If you subscribe to the cult of the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, the swooning began during last weekend’s Auction Napa Valley (ANV).
This iconic event, which precedes our grand gala, is also a bellwether for the tides of the high-end wine and luxury lifestyle market. Yet beyond any indication of how the wealthy exuberantly spend piles of money on rare wine, safaris, or exotic cars, the roots of this festival tap deeply into the spirit of giving. Robert Mondavi founded ANV in 1981 (only two years before Gary Plumley launched the Aspen Classic) to give back to a community that supported the local wine industry on many levels.
With the conclusion of last year’s rare rain-soaked fete, Auction Napa Valley reached the $100 million mark in its fundraising for local charities, including health care, affordable housing and youth initiatives. Thus, the 32nd annual event kicked off with jovial spirits, made even better by the site of this year’s Barrel Auction Day at Jarvis Winery.
Jarvis, sitting on the flanks of Mount George, high above the town of Napa, is yet another jewel of the Napa Valley. The stunning property is known for its massive cave inside a lake-and-pond-studded mountain top; a perfect setting for the Barrel Auction portion of the weekend; considered by many the most fun event of the year.
My day started early with a media welcome brunch at the “Lake House,” a splendid little fine art-filled villa on Lake Williams. Gathered in the morning shade, Judd Finklestein of Judd’s Hill Winery strummed a ukulele; host William Jarvis joined Cyril and mother Gail Chappellet — this year’s auction chairs — to bless the already gorgeous day. A small clique of wine writers chatted and sipped on Jarvis Finch Hollow chardonnay with quiche tartlettes and raspberry cheese blintzes, prepared by Cindy Pawlcyn of Mustards-Brassica-Backtreet fame.
We shuttled back to the winery’s main grounds to join a crowd of nearly two thousand; among them, legendary Napa vintners, chefs, volunteers and a throng of eager bidders.
The mood was beyond festive: a band playing gypsy music greeted a crowd that was in no hurry to make it through two tents full of food and wine lining the walkway leading to the cave. Festivarians munched on Bodega Bay shrimp and Tomales Bay oysters while sipping rosé; crab Louie endive wraps, duck sliders, fried chicken sandwiches, salmon mousse and chocolate cupcakes went with whatever was in the glass. Thomas Keller strolled around handing out wooden French Laundry clothespins.
To make it to the cave, I first had to break from this scene, to navigate the open-air barbecue section, where Pawlcyn was again on display, featuring her sweet, tangy and saucy Mongolian-style spare ribs, next to the equally infamous Bounty Hunter, with their own Kansas City-style smokers, who urged me to unfurl the “Media Rib Challenge.”
No problem there. I washed ‘em down with one of my favorite California reds, Lang & Reed’s cabernet franc, poured by John Skupny, winemaker and first president of Napa Valley Vintners, the group responsible for this whole affair. He shared stories about traveling in France’s Loire Valley that had me laughing out loud as I strolled past the Tra Vigne pizza oven, a jazz band and finally into the cave. Only past the long tables of gourmet chocolates and blue-spotlighted waterfalls, had I entered the Barrel Auction fray.
One hundred barrels of Napa Valley 2010 cabernet sauvignon, all specifically designated for this event, with three exceptions: Acacia and Saintsbury provided pinot noir; Hyde de Villaine offered a chardonnay. Barrel tastes begot open bidding — the winners of each lot scoring a case of said wine from said barrel.
So much cab, so little time. And so many stories. Tom Rinaldi, of Duckhorn and Provenance, poured his Hewitt Vineyard wine while we spoke.
“What do you think happened to all of the barrels that were in here?” he asked, referring to Jarvis’ own wine.
“Probably off to the industrial warehouse for the weekend,” I said, adding, “maybe you will be able to taste that down the road.” He busted out in laughter, divulging, “Back in the day, when a barreled wine wasn’t showing so well, we pumped it all into a tanker truck, drove it around the neighborhood, brought it back to the winery, and it was all better!”
No shame in this game.
Mac MacQuoid, of Parallel, another standout in the cave, told me a story about living in Park City, Utah, coming to Napa, getting drunk, and buying a vineyard. He continued with a humorous rant about Utah “culture” as I sipped and laughed some more.
After tasting John Kongsgaard’s luxurious, sensual wine, he distilled my reaction by using language we all can understand, noting, “It’s like lovers before losing their posture!”
I enjoyed a few minutes with the beautiful (and smart) Delia Viader, adding some intellectual depth to the rowdy affair. The Argentinean winemaker has a PhD in philosophy from the Sorbonne: another kindred spirit blending wine and words.
I caught up with Doug Shafer and his Hillside Select and visited with rock star Philippe Melka of Bordeaux-inspired Melka Wines. Shafer and Melka—along with cult fave Scarecrow—climbed more than double overhead on the boards. At the day’s end, Scarecrow was up by one dollar; but a last second bid gave top honors to Melka (and a lucky bidder who spent $14,500 on the case).
Two things were clear after this hedonistic day: My palate still works (after six hours of swilling cab) and for Aspen, the near future looks grand.
Next week: The festival guide. Cheers! Remember, wine reveals truth.
Editor’s Note: “Cinque di Maggio” (May 18, 2012) regretfully contained two important misspellings and two major factual errors. Brian Larky’s importing company is called Dalla Terra, while Marco Felluga’s proprietary white wine is Molamatta. The Adami family makes prosecco from the hills of Valdobbiadene as well as at Treviso, in Veneto. Finally the producer of the sauvignon blanc and cabernet franc from Collio was Russiz Superiore.