68 Hours in Napa Valley: Auctions, Wine Tasting, and more

Photography by Jason Tinacci


It is a celebration of wine. That alone provides ample reason to attend Auction Napa Valley, the Napa Valley Vintner’s annual event. But when one considers that since its inception in 1981, the auction has raised more than $85 million to benefit area healthcare, affordable housing, and youth service non-profits, it becomes clear that Auction Napa Valley should be celebrated as much as the wine.

 Taste Napa Valley is a celebration of the finest that the region has to offer, and everyone wants to participate.

And celebrate people do; from around the country, hundreds of auction-goers descend upon Napa Valley each year to take part in the three-day extravaganza. It starts with a bang on Thursday night with the Auction Eve Kick-Off block party and keeps on rolling through Sunday’s Farewell Fête. The weekend is filled with a slew of parties and activities to keep guests busy and doused in wine; after all, a buzz helps loosen the purse strings, therefore increasing the final tally of the bidding wars. But even if the bidding doesn’t garner as much in this dismal economy as in years past, non-profits in Napa Valley won’t suffer. NVV made a $25 million promise to the community in 2007, ensuring that the auction will distribute a minimum of $5 million to its beneficiaries each year over the following five years, even in the event that the auction has a shortfall. Of course, any funds raised in excess will also be distributed to the community programs.

Between the dinners, midday parties, auctions, marketplaces, and sober activities, it is easy to get lost in the shuffle and miss out on the finest events. We are here to help. It is important to realize that access to the weekend is broken down into three packages: Classic, All-American Day, and Taste Napa Valley. We recommend opting for Classic ($2,500), which provides entry to all of the weekend’s events. [All-American Day ($1,000) provides vintner invitations for Thursday, a ticket to Taste Napa Valley on Friday, a day party on Saturday, and the Farewell Fête on Sunday, but you miss out on the biggest event of all: Saturday night’s live auction; Taste Napa Valley ($250) only grants entrance to the one event.] From there, the only problem becomes choosing which of the soirees are worthy of your attention. Just remember, moderation is key, and be sure to hydrate. No one likes a hangover.

Thursday, June 4
Auction Eve Kick-Off

The four-day event begins with a Valley-wide block party. Guests who opt for the Classic or All-American Day packages receive invites from about 20 different vintners throughout Napa Valley to join them at celebrations hosted at their homes, wineries, and cellars. These evenings range from relaxed to formal. “The parties have themes,” explains Terry Hall, communications director for Napa Valley Vintners. “If a guest wants to go to a quiet library tasting with a vintner or a ’50s theme party, they can—the choices are that varied.”

Haute Living is teaming up with CADE Winery for a kick-off celebration at the eco-friendly winery on Howell Mountain. Partner John Conover and Winemaker Anthony Biagi will provide guests with a selection of CADE and PlumpJack wines, with bites from Michael Mina’s new San Francisco restaurant, RN74. “Auction Napa Valley is so important for the valley,” says Conover. “In so many different ways, it supports the critical lay of the land, which is farm worker health care. It provided a grant that they issued to a local elementary school that burned down, and they used the money to buy new books. The wine auction has generated so much in its history, and it has become a year-round event.”

During the evening, guests have the option of heading to one or two parties, or hopping around to get the full experience. If opting for the latter, be sure to secure a car and driver for the weekend. Magnum Tours (707.753.0088) and Pure Luxury Limo Service (800.626.5466) are event partners and will be happy to ensure you get from vineyard to vineyard without any mishaps.

Friday, June 5
Taste Napa Valley

Taste Napa Valley is a celebration of the finest that the region has to offer, and everyone wants to participate. If you don’t have your entry secured yet, look to the scalpers; tickets sold out within three hours. TNV is held at a different location each year, though the Trinchero Family has provided the venue for the past three years. This year, the event will be held at Robert Mondavi Winery, an ideal location, seeing as Mr. Mondavi helped found the event in 1981. (Genevieve Janssen’s “Haute Ambassador” column this month discusses this in more detail.) “It seemed like a fitting tribute, to carry on the legacy of Robert Mondavi’s vision, for the auction to be at the iconic winery the year following his passing,” says Hall. “The folks at Robert Mondavi Winery were very generous to offer the location.”

