Wine Spectator

February 26, 2014

Big Gains for Napa Valley Vintners at Premiere Napa Valley

James Laube

If you need a perspective on Premiere Napa Valley, the Napa Valley Vintners’ trade-only tasting and auction, consider the sports world: Sports fans are keenly aware of what a team’s popularity brings. It usually means the team is improved, and that usually translates to higher ticket prices.

This past weekend, the Premiere Napa Valley auction nearly doubled its 2012 record, with $5.9 million in winning bids, or $283 per bottle. The top lot, 5 cases of 2012 Scarecrow Cabernet, sold for $260,000.

In the case of Premiere Napa Valley, the sky-high prices paid for the most expensive auctioned lots this past Saturday won’t necessarily mean you’ll pay more for, say, Scarecrow or Schrader or Shafer, the three top lots. They’re already among the highest priced and scarcest wines in Napa. But the demand for their wines reflected in bids certainly won’t hurt. It’s gratifying for any vintner to see their efforts rewarded by hard cash and frenzied demand.

Of course, it’s not the same for consumers. We’re in a different boat. Most fans of Napa Valley wines already think prices are plenty high. Many vintners I’ve talked with in the past few months say they’re holding prices anyway. Sure, some know they can charge more, but they also run the risk of seeming greedy and alienating customers who’ve been loyal supporters.

There is also the reality that 2012 and 2013 vintages produced prodigious crops, and some vintners have told me they have far more great wine in barrel than ever before. Moving those wines through distribution channels will in some instances require creative marketing plans, i.e. wheeling and dealing.

By the way, donating wines that they would otherwise sell to their customers doesn’t exactly thrill many vintners. The wines sold at Premiere are one-of-a-kind cuvées made in small quantities and sold to members of the wine trade, mostly retailers and distributors. They in turn sell the wines to their preferred customers.

The accompanying barrel tasting held at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena is a shoulder-to-shoulder affair that gives attendees a sneak preview of what’s in barrel, in this instance wines from 2012.

Premiere Napa Valley, unlike Auction Napa Valley, which raises money for Napa’s health organizations, benefits the Napa Valley Vintners. Proceeds from the auction are recycled into the coffers of the trade group to further promote its image, wines and appellations as well as educate people about what makes Napa special. NVV is an incredibly powerful and effective marketing organization. Few regional wine groups are anywhere near as influential, successful or savvy.

There was a time when Bordeaux ruled the wine market, and it still has plenty of clout. By sheer volume, Bordeaux still makes more great wine than any other region its size. But Bordeaux is facing a huge crisis. Its wines are prohibitively expensive and wine drinkers have turned their attention elsewhere. Worse, Bordeaux hasn’t been in vogue for some time. If you want to apply the sports analogy to Bordeaux, its franchise is in shambles and it needs to rebuild most of its team and convince fans to pay to see them play.

Napa Valley has been hugely successful at marketing its wines. But there are plenty of vintners who’ve been around long enough to remember when the times weren’t this good, and they’re wise enough to realize that what happened to Bordeaux vis-à-vis pricing and popularity could happen to them.

Media who champion Premiere Napa Valley’s results seemingly lose sight that what’s good for Napa Valley Vintners isn’t necessarily good for consumers.