Collective Napa Valley: shaking up the wine region’s ‘aspirational’ annual auction

When Auction Napa Valley had to pause in the pandemic, its organisers used the chance to rethink and rebrand the annual bash, coming up with what it hopes is a more inclusive approach under the umbrella of ‘Collective Napa Valley’

Words by Adam Lechmere

napa valley wine auction 2019
(Photo: Alexander Rubin)

For a certain type of well-heeled wine lover, Auction Napa Valley – a four-day extravaganza culminating in a celebrity-hosted auction bringing in millions of dollars – was the event of the year. The last time it took place, in 2019, the multi-award-winning singer-songwriter Katy Perry opened the auction, belting out hits to 900 guests in a pink-lined tent at the luxury Meadowood resort.

That auction is still happening in November, but it’s now part of a series of events (including a barrel auction next month) that demonstrate a major re-calibration of the way Napa Valley promotes itself, post-pandemic.

‘When we realised we had to cancel the 2020 event, we also realised this was an opportunity to do something different,’ said Jaime Araujo, a member of the organising committee of the new Collective Napa Valley initiative.

auction napa valley 2019
The 2019 auction took place at Meadowood resort, and was opened by singer Katy Perry (Photo: Alexander Rubin)

‘In a way we’re a victim of our own success. We spent the ’90s and early 2000s promoting Napa as exclusive and aspirational and it worked. But now we’re thinking, we’re more than that. There is a whole new generation of vintners and consumers for whom those messages just don’t resonate.’

Araujo is the daugher of Bart and Daphne Araujo, who in 2013 sold their eponymous estate to the owners of Chateau Latour. The Araujo family was due to chair the 2020 auction, which would have been the 40th anniversary of the event. The enforced cancellation concentrated everyone’s minds. It suddenly became obvious that a format – ‘a party for the same 20 or 25 wineries every year’ – was due a shake-up.

napa valley live
An online tasting run by Collective Napa Valley in spring 2022

After six months of discussion and focus groups, the idea for Collective Napa Valley crystalised. The new event widens and democratises the four-day Auction Napa Valley. Instead of a single weekend, events are now spread through the year, with three ‘highlight events’ in spring, summer and autumn, with the first being an online tasting. The summer event – this June – is a barrel auction, with 76 wineries offering ten cases of specially-made wine. It takes place at Raymond Vineyards and is chaired by the effervescent Jean-Charles Boisset and his wife Gina Gallo.

It’s a highly effective way of making money for good causes – but now they are stressing the importance of inclusion, both of wineries and guests

Those who love the extravagant side of Napa needn’t worry – the Fall event retains most of the features of the old summer auction: a slap-up dinner and an auction of luxury experiences (in 2019 the top lot included a gala tour of Rome and Tuscany and dinner with Lamberto Frescobaldi, which went for $500,000. The auction took just under $12m, all of which goes to charity.)

It’s a highly effective way of making money for good causes, the organisers say – but now they are stressing the importance of inclusion, both of wineries and guests.

‘Lots of wineries didn’t have the means to be with the heavy hitters. Now we have two levels of membership. You can join free, there’s no barrier to entry, and you can also join at higher levels of donation [from $1000 to $5000], and each level has different access,’ says Araujo.

She added that wineries of any size could host events such as dinners or vineyard walks, at any time, under the Collective umbrella.

napa valley auction
The charity auction will still go ahead, with the opportunity for guests to bid on the usual luxury experiences

All this activity, of course, will mean attracting thousands more people to a valley already bedevilled by traffic. Araujo said that spreading the event over the year was far better than concentrating it over a few days. And, she added, Napa’s perennial traffic problem and other environmental issues have been under discussion. This has given rise to another initiative (the brainchild of Napa Valley Vintners’ formidable chief executive Linda Reiff): the Napa Leadership Programme (NLP) – ‘a group of 16 young leaders getting together and thinking about leadership for the next generation.’ The NLP is working with Napa THRIVES, a series of six conferences in June with expert speakers covering subjects such as Water Saving and Efficiency, Phasing out Pesticides and Social Equity, Justice and Inclusion.

‘We need to think about how we revolutionise transportation in the valley, and how we revolutionise housing in the valley,’ Araujo says. ‘We need to be sustainable on all different levels.’

Proceeds for Collective Napa Valley events are donated to community projects: on its website Napa Valley Vintners says it has donated over $200m to such projects over the last 40 years. Collective Napa Valley’s barrel auction weekend event takes place on 2-4 June 2022; Napa THRIVES takes place on 7-23 June with a Climate Action Gala on 30 July.