Wizard of Oz rules the Day!
An Oscar Post-view of Emerald City named Napa
I can only describe the following events as a transformative experience; the kind when one quietly pinches oneself as if to remind themselves that they are still residing in the real world, a fleeting yet immensely impactful joy ride like no other… a moment that feels more like a movie set than real life. Premiere Napa Valley is a fairy tale event; the sort that stays with you for a lifetime. Memories are made, friendships fostered; and perhaps some of the most special domestic wines on the planet are shared, discussed, tasted, and consumed.
Those in the “know” cherish the opportunity to visit the vintners backyard and hobnob with some of the most famous names in the industry; break bread (along with a variety of gourmet snacks) with them, and taste the one-of-a-kind offerings which are made in 5-10 (in rare instances 20) case lots.
The extravaganza starts a few days before the auction with an influx of retailers who flock in from around the world to partake in this Napa Valley Bacchanalia. (Yes, some of the best known writing personalities were there too. Oz Clarke himself, taking copious notes and getting into a brief yet heated spar-fest with none other than Doug Shafer.) If you consider yourself a serious player in California wine sandbox, this event is not to be missed. The red carpet is rolled out by a who’s who of Napa Valley. The Academy Awards leap to mind. During these few days at the end of February the Napa Valley is the place to see, taste and be seen.
This event not only supplies one with a bevy of ultra-exciting opportunities to taste wines that one would never be able to replicate on this scale; but also provides a powerful perspective on the looming 2009 vintage. Overall, I was impressed by the incredible strength and breadth of aromatics for this vintage. Add in well-delineated, robust yet gentle tannins, this vintage is poised to eclipse the much-heralded 2007. I also tasted some remarkably well-balanced 2008 offerings and was left to doubt the conclusions of some critics that ’08 was an inferior vintage as a wholesale assessment. My advice is to taste the wines yourselves or you stand to miss some outstanding drinking experiences.
This is a week of unbridled hedonism; barely concealed and barely conceivable palatal debauchery. How many times do you find yourself spitting a dozen, unobtainable, 95+ point wines before noon? The event culminates in an auction that takes place on Saturday at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St Helena, one of America’s most historic and majestic properties. This stately building provided a perfect setting for this most anticipated event. The morning starts with a three hour barrel tasting followed by lunch and the auction itself. The auction room filled to capacity; chocked full of eager bidders and onlookers. As the anticipation built the impatient crowd slowly swayed to its own rhythm. Palpable tension filled the room.
Rewind 12 hrs earlier. After a full day of crisscrossing the valley in an impossible quest to taste as many wines as I can, I retired to my hotel room to restore some much-needed energy. With four appellational tastings plus a half-dozen individual events per day, one tends to lose track of any sense of reality. Once the adrenaline rush subsides, one is left with a screaming pair of sore feet, and a black and blue (literally and figuratively) palate!
It is during my down moments, while I was floating in a rather deep bathtub conveniently located right in my hotel room’s bedroom, reflecting upon my day, I kept coming back to one wine in particular, Scarecrow. I had tasted enough prominent and highly regarded, critically acclaimed wines to fill the bathtub I was in, but somehow this bottling stood out as a king among kings. I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of price their Premier Lot would fetch. (After I had tasted both 2008 finished wine and the 2009 Auction Lot I felt they were amongst the highlights of my overall experiences in my dozen+ years of winetasting.) Scarecrow’s runaway fame started with amazing RP scores dripping with praise. Adoring drinkers worldwide responded and their mailing list quickly becoming the sort of waiting list that I jokingly refer to as “0 gravity”; as in there is zero gravitational pull in the general direction of your mailing address.
Upon exiting the cozy tub and drying off I grabbed a scrap of paper and scribbled a number… just for the fun of it.
Number 2 takes on number 1 Or La Vie en Rose
The following morning, I found myself right back in action, in the middle of the crowded Barrel Room at the CIA. After a staggeringly informative barrel tasting followed by a lovely lunch it was time to take in what everyone ultimately came here for. I settled in the thick of the room, curiously noting that I was sitting in close proximity to both past high bidders otherwise known as Paddle #1 and #2. The auction paddle numbers are assigned by the previous years’ auction results. The biggest spender from last year gets paddle #1. The holders of these esteemed paddles were huddling; exchanging knowing glances and extensive spreadsheets. Although there was only one actual paddle-holder in both groups there was a large entourage accompanying them. A quick study of one of the groups revealed that they were there to conduct serious business and take home some serious prizes. Interestingly, the two Japanese buyers from the second group were wearing rather curiously colored pink sport coats. Much like their rosy garb, they appeared relaxed; amicably chatting with their colleagues, projecting a most nonchalant attitude.
The afternoon moved quickly; with many deserving wines attracting significant premiums, of note was a Schrader lot that attracted a lot of attention with a winning bid of $45,000 for 5 cases, with Ovid at close second selling for $44,000 with Levy McClellan garnering $40,000 and Shafer $38,000. After much activity, the room fell silent when Lot 138, Scarecrow Toto’s Opium Dream: Scene II was announced. The air was thick with anticipation as rapid bids ricocheted across the room. When $100K barrier broke, we all became silent bidders, fervently raising our imaginary paddles at the next increment. One could sense an upcoming history making moment. The excitement built and someone in the back of the crowd momentarily broke the tension by shouting “F… the recession!” It was a somewhat crude, yet poignant sentiment. It clearly pointed to the fact that, for a privileged few wineries and their wealthy supporters, recessions come and go, phenomenal wines have a staying power and ability to attract the type of handsome sums that makes one head spin… clearly they inspire both love and lust, and with those things often come with a hefty price tag. Just ask Kelsey Grammer.
When the bidding ended at a record-breaking $125,000, Scarecrow owners, Bret Lopez and Mimi DeBlasio looked nothing short of stunned. Celia Welch, their celebrated wine maker, hugged them as they struggled to come to terms with what just happened. The attendees were on their feet, applauding and cheering both vintners and the high bidder. The winning bidder? Paddle # 2, the Japanese buyers of Nakagawa Wine Co. The high bidder, presumably the store owner, who was nodding his head approvingly, with a smile hovering on his lips appeared sated yet unfazed. Next year, look for a room full of pink sports coats as all of the bidders look to emulate their success!
It was a great moment for many reasons, not the least of which was a collective excitement for all to experience; an invigorating and binding sentiment that only reveals itself in times of great tragedies or triumphs. This Napa blue chip setting rarely feels as warm and intimate as it did in that single moment. Looking at the faces around me, I noted expressions of pride and satisfaction.
The auction had to go on. However it was clear to everyone that the story of the day was and will be Scarecrow for months if not years to come. The wine, which was named in honor of JJ Cohn, Bret’s grandfather and executive producer of The Wizard of Oz, just changed Napa history. Forever.
Walking away from CIA I unfolded my wrinkled note on Hotel Avia stationary.
It read “$120K.”