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Swirl, Sniff, Sip, Spit

After a cushy Napa Valley assignment, a young writer ponders his days of wine and poses.

Robert Demichiell

By Taylor Antrim

I step away from the portapotty, dazed. On entering, I'd held my breath, expecting the olfactory assault I'd grown accustomed to at rock concerts and the state fair. Instead, I found fresh flowers and running water. It was like walking the perfume gauntlet at Macy's.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. This is the Napa Valley Wine Auction, the most exclusive charity wine shindig in the country. The benefit takes place every May at Meadowood, a resort-retreat up the road from St. Helena. There's a giant auction tent, ringed by food stands where chefs proffer truffles and seared ahi and oysters like handcrafted jewelry. I am a gobbling gourmand today, still unable to shake the "free food" hysteria from my days of Stanford dorm meetings. I loiter far too long in front of the ginger-cured salmon canapés.

Why am I here? I'm a wine writer. I've been a wine writer for almost a year. Before that, I was a student who liked cheap beer.

Last fall, having completed my master's in English at Oxford, I came back to job-hunt in San Francisco. Eventually I landed at Wine & Spirits magazine. I wanted to write, and I didn't care what about. The magazine has a conviction that good writers are harder to come by than wine connoisseurs. So it didn't matter that I knew nothing about wine. I would learn.

I've since written about syrah and sake and vermouth, about restaurants and wine shops and really cool corkscrews. I've attended dozens of "events" (my code for "junkets") hosted by wineries to promote their wares. I've tasted hundreds of wines, performing the swirl, sniff, sip, spit ritual so many times it has become automatic. I've attacked dozens of roasted squab, become comfy with confit and a real pro with foie gras.

In short, I've become a seasoned freeloader.

And so it was with high expectations that I attended the Napa Valley Wine Auction, where tickets cost $1,800 a couple and proceeds go into the millions. Over the three-day gala, prospective bidders become royalty, courted by squads of winery people over pre-auction lunches and dinners. Staffers hand out seductive invitations: meet the Mondavis for a Casablanca-theme costume dinner; enjoy a candlelit evening among the vines at Franciscan Estates. They look at me and know I'm no bidder; I receive friendly waves or total disregard.

On Saturday, the day of the auction itself, big spenders settle into VIP seats in the circus-size tent. State-of-the-art sound and light equipment comes to life. The auctioneers take the podium, and the bidding begins amid splashes of nostalgia rock -- Chuck Berry, Elvis, Beatles, the Rolling Stones. A big bottle of Araujo Cabernet goes for $70,000. Seventy thousand. Winery employees dance through the crowd, waving hats, blowing whistles, whipping enthusiasm like cream. Another lot goes on the block, a tasting and dinner at phenom winery Opus One, which sells for $160,000.

I know the money raised today will benefit local health care, low-cost housing and youth development programs. Even so, I feel queasy watching sums equivalent to my college tuition being tossed so casually into the heady afternoon air. Standing at the back of the tent, I'm wondering how I ever got here and whether I ought to leave. It's as if I've traveled to some exotic land and I'm stuffing my pockets with trinkets and memorabilia, determined to have something to show for my trip when I touch more familiar ground.

My friends, of course, roll their eyes at such misgivings and say, "Pass the free wine." And they're probably right, for now at least. Give it a year or so, and I'll move on. I'll rejoin the world of stinky portapotties and wine you actually have to pay for. More than likely it'll be a jolt, a plane hitting the runway hard, and I'll pat my pockets for those pilfered souvenirs and wish I'd taken more.


Taylor Antrim, '96, is an associate editor of Wine & Spirits.

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