Sonoma’s Fifty Shades of Great – Sonoma County Barrel Auction 2016 6 min read

Occasionally, my wine goblet runneths over. A recent weekend in Sonoma proved to be such a case. Starting with two Sonoma tasting events, then attending the Sonoma County Barrel Auction—all culminating with a La Paulée dinner, one could not have envisioned a better wine weekend.


It all started with regional tastings at Comstock, followed by yet another appellational tasting offered by Pellegrini Wine Co. Both presented ample opportunities to sample top offerings from Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, Petaluma Gap and West Sonoma Coast. It was quite clear that the 2014 vintage, although a short one, produced wines that are meaningful and mouth-watering. Many wines showed substantial potential and decadent characteristics. Following in the footsteps of the grand 2012 and 2013 vintages, 2014 is well-positioned to hold its own.




“Sonoma County Barrel Auction Icons Tasting” was next. A ceremony, honoring Helen Bacigalupi, Tom Rochioli, Tom Klein, and David Rafanelli, held at Martinelli Winery (in of itself a Sonoma icon), was a powerful reminder of the talent and dogged dedication that has made this region one of the treasures of the wine world. When Helen Bacigalupi came forward to accept her award with a simple “Thank you,” there were plenty of misty eyes in the room. We can never properly thank these folks for their tremendous contribution to the wine community. They had the passionate vision to elevate the area’s viticulture and the stamina to pursue their dream, no matter the odds.


The highly anticipated auction was held the following day. Seventy-five lots from over eighty producers were auctioned off by a high energy auctioneer whose shirt was thoroughly soaked 10 min into the affair. His enthusiasm and fast-paced delivery was very impressive. Sonoma wines deserve their champions.


In the end, the auction raised nearly $700,000, a near fifty percent gain from last year. More than 250 members of the wine trade—retailers, restaurateurs, importers and distributors, attended the event that featured one-of-a-kind lots from 16 of Sonoma County appellations; all vetted by a group of distinguished MS and MWs.


The top lot, comprised of 10 cases of Pinot Noir named “KB Elixir,” hammered at $46,000. It was fashioned by Kosta-Browne, a cult Pinot producer. It set a record, selling for nearly $400 per bottle. It is a blend of several vineyards, with half the fruit originating from the Russian River Valley and the rest from Sonoma.


The next highest take of the day—$41,000, went to Williams Selyem winery, with a 20-case “35th Anniversary blend” lot of Pinot Noir, comprised of predominantly Russian River Valley fruit.


History repeats. Last year, at the inaugural SoCoBa, the top lot was a collaboration of three Russian River wineries; Kosta-Browne, Joseph Swan and Williams Selyem. It was titled “The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost” representing the Swan clones from the trinity of vineyards.


The wines made exclusively for this auction are some of Sonoma’s most coveted. Each “never before, never again” lot was handcrafted to showcase the region’s top-notch viticulture and winemaking. Selections included single block and vineyard bottlings, individual clonal selections, highly unusual blends and joint collaborations.


Other top bids went to Silver Oak Cellars’ “Single Barrel” Alexander Valley Cabernet, which hammered at $33,000. The highest bid for a white wine was garnered by “The Judgment of Paris 40th Anniversary Barrel,” a collaboration of Bacigalupi Vineyards, Dutcher Crossing, Flanagan, Gary Farrell and MacRostie.


Proceeds from the auction will support the ongoing marketing efforts of Sonoma County Vintners.


La Paulée is an ancillary event of the Sonoma County Barrel Auction, held by Russian River Valley Winegrowers and hosted by a different vintner every year.


Traditionally, a La Paulée dinner in France is held to celebrate the end of the harvest. Vintners gather for a communal meal and bring rare and special bottlings. Rod Berglund of Swan Vineyards shared a touching story of a meaningful encounter at a La Paulée in Burgundy, when an elderly vigneron showed up with an ancient, unidentifiable bottle. When asked what it was, he said he didn’t know.  All he knew was that it was made by his grandfather and passed on to his father; and now he wanted to share it with his friends and peers.


The spirit of La Paulée means much more than geography. It is all about sharing and conviviality. Something about strangers partaking in their most prized wines with strangers is deeply inspirational. Large format bottlings make appearances, along with older vintages and rarities. The atmosphere is giddy, sprinkled with child-like curiosity and minor mischief. It’s a rarified gathering, infused with a sense of irreverent veneration. What is celebrated isn’t cost or scarcity; it is the willingness to share something that is usually reserved for a special occasion. Random generosity of strangers is always a special occasion in my book. Always.


The attending chefs were as good as it gets:


  • Arista Winery’s in-house chef Tim Kaulfers created some ultra-memorable dishes, such as the marvelous sturgeon and an epic garden salad straight from the winery garden.
  • Duskie Estes is a warrior. An industry superstar, fierce competitor on Next Iron Chef and frequent judge on Guy’s Grociery Games, she is the Queen of all things pig in Sonoma with her signature Zazu Kitchen and Farm.
  • Dustin Valette, of his namesake restaurant, is poised to be one of the most successful chefs of Sonoma County. His food oozes comfort and luxury combined with unassuming elegance. If the Michelin folks don’t recognize his talent in short order, it’s their loss. Trust me, the stars will be his.


At the end of the day, any celebration is only as good as the emotional enjoyment it produces. Mine was off the charts. I was privileged to sample many library wines from Sonoma and the Russian River Valley. Their age-worthiness should never be underestimated. From sparkling wines to 1977 Zinfandel, all showed well; telling a powerful tale of Sonoma County prowess.


I am a “winerd” who enjoys the privilege of tasting some of the world’s most extraordinary wines. I never take it for granted. I take copious notes, analyze nuances, and look for commonalities.


Yet none of my wine analysis, dissection of every data point or dwelling on production details can capture the essence of a single laugh on the lawn or the twinkle in the eye of an imbiber giddily consuming the magical elixir. When you are in the presence of 50 shades of greatness, it doesn’t make much difference which shade shines. It matters that you are there, afforded that special moment in time.


Look for Sonoma County Barrel Auction wines at your local wine shop in the upcoming months. They will offer you a unique opportunity to experience the finest that Sonoma has to offer. Cheers to that!


Ilona Thompson

Ilona Thompson is Editor-in-Chief at PalateXposure, a destination site for oenophiles, gourmands and luxury travelers. She also recently launched #Wine, a site dedicated to wines and spirits reviews, and #Photography, a site devoted to high-quality wine, food, and travel related photography.

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