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Sonoma County Wine Auction in-person again, with some changes

Sonoma County Wine Auction totals

Organizers of the Sonoma County Wine Auction were hoping their fundraising totals would rebound this year after the event went virtual in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

2021: Numbers are still being tallied.

2020: $1.25 million

2019: $6.1 million

2018: $5.7 million

2017: $5.2 million

The Sonoma County Wine Auction welcomed back bidders Saturday, a significant step toward Wine Country normalcy after last year’s event was made virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But it wasn’t a full return to business as usual for Saturday’s charity auction. Organizers kept a tight rein on safety protocols, from vaccination checks to mandated mask-wearing on shuttles.

“I forgot my vaccination card and I had to run back to my car,” said Gina Gallo, clad in a red print dress and beige boots. The vice president of estate winemaking for E. & J. Gallo said, “Everyone is being careful, but it’s important to be with one another and support the community. I think people will really step up today.”

Masked servers, bustling through the crowd with trays of food, revealed the cautious tenor of the auction.

“I don’t mind wearing a mask because I want the guests to feel safe,” said Carmela Boudreaux, one of the servers.

With an eye on the surging delta variant, organizers required guests to show proof of vaccination or proof of a negative COVID test 72 hours before each event. Mask wearing was also mandated for guests riding the shuttles or going to the restroom.

The haul from this year’s auction had not yet been tallied, but organizers were hoping bidders would open their wallets.

Adam Isbitsky, a guest from Petaluma, said he expected the auction to reel in quite a bit of money based on the robust bidding. “The auctioneer (John Curley) was energetic and bidders were really responding and seemed excited to contribute,” he said.

The auction is the largest wine charity event in Sonoma County, raising a record-breaking $6.1 million at its last in-person auction in 2019.

“With the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine and by following the slated guidelines and protocols by federal, state and county officials, we saw an opportunity with a live auction to raise even more funds for Sonoma County nonprofit organizations,” said Michael Haney, executive director of the Sonoma County Vintners.

About 225 people gathered at La Crema Estate at Saralee’s Vineyard in Richard’s Grove outside Windsor, vying for 28 lots. With 400 bidders jockeying for 40 lots in 2019, the 2021 event was a scaled-down version of the live auction.

Haney said there are many ways to raise money; he said guests have the opportunity to bid on the silent auction, as well as an online auction that will remain open until Sept. 23.

The Sonoma County Wine Auction, in its various incarnations, has raised $37 million since its inception in 1993. Wine Spectator listed it among the top 13 wine charity auctions in the United States in a story published in 2019. With Napa Valley Vintners’ decision to forgo its live auction, the Sonoma County auction may gain an even higher profile.

In the spring, Auction Napa Valley decided to opt for a year-round fundraising model, beginning a new chapter after its 40-year run raised $200 million. Organizers said they want to reach out to a more diverse audience and to protect their 550 vintners from “fatigue” in donating wine lots to an ever-expanding pool of live auctions, from vintners’ organizations to elementary schools.

Asked if the Sonoma County Vintners were committed to having a live, in-person auction for the foreseeable future, Haney said, “We’re committed to raising as much money as possible through our Sonoma County Vintners Foundation for those most in need each year.”

With free-flowing wine, paddle-holders were grazing on bourbon-glazed meatballs and brisket sliders as the afternoon of bidding unfolded.

The top group lot of the day, called Fund-A-Need, reeled in more than $500,000 for childhood education and literacy. Auctioneer Curley called for bids from $250 to $100,000.

Mary Dewane and Joe Anderson of Santa Rosa’s Benovia donated $100,000.

“This lot speaks to us because it’s about supporting the children of Sonoma County,” Dewane said. “There’s a lot of need out there, and we feel strongly that our children are our future.”

The highest-priced individual lot, which sold for $140,000, features a five-night stay at the Jackson Family’s estate in Italy, as well as a series of lunches, dinners and wine tastings.

George Hamel of Hamel Family Wines said his wife, Pam, purchased the lot and they’re planning to take their entire family on the trip — four children, three spouses and three grandchildren. “The Jackson family put it together and it’s a spectacular lot.”

Another lot that drew plenty of competitive bidding sold for $35,000; it features a trip to Montana with a three-night stay at a luxurious ranch home owned by Bill Foley of Foley Family Wines.

Greg Biagi of Santa Rosa’s Biagi Brothers Wine Distribution Co., who bought the lot, said “I’ve been to Bill Foley’s place before.

“It’s a beautiful place, breathtaking, and I want to go there and beat Bill Foley in golf.”

The auction capped a week of fundraising events, which included the opening event “Best. Party. Ever.” at Montage Healdsburg and vintner dinners, with tickets priced at $2,500 per person. Put on by the Sonoma County Vintners Foundation, the fundraiser benefits local nonprofits, including community health, childhood education, and pandemic, fire and flood emergency relief efforts.

Stacking chairs after the event, Josh Black-Star, a server with Cotati's Park Avenue Catering, said he wore his mask faithfully throughout the auction.

“From a vendor’s standpoint we have pretty strict guidelines as you can imagine during a pandemic, which for the record, I think is a good thing. I’m sure for many people this was their first time out, and I think people were happy to be out and supporting a good cause.”

You can reach Wine Writer Peg Melnik at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Sonoma County Wine Auction totals

Organizers of the Sonoma County Wine Auction were hoping their fundraising totals would rebound this year after the event went virtual in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

2021: Numbers are still being tallied.

2020: $1.25 million

2019: $6.1 million

2018: $5.7 million

2017: $5.2 million

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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