Wine for a Good Cause

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Don’t you just love a good benefit gala? Sure, the chicken dinners and earnest speeches are equally tepid, but then the real fun begins: the auction. At a silent auction, you circle around rented tables, ready to pounce on donated doodads with the stroke of a pen. Live auctions are about posturing, not stealth, and the spoils go to the bidder with the biggest cojones. You can guess what gets my attention: Amid the boring art, eclectic jewelry and golf packages, there’s lots of wine.

Shopping for wine at charity events is a lot like buying chocolate from neighborhood Little Leaguers: It comes with budgetary and dietary impunity in the name of a good cause. As my record will show, I am a staunch proponent of the consumption of luxuries in service to humankind. Witness my freezer full of Girl Scout Thin Mints.

Aside from the little halo that comes with the receipt, benefit auctions can yield bottles not readily available elsewhere. Generous wineries deploy their large-format bottles as portly ambassadors. And collections, especially several years of a lauded wine, make for thrilling one-stop shopping&emdash;no need for market foresight or that time machine I’ve been trying to set to Chateau Margaux 1986.

Divine Provenance

Before spending big bucks on a big bottle, it behooves you to know a little about Mr. Magnum’s past: Has he been basking in a cool cellar in the winery of his birth or baking on the bar of the donor’s yacht? If the wine was given by a private collector, rather than donated directly from a winery, it may be worth asking the charity for a signed letter of provenance from the donor, stating where and when the wine was acquired and where it was stored. Even so, caveat emptor.

When You’re the Giver

Donating wine to a charity auction is a splendid idea for anyone whose collecting tastes have changed or who is concerned that his or her aging wines will peak faster than he or she can drink them. The charitable tax write-off may be the most return you’ll see from your liquid investment.

Matching Your Wine to the Cause

Donors need to make sure that the caliber of their gift will match the interests of the guests at the auction, ensuring the maximum return for the cause. I’m not in this to subsidize someone else’s drinking, says Steven Veglia of Modesto, who metes out blue-chip wines from his collection to charity auctions throughout Northern California. The ticket price and venue will give you clues as to whether your wine would match the event. For example, it is unlikely that guests at a $20-a-ticket barbecue will be in the mood to bid on a 1968 BV Georges de Latour Cabernet.

When you give wine, you’ll be asked for the item’s value. Make your accountant happy: Keep a record of how you came to that price. I find it helpful to troll websites like Wine-Searcher.com, WineCommune.com and WineBid.com.

You also can use these sites to do some recon before you bid on stuff. It helps to briefly vet the wine with an experienced local retailer before spending much time online. The retailer will tell you whether an older vintage is worth investigating.

Top Sacramento charity auction for wine bidders: Make-A-Wish Foundation Winter Wine and Food Fest (Jan. 28, 2008, Sacramento Convention Center)

Terms you might encounterin an auction catalog

magnum:

a wine bottle holding 1.5 liters, twice the normal 750-ml size, or what my friend Amanda likes to call the double roll

jeroboam:
a 3-liter bottle

imperial or methuselah: a 6-liter bottle

vertical: a collection, usually three or more bottles, of the same wine from sequential vintages (e.g., Sierra Vista Vineyards Red Rock Ridge Syrah 1996–2006)

horizontal: a collection of wines from the same vintage, usually from the same grape, region or maker (e.g., Clarksburg Petite Sirah 2005)
 

Want to bid with the big boys and girls? Consider Auction Napa Valley, the annual Napa Vintners’ fundraiser and PR fest. This year, the bidding for the most lucrative lot&emdash;three 3-liter bottles of Staglin Family Vineyard Sangiovese and a trip to Italy with the winery owners&emdash;crept up to $1 million. The Staglins jumped in and offered a new Maserati to anyone breaking the $1 million mark. It worked: Symantec Corporation CEO John Thompson and his wife, Sandi, placed the winning bid of $1.1 million. The auction raised almost $10 million for health care, youth services and low-income housing in Napa County.

Elaine’s Pick of the Month
Recently, winemaker friends were visiting, dry-aged steaks were on the grill and about a dozen spendy Napa Cabernet blends were on the table. My fave? St. Supry Elú Meritage Napa Valley 2003 ($65) beat out some big names at twice the price. St. Supry gives widely to charities, so go for broke if you see its wines on the block.

Wine Trivia Contest

>>  How much money does the California wine industry raise annually for charities through vintner association auctions? a) $15 million; b) $60 million; c) $115 million

E-mail your answer to wine@sacmag.com by Sept. 15. The winner will receive a nine-bottle wine tote by Reisenthel. Make sure to include your name, address and telephone number. The winner will be selected by random drawing from all the correct responses.

We’ve got a winner!
In July, we asked: Can you name a California ros named for an animal’s eye? There were two possible answers: Toad Hollow’s Eye of the Toad and Eberle Winery’s Eye of the Swine. The winner, J. Cassinelli of Sacramento, received a copy of A Moveable Thirst: Tales and Tastes From a Season in Napa Wine Country by Rick Kushman and Hank Beal.