How consumers are affected by wine auctions they can't attend

A bidder raises her paddle at the Willamette Valley Wine Auction; photo by Carolyn Wells-Kramer.

Wine auctions exclusive to members of the wine trade ('trade auctions'), common in the US, do more than move bottles; they influence what’s sold throughout the country. Above, a bidder raises her paddle at Willamette: The Pinot Noir Auction; photo by Carolyn Wells-Kramer.

A few weeks ago, I found myself at the Willamette Valley Wineries Association (WVWA) trade auction, vaguely wondering what I was doing there. The wines on offer are special bottlings and are not for sale to the general public, and the small amounts made mean that it’s unlikely most of us will ever see them.

But after a few hours of watching the action and talking to attendees, I began to see that trade auctions are not just an insider’s game. The sales made and the relationships created at these auctions govern the placement of a region’s wines throughout the country and directly impact consumer access to a range of producers. Let me explain.

The winemakers’ view

Unlike a charity auction or a rare-wine auction, a trade auction serves a wine region’s regional body. It is notable that the regions in the US that host successful trade auctions are the ones that produce the most sought-after wines in the country: Napa has the Premiere Napa Valley auction, Sonoma the Sonoma County Barrel Auction; in Washington, there’s Reveal Walla Walla Valley and in Willamette Valley, Willamette: The Pinot Noir Auction. It is not an accident that Napa, Sonoma, Willamette and Walla Walla are some of the best-represented US wine regions internationally.

Oregon winemaker David Adelsheim, who had the initial idea for the Willamette auction, explains why raising funds is necessary for a regional trade body. ‘We had a huge need for marketing but no money to do it. While grant money is available to state organisations like OWB [Oregon Wine Board], it’s not available to regional bodies. The only way we could raise money was to raise dues. But it’s hard to raise dues on Willamette Valley wineries because they’re already being asked to pay dues to the OWA [Oregon Winegrowers Association], the OWC [Oregon Wine Coalition], Wine America for lobbying, to their sub-AVA association … if you were to triple dues, producers would drop off.’

Alex Sokol Blosser, president of Sokol Blosser Winery in Willamette, agrees. The wine industry is getting increasingly competitive’, he says. ‘To compete we need to have funds to hold tastings around the world. Who’s going to fund that? The Willamette Valley Wineries Association is the only one who will do that for us.’

Josh Wludyka, brand manager for Lingua Franca, believes that, regardless of participation in the auction, every Willamette winery benefits from the work done by the WVWA. ‘When a consumer hears Oregon Chardonnay I want them to think of Lingua Franca. The only way to do that is to raise the profile of the entire Willamette Valley industry. And for that, the WVWA is better PR than any large agency could ever give you.’

As a reporter, I couldn’t agree more. PR agencies are often paid to promote specific wineries. Trade bodies, however, promote the region. This means that reporters can use them as a brand-neutral resource. They can help coordinate calls for wine or coordinate travel, and their broad membership means that the range of wines will be broad and free from the conflicts of interest that working with an individual company might create. (See The ethics of wine writing). And that means better reporting for you, the reader.

The consumer angle

The reason that only trade partners – in the form of distributors, retailers, restaurant representatives, country-club buyers and buyers for private clients – are invited to these auctions is because the US three-tier system necessitates building relationships between wineries and those who represent their wines in various markets. The auction creates a space for building those relationships, allowing them the chance to get to know winemakers and taste the new vintage.

Jeff Degner from the Texas supermarket chain H-E-B reliably stocks a core group of wines from Willamette Valley, ‘We prioritise being a good steward to those we buy from, and this auction gives us the ability to build relationships with our core brands and access their wines that aren’t in retail.’ For instance, Degner explains, his customers love Sokol Blosser wines. Some of those customers jump at the chance to buy exclusive releases from this producer and others they know. Degner brings one or two of H-E-B’s most talented wine stewards each year to discover what collectors are looking for, and to give stewards the experience necessary to create a more personal buying experience for customers who will buy the auction wines that H-E-B secures.

