My fourth visit to Auction Napa Valley makes me realize just how long this project called Life Between the Vines has survived. The Auction podcast is our 34th. While I’m please that we have made it this far it is clear that we need to keep up the quality of our programs as well as to work to grow the business.

The best irony came as I approached the security area before leaving Milwaukee. I was in line behind a man who looked familiar….”Clay, is that you?” I said. Indeed it was. Clay is truly a man that knows his wine and has the cellar and experience to prove it. I told him “Good karma running into you for this trip”. Of course once he asked where I was off to, all I said was ‘Auction’, and he knew the rest. Clay in fact has been a LBTV podcast follower since our beginnings. He always makes comments on the podcasts and offers constant encouragement.

So while I was able to ‘beam’ about heading to Auction, Clay was headed to New York City to address the United Nations in regard to ‘green’ businesses. He is an executive at Johnson Controls in Milwaukee and in fact JCI build one of the first ‘green’ LEED buildings in the US. What an honor! So what could I say but break a leg.

I call start a strong start.

So as night falls on my flight to San Francisco I think back on the previous Barrel auctions as well as last years Auction Napa Valley. The good will, the generosity, the food, the amazing lots, the fantastic volunteers, the warmth and friendliness of the Napa Vintners and most of all, the wine. Oh, the wine. If you could only taste the podcast.

First things first, I begin this trip with more interviews for future podcasts. This one covers four corners…..youth, history, starrs and family.

Of course family is always part of the story of Napa Valley. It’s also a major part of our stories.

As a final thought for the evening my thanks to Terry Hall and the Napa Valley Vintners Association for their support. Without whom…

5/31/11 –rf

Day One-June 1st, 2011

Rain. But seriously, rain in Napa isn’t the worse thing in the world. Unless it affects the grapes with mold, etc. So I’m willing to live with it….and that’s because the forcast predicts rain most of this week. Another reason to keep tasting.

The morning began with another trek up Spring Mountain, this time to visit with the Schweiger Family. This was a rare chance to speak with three members of the family; Andy the winemaker, Diana the sales manager and Fred, father, contractor and a damn nice guy.

I think the key phrase that stuck with me after talking with Fred was how he works ‘with’ the family and his employees. He is the team leader to be sure but he operates with an open mind focusing on the spirit of teamwork.

It rained on the mountain….a couple times…..the Schweiger dogs got wet but they didn’t care. Good pups…friendly and welcoming. An excellent visit.

After spending a little time in St. Helena I grabbed lunch at Gott’s Roadside (formerly Taylors Refresher) a regular stop.

I made my way up valley to a favorite stop, 12 Vintners and caught up with Tim the ever-friendly wine merchant. Tim always has some good bargains along with new finds. One in particular on this stop was Tristant Vineyards ‘Mirifice’ red. From the newly named Calistoga AVA, Mirifice was a deep red with excellent flavor and even better yet a discounted price.

As I had a little time on my hands I stopped for a tasting at August Briggs winery. I’ve never been to this cozy little place but I’m glad I did. Excellent Rose, Zin and Cab.

It rained.

My next interview took place at The Napa Wine company with Kendall Hoxsey. The facility is a custom crush and bottling facility located in Oakville at the heart of Napa Valley. Simply put, the place is huge. 26 labels call it home and that includes a full tasting room to boot.

Then, the sun came out. Thank you Kendall.

The final interview of the day was with Courtesan winemaker Bridget Raymond. Her candor is appreciated. She is one of a very large group of female winemakers in Napa Valley. Strong opinions with red wine in her veins, Bridget was both charming and very smart. But all winemakers are smart, right? Look what they do for a living.

I’m typing this just before dinner which is a mystery just what that will be at this moment. But who cares, the sun is still out and I have some wine. All is good with the world.

6/1/11 –rf

Day Two-Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

Well rested I was on the road early to meet with Napa history.

Volker Eisele looks to the future of Napa Valley. The idea is that the land must be preserved. With that in mind you see the passion in Volker’s eyes for Napa. He has been involved in the future of the valley as a winemaker and concerned citizen. He had a hand in making Napa Valley protected as an agricultural preserve to preventing uncontrolled growth.

The tasting room looks like a barn but it is in fact not. The structure was a winery dating back to the late 1800’s, so I guess you could say that this is a man who is well connected to Napa history.

After lunch at the Rutherford Grill we headed to out to our next interview which was with Pam Starr of Crocker & Starr in the north end of St. Helena.

Pam makes fantastic Cab Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Her energy is infectious. Her passion for the wine business make you want to jump in and be part of things. She also has real cool red star tennie shoes.

Just down the road from the Crocker & Starr offices is the “Estate”, a property surrounded by the C&S vineyard and a huge new planting by Louis Martini. A private property used for only special tastings the estate is enclosed in a stone wall and among other things consists of a Victorian house, a large stone winery style building, a pool and the extreme feeling of privacy.

