Wine Sale Makes Bid for Normality
Million-Bottle Inventory of Failed Calif. Internet Venture Goes on Block






By Liz Garone
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 30, 2001; Page A09

NAPA, Calif., Sept. 29 -- For San Francisco Bay Area nurses Paula Zito and Christina Kesselring, a wine auction in the heart of California's wine country felt like the perfect respite from all the bad news coming out of New York and Washington since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"It seems kind of decadent to be doing this at a time like this," Zito said. "But I'm going to be helping the economy by coming here and pushing the capitalist button. If this is what it takes to do my part, then why not?"

For Kesselring, a reservist nurse, this weekend in the country could be her last chance to get away before she is called up to serve. "You have to still live your life. You have to enjoy your life. You can't just wait around for something to happen," she said.

The auction, spanning two days, is being held at a gargantuan airplane hangar at Napa Valley Airport in the heart of the Bay Area's wine country. Row after row of grape vines surround the airport. The pungent scent of ripe grapes fills the air as it is the middle of crushing season here in Napa Valley. Usually better known for housing personal jets such as the turquoise Westwind owned by Francis Ford Coppola, the Bridgeford Flying Services hangar was empty early this morning except for 1,600 wooden chairs and red carpets anticipating crowds for the auction.

By 11 a.m., at the opening of the auction, about half of the seats were taken. Organizers estimated about 1,500 people in attendance, and an additional 100,000 signed on to eBay for a live version of the auction on the Web.

The auction is the final chapter in the history of doomed online retailers Wine.com and WineShopper.com. The two competed until combining forces last summer under the Wine.com name. Even with more than $200 million in private capital, they were forced to close after running out of cash earlier this year. In April, much smaller competitor Evineyard.com bought the Wine.com name, Web site and mailing list for $10 million.

What Evineyard didn't buy was 1 million bottles of unsold inventory. That inventory, originally purchased for $10 million, is now on the auction block. The event was scheduled for Sept. 15 and 16, but organizers postponed it two weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "We postponed it out of respect to the victims and out of honor to the heroes," said Nuri Otus, chief auctioneer with Realm Connect, the company running the auction.

Also, a large number of participants were expected to fly in from as far away as Europe and Asia, according to Otus. Although he couldn't say how many people had changed their plans, Otus would say that there had been an adverse effect and the numbers would be down. As of Saturday morning, he was still optimistic that a large crowd would show up in support.

For Gordon Fenwick, an auto parts manufacturer from Ontario, Canada, there was no question whether he would come. "This is an event not to be missed," said Fenwick, who has more than 4,000 bottles of wine in his cellar at home. "On top of that, it's the safest time to fly."

Otus is confident that the event will break Guinness records for bottles sold at a single auction. The record stands at about 450,000 bottles. "We're going to do to that record what Barry Bonds is doing to the home run record," Otus said. "We're going to crush it."

Otus started the event by announcing that 1 percent of the sales from the auction would be donated to United Way's September 11 Fund. The announcement received a round of applause from the crowd. Otus then opened the bidding with a surprise lot of two three-liter bottles of collector wines donated by local wineries for the event. The two bottles sold for $3,500, much less than the $10,000 to $20,000 Otus said they were worth on the open market. He said the proceeds would go to the United Way fund.

For Alan Abrams, a marketing consultant from Marin County, the price was right. "I also liked the idea that the money is going to the World Trade Center," Abrams said. Abrams dismissed any notions that a wine auction might be a little decadent for the times. "It's life. Those people would want us to live our lives. If we didn't, that would be a lot worse."

The only other sign of the events of the past 2 1/2 weeks was an American flag on the back of nurse Zito's denim jacket. "Coincidentally, I bought it just before September 11th," she said. "I've been wearing it a lot lately. Somehow it feels appropriate. And I'm not even an American. I'm from Canada."

2001 The Washington Post Company

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