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Robert and Peter Mondavi

Seated side-by-side, Robert (left) and Peter (right) Mondavi,
for an evening of charitable spirit.

Napa Valley (AVA)

2006 Auction Napa Valley: $8.5 million raised for charities while highlighting the Valley’s sub-AVAs

In the 25+ years that the AVA system has been in place in the U.S., this year’s auction marked the first time that the valley’s appellations…have been recognized for their differences.

by Alan Goldfarb
June 9, 2006

In what was perhaps the most dressed down Auction Napa Valley (ANV) in at least two decades – far down valley at least – for the first time there was a palpable acknowledgement of the region’s multi-appellations.

The four day early June bacchanal was held in the beautiful and aromatic gardens (redolent amazingly of chocolate, depending upon the season) at the heretofore utterly-overlooked-as-an-auction-venue Copia. In this scent filled environ, 13 of the Napa Valley’s 15 AVAs (American Viticulture Areas) were represented for the sparsely attended gathering.

This was the first time that the auction, hosted by the Napa Valley Vintners’ (NVV), now in its 26th year, included Copia – the American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts that opened less than six years ago – in its myriad of events. In the 25+ years that the AVA system has been in place in the U.S., this year’s auction also marked the first time that the valley’s appellations – created more for geo-political and/or marketing purposes – have been recognized for their differences.

Save for its winter auction known as Premiere Napa Valley, in which lots are divided by sub-regions, and some tastings during the year that an increasing number of AVA organizations are beginning to conduct, a wine drinker with proclivities toward stylistic and/or terroir differentiation has to look long and hard to find wine tasting events designed with them in mind.

Actress, Geena Davis Then along came Bruce Cakebread, whose family chaired this year’s charitable auction, and whose idea it was to bring some of the 2,000 or so auction-goers ‘down valley’ to Napa and specifically to Copia. Once there, Cakebread thought that breaking out the valley’s wines by AVA would be a good – and novel – approach.

“What a great place to do a tasting (in Copia’s gardens). Not just about the wines, but the appellations themselves,” said Cakebread, whose family helped to raise almost $8.5 million this year. “It allows the community to taste all these different appellations – all within 100 feet of each other. We wanted them to be able to taste what the differences are between St. Helena, Oakville, and Rutherford.”

Each of the valley’s regions were represented, except for the smallest AVA – Wild Horse Valley, and the largest, the Napa Valley as a whole – on the Saturday morning of the auction. Since it was the first time that Copia had been involved, the organizers were hoping to attract more of the locals. But since the museum itself is about 20 miles south of where most of the auction activity was taking place, not many took advantage of the opportunity to taste the area’s sub-regional qualities.

Nonetheless, Cakebread was enthused about the idea, and he hoped that the idea would take hold.

“It was also a chance to talk to Mike Richmond (head of Bouchaine Vineyards) for instance, to quiz him,” Cakebread said. “I think that’s pretty cool. He’s one of the history makers of Carneros.” He then added, “It’s kind of an interesting thing (AVAs).” Cakebread acknowledged that most consumers couldn’t give a fig about AVA differences, or that those differences are easily discernible to most.

“It depends upon each wine drinker’s interest level,” he told me. “Others (AVAs) might create more differences, and they (the consumer) might taste the differences, (but) if there’s more interest in it, this allows that opportunity.”

Cakebread went on to explain that he thought the time may not quite be right for his colleagues to be marketing their wines based upon those perceived differences. Besides, why mess with a good thing, when wine sales – especially as it relates to wines coming out of the Napa Valley – are at an all-time high?

“Every customer makes their choice about how they regard that product,” he said. “The other side of it is that we’ve just gotten these vineyards replanted. I think it takes vineyards that are a little bit older before you can define the differences, maybe 15-to-25 years.

“With phylloxera, it took us about four years to replant. As these vineyards start to get into their prime, then we’ll see if these vineyards and appellations will be able to display differences.

“It generates interest, but sometimes you don’t want to confuse your customers.”

The clientele, under the sweltering big top on the fairway at the Meadowood Resort near St. Helena later that evening, might have been a bit confused, too. In an apparent defensive nod toward too much excess and/or extravagance slung by some critics of this auction in recent years, Meadowood (where President Bush slept less than two months before) displayed none of the grandiosity of past years, and the ball gowns and tuxedos that oft-times resembled the star-laden red carpet at the Oscars, were paired down to strictly casual, albeit Tommy Bahama attire.

America Idol host, Ryan Seacrest The more “laid back” ambiance, however, may or may not have lulled the throng to keeping a tighter grip on their wallets. Not only did they pony up more than $2 mil less from the record-breaking $10.5 tally of last year, many probably came away thinking that the reported 150,000 big ones paid to American Idol’s Ryan Seacrest, was hardly worth the bother.

The TV host barely made a dent after the first half-hour of the proceedings, which began with a film about some of the past charitable recipients, which made many in the room – especially chair Jack Cakebread – come to tears. While some of Seacrest’s fulminations could have been construed as sexist and even homophobic, statuesque actress Geena Davis made them forget all about the reality show frontman’s sophomoric attitude.

The regal Davis cajoled the high rollers into parting with some of their shekels, while she herself was intended to be part of a Frank Family Vineyards lot (co-owner Rich Frank is a Hollywood mogul). In addition to 17 bottles of wine, two nights’ accommodations for three couples and dinner in L.A. replete with limo service, one of the lucky recipients was to garner a walk-on role on Davis’ highly acclaimed but ill-fated TV series, “Commander in Chief.” As it turns out, Davis’ show has since been dumped by the network. Perhaps the auction organizers will find it in their hearts to refund that extra $50,000. Or, more likely, the winner will find it in her heart to say, "Oh, go on and keep it." Heck, maybe she'll get to have dinner or something with Davis instead.

Davis and Seacrest weren’t the only celebs spotted at the auction. Perennial auction-attendee Rusty Staub, the former major leaguer, and novelist Isabel Allende were in the crowd. The former, accompanied by Agustin an

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