Just back from Reno, where for the past three days we attended an auction of Western Americana at the Atlantis Hotel Casino. Nearly 2,000 lots were on the block. The stunning catalog was about an inch thick. I was there mostly as curious observer, but as lot after lot sold I couldn't help wonder why virtually nothing related to the history of the wine trade in the West was up for bid. The obvious immediate answer was that there hasn't been much to collect, and that few people early on sensed any value in saving what little there was. Granted, railroading, logging, ranching and mining were more instrumental in the development of the West than winemaking, but I would have thought that in a catalog that thick a few ancient or rare wine bottles, cork pullers, labels, photos or signs would have been listed. Nevertheless, hardly a relic of the industry surfaced.
The closest I came to lifting my paddle was for a lot of four 1888 temperance medals. One said: "The bearer of this medal is a recorded member of the American Young Men's Total Abstinence Society." Another read: "Wine is a Mocker." I envisioned giving them to acquaintances on the wine scene to test their sense of humor and their appreciation of history. They sold for $425, however, beyond my expectations and my budget.
Fred Holabird and Donald Kagin of the Reno auction house Holabird-Kagin Americana assembled the extensive inventory and described the provenance of each item in often detailed and colorful terms. The items and the prices they fetched were often startling, including $2,900 for a lettersheet signed by Annie Oakley, $600 for the gold identification band awarded the world champion racing carrier pigeon during World War I, $5,000 for a one-dollar note issued by the Pinal Gold and Silver Mining Company in Arizona during the 1870s, $30,000 for a pair of small engraved silver ingots dating from the California mining camp of Panamint in the 1870s, and $550 for a circa-1885 photo of Oregon Express Train Engine No. 94 at the C.P. Depot in Sacramento.
But, again, anything related specifically to the West's wine history wasn't to be found. Oh, a circa-1900 photo of Edward Angwin's summer resort on Howell Mountain in Napa Valley drew a winning bid of $180, while a circa-1890 photo of the Gray Gables Hotel of St. Helena in Napa Valley went for $80, but nothing of either says anything explicitly of the region's wine trade.
The uncertain early years of California's wine industry, the interruption in its growth due to Prohibition, and the relative youth of the trade even today help explain why artifacts relating to grape growing and winemaking in the state haven't yet gained much visibility or value. Collecting of wine is pretty much limited to just that, the collecting and storing of bottles of wine rather than affiliated ephemera. Some collectors, as well as some libraries and museums, are rounding up material concerning the evolution of California's wine trade, from winery newsletters to restaurant wine lists, but little of it is in circulation or otherwise generating buzz. Much of the wine-related material on eBay is so young, available and uninteresting it doesn't draw much attention. It may be several years before people start to realize that those labels, corks and etched glasses that have been accumulating in their garage over the past few decades actually could be valuable both for posterity and for their bank accounts.
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