WOODINVILLE, Wash. — The 30th annual Auction of Washington Wines set a record with $4.19 million raised, and Saturday was a prideful evening for Washington State University students past, present and future.
News of the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation, a $1 million donation to WSU’s viticulture and enology program, came the night before during the 50th anniversary celebration for Chateau Ste. Michelle.
However, Saturday night during the Gala for the Auction of Washington Wines, a couple of WSU alums from Kennewick — retired educators Hank and Nancy Sauer — cheered as their donated vertical of Cabernet Sauvignon by iconic Leonetti Cellar sold for $32,500. It went in the history books as the weekend’s most coveted wine lot.
“It was just a wonderful time with a lot of nice, wonderful people, and the evening was topped off by reaching this goal to endow a scholarship for field workers’ kids,” Hank Sauer told Great Northwest Wine. “That’s what it’s all about for Nancy and me.”
Thanks to the donations by the Sauers and the world’s most respected wine publication, this year’s total raised through the Auction of Washington Wines eclipsed last year’s record of $3.5 million earmarked for Seattle Children’s Hospital and WSU’s V&E program.
A trip to Italy with Bob and Cathy Betz, founders of Betz Family Winery, exploring the Antinori vineyards and cellars of Tuscany and Umbria received Saturday’s highest bid of $100,000. Tickets for two aboard Alaska Airlines’ charter flight for the Great American Eclipse raised $21,000. The evening spotlighted awards presented to honorary chair Thomas Matthews, executive editor of Wine Spectator; honorary vintners Chris and Kelly Sparkman of Sparkman Cellars and honorary grower Tom Merkle.
Last year, the Auction of Washington Wines ranked as the fourth-largest charity wine auction in the United States. As a result of this month, the auction has raised more than $41 million since Allen Shoup, then-CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, launched the event in 1998.
Sauers’ gift funds scholarships for field worker children
There also was the fun buzz surrounding the Leonetti vertical, a lot that was teased at the start of the evening and built anticipation as more than two dozen items came up for bid.
The Sauers met in Pullman as college students, graduated from WSU in 1970 with teaching degrees and served for decades as educators in the Kennewick School District. Hank grew up in Walla Walla as a childhood chum of Gary Figgins, who went on to create Leonetti Cellar and help make their hometown famous worldwide for wine.
Hank and Nancy began drinking wine in 1969, and they were early supporters of Figgins, buying multiple samples of every Leonetti wine produced from each vintage. That collection includes arguably the most important bottle of wine in the history of Washington wine industry, the 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon that earned Food and Wine magazine’s top wine for 1981.
“I can guarantee you that bottle of ’78 has not seen daylight in 30 years,” Hank said.
The Sauers, Gary Figgins and his wife, Nancy, shared a table Saturday night at Chateau Ste. Michelle. When the time came, renowned wine merchant Doug Charles introduced the special, 37-bottle lot of wine. Hank and Gary provided additional details.
“Gary and I got on stage, and it was overwhelming,” Hank said. “The reception was really warm.”
The Sauers were especially pleased when the bidding passed the $25,000 mark.
“The scholarship became endowed at $25,000, so anything over that and you can start spending money on scholarships,” Hank said. “That means $7,500 can start going to field workers’ kids right way.”
A couple from the Seattle area won the bidding that the Sauers estimated said lasted about five minutes.
“We all went over and thanked the couple for investing in the future of those kids,” Hank said.
Wine industry luminaries praise Sauers
Among those who went out of their way to congratulate the Sauers and thank them for their generosity were Ted Baseler, CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates; Juan Muñoz Oca, head winemaker for Columbia Crest; Marty Clubb, co-owner and director of winemaking for L’Ecole No. 41; Rick Small, co-owner/founding winemaker of Woodward Canyon Winery; acclaimed grower Dick Boushey, Cayuse founding winemaker Christophe Baron and WSU President Kirk Schulz.
“It was nice to meet the new president, but I would rather be on the sidelines or in the backroom,” Hank said.
However, it helped sharing the stage with his friend of more than 50 years.
“When Gary and I get together we instantly go back to childhood,” Hank said. “We’re not adults when we get together.”
There’s a chance they could meet in Woodinville later this decade because the Sauers have more wine stored off-site. Within it is a collection of Leonetti that includes complete verticals of Merlot, Sangiovese and the Reserve.
“Maybe next year they will do one of the others. It’s not as if the stuff is going bad,” Hank said with a chuckle. “Now that the scholarship is established, the more money they have, the more that can be given to field workers’ kids.”
The Sauers also found delight in the college spirit that surrounded them Saturday night.
“There was a real difference between Cougars and Huskies in the room,” Hank said. “You could hardly hear anyone pay any attention when there was a mention of a Husky, but as soon as someone said, ‘Cougars,’ the place went nuts!”
Swingle leaves Auction after record performance
A bittersweet component to the weekend was that it served as the swansong for Sherri Swingle, executive director for the Auction of Washington Wines. The mother of two young boys spent seven years in the role, and she now hands off the auction to Shelley Tomberg, formerly of Columbia Hospitality.
Other highlights from the three days of fundraising included:
- The first sellout of the Thursday Winemaker Picnic & Barrel Auction as more than 1,500 guests played games, enjoyed cuisine from Tulalip Resort Casino and sampled juice from more than 80 Washington winemakers.
- The third annual Private Barrel Auction on Friday raised $130,000 through bids on special lots made for retailers and restaurateurs. The top bid of $15,000 was spent on Quilceda Creek Vintners 2016 Syrah.
- Columbia Winery’s Charity Walk & Run on Saturday was expected to generate more than $100,000 to assist with uncompensated care at Seattle Children’s Hospital.