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Sonoma’s First Barrel Auction – They Did It Their Way

by Monty Preiser

IMG_0055It is about 6:00 p.m. on Friday May 1. Less than 32 hours ago I began a whirlwind 2 days in the company of some of the world’s most recognized sommeliers, press, vintners, and winemakers as the Sonoma County Vintners (SOCO) presented its First Barrel Auction. The event mirrors in its concept and goals what Napa refers to as “Premiere Napa” by offering retailers and distributors from around the world an opportunity to bid on lots offered by the region’s vintners – in Sonoma County, usually 5, 10, or 20 cases per lot. Funds received do not go to the wineries, which donate the goods, but to the Sonoma County Vintners Trade Group, which uses much of the money for operations and promoting Sonoma wines – all to the good. And this year they raised nearly a half million dollars.

[Just so no one is confused, the Sonoma Barrel Auction and Premiere Napa are kindred events, while the Napa Valley Barrel Auction is something else all-together]

This event is a hot ticket supposedly for the trade only in both counties, but while tickets to Sonoma seemed to be allotted to legitimate bidders and press, Napa is unfortunately inundated with non-trade consumers who falsely use the license of others to gain entry, thereby denying attendance to many who could, and often should, be in attendance. For some reason the staff of the Napa Vintners have not picked up on this ruse, or they ignore it.

As for the SOCO staff itself, while one might expect some slips during the first presentation of a major program, I discerned none. The immensely competent people I met had schedules operating like clockwork, providing just enough time over two days for us to sample all 72 auction lots, and still have the opportunity to be collegial and schmooze (high up on my priorities for any wine tasting). Far more rural, and vastly larger, than Napa, Sonoma has always been the more laid back of the two, and except for some of the national magazine “higher-ups” who don’t really care to converse with those of us closer to the ground, the friendship among people was obvious, effusive, and welcome.

There is one major difference in the Napa and Sonoma events that is worth touching upon. Not better or worse, just different. Napa allows about 100 lots and, because Napa is Napa and produces the best Cabernet Sauvignon in the world, most of what is offered at Premiere Napa are, in fact, Cabs. That can really compromise one’s palate after sipping for just a short while, and even become a bit boring. After all, how many wines of superior depth, tannins, fruit, and balance can one handle in a day?

Sonoma, on the other hand, is far more diverse in its offerings. By my count we tried about 30 Pinot Noirs, 18 Cabernet Sauvignons/Bordeaux Blends, 6 Zinfandels, 7 Blends of more rarely used varieties, 3 Merlots, 2 Chardonnays, 1 Sauvignon Blanc, 1 Malbec, and a partridge in a cork tree. With lighter profiles than Cab for nearly 75% of the wines present, the entire tasting was a bit easier on the palate, while having so many varietals involved was a pleasure.

How, by the way, did a winery obtain the right to show, given a limit of 70 lots? In Napa, it is first come, first, served. Sonoma chose a panel of six well known master sommeliers to judge all entries and cut it down to seventy. I encourage the steering committee to re-evaluate this process next year. Master somms certainly have accomplished what most have not, but their achievements and designation do not automatically make them superior tasters over experienced writers, restaurateurs, or educators. At least one of the somms involved presently works for more than one of the wineries, and so a conflict was inherent. Others are no longer “on the floor” and may not know the parameters of the public’s present tastes. If there is to be an elimination process, I suggest the judges exhibit varying backgrounds and have substantial interaction with consumers.

The objective for the wineries is to create a one-time-only lot for the bidders to be able to buy and later re-sell. Most wineries complied fully, though some showed a distinctive product that will also be very close to a wine later sold by the winery from its own portfolio. I see nothing wrong with this as it seems to me the wineries are donating quite a lot of product and spending time doing so. They should be able to profit down the road from a close cousin of what is on display.

The 70 participants (two wineries were permitted two lots) all seemed to do well in the auction. As in Napa, big names scored big bids regardless of the wine’s relative quality. On the other hand, I suppose the big name promotes healthy sales, so I understand the bid.  Some wineries (including some excellent ones) decided (for whatever reason) to get together and blend from some of each of their best vineyards. In my interviews, none of the winemakers really seemed to want to say he or she was in charge of these blends, which I think they knew they were below par. 2+2 simply did not even get to 4, much less the hoped for 5 or above. That said, they still garnered high prices in the auction.

