In the Napa Valley, the annual Napa Vintners Auction is considered to be the “top dog” of all charity wine auctions in the world. The event has featured celebrity guests and hosts including Jay Leno, Ryan Seacrest, Teri Hatcher, Dana Carvey and Joe Montana among others. Some of the most respected wineries and winemakers from the Napa Valley take part in the auction which is held at the posh Meadowood Resort. This year, they raised over $8M for local charities and featured food prepared by Emeril Legasse, assorted fine wines, trumpeters and a live cheetah.
There doesn’t go the neighborhood. Chances are good that if any of those renowned local wineries and winemakers had a fire or other emergency, they wouldn’t be calling Jay Leno or Ryan Seacrest for help. Instead, they would be counting on the Dry Creek-Lokoya Volunteer Fire Department to save the day. The Dry Creek-Lokoya Fire Department is responsible for the protection of over 200 square miles of land area including the Napa Valley. Visitors to the valley might not realize that the area remains largely rural and that this historic volunteer fire department has been vital in protecting one of the world’s greatest wine regions since 1945. Every July, the Napa Valley community gives back and supports the fire department through its annual Home Winemakers Classic winetasting, auction and competition.
Hot deals for a great cause. The Home Winemakers Classic celebrated its 30th year this month and has developed a cult following in the wine community. Often called the “poor man’s wine auction,” the event typically features over 40 amateur winemakers pouring an interesting and eclectic assortment of varietals plus lemoncello and dessert wines. The largest fundraiser for the fire department, the Classic has been responsible for the purchase of new fire trucks and rescue equipment, training programs for the volunteer firefighters and general operating expenses. One needs only to walk around the silent auction tables to get a sense of the appreciation that locals have for these volunteer firefighters. Duckhorn, Cakebread, Turnbull, ZD, Heitz are just a few of the prominent valley vintners who have donated wines for the silent auction. Often many of these wines are available at the auction at tremendous prices. “Local support is incredible,” said fireman Eric Simenstad, “the wineries here understand the importance of what we do and really come out and support us.”
Best wine money can’t buy. When Prohibition died in 1933, the feds allowed every household (with two adults) to make 200 gallons of wine or beer a year without a license. Although these home winemakers cannot sell their wines, they can take part in competitions such as the Home Winemakers Classic and donate their wines to the silent auction. Award-winning wines from the competition are often some of the most sought-after by guests at the auction. Apart from the wines available for tasting, this year featured gourmet food by Tyler Anderson Catering and live music by John Kelly & Friends. The gorgeous Carriage House and adjacent garden at the Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena also served as a perfect host for the occasion with a festive setting, cool shade and ample parking.
Wines with character and a few characters. As eclectic and unique as the wines featured at the event are the winemakers themselves. Labels with fun names like “Valley Girls,” “Mockingbird Cellars,” “Leap of Faith,” and “Three Men and a Barrel” are everywhere along with great stories about the winemakers production process, colorful partnerships and of course, the procurement of free grapes. The ability to get high-quality grapes for free is a badge of honor among these home winemakers. Napa resident Jack Gray, “Chief Dude” at J&D Vintage Wines, was on-hand pouring a delicious 2008 Sauvignon Blanc. Gray’s exhibit table was covered with so many ribbons and medals, even Michael Phelps would be envious. A former nuclear engineer turned home winemaker, Gray describes it all as a “hobby gone out of control.” “For 20 years our varieties change every year depending on where we can get our grapes…and they’ve always been free…”said Gray. “We always make more than we can drink so that we can give it away.” Jack obviously is now one of my best friends…
The beautiful thing about the Home Winemakers Classic is the total lack of pretense and attitude of the event. It might not be the “top dog” of charity wine auctions, but the Home Winemakers Classic definitely gets “best of show” for great wine, food, music and people all set in a beautiful setting for an outstanding cause.
Be sure to watch out for the Classic next year at the Dry Creek-Lokoya Volunteer Fire Department website at: www.drycreek.org. If you missed the event and want to make a donation, I am sure that Fire Chief Larry Russell will be happy to help at: (707) 944-1562.
Jay, Ryan and any cheetahs are welcome too…