Upscale Napa Valley auction gives millions of dollars to charity

ST. HELENA, Calif. --- Under a sun-splashed sky, smartly dressed wine-lovers stroll past fluttering white tents, glasses of Napa's finest at their manicured fingertips.


Oprah Winfrey ambles by, surrounded by an entourage. Chef Thomas Keller -- an celebrity chef with weekslong waits for reservations at his French Laundry restaurant -- works the crowd with a tray of treats.

Posh parties? Check. Delectable dining? Check. Bottles of wine that cost as much as your first car? Check.

And nary a bottle of Two Buck Chuck in sight.

It's the Napa wine auction, the annual event that raises millions for charity and offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what happens when the people who make high-price wines gather with the people who can afford to drink them.

Flashy, splashy and just that little bit over the top, the event -- known formally as Auction Napa Valley -- is put on by the Napa Valley Vintners association, with winery donations including wine, fancy dinners and exotic trips.

It serves as the community's annual fundraiser, benefiting local agencies that provide housing, health care and other social services.

"It gives us an opportunity," says Stan Hook, a vinophile with 16 auctions under his belt, "to do things that the average person would not be allowed to do."

Things like have lunch on the rolling lawns of Francis Ford Coppola's wine country estate.

Mr. Hook and a few others got to do just that during this year's auction, held the first weekend in June. Mr. Coppola was away shooting a movie, but his wife, Eleanor, was on hand to serve as gracious hostess.

If a restored 19th century wine chateau doesn't tickle your fancy, how about a mountaintop party with an African princess?

It was part of the festivities at the Lokoya winery, which put up an auction lot that included a visit to South Africa's Thanda Private Game Reserve.

This year, it took a mere $2,500 per person for a ticket to the full auction package, though tickets to walk around during the Friday auction lot preview were just $250, $125 for Napa County residents.

The big event is the live auction, held this year in a giant tent strung with sparkling chandeliers. Jay Leno kicked off the evening with a fast-paced set that began with the sly observation that he was looking at "every comedian's dream" -- rich people eating.

Here's what was on the menu: ballotine of guinea hen with Rutherford red wine sauce and slow-poached beef tenderloin, porcini mushrooms and brioche gnocchi. (A ballotine is a piece of meat, fish or poultry that's been boned, stuffed and rolled.)

Bidding on the vintner-donated lots of wine and other fine things in life was energetic -- $50,000, $60,000, $70,000. Tallies shot up as satin-clad women and sharply dressed men vied for high-profile lots.

An offering from Frank Family Vineyards in partnership with Air New Zealand and Steve McPherson, co-owner of Promise wine and the president of ABC Television, drew a cool $480,000 for a bevy of prizes, including a trip to New Zealand and a walk-on role in TV's Grey's Anatomy. The winning bidders got a hug from Ms. Winfrey.

A lot offered in tribute to the late wine pioneer Robert Mondavi -- successful bidders got a seat at an upcoming dinner celebrating his life -- fetched close to $1 million.

The "cult" wine Screaming Eagle, always a big draw, pulled in $500,000 for dinner for eight and six magnums, equal to 12 regular bottles. In 2000, a single 6-liter bottle of Screaming Eagle (eight bottles' worth) brought in $500,000.

Since those heady days, the Napa event has been overtaken financially by the Naples Winter Wine Festival, which raised $14 million for charity in January.

The Napa auction, which this year brought in more than $10 million, takes pride in its longevity with a pedigree that goes back to 1981 and a record of donating nearly $78 million during its first 27 years.