Below is how one guy (me) scored the wineries’ offerings. Since, except in rare cases, they are not recreating these wines specifically, there is little sense in going into detail about the vineyards or process behind each lot. Yet, enough are comparative to make it worthwhile to know who produced the best juice. And it’s fun. Look for some nice surprises (Linked, Guarachi, Gordian Knot, Kinsella, and WindRacer to name a few).

2013 The Donum Estate Pinot Noir – 99

2014 Sbragia Zin/Carignane/Petite Sirah – 98

2014 Ramey Chardonnay – 97.5

2014 Bacigalupi Chardonnay – 97
2013 Linked Cabernet Sauvignon – 97
2013 Pride Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon – 97

2014 Guarachi Pinot Noir – 96.5

2014 Gordian Knot Zinfandel – 96
2014 DeLoach Pinot Noir – 96
2014 Fort Ross Pinot Noir – 96
2014 WindRacer Pinot Noir – 96

2013 MacPhail Pinot Noir – 95.5
2013 Benovia Pinot Noir – 95.5
2014 WALT Pinot Noir – 95.5

2014 Sojourn Pinot Noir – 95
2013 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon – 95
2014 VML Pinot Noir – 95
2014 Seghesio Zinfandel – 95

2014 Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir – 94.5
2013 Matanzas Creek Pinot Noir – 94.5

2013 Kinsella Cabernet Sauvignon – 94
2014 Martinelli Pinot Noir – 94
2014 Williams Selyem Pinot Noir – 94
2014 Daniel Zin/Teroldego/Alicante Bouschet/Carignane/Petite Sirah – 94
2014 Dry Creek Sauvignon Musque/Sauvignon Gris – 94

2014 Buena Vista Cabernet Sauvignon – 93.5
2013 Delectus Cabernet Sauvignon – 93.5

2014 Ferrari-Carano Malbec/Tennat – 93
2013 MacRostie Pinot Noir – 93
2014 C. Donatiello Pinot Noir – 93
2014 Arista Pinot Noir – 93

2013 Simi Merlot – 92
2013 Dry Creek Zin/Petite Sirah – 92
2014 Balletto Pinot Noir – 92

2014 Wild Ridge Pinot Noir – 91.5

2013 St. Francis Merlot – 91
2014 Jordan Cab/Merlot/Petit Verdot/Malbec – 91
2014 Mauritson Zinfandel – 91
2014 Rodney Strong Cab/Malbec – 91
2014 Dutton-Goldfield Pinot Noir – 91

2014 Joseph Swan, Williams Selyem, and Kosta Browne Pinot Noir – 90.5
2014 Freeman Pinot Noir – 90.5
2013 Ravenswood Zin/Petite Sirah/Carignane/Alicante Bouschet – 90.5

2013 Arrowood Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon – 90
2014 Siduri Pinot Noir – 90
2013 Inman Pinot Noir – 90
2013 A. Rafanelli Cab/Merlot – 90
2014 Patz & Hall Pinot Noir – 90
2014 Gundlach Bundschu Cabernet Sauvignon – 90
2012 Stonestreet Cabernet Sauvignon – 90

2014 Gary Farrell Pinot Noir – 89.5

2013 Wild Ridge Pinot Noir – 89
2014 Westwood Syrah/Grenache – 89

2014 Gloria Ferrer Pinot Noir – 88.5

2013 Robert Young Cabernet Sauvignon – 88
2014 The Calling Pinot Noir – 88
2013 Vizlay Zin/Petite Sirah/ Alicanta Bouschet – 88

2013 Alexander Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon – 87
2013 Anakota Cabernet Sauvignon – 87
2013 St. Francis Mixed Blacks – 87

2014 La Crema Pinot Noir – 86

2014 Cenyth Red Blend – 85
2014 Dutcher Crossing, Mazzocco, Armida, Bella Zinfandel – 85

2014 Ceritas. Failla, Freeman, Joseph Phelps, Littorai, Peay, Red Car Pinot Noir – 84

2014 Dutton Estate Pinot Noir – 83.5

2014 Joseph Swan Pinot Noir – 83

2013 Francis Ford Coppola Cabernet Sauvignon – 82.5

2014 Keller Pinot Noir – 82

Column by Monty Preiser, publisher of Preiser Keys to Napa & Sonoma



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