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By Jade Helm

As auctioneer Fritz Hatton, pointed his finger and called “Sold!” for the last lot of Pinot Noir, the crowd at the Willamette Valley Barrel Auction responded with jubilation. The fund raising event broke the $1 million goal in a rather dramatic final act. Spurred on by Hatton and the energy in the room, six buyers made a spontaneous, collaborative bid of $60,000 on five cases of “First Blood” from Duck Pond.

Auctioneer Fritz Hatton

Auctioneer Fritz Hatton, Photo credit by Easton Richmond Photography

The auction is held annually at the Allison Inn and Spa in Newberg Oregon. Among several goals it is designed to showcase the very best of the Willamette Valley – mainly Pinot Noir. Josh Bergstrom of Bergstrom Wines and the chair of the first auction in 2016 explains, “We [Willamette Valley] are the new world region for high quality Pinot Noir. The American wine trade turns to us when they look to put Pinot Noir on their wine lists and shelves.”

The 2019 auction featured 86 one-of-a-kind Pinot Noir lots and six collaborative Chardonnay lots from the 2017 vintage, made in quantities of five, 10 or 20 cases. Among them were Pinot Noir from all seven of Willamette Valley’s nested AVAs (American Viticulture Areas), including the newest, The Van Duzer Corridor. Other highlights included wines made from historic Willamette Valley vineyard sites Hyland Estates, Durant Vineyards and Winderlea Vineyard & Winery; celebrated winemakers like Véronique Drouhin (Drouhin Oregon Roserock), Brianne Day (Day Wines) and Rollin Soles (ROCO Winery); and collector favorites such as Domaine Serene, Shea Wine Cellars and St. Innocent.

Shirley Brooks, 2019 Auction Co-Chair and VP of Sales and Marketing for Elk Cove Vineyards, points out how young the auction is. “This is the fourth year of a new undertaking. Energies were devoted to developing and executing a successful trade auction and we have reached that goal.” Here is a nutshell view of the growth over the four short years.

  • 2019 Total wine sales: $1,016,000 (113% increase from 2016)
  • 2019 Average Lot Price: $11,043 (53.1% increase from 2016)
  • 2019 Average Bottle Price: $160 (81.5% increase since 2016)

All proceeds from the auction support the marketing, branding, and education efforts of the Willamette Valley Wineries Association (WVWA). Eugenia Keegan, 2019 Auction Co-Chair and Oregon General Manager for Jackson Family Wines remembers, “In the past, we [WVWA] would have great ideas for marketing initiatives, but no way to fund them.”

Keegan explains, “It is hard to establish a direct return on investment for marketing efforts,” but points to several programs funded by auction proceeds that she feels have benefitted the member wineries of the WVWA. Pinot in the City, Willamette Valley’s “on the road” trade and consumer tasting program has expanded its educational offerings to select trade.

Elaine Brown

Elaine Brown Moderates Panel on 2017 Vintage Prior to Auction. Photo credit by Easton Richmond Photography

Media related opportunities have shone a spotlight on the region. WVWA allocated marketing funds to capitalize on its 2016 Wine Enthusiast Wine Region of the year accolade. For the first time, out of state media were hosted for the wine auction, including educational seminars and a “mini roadshow” expanding the reach of the Willamette Valley’s unique wine story. This year Florida’s South Walton Beaches Wine and Food Festival will include a seminar entitled The Origin and Evolution of Oregon Wines. This opportunity arose partly from media connections co-sponsored by the WVWA.

The auction is also a platform to intermingle Willamette Valley winegrowers and the tastemakers and gatekeepers of the national and international wine trade. In addition to donating special lots of wine, participating wineries are tasked with inviting members of the wine trade to the event. This year’s event drew 450 industry members. Among them were 128 registered bidders representing 29 states and three countries. Pre- auction educational and tasting events enhanced the opportunity of the trade to peel back even more layers of the Willamette Valley’s wine stories and to understand the 2017 vintage. The day before the live auction began with a sold out seated tasting comparing the 2017 vintage to key years in the Willamette Valley’s Pinot Noir history. Guests heard first-hand experiences from panelists Adam Campbell of Elk Cove, Maggie Harris of Antica Terra, Harry Peterson-Nedry of RR Wines, and Thomas Savre of Lingua Franca. Afterward trade guests were hosted at Domaine Drouhin and Domaine Serene where they sampled wines and enjoyed face time with principles of all the participating wineries. The day ended with many buyers entertained at dinner by host wineries. One industry member who has attended each year remarked that prior to the first auction in 2016 it had been years since he had visited Willamette Valley. “I’ve discovered wineries and purchased lots from producers I never would have encountered otherwise,” he shared.

Willamette Valley is known for small, family owned and operated wineries. This often translates to small staff and limited budgets for travel. The opportunity to interact with this many trade members without the need for air travel or appointments can lead to valuable connections. Russell Gladhart, Winter’s Hill Estate, shares his experience from the 2018 auction. “I had not met the buyer of our auction lot prior to last year’s auction. A couple of months after the auction, the buyer of our lot visited our winery and tasted through our whole portfolio. They subsequently made a substantial purchase of our wines to sell in several locations.” Winter’s Hill focus on “direct to consumer” sales affords limited resources for distribution. Gladhart explained “I don’t have many opportunities to present our wines in person to large on-premise and wholesale accounts. For us, it’s a great opportunity to share our wines and our story.”

“Willamette Valley is one of the few wine regions experiencing growth in its category,” reports Brooks, a position she attributes at least in part to the auction and the marketing and education programs it funds.

To learn more about the Willamette Valley Barrel Auction or to request a trade or media invitation, look for updates at https://www.willamettewines.auction/ leading to the April 2020 event.

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