For many in the UK premium on-trade the Napa Valley feels a long way away. Not just in distance, but in the number of wines being listed for their restaurants. But times they are a changing and the introduction of a new online bidding process for the set piece Premiere Napa Valley wine auction is just part of the region’s desire to open up more to international buyers. Katie Canfield was there to see how it worked.
Wine auctions are becoming a key way for different regions around the world to shine the spotlight on their wines even if people are not interested in taking part. We take a look at how the Premiere Napa Valley auction is using online to raise its international profile.
Bordeaux isn’t the only wine region which knows how to play the futures game. In the Napa Valley, the annual grand tasting and futures auction Premiere Napa Valley gives members of the trade a chance to taste and bid on one-of-a-kind wines to offer on their wine lists or shop shelves. This year’s event was held last Saturday at The Culinary Institute of America, where more than 225 of Napa’s wine producers showcased their specially tailored lots as a preview of what the 2015 vintage has to offer.
The non-profit trade association Napa Valley Vintners, which represents more than 525 winery members, have hosted the increasingly successful trade and media event since 1997. Last year, they introduced the online auction component. Although the live auction generates excitement among attendees, the new online auction – through which 20% of the lots were sold online to the highest bidders from California to Canada to Japan – reached a larger and more international audience.
Trade attendance at Premier Napa Valley gets bigger every year, and as a result the exposure for individual auction lots has become more limited. “The Napa Valley Vintners needed to decide how to make this more democratic,” says John Skupny, proprietor and winemaker of Lang and Reed Wines. The online auction is part of their solution, he says, in terms of “broadening the potential exposure and giving bidders a whole new perspective and more flexibility”.
Steve Matthiasson, owner and winemaker at Matthiasson Wines, agrees that there is a “wider net with online” and believes the platform offers a chance for smaller producers to compete with bigger estates that are able to invest more time and effort to hosting trade and promoting their auction lots leading up to the event.
During Premiere Week, which precedes the Saturday auction, larger participating wineries such as Robert Mondavi Winery – which received one of the highest bids – host a number of parties and dinners designed to impress visitors to the Valley. A small, albeit in-demand, winery needs a different medium: “We’re such a small mom and pop, we can’t do that,” says one.
As you might expect from Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon reigned supreme among the auction lots; however, a record number of white wines were up for bidding too. Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley poured one of two sparkling wines on show, a recently disgorged 2007 Brut. “With the sparkling we have a fairly unique offer,” says estate director Susan Caudry. In an event that is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, Caudry feels the online auction is more effective for brand promotion: “It gives us more visibility.”
Skupny, who poured a Lang and Reed 2016 Chenin Blanc, agrees: “When it comes to alternative varieties, it’s a great forum for us.”
Other issues the online option has addressed are the increasing number of auction lots and prolonged duration of the live auction. Lots positioned towards the end of the list may be at a disadvantage, as bidders’ paddle arms grow tired. “With so many live lots it was an endurance test – upwards of 250 lots lasting four and a half hours,” says William Martin of Corison Winery.
This year, 45 lots were exclusively available online and shortened the live auction by an hour.
Eye-catching but affordable
Price is another matter, as the top lot Scarecrow Wine went for $200,000 during the live auction. For a select few wineries, cult status is all-important, but most Napa Valley wineries want their wines to be affordable for the general consumer. “We still want to be accessible,” says Caudry. “Do we need to be seen at stratospheric prices? No.”
For the trade in attendance, the online auction has mixed appeal. Michael Deller of One Market Restaurant in San Francisco praised the new addition as something that “equals the playing field and increases interest early on,” as online lots accept bids starting the day before the live auction.
Fred Kiang from Beverage Warehouse in Los Angeles, a fan of the more traditional “raising the paddle” live auction, admits that the online forum is likely to become more central, especially among younger bidders. “Online is the future, but you miss the excitement.”
Whether through the online or live auction, Premiere Napa Valley is working to build excitement for Napa Valley wines in the US and abroad. “[PVV] brings so many people in from all over the world,” says Matthiasson. “The Napa Valley Vintners are raising the tide for all of our ships.”
While the live auction has its merits – especially in building relationships between restaurateurs, retailers, and producers – it may be that online is the way to level the playing field and ensure success in its international reach. Online auctions may not have the same party appeal, but they take Napa Valley to the wider world.