Aspen Times Weekly: Barrels of Fun

by kelly j. Hayes
The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone is the home of the Premiere Napa Valley Auction.
Kelly J. Hayes | Special to the Daily |


Italics Winegrowers, $130,000

2014 Memento Mori Cabernet Sauvignon, $130,000

Nine Suns 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, $130,000

Realm Cellars, $75,000

Shafer Vineyards, $70,000

TOR Kenward Family, $70,000

“OK, next up is lot No. 41 from Realm Cellars with an opening bid of $50,000,” auctioneer Fritz Hatton announced with enthusiasm to the amped up room of bidders at the 2016 Premier Napa Valley Wine Auction at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

With a drop of the gavel the bidding commenced. “Do I hear fifty? Fifty over here on the right. Fifty-five from the gentleman just here in front of me. Sixty on the left again, and a bid of $70,000 on my right, thank you sir,” he continued without missing a beat. “What’s that? $75,000 from the gentleman in the back. Do I hear eighty? Do I hear $80,000?” The gavel rapped with finality. “Lot 41 from Realm Cellars is sold to the gentleman in the back for $75,000. Congratulations, sir.”

And just like that, 60 bottles of a special release of Realm Cellars 2014 flagship wine, called “Absurd” and double-dubbed with the name “The Rhinoceros” for these proceedings, was sold to a member of the trade for $1,250 a bottle. The purchaser will receive his wine upon release in 2017. He may sell it as a special, one-of-a-kind bottling from winemaker Benoit Touquette’s much sought after Bordeaux blends of cabernet, cab franc, petit verdot and merlot. But, perhaps more likely, he will keep the bottles for his cellar or as gifts for friends and business associates.


The above scene was repeated 200 times over a three-hour span on Feb. 20, and at the end of the day $5 million had been spent on the lots (collections of 60, 120 or 240 bottles of wine depending up the size of the lot) prepared exclusively for the auction. The proceeds benefitted the Napa Valley Vintners, a nonprofit trade association that represents 525 Napa Valley wineries and promotes the region and their wines globally. The 2016 auction generated the third highest total proceeds in the 20-year history of the Premiere Napa Valley Auction. Last year’s handle set an auction record with $6 million in sales.

In Napa, there are two significant wine auctions held each year. Auction Napa Valley, which takes place in June, has been a must stop for collectors since its inception at Bill Harlan’s Meadowood Resort in 1981. Proceeds benefit a plethora of Napa Valley community initiatives and, since its founding, over $150 million has been donated to different organizations.

The second, Premiere Napa Valley, is restricted to the trade and those who have reseller licenses. This includes retailers, restaurateurs, hoteliers, distributors and importers. It means the crowd of over 1,000 who descend on the grounds of the CIA for the auction has major wine bona fides. Winemakers are selling wine to wine sellers if you will.

Wine auctions come in many forms but the most interesting are those, like Premiere Napa Valley, that are put on by vintners themselves to raise funds for their own regions and interests. It is at these events that the vested interest of the sellers brings out their special wines.


The day began with a grand tasting session in the Napa Valley Vintners Hall of Fame at the CIA. Some 226 barrels of wine were lined up in the historic room and, behind each, stood a winemaker or representative from the winery. Tim Mondavi, who poured his Continuum wines stood alongside the likes of Doug Shafer, Cyril Chappellet and Cathy Corison, all legends in Napa winemaking. The best of the next generation of winemakers, including Aaron Pott, Phillipe Melka, Celia Welch and Thomas Rivers Brown, also had a number of wines on display. For two hours the bidders walked the room, trading barbs with the winemakers and tasting wines to determine which lots they wanted to bid on.

For their part, the winemakers have put together unique, one-of-a-kind wines that they will not be selling to the general public, but exclusively for this auction. This means that this is the only place where you will ever find these wines. Once the lots are purchased by the buyers, the winery will age and bottle them with special labels before sending them off to the purchasers.

The bidding can be raucous, fueled both by wine and testosterone — and the stakes are high. Tech money, Swiss money, Asian money, Texas money and funny money all drive the proceedings. When special lots come to the fore, you can feel the tension in the room ratchet-up a notch or three.

At the hotel I stayed in, a group of three investors from Hong Kong reveled in their purchase of a half a dozen lots. The heaviest hitters may have been a troika of Swiss bidders who spent $130,000 shortly after the start of the auction on lot No. 4, 60 bottles of Cabernet from Memento Mori. They made a number of other purchases as the day proceeded.

This year’s auction not only started with a bang, but ended with a pair of booms as well. Shortly before the final gavel fell there were back-to-back $130,000 purchases of lots No. 196 and No. 197 (a five-case cabernet offering from Italics Winegrowers in the nascent Coombsville AVA and a Nine Suns Cabernet from winemaker Sam Kaplan).

Once again Fritz’s gavel struck the podium. With vigor.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at

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