We left Pam and headed back to the hotel to ready for one of the many Auction dinners.

Courtesy of the NVV we joined the folks at Clif Family Vineyard in the town of Angwin on Howell Mountain for a fantastic dinner. Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford are owners of the famous Clif Bar energy snacks. They are also getting known for making very tasty wines.

The Clif tasting room is located as you enter the town of St. Helena….a great stop especially if you are a major bicycle rider….many cool bikes on display and the wine is fantastic too.

Clif family offered us a chance to make our own blend….with help from winemaker Steve we formed teams and blended from three Cabernet Sauvignon clones. Midway through the evening the winner of the blends was announced. LBTV photographer Jeanette Hrnyak tied for first thus winning a magnum of Clif Family Zinfandel!

A long and satisfying day.

6/2/11 -rf

Day Three-Friday, June 3rd, 2011

The Barrel Auction takes place today at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. Bidding on this auction gives the top ten winners a case of a specially made wine for this event. Vintners and winemakers stand at their barrels in the large hall offering pours to all the prospective bidders to qualify their bids. Some final prices were quite a bargin and some were out of this world.

Along with the barrel tasting other Vintners offered tastings of their e-auction wines along with samples from some 40 Napa area restaurants and food merchants.

The weather was cool and threatened rain, but it held off and the day came off perfectly.

Here we caught up with many old friends such as Jean Hoefliger and Robin Baggett of Alpha Omega, Amy Aiken of Meander, Brette Bartolucci of Madonna, Cyril Chappellet of Chappellet as well as making many new friends like Marcia Mondavi of Continuum, Alex Eisele of Vokler Eisele, Linzi Gay of Clif Family Wine and many more.

After an exhausting day of interviews we headed off to another Auction dinner, this time at Miner Family Vineyards on Silverado Trail.

Again we meet new people all with the same great feeling that comes with wine tasting in Napa Valley. We also met the wife of AO’s Erik Ackerman, Mandi Ackerman who is the tasting room manager at Miner.

The Chef, the hospitality, the food, the experience….simply excellent.

With a light rain falling we headed back to the hotel to get a good nights sleep before auction.


Day Four-June 4th, 2011–Auction—

Just before grabbing breakfast I looked out my hotel window to see why I was hearing howling wind. Rain…lots of rain…and lots of wind….the trees were blowing….it looked like nearly the worse weather you could imagine for this event. In 31 years of Auction Napa Valley it has never rained. Well today, mother nature made up for this oversight in spades.

I imagined what things would be like at Meadowoood Country Club for Auction. There had to be several tents….lots of mud and perhaps even dampened spirits.

I was right about the tents and mud….and wrong about the spirit of the event.

We picked up the shuttle at The Ranch winery….nearly everyone had an umbrella and all of the locals had big rubber boots as they knew what to expect. Some visitors learned a lesson from the farmers….rain = mud.

Upon arriving at Meadowood the excitement was hanging in the air almost as thick as the rain. Umbrellas were everywhere but smiles were as well. No one really cared…this was just something different….rain? So what! They were there to bid and eat and drink and meet winemakers. Rain? What rain?

To describe the amount of wine that is there to taste is impossible…..everything from Napa that you could imagine….single vineyard, mountain fruit, valley floor, new AVA’s….they were all there…the labels you dream of.

We enjoyed lunch made by the fantastic Cindy Pawlcyn of Mustards (and Go Fish and Cindy’s Back Street Kitchen) accompanied by live music, which was augmented by a drum marching band leading the celebrants to the next tent and the main event, Auction Napa Valley.

Skipping from tent to tent could be a challenge for the mud and rain dripping between the gaps but the partiers were having a ball.

Then, the bidding started.

40 lots that would make your eyes pop out. Magnums, verticals, six- liters, trips, rebuilt vintage trucks, chefs, chairs made from wine barrels… was all there. The goal was to break the $100 million mark that dates back 31 years to the start of the auction.

They did.

$7.3 million was taken in for this year’s auction. The Napa Valley Vintners auction serves heath care, children and workers in the valley. It is an extraordinary effort in giving and taking care of those in need.

Chef Michael Chiarello was in charge of the dinner this evening. A celebrity chef who is considered a local, showing up and helping his own. The meal was fantastic featuring a variety of foods like Bass, figs, salads, lamb and more.

David Pack of Ambrosia, a regular at the Auction joined the band to play a couple of his hits as the dance floor jammed to capacity.

Fireworks topped off the night when the rain had finally stopped.

At the end of the evening it was amazing to see the many dead soldiers lay waste on the tables….all in magnum size.

We headed back down the mountain to say goodnight to another Auction Napa Valley.

I headed home at noon the next day with the events of the week fresh in my mind….crowding my thoughts with pleasure and gratitude.

I sincerely believe is would be impossible to top the hospitality and kindness of the people of Napa Valley.

Thank you NVV.



Written by Ray Fister

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