Wine: Napa Valley's bidding frenzy

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Indy Lifestyle Online

All in a good cause, of course. The record amount of $10.5m raised goes on health care, youth services and migrant farmer housing in Napa County. The 25th sale was divided into a barrel auction, an E-auction and a live auction. The top barrel auction lots, Staglin, Shafer and Gemstone, give an idea of the current in-demand names in Napa, but the human interest is focused on the live auction.

A litany of extraordinary lots included the opportunity to buy 60 special bottles and taste, eat and drink with its creators, Napa luminaries Robert and Peter Mondavi. Or a Tinseltown trip for three couples, followed by a walk-on part in Desperate Housewives. Only in America. The top lot, which fetched $650,000, went to four double magnums of cult cabernet producer Ann Colgin's 2001 reds plus a dinner at her place cooked by the French Laundry's Thomas Keller.

Everyone there would have been in no doubt that they were at the epicentre of the wine universe. And up to a point it is. Napa Valley is California's answer to the Médoc for its blends of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. It has been that way since the famous "Judgment of Paris", organised by Steven Spurrier in 1976 when the producer Stag's Leap Wine Cellars trounced Bordeaux' Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion at their own game.

Indeed, many top Bordelais have since established ventures there themselves. The most notable are the Rothschilds with Robert Mondavi and their showy joint venture, Opus One. Christian Moueix of Château Pétrus was so enamoured with the Napanook vineyard at Yountville, that he built the more discreet Dominus winery and bought out his American co-owners. On my first day in Napa last month, the first three wineries I visited – Robert Mondavi, Dominus and the consistently excellent Saintsbury – all boast French winemakers.

Yet the vignerati and auction attendees might perhaps ponder that not all is for the best in California's version of Eden. Far worse for Robert Mondavi than his unflattering portrayal in the 2004 documentary Mondovino, the Mondavi half of Opus One, the very symbol of Franco-American viticultural co-operation, has recently fallen into the hands of Constellation. This follows the world's biggest wine company's purchase of the crumbling Mondavi wine dynasty, itself one of the most potent symbols of Napa's wine heritage.

Meanwhile, Miles's stark message in last year's hit vineyard road movie Sideways – "I'm not drinking any more fucking merlot" – has found resonance with wine drinkers and producers in many other parts of the Golden State. Miles's week-long romp around the Santa Ynez Valley way south of San Francisco and Napa has focused attention on pinot noir in particular and other emerging wine styles beyond Napa's speciality. Not such good news for Napa perhaps, but an excellent prospect for palates in search of the many exciting new wine styles now coming out of California.

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