It has been an unprecedented year for Sonoma's vintners, who have grappled with COVID-19, tasting room shutdowns, wildfires and smoke, but that couldn't stop the annual Sonoma County Wine Auction from going ahead this past weekend. One of the top charity auctions held in California wine country, it went virtual for 2020, with online events and remote bidding helping to raise $1.17 million for Sonoma charities.
As with other philanthropic wine events, the Sonoma auction faced uncharted waters this year with COVID scuttling in-person events. But the Sonoma County Vintners Foundation, which organizes the event, had no plans of canceling. "Not doing it was not an option," Clay Mauritson, proprietor of Mauritson Wines and vice president of the Sonoma County Vintners, told Wine Spectator.
Bidding for the live-auction lots opened Sept. 17, as the event held an online welcome party with special guests including former San Francisco Giants star–turned-vintner Rich Aurilia. The final minute of live bidding came two days later during a virtual auction celebration. While the total fell short of 2019’s $6.1 million, organizers were still pleased. "I am over-the-moon happy and proud," said honorary chair Jake Bilbro of Limerick Lane. "I'm more proud of the $1.1 million we raised given the circumstances than I would have been if we had broken the record in a different situation."
The Sonoma County Vintners reduced the number of live lots to 12 this year to keep the virtual auction celebration to around an hour. Executive director Michael Haney emceed the event on Vimeo, alongside honorary chairs Mark McWilliams of Arista, Bilbro and Mauritson. The three vintners and longtime friends added a mix of hijinks and friendly banter to the program including initially taking the stage in their briefs, to Haney's chagrin. But after a quick wardrobe change the vintners took a more serious tone as they encouraged bidders to give generously.
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Education was front and center, with the annual Fund-a-Need lot focused on raising money to bridge the digital divide for students in need. The donations will go toward buying computers, webcams and WiFi services for students who are having trouble accessing online education during the pandemic. "What has shifted dramatically with COVID is an equitable access to education," said Mauritson, noting that the Fund-a-Need lot has focused on third-grade literacy in recent years. He said the funds generated will address a dire need in Sonoma. "It's going to give everyone in our community the access to the same education."
Despite the uncertain times, wineries stepped up and bid generously to help their community. Haney started the bidding by announcing that Courtney Foley had donated $250,000 on behalf of Foley Family Wines. Benovia's Joe Anderson, Mary Dewane and Mike Sullivan and E. & J. Gallo both donated $100,000, with other prominent Sonoma wine families pitching in as well. "With all the travesty that we've had over the last month, we are very hopeful that what we put together can be beneficial to the county," said Joe Anderson in a video. When the lot closed on Sunday, it had raised $726,000.
The top live lot of the event was a trip for two to Super Bowl LVI in 2022, along with a three-night stay at Williams Selyem's estate and five large-format bottles of the winery's 2018 Pinot Noir. That lot sold for $32,000. Another high-selling lot was a chance for 10 people to dine at chef Charlie Palmer's home with Boulevard chef and owner Nancy Oakes plus wines from vintner Daryl Groom's collection, which brought in $30,000.
One of the most heartfelt lots of the day was the Kids Krewe Cuvée, which offered bidders the chance to buy bottles of a 2019 red wine produced by Bilbro, McWilliams and Mauritson and their sons, with funds going to support wildfire-relief efforts. Bilbro felt the chance for the vintners to make a wine with their kids that would help other children was a lifetime lesson. "It's a very simple concept of giving back, and it's probably the most rewarding feeling and action that anyone can make," said Bilbro. "For us to be able to share that opportunity as well as teach our children, that is doubly rewarding."
Since its inception the Sonoma Auction has raised $37 million to benefit local charities. For Sonoma vintners, the auction is about building a stronger community. "This is going to make Sonoma County a better place to live for everybody," said Mauritson.