Price Trumps Vintage at Napa Auction

One of Napa's most important auctions went a bit under the radar this year, but Cabernet was still king.
W. Blake Gray · Wednesday, 02-Mar-2022
Some of Napa's biggest names were among the lots on offer at the auction.
© Shafer Vineyards | Some of Napa's biggest names were among the lots on offer at the auction.

Napa Valley Vintners overcame a major problem – a vintage many buyers are wary of – with its main fundraiser this year. It may be a one-year blip, but we also may have seen a glimpse of an alternate, slightly cheaper future for Napa wines.

The present, however, is still all about $300-plus Cabernet Sauvignon.

The 2022 Premiere Napa Valley auction last week showed that the appetite for expensive Napa wine is unabated. Despite concerns over 2020 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, the average bottle price at the auction was $230, higher than it has been in at least five years. It's not 2015, when the average peaked at $286, but it's a step up on last year's $227.

Perhaps the main factor in bringing up that average was that the overall number of auction lots was down quite a bit, from 201 in 2020 to 149 in 2021 to just 109 this year. Thus the overall auction take was just $2.1 million, the lowest in many years. This is definitely a reflection of the 2020 vintage; some producers will choose not to release 2020 Cabernets.

PNV is not open to the public; it's a trade auction for retail and restaurant wine buyers. This year, only previously successful bidders were allowed to attend in person in St Helena, while others could bid online at the Sotheby's site.

While it's possible that fewer restaurateurs bid compared to previous years, a number of retailers remain enthusiastic for special Premiere Napa Valley wines – each is a unique blend for the auction, and they carry special labels. So cutting the number of lots nearly in half made the competition more robust at the lower end. Only eight of the 109 lots sold for less than $100 a bottle.

I wish I had calculated the standard deviation of previous years' auction results, because I guess this year would be the lowest in memory. Not only were there few underperformers, only one wine sold for more than $1000 per bottle. In 2020, there were five. Two of those producers did not participate this year.

The auction is usually heavily dependent on the Cabernet Sauvignon from two years before, but that wasn't the case this year. Only 36 of the 107 lots were from the 2020 vintage, and of those only 21 were Cabernet Sauvignons.

So we may have gotten a glimpse of a slightly different high-end Napa Valley: Malbecs, Nebbiolos, Cabernet Francs. There were 10 Sauvignon Blanc-based wines on auction. Not only is Sauvignon Blanc having a moment with consumers; it's also harvested earlier, making it less vulnerable to late-season fire like the Glass Fire that ended the 2020 harvest season in September for many Napa wineries.

But a non-Cabernet Napa Valley is a less expensive place. Despite fewer 2020s being on offer, Cabernet Sauvignon continued to rake in the most money. The three most expensive wines, and eight of the top nine, were Cabernet Sauvignons. All but one of the 22 most expensive wines had at least some Cabernet Sauvignon in them. And of the 33 wines that garnered bids of more than $300 per bottle, 24 were Cabernet Sauvignon and another five contained at least some Cabernet.

Think about that: 33 of 107 lots (31 percent; 2220 bottles total) sold for more than $300 a bottle. And that's a wholesale price. Retailers are bullish on expensive Napa wines.

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The top lot by a large margin was from the same winery as last year:Shafer Vineyards Sunspot Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2021; 60 bottles sold for $75,600 ($1260 a bottle.) Last year, Shafer auctioned off a lot of 2019 Cabernet from the same vineyard for $110,000. Shafer was recently purchased by a South Korean department store, which must be proud of its investment.

The rest of the top 9 by bottle price were:

The Chappellet Cab Franc was the major non-Cabernet Sauvignon outlier. The next-priciest wine to contain no Cabernet Sauvignon (at least according to the auction notes) was Schramsberg's lot, a late-disgorged wine from the year 2000 that sold for $324 a bottle.

A few lots had interesting concessions to the troubled 2020 vintage. Hourglass had only one surviving red wine from the vintage, a Merlot, so it blended it 50-50 with 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon from Favia and the double-sized lot brought in $450 a bottle. Viader made a non-vintage Cabernet Sauvignon blend; it sold for $324 a bottle. A number of wineries offered 2021 Cabernets which were only harvested a few months ago; this would have been very unusual in prior years.

Sauvignon Blanc was the most popular PNV white wine with wineries, but there must still be a big money market for Napa Chardonnay, as two wineries – Pahlmeyer and Vineyard 7&8 – sold 2021 Chardonnay for $306 per bottle. The highest-priced Sauvignon Blanc was by S.R. Tonella Cellars, at $153 per bottle.

Premiere Napa Valley funds the operations of Napa Valley Vintners, but NVV – which I would argue is the savviest wine region organization in the world – foresaw a shortfall and has made up the difference with library wine auctions over the last year. Perhaps that is the next trend: more smaller auctions with more library wines. Napa Cab-loving consumers would not complain.

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