Trade-only wine auctions are a tantalizing business. Paddles are available only to retailers, restaurant wine buyers and distributors, and yet the bidding battles that break out among them reveal what producers the smart money is chasing at the moment, whether hot new labels or allocated icons. And the lots that come out on top are well worth tracking down through their winning bidders, to snag for creating an interesting private cellar.
One of the newest trade auctions to watch is Willamette: The Pinot Noir Auction. In its fourth year this spring, the offering of Oregon’s signature red brought in more than $1 million for the first time, the rather dramatic trajectory of the auction reflecting just how intense the enthusiasm is at the moment for the state’s elegant, cool-weather style of Pinot. (And the world-class quality level producers here have achieved.) The numbers tell the story: The average bottle price paid this year came out to $160, a 29 percent increase over 2018, with the top lot—five cases from Duck Pond Cellars—clocking in at $1,000 a bottle.
As is true for other prominent trade auctions, like Premiere Napa Valley, the wines offered in this auction are entirely unique. “These aren’t bottles peeled off current-release wines that can be found in the marketplace, or flagship bottlings with just a different label on them,” says Josh Bergström, inaugural chair of the program and well-known local winemaker. “These are one-offs that will never be found again. They have to be at the pinnacle of our production efforts for quality and authenticity.”
And the Pinots that drew the top bids this year—all from the 2017 vintage—are worth noting. As one-off productions, they sport fanciful names that make them easy to track through the marketplace. On top was the aforementioned Duck Pond, called First Blood. Just behind in line came Domaine Serene with Barrel 23, then Antica Terra’s Alder Creek, Alexana Winery’s I’ll Have Another, and Bethel Heights Vineyard with An End, A Beginning.
As it turns out, slightly more than 40 percent of the wines went to restaurants, so it’s worth querying your favorite sommeliers if any of these rare bottles will be coming to their wine lists soon. But prominent wine retailers snapped up almost 40 percent too. And as Bergström explains, the individual wineries and the Willamette Valley Wineries Association can help direct you to the bottles’ final destination around the United States—and even internationally.
If you’re not up for the chase, but want a taste of great Willamette Valley Pinot Noir anyway, a couple of regular releases from those top performers in the auction will give you a terrific snapshot.
The Antica Terra 2016 Ceras Pinot Noir Willamette Valley ($100+) is earthy and savory, leaning almost Burgundian with an oyster-shell minerality. Its blueberry fruit is layered with crushed herbs, mushroom notes, and a forest-floor quality. The Alexana 2016 Revana Vineyard Pinot Noir Dundee Hills ($55) is spicy and licorice-laced, its cherry cola flavors wrapped in heady florals, with vibrant energy and an appealing edge of salinity.
And from Bergström himself—whose auction lot was one of the top performers in 2018, and in the top 10 this year—a gorgeous bottle: his 2016 Bergström Vineyard Pinot Noir Dundee Hills ($110). Red fruit is warmly spiced with cinnamon, cloves and cardamom, but at the same time is underpinned with damp loam and a savory minerality. The finish is long and densely silky.