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“You Don't Come to the Napa Auction to Save Money on Wine”

Frances Dinkelspiel | June 3, 2013 | Story Wine and Spirits

Gary Rieschel was looking incredibly relaxed for a man who had just spent $800,000 on a vertical tasting of every vintage of Harlan Estate wines.

Just minutes after records were broken at the 33rd annual Auction Napa Valley, the 57-year old venture capitalist from Shanghai sat cross-legged on a lawn outside the main auction tent, casually chatting with journalists. Dressed in khaki shorts and a linen shirt, (wine country casual taken literally) Rieschel waved off the nervous protestations of auction handlers eager to protect him from too many pressing questions. They needn’t have bothered. He was completely upfront about why he opened his wallet for what he called “one of the best events in the U.S.”

“You don’t come to the Napa auction to save money on wine,” said Rieschel, one of the founders of Qiming Ventures, whom the Hurun Report ranked as one of the richest non-mainlanders in China. “You want to do something that honors the valley. You want to do something for charity.”

Over the years, Auction Napa Valley has generated $110 million for health care, education, and housing for the region’s less advantaged residents. And after Saturday’s live auction, which brought in $14.3 million in just under four hours, it has regained the title of America’s most successful wine fundraiser, finally triumphing over the much younger, brash Naples Winter Wine Auction after too many years of coming in second place. In total, the auction raised $16.9 million, far more than in 2005, when it raised a then-record $10.5 million. The Naples event raised $8.5 million in January.

“We are overjoyed with the generosity of the patrons, vintners, and volunteers that made today possible,” said Garen Staglin, who was the honorary chair along with his wife Shari, daughter Shannon, and son Brandon.

This year’s live auction was notably less-celebrity centric than previous years, according to observers. (The heat, well into the 90s, may have also helped slow things down.) There was no Oprah Winfrey to gawk at, although Nina Garcia of Project Runway reportedly was in the crowd. The big names, if they could be called that, were from technology and finance, a bit of Silicon Valley mixing with Napa Valley. Joe Schoendorf of Accel Partners, a major investor in Facebook, was there, as were D.J. Patil, the “Data Scientist in Residence” at Greylock Partners, his wife Devika, and AOL founder Steve Case and his wife, Jean. There were celebrities from the sports world too, such as four-time America’s Cup winner Russell Coutts and John York, a co-owner of the 49ers.

But bold-faced name or not, the bidders are treated equally at the auction, which is one of the reasons it sells out quickly despite its $2,500 price tag. Only a handful of people can afford to bid hundreds of thousands of dollars on the live auction lots, yet close to a thousand purchase tickets. They come for the good food, beauty of the landscape, the legendary Napa hospitality, and the sense of belonging.

“The welcome you get when you come here is amazing,” said Linda Pierog, an eight-time auction veteran from Orange County. “They take such good care of you where ever you go.”

It certainly is a visit to a rarefied, even cosseted, world. From the moment guests started the auction experience, they were treated with care. They were handed champagne as they boarded shuttles, greeted with hearty hellos at registration, and offered Chinese waxed paper umbrellas to ward off the sun. When they walked into the large white tents set up on Meadowood Resort’s lush green lawn, they got to nibble on lunch prepared by nine of the 10 winners of the Top Chef competition. (Choices included lamb sliders, ox tongue, tiny grilled cheese sandwiches, and strawberries with mascarpone.) Joseph Lenn, the executive chef of Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, who just won a James Beard Award for best chef in the south, served a 10-course al fresco dinner.

The centerpiece of the day, of course, was wine. There are now 450 members of the Napa Valley Vintners Association, up from 350 members just 18 months ago. (Recession? What recession?) And they all donated wine. There were bottles from celebrity winemakers like Bill Harlan, Piero Antinori, former Chinese basketball star Yao Ming, and celebrated vineyard manager David Abreau, as well as wine from smaller producers who aren’t quite household names yet, like Knighton Family Vineyards and Shadowbox. Many of the winery owners walked around during the day clutching magnums in their hands and offering generous pours of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay.

“You come because you get to meet winemakers, you get to meet growers,” said J. David Martin, who lives in St. Helena but whose winery, Red Car, is in Sonoma County.

The live auction, held in an enormous air-conditioned tent set with tables covered in orange (the color of the day), started around 2 p.m. The three auctioneers stood on stage at the front of the tent below three enormous flat screen televisions highlighting the bidding on the floor. The 46 lots mostly combined outings to places like France, Italy, Japan, Argentina, South Africa and South Korea, with stays in luxury hotels and one-on-one interactions with famous winemakers, chefs, and athletes.

Many of the lots were auctioned off rapidly, with the auctioneers going from $10,000 to $300,000 faster than you can say “eeny, meeney, miny, moe.” One of the most anticipated lots was a 12-liter bottle of the cult wine Screaming Eagle, which quickly went for $500,000. (The buyer preferred to stay anonymous.) The competition for an offering from Dana Estates, which included a seven-day trip for two couples to South Korea, escalated so fast that it reached $500,000 in no time, at which point Hatton announced the lot would be doubled, bringing the total to $1 million. A golfing vacation in Scotland offered by the Staglins went for $400,000, while a trip to Japan with winemaker Naoka Dalla Valle brought in $350,000. Each winning bid was greeted with loud cheers and shots of confetti sent into the air.

Rieschel, who bought the $800,000 vertical tasting of Harlan wines, said it is less about the money than the experience. “That was one of the most emotional and special days we have had in Napa,” he said. “It’s not about the wine. It’s about the people. To sit with them and do a retrospective of their wines, that is just special.” A few years ago he was the high bidder on a vertical tasting of Shafer wines. He spent hours with the winemakers, learning about the ups and downs of each vintage and the effort it took to turn their grapes into outstanding wine. Now he will have a chance to do that with the Harlans.

“Conspicuous consumption was out of vogue,” quipped Jay Schuppert, president of Cuvaison Estate Wines. “Now it’s back.”

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