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Few can claim they?ve camped out in the vineyards of Screaming Eagle, no less in a safari tent filled with custom furniture. But Joy Craft can.

The owner of High Point Ventures, an investment company in Woodside, paid $500,000 in 2007 for the Auction Napa Valley lot featuring the camping trip for eight at the exclusive cabernet sauvignon-producing winery in Oakville.

?In the morning I walked in my pj?s through the Screaming Eagle vineyards, coffee in hand, with hot air balloons flying over,? said Craft, the top bidder at the auction for two years running ? 2006 and 2007.

Last year?s top bidder was Sandra Thompson, also of Woodside, who along with her husband, John, spent $1.1 million on a single lot.

With Auction Napa Valley 2009 taking place Saturday, many are curious about these high flyers. The auction, which raises funds for numerous Napa Valley charities, also has a public relations mission: to showcase the valley?s wine with hotly contested lots.

But are top bidders recession-proof or will their generosity be tempered by the current economic downturn? Will there be any record-breaking, champagne-infused, spiraling bids under the white tent at the Meadowood Resort in St. Helena?

Chuck McMinn, co-vintner of Vineyard 29 in St. Helena, expects fewer free-flowing bids. McMinn doubts he?ll reel in as much for this year?s lot as his $160,000 peak for a previous lot.

?People don?t have two sets of wallets, one philanthropic wallet and one ordinary wallet,? he said. ?It?s all tied together.?

The auction, now in its 29th year, is the theme of McMinn?s lot, crafted to play off the name of his winery. It features two 2.9-liter bottles of Vineyard 29 cabernet, a 2.9-carat diamond custom-designed necklace, and nine dinners for two at any restaurant in the U.S. that carries his cabernet sauvignon.

McMinn said most auctions, whether local school fund-raisers or large national charities, have raised 10 to 50 percent less this year than last. ?It?s all over the map.?

Indeed, the plunge in proceeds from the Naples Winter Wine Festival in January surprised many. The Florida auction, which has become the world?s most successful wine fund-raiser, raised roughly $5 million in January, down from $14 million in 2008.

Barbara Banke, co-vintner of Santa Rosa?s Kendall-Jackson Vineyard Estate, wasn?t surprised by the decline itself but rather by the depth of it. Banke and husband Jess Jackson are key sponsors of Sonoma Paradiso, a major Sonoma County wine auction that will take a sabbatical this year because of concerns about the economy ? a decision made late last year. ?We felt it would be more productive to do straight fund raising instead,? Banke said.

Terry Hall, communications director of the Napa Valley Vintners, said he doesn?t expect bidders to donate more than the $10.3 million contributed last year. ?A record breaker in income? Not a chance.?

But Hall said that doesn?t concern vintners because of their ?5 x 5 Community Promise.? In 2007 the vintners made a $25 million pledge to the community that for the next five years, the auction would distribute a minimum of $5 million a year to the charities.

Auction Napa Valley benefits local health, children?s and housing organizations, including Community Health Clinic Ole, Boys & Girls Clubs and Napa Valley Community Housing.

?Remember we have been at war, teetering on recession for the past few years already, so our board had great foresight in creating this strategy,? Hall said.

The auction is forgoing a headliner emcee, but Hall said waiving a celebrity host is not an attempt to scale back. This year will be ?loosely emceed? by wine educator Kevin Zraly, of New York City, best known for creating ?Windows On The World Wine Course,? said Hall, adding that the vintners will play a very active role onstage introducing lots.

?It was decided late last summer before all the brouhaha with the economy to go a different direction this year and have more vintner involvement,? said Hall.

Last year, then-?Tonight Show? host Jay Leno was the headliner, but Hall wouldn?t disclose how much Leno charged other than to say, ?He worked for a reduced rate as a favor to the auction.? Leno also was the emcee in 2005, with ?American Idol? host Ryan Seacrest the headliner in 2006 and comedian Dana Carvey, best known for his work on ?Saturday Night Live,? the celebrity host in 2007.

Hall said organizers worked hard to cut costs on printed materials ?to try to capture more donations for goods and services. But we do this every year to try to bring out as much to charities as possible.?

One new cost-saving, energy-efficient gesture this year will be to recycle the wooden paddles left behind at the auction.

Asked Hall?s reaction to Naples? big $9 million dip from last year?s take, he said the auction still earned $5 million for charities and organizers shouldn?t be discouraged.

?It?s not a competition,? he said. ?The backbone of the Naples event, as well as nearly every other charity wine event in the U.S., is provided by the wines from the vintners of the Napa Valley.?

Hall said auction organizers in Naples and Napa realize even big bidders feel the pinch.

?If you are not affected by this economy, you live in denial,? he said.

Dee Lincoln of Dallas, who was the top bidder in 1998, 1999 and 2000, agreed with Hall.

?I?m not recession-proof, nor do I believe that most are,? Lincoln said. ?Everyone has been affected.?

Yet Lincoln, co-founder of Del Frisco?s Double Eagle Steak House, said she?s still trying to free herself up to go to the auction this year.

?There are no bargains at the auction,? she said. ?It?s the priceless experience. Lots of energy. People excited. You seize the moment. Everyone is doing great things and that?s what the weekend is all about.?

Lincoln recalls buying a James Bond lot with 18 bottles of top Napa Valley cabernet labels themed after each of the movies. ?I paid $360,000. Crazy. I felt like I won the World Series. So many cameras.?

Craft agreed with Lincoln that no one is spared from a downtrodden economy, ?although I?m conservative and my losses are limited.?

Craft said her fund-raising efforts have shifted a bit to help people with the basics ? mortgages and health care. That said, she still thinks the auction ?is a thrill. I am very comfortable using charitable dollars to ?buy myself adventures? and the auction offers many.?

One particularly touching adventure was having a private luncheon in 2005 with legendary vintner Robert Mondavi and his family in his home, Craft said. Mondavi died in 2008 at 94.

?It was just a thrill for a rural South Carolina Southern belle who grew up spending every Sunday with three generations or four,? she said.

Craft also bought a trip to France with vintners Garen and Shari Staglin of Rutherford?s Staglin Family Vineyards with a recording-breaking $1.01 million bid in 2007.

?They created a world class wine adventure, behind the scenes and up close and personal with the greatest vintners in France,? said Craft.

As for the Screaming Eagle camp-out, Craft said, ?The evening included great wine and food and the special adventure of a country-music song-writing session. We spent the evening singing country music songs.?

The upshot? ?I got a lot of good-humored offers from other vintners after that to pitch my tent for free in some nice vineyards.?

Staff Writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 521-5310 or peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com.

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