This year, Degner also requested that five of his distributors attend. As Texas does not allow wine into state without going through a distributor, and most brands are represented by one distributor per US state, he needed certain distributors present to bring the lots he wanted to purchase into Texas. For example, Sokol Blosser is sold in Texas by Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC) but another wine H-E-B stocks, Rose Rock from Domaine Drouhin Oregon, is sold through Favorite Brands. Both companies must be present to import the wines they represent into Texas. Although the lot size is small (5–20 cases), Degner finds it worth the extra effort. ‘This is about education and building long-term relationships to strengthen our portfolio.’

When auction bidding gets underway at the Willamette Pinot Noir auction, it is quickly evident which wineries have strong trade partners present: Alexana’s lot #7 goes for $15,000 for 60 bottles (twice the price of any of the first six lots). Ben Casteel, winemaker of Bethel Heights, whispers to me, ‘Their trade partners always turn out – they help set the tone for the rest of the auction.’

By showing up and bidding, trade partners may be able to see benefits such as priority on special-release wines, opportunities for staff education, or simply that their emails will come from a familiar name and be answered with alacrity.

After two hours of bidding, the auction has raised over half a million dollars. The final lot is auctioned for $35,000 for five cases – $583 a bottle – over a third more than any other auction lot. The wine is Bergström’s 2021 Pinot Noir, La Voluptueuse and the buyer is Glen Knight of The Wine House in Los Angeles. ‘In my case, this is personal’, Knight explains. ‘I’m not here to make money; I’m here to support this industry. I went to Linfield College [in McMinnville], I was a cellar rat at Argyle, and I managed the tasting room at Sokol Blosser before my dad called me to come back and help with the business. If it wasn’t for Alex Sokol Blosser and Rollin Soles [then of Argyle], I wouldn’t be here. And I really enjoy that I get to come up here. For three days I have access to 70 of the valley’s best winemakers. Putting a face to a name is important.’

It is fitting that Bergström’s wines garnered Knight’s bid. As David Adelsheim tells me, ‘One of the most important people in the formation of all of this was Josh Bergström. He was the first chair of the auction committee, and he spent two years working on the auction before it began in 2016. He was so busy I don’t know how he made his wines.’

After seven years on the auction committee, Bergström will step down this year. ‘The goal was to elevate the Willamette Valley’s price point, exposure, networking opportunities, and to bring the top buyers to our valley. It’s been successful from the start, and it’s always felt authentic and fun. I’ll always participate but it’s time for some new blood’, says Bergström.

The Pinot Noir auction now accounts for 45% of the WVWA’s overall revenue and allows them to host two or three relatively large (50-winery) consumer and trade events throughout the year and to participate in many others – many of which are listed below. The funding raised in the trade auctions for Napa, Sonoma and Walla Walla is similarly utilised.

You can find Willamette: The Pinot Noir Auction wines that are being sold at US retail outlets by scrolling to the bottom of this page. While this auction is open only to the trade, the WVWA will connect consumers wishing to buy auction lots to retail buyers who will purchase lots for private collections.

Consumer events that are hosted, or sponsored and attended by WVWA due to auction funding:

September 2023 – March 2024 James Beard Foundation Taste America (cities across the US)

8–12 November 2023 San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival (San Diego, CA)

9–19 November 2023 Whistler Cornucopia (Whistler, BC, Canada)

29 February – 2 March 2024 World of Pinot Noir (Santa Barbara, CA)

February 2024 San Francisco Chronicle Competition Public Tasting Event (San Francisco, CA)

2–3 March 2024 Boston Wine Expo (Boston, MA)

March 2024 Minnesota Monthly Food and Wine Experience (Minneapolis, MN)

June 2024 FLXcursion (Geneva, NY)

2024 (dates TBC) Pinot in the City (cities across the US)

Consumer events hosted or sponsored and attended by Sonoma County Vintners due to auction funding:

22 June 2024 Taste of Sonoma (Santa Rosa, CA)

Consumer events hosted or sponsored and attended by Napa Valley Vintners Association due to Premiere Napa Valley auction funding:

13–14 October 2023 SSF23 (Houston, TX) 

31 May to 1 June 2024 Collective Napa Valley (Napa, CA)