Meet Ursula Hermacinski
I used to go to a lot of charity wine auctions when I worked at that other magazine. In fact, since nobody at the other magazine was remotely interested in charity wine auctions, they gave it to me, a newbie, to cover. I was ambitious and anxious to prove my worth, and I remember one Napa Valley Wine Auction–this would have been in the early Nineties–where I sat there in the front row, calculator in hand, and added up each winning bid, as if I were the offficial tallier. I didn’t even dare go to the bathroom for fear of missing a lot. Can you imagine? That is complete insanity. The Napa Valley Vintners would have reported all the numbers the next day or two. But in my eagerness I thought it was something I should do.
I met most of the major wine auctioneers during those days: Fritz Hatton, Dave Reynolds and Ursula Hermacinski, and saw how hard they worked. Do you think it’s easy to stand up in front of a recalicitrant audience of bidders and make them spend more than they want? I remember Dave Reynolds once–I think in Sonoma Valley–in a tuxedo in 100-degree heat, yelling for hours, trying to keep the energy high and losing who knows how many pounds. I came to wonder at the ability of these athletes who, offstage, were invariably possessed of colorful personalities.
When I left the other magazine, with its wine collector mania, I also left behind the wine auction world. I still admire it for its commitment to raising money for charity, but I don’t miss watching the über-rich vying for testostone superiority by out-bidding their rivals. That part of the game always rubbed me the wrong way.
I got to know Ursula well enough, twenty years ago, to have visited her in her little Venice Beach cottage one day. I have no idea why; memory fails. Then I didn’t hear from her for the longest time, until she contacted me recently. We got together yesterday, on Oakland’s first warm, sunny day in what seemed like an eternity, and chatted at Whole Foods, my “office away from home.” She’s had quite a career. In addition to being one of the top charity wine auctioneers in America, Ursula did a stint as the estate manager for Screaming Eagle. More lately, she’s taken a position as VP of sales and marketing for a new winery, Casey Flat Ranch, located in, of all places, Yolo County, because the owners already had a big ranch there. I won’t be reviewing the wines, because Yolo is in Virginie Boone’s territory, but it was nice to see Ursula anyway.
Young bloggers, here’s a career bulletin: Ursula told me that there’s a real gap in younger wine auctioneers coming up through the ranks. This is occurring even as the number of charity wine auctions is exploding across the country. As a result, she’s begun doing auctions again (or maybe she never stopped; I didn’t get that straight). She’ll be doing the Napa Valley Wine Auction this year, in addition to the auction for the The Rusty Staub Foundation, which, she told me, is now the nation’s fourth largest charity wine auction. So Ursula will be wielding her gavel for a while longer. I don’t have any idea how one would go about becoming a charity wine auctioneer. It’s a lot different from auctioning cattle, with that weird, hypnotic chant. If you’re interested, I’m sure Ursula would be happy to talk to you.
I admire people who are survivors in this weird world of wine. Ursula’s had a unique life and it’s still evolving. When we were talking about social media and she told me she’s learning about Facebook and (gasp) Twitter (or trying to), I told her she ought to blog about her life and adventures. I bet she has some stories she could tell.