‘The sort of people I’m seeing today are like me – they don’t have private jets,’ says Andrew Wesson, pouring his Carneros Chardonnay. Wesson is sales director for Davis Estates and he’s standing behind a table at Collective Napa Valley’s barrel tasting, talking about how it used to be. ‘It became entertainment for the super-wealthy. There was a sort of arms race between the wineries for who could do the best package.’
Collective Napa Valley, now in its second year, is the post-pandemic incarnation of Auction Napa Valley, a four-day, multimillion-dollar extravaganza that had been going since 1981. When the pandemic forced a shutdown, it was seen as an opportunity for a rethink. They’d realised, organiser Jaime Araujo said, that there’s a whole generation of vintners and wine lovers for whom the idea of Napa as ‘exclusive and aspirational’ just doesn’t resonate.
So Collective was born. There’s still the barrel auction and an evening party but the list of big-ticket lots (safaris, luxury weekends in Venice, salmon-fishing in Alaska) has been reduced to 10.
This year, the total amount raised was $3.8m for youth mental health services in Napa Valley. It’s a highly respectable sum, though considerably smaller than the $12m raised in 2019 or the $15.7m a couple of years before that.
But that doesn’t bother the organisers. ‘The intention…is to be more accessible, more grounded and more in touch with everyone who enjoys wine and has a connection to Napa Valley. Not everyone can give at grand levels, but everyone can participate and feel part of a bigger community,” said Napa Valley Vintners CEO Linda Reiff.
There was still lots of razzmatazz. The chai at Louis M Martini was packed, the hubbub added to by a band belting out Oasis cover versions. Those I spoke to liked the new vibe. ‘They’ve bought it all back to the wine,’ Katie Lazar of Cain Vineyard and Winery told me. ‘That’s the beauty of it.’
Tim Mondavi, showing his Continuum estate wine, remembered how when the Auction weekend was founded by his father Robert, ‘the focus was just the wine’. Then the era of grand charity auctions was kicked off by the Naples auction in Florida, ‘which set the tone for massive lots, and somehow we lost sight of the wine.’
Eighty-two wineries produce a barrel for the event, which is auctioned over the course of the day under the direction of Sotheby’s. Big screens show the real-time progress of the online and telephone bidding.
‘The big change is the new platform with the real-time screens,’ Richard Young, Sotheby’s head of auction sales, told me. ‘With online bidding everyone can take part.’ He said there was 20 per cent more bidding activity this year, with most of those bidders new clients for Sotheby’s or Napa Valley Vintners, the organiser of the event.
Young said the whole idea was to ‘have a broader reach’ – for example, introducing Sotheby’s New York clientele to the delights of the west coast. ‘Some of them have never been here before.’ According to the organisers, 65 per cent of bidders this year were new to Collective Napa Valley.
There are notes of dissent but not many. ‘The whole point of the weekend is to raise as much money as possible. It’s supposed to be extravagant,’ one prominent vintner told me. ‘So that hasn’t worked – all the fun’s gone out of it.’
Fun, of course, is subjective. The gala evening on the Saturday night is certainly toned down. In 2019, it took place on the expansive lawns at Meadowood, with entertainment in a purple-lit marquee provided by Katy Perry for 900 guests. This year the venue was Silver Oak winery with some 200 people – correctly attired in ‘wine country casual’ – dining at a long table in the vineyards before the open-air auction.
The mood was informal and relaxed – that’s until Sotheby’s auctioneer, the Londoner Jacqueline Towers-Perkins, took to the podium. Dressed in a white suit with lapels sharp enough to put your eye out, she strode into the audience and rapped with the punters. ‘Are you going to tell your daughter she’s not going to Paris because you lost? Seventy thousand! Are you going back in?’ She brought a raucous energy to the evening and the crowd loved it.
Lots went down like dominoes, the winning package from Staglin – a luxury wine and safari trip to South Africa – going for $500,000. ‘We’ve donated over forty million dollars to charity,’ said owner Garen Staglin, cock-a-hoop. ‘If anyone has a better number, bring it forward.’
For many, the terms ‘accessible’ and ‘Napa’ are oxymoronic. But the valley is changing. A new generation of winemakers and collectors are interested in far more than crafting the blockbusters that the valley has always been (often unfairly) pilloried for. Elegance and finesse in wines is now to be expected.
There’s a whole generation of vintners and wine lovers for whom the idea of Napa as ‘exclusive and aspirational’ just doesn’t resonate
Collective’s predecessor, Auction Napa Valley, was very much of its time. It attracted big characters with deep pockets, gents in suits and hats who slapped their thighs and bid large. Winning bids were marked with explosions of shiny tickertape raining down on the tables. By contrast, at last weekend’s auction, celebrations were almost demure, with shy little bursts of silver ribbon at the side of the stage. And there wasn’t a stetson in sight.
But this was by no means a village fête, not with people bidding half a million dollars for a holiday. Up on the stage, Towers-Perkins had the audience eating out of her hand. ‘Are we sending Mary to South Africa? We can’t stop at $280,000, that’s a horrible place to end up. Another $3,000? That’s pocket change to you lot.’ This is still Napa, after all.