More than 2,500 people are expected to attend TNV, which will feature a marketplace with vintners pouring their finest releases, bites from area chefs, and live music and entertainment. The To-Kalon cellar will be the host location for the Barrel Tasting & Auction, where 120 winery owners and winemakers pull samples of unbottled futures of aging wine directly from the barrel for guests to taste. Auction-goers can then bid on the barrels they want to take home to their own cellars.

In the vineyard room, the final hours of the E-Auction, which opens up for online bidding on May 22, will be taking place. The auction features more than 100 lots, including rare and one-of-a-kind bottles and collections of wine; private events and weekend stays hosted by Napa Valley Vintners; luxury items; and more. Bidders are encouraged to reach for the stars: Silversea Cruises will award the overall E-Auction top bidder with an incredible nine-day passage for two on the Silver Shadow. Guests of TNV will also have the opportunity to preview the amazing lots that will be offered during Saturday’s Live Auction & Dinner, which is when the big money is raised.

An Evening in Napa Valley

Following the rambunctious daytime TNV, those who partake in the Classic Package will be headed off to private dinner parties for an insider’s look into the cellars, homes, and gardens of some of the most renowned names in the wine industry. For example, Opus One is hosting “The Tuxedo Park Club,” a black-tie affair for 20 guests, while Staglin Family Vineyard will be treating guests to a quasi-casual dinner featuring their wines paired with cuisine prepared by the chefs at the Mandarin Oriental, followed by dancing under the stars. Thirty-one such dinners will be taking place across the valley, and no event will be larger than 20 guests. RSVPs fill up quickly, so it is pertinent to register as soon as possible to ensure there is still a seat available at your dinner of choice. Guests choose their top three preferences, and are assigned a dinner party based on availability. (Registration opened on March 31 at www.napavintners.com.)

Saturday, June 6
A Day in Napa Valley

After taking it easy Saturday morning, both All-American Day and Classic ticket holders will be welcomed once again into the vintners’ homes, wineries, and vineyards for midday parties. Which luncheon you attend is determined the same way as the Friday night dinner party is; rate your preferences, and you are given an assignment based on availability. Highlights include Covenant’s “Picnic in the Sky,” an intimate al fresco feast on the top of Mount Veeder, and Rubicon’s “Afternoon at Lake Inglenook,” an afternoon at Francis Ford Coppola’s private lake, where guests are encouraged to bask, swim, fish, or paddle around.

Live Auction and Dinner

This is the highlight of the weekend, the time when the paddles fly and millions are raised. The auction has taken place at Meadowood Napa Valley since the first year. The evening starts with some bubbly on the lawn, before guests are joined at dinner tables by vintner hosts, who speak about their wineries, Napa Valley, and, of course, encourage guests to bid.

Throughout the evening, surprise guests often pop up (Oprah appearing in 2008 comes to mind), and the atmosphere is lively. The lots range from Trinchero’s “Backstage Pass to the Good Life in Wine Country” (72 bottles of Napa Valley wine, three nights’ accommodations for eight, two dinners for eight, one dinner for 10, cooking competition and lunch for eight, tour/picnic for eight, balloon ride for eight, and croquet and lunch for eight) to “Party to the 2-9’s with Vineyard 29!”, which includes 29 bottles of wine and a diamond necklace, amongst other things. In 2007, one lot from the Staglin Family broke auction records, bringing in a bid of $1.1 million for a six-day driving trip with the Staglins in Italy with the use of two Maseratis. The bidding had stalled at $900,000 when the Staglin’s decided to throw in ownership of one of the autos, prompting a couple from Woodside to raise their paddle.

Sunday, June 7
Farewell Fête

“This is a nice way to tie the weekend in a bow,” says Hall. “Vintners are on hand for a brunch-like send-off.” The outgoing chairs greet guests, while the incoming chairs (in this case, the Novak family of Spottswoode Estate Winery) encourage guests to return the following year for Auction Napa Valley 2010. The atmosphere of the day—a little music, some food, and a splash of wine under the Napa sun—will certainly keep auction-goers coming back for more.