banquet tent at the Meadowood Napa Valley resort near St. Helena, the paddles shot up and the prices climbed in rapid-fire fashion at Auction Napa Valley’s showcase live auction. It was an afternoon to enjoy free-flowing wine and bid huge sums on many of Napa County’s finest vintages – and some of the most lavish of throw-in gifts – all for a good cause.
“Four-forty, 450, 460 … 470? Yes! 470!” auctioneer Fritz Hatton pattered at breakneck speed amid ripples of cheers and the raising of wooden paddles.
“Five hundred thousand is not the give-up point! Five hundred? Five ten, 520 ...”
At last the bidding slowed to a near halt, and Hatton stretched his syllables to milk the moment of suspense. “Going once … going twice … $530,000 … sold!” he finally shouted to the new owner of three magnums of Continuum red wine – not to mention a vacation to Rome, Tuscany and Florence.
It was the first of 31 lots combining Napa Valley estate wines with vacation getaways, haute-cuisine experiences and other prizes, a celebration of wine that boosted local nonprofits one six-figure bid at a time.
In large hats and sundresses or crisp suits, spectators thronged at a series of banquet tents where displays touted the live auction’s most dramatic prizes. Silver Oak Cellars threw in a Golden State Warriors NBA championship ring and autographed jerseys with its three double magnums of Cabernet Sauvignon; the winner of the Parisian jaunt Colgin Cellars packaged with its half-dozen bottles would be treated to a helicopter ride to the family home of Christian Dior.
One winemaking couple has seen nearly the entire arc of the auction, from its close-knit roots as a gathering of Napa Valley enthusiasts to the fashionable, high-dollar bidding festival it has become. After two decades bidding on wines and 14 more exhibiting at the auction, Joe and Pat Harbison decided to return this weekend as spectators again.
“It was smaller then, mostly wine collectors,” recalled Joe Harbison of Harbison Estate Wines in Oakville. “The cool thing was you’d go to the dinners and that’s where you’d meet the winemakers. Since then the lots have gotten bigger, different people are coming; it’s become more of an event now.”
Amid a lavish slate of auction prizes – from vacations to Paris and the Bordeaux wine country to a Carnegie Hall concert in New York to a wildlife excursion in southern Africa – Harbison’s attention remained on the wines themselves. “We’ve always like the lots where you, say, go to a vertical tasting and drink 30 years of Beaulieu,” he said.
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Still, the couple added, the auction’s glamorous present has its own charms – and the ability to attract the guests who help bolster charitable causes in the Napa Valley.
“Back then it was a familiar thing where you met winemakers you knew,” said Pat Harbison. “Now it’s meeting new people, going places you’ve never been. Both are very special.”
The live auction’s star power extended beyond the fine wines on the block – all the way to this year’s star performer and celebrity cook.
Katy Perry, one of the top-selling singers of the past decade, opened the main event with a five-song acoustic set under the big tent before the start of bidding. Later Saturday, chef Ayesha Curry joined chefs from the Michael Mina family in preparing the post-auction dinner at Meadowood.
Auction Napa Valley has been a driver of philanthropy for Napa Valley social services since its 1981 debut, raising more than $185 million for nonprofits dedicated to community health care and children’s education.
“Everyone’s excited not just to bid, but for the cause, said Nick Berube, a Grgich Hills Estate spokesman who was making his first trip to the live auction. “Everyone’s here for a good reason, not just the extravagance of the event.”
This year’s auction weekend marks the 75th anniversary of the Napa Valley Vintners, which was founded by seven local winemakers in October 1944.
Festivities began Friday with the Barrel Auction, held in the historic Louis M. Martini Winery in St. Helena, which reopened in March after a renovation. An e-auction that began Friday includes 159 additional lots of Napa Valley wines, wine future, and culinary and hospitality experiences, and was slated to continue through noon Monday.
The results of the live auction were not available at press time.