Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction pulls in record $4 million

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An African dance troupe, with Djembe and Dunum drums beating, created a colorful backdrop for a record-breaking afternoon of bidding at Sunday’s Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction. Spiraling bids climbed to $4 million, nearly tripling last year’s take of $1.5 million.

About 700 people gathered under the magnolia trees at Kenwood’s Chateau St. Jean, stepping into a safari of sorts. There were plenty of props to bring home the theme “From Sonoma to Serengeti” — safari hats, worn trunks and even a vintner in a giraffe costume.

Danny Fay, co-owner of Sonoma’s Envolve Winery, said: “I was imported this morning to help raise paddles for the children of Sonoma.”

Fay apparently had a powerful effect. Fundraising under the white tent seemed to gain momentum throughout the afternoon with several record-breaking bids.

The most suspenseful lot was the Fund-the-Future offering, where a group of bidders pooled their efforts to raise $1.6 million to raise literacy rates. The total dwarfs last year’s special needs lot at $735,000.

The big spenders, each contributing $100,000 or more, included the Sonoma County vintners of Jackson Family Wines, the Gallo family, Tom Klein of Rodney Strong Vineyards, Joe Anderson of Benovia, Corey Beck of Francis Ford Coppola Winery, George Hamel III of Hamel Family Wines, auction guests Deb and Robert Chase, and Sonoma Valley resident Gary Nelson, founder of the Nelson Family of Companies and an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

Katie Jackson said, “We’re donating $100,000 to literacy because 54 percent of third-graders in Sonoma County are below their grade level, so they’re falling behind. Literacy is so important to the future of Sonoma County.”

The outpouring of six-digit individual contributions to the Fund-the-Future offering was also record-breaking, with last year’s highest individual bid at $75,000.

Another lot that turned heads went for $250,000, with 25 couples each paying $10,000 for a special dinner party.

The lot, offered by Hamel Family Wines, features a six-course dinner at the Sonoma winery, prepared by six James Beard-award winning chefs.

“We’re ecstatic to raise this money,” said Hamel III. “This is just what we need to do for the community we love, support and live in.”

One of the most colorful lots of the day was Magnum Force because it was introduced by a group of costumed women with African song and dance.

Rick Miron, who formerly owned Santa Rosa’s Trilogy Glass, bought the lot for $45,000. It features a lunch with 10 women of Magnum Force and a 70-bottle collection of magnums. “I’ve bought it the last few years,” Miron said. “It’s a fun way to give back.”

The Magnum Force dancers were the most whimsical of the afternoon’s entertainment. Once known for its hijinks, the auction is decidedly less zany than it was when it was organized by the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers.

John Lasseter, founder of Pixar, was well known for his outlandish skits, but he said there’s an upside to a countywide event.

“We’re earning so much more than we ever did before,” he said. “It’s gone to a different level, and we’re able to show Sonoma as a great place to be, live and visit. It’s America’s Provence. It’s America’s Tuscany, and that’s what people are discovering.”

The auction benefits 43 charities across Sonoma County, with an emphasis on children, health and the environment. In prior years, the funds were primarily dispersed in Sonoma Valley.

While this may have been a record-breaking year, with $4 million raised, Auction Napa Valley continues to trump Sonoma County. Napa’s auction raised $16.2 million in June, eclipsing both Sonoma County’s efforts and the Naples Winter Wine Festival in Florida, which raised $13.5 million in January.

Organizers remain undaunted.

“We are thrilled to have more than doubled our totals from last year and look forward to sharing these proceeds with the community,” said Honore Comfort, a chief organizer.

The Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction capped off the three-day Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, packed with events to showcase the county as a hotbed of artisan food and wine.

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

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to add the names of three bidders who participated in the Fund-the-Future offering.

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