Auctioneer Fritz Hatton leads the live segment this year’s Willamette: The Pinot Noir Auction. Event chairs Jessica Endsworth and Rob Alstrin watch the action unfold.##Photo by Easton Richmond

Lots to Celebrate

Auction goes hybrid, earns high praise

By Sophia McDonald

After moving online last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Willamette: The Pinot Noir Auction returned Aug. 5 to its traditional in-person format. The sixth annual trade event gave professionals a chance to meet in person, explore the 2019 vintage and build new relationships. The auction also raised more than $700,000 to help with marketing and charitable efforts undertaken by the Willamette Valley Wineries Association (WVWA). 

This year’s event offered a total of 92 winery lots from 89 Oregon producers, including 17 wineries that had never participated. The lot that fetched the highest price was Adelsheim’s “Cheers to 50 Years” Pinot Noir, which sold for $17,500. The name became almost an instruction; when it was introduced, auctioneer Fritz Hatton waved David Adelsheim and winemaker Gina Hennen onto the stage, where they received a standing ovation to honor the many ways they had supported industry-wide efforts since the winery’s founding.

By bottle price, the other highest-selling lots came from Antica Terra, 00 Wines, Lingua Franca, Soléna Estate, Elk Cove Vineyards and Big Table Farm.

While the majority of wines were Pinot Noir, seven lots featured Chardonnays made by past and present auction chairs. The cases from Soléna Estate and Domaine Divio went for $11,000, the highest amount for Chardonnay. Offerings from Hyland Estates and Stoller Family Estate, Bergström Wines, and Adelsheim and 00 Wines also did well.

This year marked the first time the auction was held outdoors. WillaKenzie Estate in Yamhill hosted the wineries under large white tents set up around the property. The lunch and live auction also took place outdoors. While many people were impressed with the attractive setting and cooperative weather, the main reason for the location change was the ever-present COVID-19 virus.

“Safety was the primary concern for our guests, and for wineries and volunteers,” says Jessica Endsworth, national sales manager of Northwest Wine Company and event chair with Adelsheim President and CEO Rob Alstrin. “We wanted to do something outside and spread out.” Amid changing regulations from the state of Oregon and uncertainty about the vaccine rollout, this seemed like the best way to ensure the auction would happen and reduce the potential for the virus’s spread.

This year was also the first time the auction was presented in a hybrid virtual and in-person format. Following the success of the online auction in 2020, organizers were eager to continue including bidders who couldn’t or didn’t want to travel to Oregon for a one-day event. Endsworth says, “[The virtual auction] spread the reach so much,” allowing more competition and higher bids. Buyers were able to participate in virtual tastings at the end of July to sample the wines without attending the walk-around tasting.

Attendees who traveled to WillaKenzie were thrilled to be back in person meeting their colleagues anywhere other than Zoom. “Thanks to COVID, we haven’t been doing many — if any — in-person events lately,” says Matt Ollila with Plum Hill Vineyards. “It was nice to get out in the trade and interact with everyone, from customers to distributors to other vineyards and wineries.” In addition to reconnecting with many friends, he was able to meet new distributors, an important side goal of the event.

For many, the Pinot Noir auction was their first comprehensive look at the forthcoming vintage. Brian O’Donnell, winemaker/owner of Belle Pente Vineyard & Winery, believes the 2019 vintage will be a good one. “It’s kind of a throwback to the old-school Willamette Valley vintages,” he explains. “We had a pretty nice summer with some rain in September and at harvest. The wines are a little lower in alcohol than a lot of what we’ve had in the last few years. There’s beautiful structure and balance. These are going to be classics, wines we’ll look back on in 10 or 20 years and say, ‘Wow, this was a really classic Willamette Valley vintage.’”

Scott Neal, winemaker/owner of Coeur de Terre Vineyard and a board member of WVWA, felt pleased with the overall event. “I think we hit the timing pretty solidly given what’s happening now,” he says, alluding to the current surge in COVID-19 cases. “It was so nice to be out at an in-person event and seeing buyers and others together. Hopefully, it’s a harbinger of things to come.”

Neal was also satisfied that WVWA met its financial goal at its largest fundraiser of the year. Through a combination of auction lots and sponsorships, the affair generated $705,100. The average price per lot was $6,641, a 34% increase from last year.

“[WVWA] is a super important organization for promoting Oregon and Oregon wine,” Neal says. Designed to “lift all boats” in the Willamette Valley wine industry, the association provides a broad range of services, including marketing and education, lobbying and advocacy, tourism promotion, environmental stewardship efforts and programs to make the industry more inclusive.

In addition to supporting its core mission, a portion of the funds raised will be used to establish the Willamette Valley Wine Foundation. The foundation’s first recipient of grant funds will be Habitat for Humanity, which is partnering with WVWA to build a new home for a wine country family. The association’s total commitment to the Home that Wine Country Built project is $100,000.

As the excitement of the live auction waned and people filtered to the afterparty, Endsworth was pleased with its success. “One of the great victories I see for the auction is watching the people who support us come to the table and value our wines to such a degree that they pay for them and they put them out in the market,” she explains. The support of these trade professionals — the stores that stock and showcase Oregon wine, the restaurant professionals who recommend them — is a big part of keeping the industry viable.

The auction was the first industry-wide event for Oregon in nearly two years. From simply the joy and camaraderie evident at this year’s auction, it’s apparent the 2021 edition was a resounding success.


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