The fact that Fritz Hatton and Ursula Hermancinski are household names among certain strata in the California high-end wine-buying public says a lot about the American auction world.
Hatton and Hermancinski are celebrity auctioneers, and they understand that the mantra “Never forget that you’re in the entertainment business” is as relevant to auctions as it is to anything else.
Auction Napa Valley is unlike any other. A four-day-long, rollicking, wine-fuelled extravaganza, the 39th Auction this year culminated in a pink-and-purple-wash marquee with the motor-mouthed tag-team of Hermancinski and Hatton extracting six- and seven-figure sums from a floor of excited bidders.
The fact that multi-award-winning singer-songwriter Katy Perry opened the party says worlds about Napa’s canniness. The majority of the middle-aged guests probably had a shaky idea of who Ms Perry is, but their children would have gone nuts, conferring instant cool on their parents.
Some 900 party-goers and bidders descended on the field at Meadowood, the multi-starred hotel and resort outside St Helena, for tastings and nibbles before Perry began. As well as vintners and their families, the roll call included congressmen and celebrity chefs, and a smattering of lifestyle journalists.
For the past two evenings guests had been ferried around the valley in long black limousines, to vintner-hosted parties at Shafer, Stags’ Leap Winery, Ovid, Staglin and others. On the Friday guests congregated at the renovated chai at Louis M Martini winery for the barrel auction, 114 blends made especially for the event.
But it’s the live event on Saturday that shows how Napa can party when it decides to.
Bidders – real estate moguls, racehorse-owners (“it’s a licence to lose money,” one told me) and discreet finance wizards from New York, Seoul and all points between, mingle with winemakers such as Olivier Berrouet of Chateau Petrus (a dinner at the great Pomerol estate was part of the Rudd Oakville lot), Bill Harlan (owner of Meadowood), Jean-Charles Boisset of Raymond Vineyards, Tim Mondavi, Doug Shafer and dozens of others.
The auction started in style. Perry (who’s from Santa Barbara, just down the coast), clad in a pink satin dress by the Vietnamese designer Phuong My, looked every inch the international superstar that she is.
“This is a legit event,” she roared. “Make some noise if you’re a Cab drinker.”
The 30 lots, each sale accompanied by a purple-and-pink explosion from a confetti cannon, went for a total of just under US$12m (down on last year, and 2017’s record of over US$16m).
The opening lot – multiple bottles of Tim Mondavi’s Continuum, as well as a gala tour of Rome and Tuscany and dinner with Lamberto Frescobaldi, went for just over US$500,000, a start which looked to set the tone for the bidding.
The top lots of the day came from Napa’s blue-chip and renowned estates such as Labry estate, Staglin Family Vineyard, Opus One, Dalla Valle, JCB by Jean-Charles Boisset.
Almost all the lots include those money-can’t-buy experiences: a visit to see a private game with the San Francisco Giants alumni, the gift of Ovid estate; a dinner with Maya Dalla Valle at Amangiri Resort, Canyon Point, Utah; dinners in Napa and Kyoto with the Japanese-owned Kenzo Estate; dinner with Ann Colgin; a judging spot on the Robb Report’s Car of the Year…
After the auction, Meadowood hosted a barbecue extravaganza in an open-sided marquee, followed by an after-party at Charter Oak restaurant in St Helena that lasted into the small hours. Then the limousines purred off into the dawn.
“This was the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Napa Valley Vintners, and my father Robert was a member of that initial group,” said Tim Mondavi of Continuum Estate.
“The purpose of the auction he proposed remains the same: to raise funds for charity and to raise awareness for the exceptional quality of Napa Valley wines. It is very gratifying to know that the Auction has now raised nearly 200 million dollars for charity.”
This year’s proceeds go to support community health and children’s education in Napa County; over the last four decades Auction Napa Valley has donated some US$185m to Napa charities.