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Napa Wine Auction Swaps Bottles for Barrels

In a nod to younger, non-billionaire consumers, Napa Valley has changed its primary fund-raising event from the most bling-driven party in the wine world to a year-round membership model.

There will still be a wine auction in June, but now it will be focused on wine, not trips to the Super Bowl or backstage passes at the Oscars. It's not going to be cheap: you have to pay at least $1000 for the right to buy tickets, and Napa Valley Vintners hasn't decided yet how much the tickets will cost. But tickets to Auction Napa Valley – which NVV announced last year had ended after 40 years – cost up to $20,000 per couple.

The new idea is called Collective Napa Valley. It's a membership program that you can join for free – I joined while writing this story. But Complimentary members can't go to the barrel auction. For that you need to spend either $1000 for the Enthusiast level or $5000 for the ... $5000 Enthusiast level. (The website just launched today and maybe $5000 spenders will get a new nickname soon.)

The Collective currently has three events: one each in spring, summer and autumn. At this point only the summer one is in person. But as Napa Valley Vintners spokesperson Teresa Wall points out, this is an unusual year to plan in-person events, and things might be very different by the time the autumn event, a vintage celebration, takes place.

"Collective Napa Valley is our new format that will connect with people all year round, while doing good in our community," Wall told Wine-Searcher. "There will be three seasons that we'll focus on, and all of those will tie back to wine."

There had always been an undercurrent of discontent with the exclusivity of Auction Napa Valley as well as its lack of focus on wine. Wall said that Alycia Mondavi, a co-chair of the auction in 2018, was influential in convincing the Vintners that a different style of event would be more appealing to younger consumers.

"Some of our goals have been to bring it back to what we do best, which is produce wine," Wall said. "Bringing it back to wine and tying it to seasons. Another was to broaden our reach. We want to be more inclusive and we want wine lovers at all levels to be involved. The other goal was philanthropy. We're fortunate to live in a wine region where people who come to visit feel connected to it."

This year's spring event is a 60-minute virtual wine tasting; you'll have to buy the samples.

The highlight of the Collective calendar is the June barrel auction, which was always one of the best parts of Auction Napa Valley for people who were there for the wine. It's a futures auction: wineries donate a barrel of wine and up to 10 different bidders can win a case of it that they will receive on release. The price of entry to win some of the wines on offer has historically been low enough that, if you can afford the $1000 to buy tickets, you'll find some relative bargains.

In fact, this year's "Summer Offering" weekend of June 2-4 sounds exactly like an Auction Napa Valley weekend, just without the main auction. There will be private dinners at wineries two nights in a row (these are often awesome), and the barrel auction at Raymond Vineyard. But instead of the big event, attendees are encouraged to spend that night dining in a Napa Valley restaurant. After the past two years, the restaurants can use the support.

"The barrel auction was the fan favorite of the Auction Napa Valley weekend," Wall said. "We had a lot of people who voiced concern for that going away and they really wanted to see that part come back."

The fall event is a "vintage celebration" in November that currently includes winemakers sampling their nascent wines and telling you by Zoom what they taste like. Not exactly a highlight.

But the barebones schedule also includes a "Vintage Celebration Dinner and Auction" on November 4 that is described as "an intimate dinner featuring an auction of custom experiences and incredible wines". It sounds like a mini-Auction Napa Valley and in fact, even $5000 Enthusiasts only get "virtual access" to it. Napa Valley Vintners is the most savvy winery organization in the world, and it wouldn't be surprising if they figured out a way to ditch the big public bling-fest, open the main auction weekend up to more people, and still find a way to reel in the whales for an exclusive "custom experiences" auction.

Collective members will also get "exclusive opportunities to purchase wine", a magazine and a newsletter, while Enthusiasts and $5000 Enthusiasts also get "access to special events curated for Collective members", though only "virtual access" to the fall schedule.

As for the money-raising aspect, Wall said NVV has committed to donating $15 million over three years to the charitable organizations it has long supported through Auction Napa Valley. She said NVV donated $5.9 million last year, despite Auction Napa Valley being cancelled.

"We have reserve funds from 40 years of Auction Napa Valley and what's called the healthy community fund," Wall said. "Reserve funds were set aside each auction in case there was a rainy day need. That's exactly what it's being used for."

This article was extract from wine-searcher


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