What to expect at this year's Auction Napa Valley

The swanky Auction Napa Valley is this Saturday, and the bidding under the white tent at Meadowod Napa Valley resort in St. Helena is always suspenseful. Some paddle-holders, sipping free-flowing cabernet, lose all restraint and spiraling bids sometimes reach a mesmerizing seven digits. In the midst of all the chaos, cash begins to resemble confetti.

Why should you care? The answer is simple.

The entire wine world will be watching what happens because the auction is, put simply, the Super Bowl of wine charity events. It's a global leader in fundraising efforts; last year it raised a total of $14.3 million during the weekend festivities. The auction is also a place where celebrities and the high-powered converge for good-will bidding to benefit local nonprofits - community health and children's education.

High-profile people who have showed up over the years include Oprah Winfrey, comedian Jay Leno, singer John Legend and the parents of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Karen Kempner and Edward Zuckerberg.

Tickets for this year's string of events, running Thursday through Sunday, range from $500 to $20,000. There will be tastings, tours and winemaker dinners, but the main attraction will be Saturday's Live Auction and, of course, Francis Ford Coppola.

This year, organizers have tapped the Academy Award-winning director and vintner to be the “celebrity guest chef.” They say he'll be very hands-on in prepping Saturday night's al fresco, post-auction dinner, working alongside the events team, local chef John Sorensen as well as 30 hand-picked guests at the auction.

Organizers reached out to the top bidders from the past, inviting them to cook with Coppola.

Cate Conniff of the Napa Valley Vintners, the trade organization that puts on the auction, said many of the dishes reflect Coppola's Italian roots.

“We haven't yet received a final menu, but I can tell you some of the menu items that will be served: both inventive and traditional antipasto platters, handmade gnocchi with Pomodoro basilica pepperoncini sauce, Bistecca alla Fiorentina, escarole and broccolini with olive oil and garlic, fried eggplant all'armena with pomegranate sauce and Neapolitan struffoli (deep-fried dough balls).”

This year's feast isn't expected to upstage last year's spectacle of headliner chef Francis Mallmann, an Argentinian grill master whose dinner prep spanned the grounds of the resort, giving the event a smoky hue.

There were a number of domed, rebar spits where 750 pounds of ribeye and whole chickens were cooked in the open air over flames and hot coals.

Coppola, who's best known for “The Godfather” film trilogy and “Apocalypse Now,” the man who has a full lineup of Oscars, can get away without being a foodie disruptor. Auctiongoers, no doubt, will be more interested in catching a glimpse of the entire Coppola clan - Francis, Eleanor, Sofia, Roman and Gia - who will all be honorary chairs.

For those with a keen sense of fun, here's what's worth noting:

1. Living vicariously has never been so easy.

Social media is swift and you can follow the auction in real time via Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook posts and Instagram. Watch for #auctionnapavalley.

While you're keeping tabs on the auction from home, don't forget you can also drink vicariously.

This year, uncorking Coppola wines makes sense, whether it's the modest Rosso red at $11 or the pricey Rubicon, Coppola's premier red from Inglenook at $210.

If being budget wise strikes your fancy, check out this week's wine grid of cult cab substitutes.

Finally, you can always be an off-premise bidder. The E-Auction opened on Sunday and you can access its 187 offerings at until it closes June 4 at noon PDT.

2. There's a modest way into this highbrow auction.

Tickets for Friday's Barrel Auction at Inglenook in Rutherford are $500 a pop, and they're expected to still be available. This year, each tasting pavilion will focus on a Napa Valley wine varietal, and dishes will be prepared to marry with that varietal. For wine geeks, here's a treat - there will be pop-up wine education sessions.

3. Celebrities come in two varieties - the expected and the unexpected.

In addition to the Coppola clan, soul singer-songwriter Leon Bridges will be performing at an after-party following Saturday's dinner at Meadowood. But organizers say most celebrity appearances are last-minute surprises.

In 2015, for example, John Legend shocked the crowd when he took the stage at the live auction. Legend introduced Jean-Charles Boisset's lot by sitting down at the grand piano and singing “All of Me.”

Of course with a flurry of social media posts, that secret had a very short life span.

4. Keep your eyes open for spiraling bids.

This year, expect the Screaming Eagle lot to be among the most hotly contested. It features the cult cab's 2014 cabernet sauvignon in one Balthazar (a 12-liter bottle).

For the uninitiated, a Balthazar is equivalent to 16 of the standard 750 ml bottles of wine. When you consider each standard bottle holds five glasses of wine, the Balthazar offers 80.

Bidders will know the computation and will be thinking in terms of a colossal party, perhaps an upcoming milestone.

To prepare yourself for the madness, keep this in mind: right now the price tag of a standard bottle of this insanely popular cult cab is $850, and there's a waiting list.

Last year the top lot of the day was Staglin Family Vineyard's “Into Africa,” which sold for $1.05 million. It featured a tour of South Africa, including a peek at the island jail cell where the country's late president, Nelson Mandela, spent 18 years in captivity.

Rest assured, there are always shockingly generous bids, and organizers will continue to tally them throughout the afternoon and report the fundraising progress.

If this year turns out to be a record breaker, get ready for the hiss of uncorked sparklers and plenty of confetti overhead.

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 707-521-5310 or

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