Monday, June 12, 2017
Sam Euthanasia, World's Oldest Wine Critic, on the Napa Valley Auction
When I think of June, I think of weddings, Father’s Day, and the Napa Valley Wine Auction, none of which has any importance to me. I’m rarely invited to weddings, my father died in 1980, and if I want to see rich people pretend to be charitable I can watch Congress on CSPAN. This year’s auction raised $15.7 million for charity, a bargain compared to what the folks bidding should actually pay in income tax. I didn’t attend the auction (yes, I know, that’s a surprise), but I thought I would check in with Sam Euthanasia, the World’s Oldest Wine Critic, and ask him what he thought about the whole thing.
“I only went because Francis Ford Coppola was the honorary chair,” Sam told me. “I went up to him and said, ‘Smell that? You smell that? Napa, son. I love the smell of Napa in the morning.’ That’s a quote from one of his movies. I think the actor who said it was Clos Duvall. I could be wrong. I’m old. But, anyway, I thought an ‘Apocalypse Now’ reference suited the occasion. War is hell, and so is the goddam Auction.”
Sam Euthanasia, a spry and incontinent 95, has been covering the Napa Valley Auction since its inception in 1981. “Back then, I think they raised a 100K. That’s chump change now. Jean-Charles Boisset spends that on sequined Depends. All I remember about that first auction is that it was hotter than tasting-room-only dessert wine, and stickier. I was sweating like a Treasury shareholder. Jesus. But it was fun. Mostly just normal people there. I think the highest bidder was a drifter who thought the paddle was for swatting the flies. It was pretty casual.”
“It’s perfect that Coppola was the honorary chair. Overstuffed chair, for sure,” Sam went on. “The Napa Auction is turning into the Oscars of the wine world, may as well honor Francis. It’s about wine about as much as the Oscars are about movies, which is to say, not hardly at all. The wine is basically the equivalent of the designer gowns and borrowed jewelry—just there to make the players seem like they have taste. If you’ve been a wine writer as long as I have, and I covered the wine by-the-glass choices at the Last Supper, Jesus White and Jesus Red, the Auction is the worst weekend of your year by far. It’s even more fake than en primeur week in Bordeaux. Just so much wine business baloney.”
Sam can be a bit cantankerous. I told him that at least all the money raised goes to charity. He stared at me for a minute, chewed on his ever-present cigar, and said sarcastically, “Yeah, the money goes to charity, and that’s why people attend. Like the reason there are beauty pageants is because of the scholarship money. Don’t be a putz. It’s another kind of beauty pageant. People competing to look more beautiful and giving than others. They sell overpriced wines to other rich people, auction off trips and dinners like a Silicon Valley ‘Price is Right,’ give the money to charity, and take a big tax write-off. They’re just tossing crumbs to the poor unfortunates the guy they voted for wants to send back where they came from. All the folks who tend their vineyards and pick their grapes. It’s modern day Marie Antoinette saying, ‘Let ‘em eat Cakebread.’”
“Listen,” Sam continued, “I’m all for charity. The money from the Auction has probably done a lot of good. How can you be against that? But how sanctimonious can it get? Isn’t there a way to do it with some dignity? Don’t these clowns see how the rest of the world perceives their annual wine debauchery? The Auction intends to help Napa Valley’s image. It intends to show how compassionate the wineries are, how much they want to do good in the world, how they want to help those less fortunate than themselves. By opening hundreds of large bottles worth unimaginable sums, getting lavishly shitfaced, eating meals that would shame the Roman emperors, and dancing to recording stars? By auctioning off trips around the world on private jets? Hey, why don’t you use those jets to bring in more people to pick Cabernet? Easier to get through security, and you’re going to need them. Is auctioning off priceless overpriced wine in huge bottles accompanied by dream vacations with other wealthy people the image that sells Napa Valley as a caring and compassionate community? It’s a public relations nightmare, only they don’t see it. They only see how wonderful they are, how caring, how generous. I had no idea Narcissus could see his reflection in a lake of Chardonnay.”
“You want respect for your charity, Napa, tone it down,” Sam continues. I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t brought up the subject. Sam looks like he’s going to have a heart attack. He’s chomping at his cigar like it’s an aspen and he’s one pissed-off beaver. “Have some dignity. Make it about wine, not consumer excess. Make it about heart, not about wallets. Then regular people might see it as beautiful and heartfelt. Yeah, you’re the big boys in the wine auction world, your wines cost the most, your Auction makes the most money for charity, take your bows. Just stop waving your dicks around like size matters, and waiting for the admiration to begin.”
Sam Euthanasia probably won’t get invited to the Auction next year. I don’t think he cares.
“Frankly,” Sam tells me, clearly exhausted from his tirade, “I’m too old for all this. I mean, there I am in Napa Valley, once this beautiful and humble agricultural Eden, looking at a huge hot air balloon in the shape of Marvin Shanken. I was so depressed. How much more self-indulgent and self-congratulatory can a charity auction get? Really, it was horrifying to me.
“And then a ray of hope! Turns out, it wasn’t a hot air balloon.”