I want to write about a few specific thoughts on Premiere Napa Valley in a bit more detail than my initial post.
1. Vintage matters. Tasting through a dozen producers' 2008, 2009 and 2010 cabernet sauvignon during the Vintage Perspective Tasting made this abundantly clear. After tasting 36 wines with only knowing the vintage, variety and that they were from Napa Valley, I concluded that 2008 is a great vintage. For almost every producer, I preferred the 2008 to the 2009 or 2010. Of the three vintages, 2008 had earliest bud break, a long, dry, hot growing season and the longest harvest period. Both 2009 and 2010 were cooler and wetter vintages. The 2008 wines were collectively the most complex and balanced wines in the room. The best offered a wonderful array of intense fruit, floral and earthy aromas and flavors complemented by smooth tannins. Wines from 2009 were a bit more varied in quality, and were generally lighter and with more floral characteristics. A few were unfortunately under-ripe, and the acidity was quite noticeable. The even cooler, shorter and wetter 2010 season was quite apparent in the wines as well. Most 2010s were marred with green tobacco aromas and rough tannins. Despite being greener, the 2010s still managed a bit bigger structure than the 2009s and few that achieved ripeness approached the 2008s in quality. The auction wines were mostly from the 2011 vintage which was even shorter, cooler and wetter than 2010. I think the detailed selection process that went into these unique wines may have provided a skewed view into the vintage as a whole, but many were thin and green. Others that managed to achieve proper ripeness were stellar, but many still were lacking much depth and hidden by massive tannins. For my favorites, see Tuesday's post.
2. Location matters. With the Premiere lot wines being mostly from the difficult, cool 2011 vintage, vineyard location was quite important. For me, wines from hills above the valley floor fared the best. The extra sun and lack of fog proved to be beneficial in this challenging year. From the variety of hillside locations, wines from Pritchard Hill were among the best. Both the Continuum and BRAND 2011s were two of my favorite wines the entire weekend. Other wines with Pritchard Hill grapes (Chappellet, Gandona, Krupp Brothers, Larkin, Montagna, Moone-Tsai and Purlieu) were nearly as wonderful. Howell Mountain (O'Shaughnessy and Derenoncourt California) and the hillside vineyards just south of Pritchard Hill (Oakville East Exposure) also yielded some of the better wines. Superior benchland sites on the west side of the valley (Vine Hill Ranch in Oakville and Corison's Kronos Vineyard in St. Helena) also made some exceptional wine. The best locations proved to make the best wines. Not really surprising when you think about it.
3. Winemaker matters. So many vintners will say that wine is made in the vineyard, but a masterful winemaker can really take great grapes and make exceptional wine. Bidders at the auction really were focused on name recognition. Philippe Melka had his name attached to more lots than any other winemaker and combined his 55 cases sold for $225,000, or just over $340 per bottle on average (Gandona at $28k, Vineyard 29 at $27k, BRAND at $26k, Gemstone at $26k, Roy Estate at $24k, Cliff Lede at $20k, Adamvs at $20k, Lail at $19K, Entre Nous at $18k and Moone-Tsai at $17k). I guess that is why he is the hottest name in California winemaking right now. Not only was name recognition important, but perhaps the most elegant, and my personal favorite, lot was made by a winemaker that is known doing more with cool vintages. Cathy Corison makes what many call a throwback style of Napa cabernet due to her lower alcohol, gentle extraction and delicate use of oak. While her wines are almost always very good, her wines' finesse and elegance are at their peak in challenging vintages such as 2011. I was wish I had an extra $15,000 laying around so I could have outbid the Houston company that was successful with a mere $14,000 bid.
4. The new kid on the block is ready to play ball. Thumbing through the catalog I was surprised to see so many wines list Coombsville AVA as a source for their grapes. I quickly counted at least 16 different wines with Coombsville fruit. That's pretty amazing given that Coombsville has only been an AVA for only about a year. Fruit from this small region just east of the town of Napa has been going into big name wines for years, but now this area is ready to take its rightful place as one of the premier districts in California. One of my favorite wines, though not an auction wine, was the interestingly named Inherit the Sheep. I'll definitely be looking into adding some of that to my cellar. Key an eye out for labels with Coombsville on them. Oh, and I much prefer the name Coombsville to the original name of Tulocay AVA; it just rolls of the tongue much more easily.
5. Cabernet Sauvignon may be King, but... Franc is the Knight in Shining Armor and a few other varieties excel in Napa. Many of the wines that I found most appealing had a heavy dose of cabernet franc. I think 100% cabernet sauvignon is often boring and greatly benefits from some blending with other varieties. BRAND (~50% cab franc) and Continuum (~30% cab franc) provide powerful evidence that more cab franc in the blend is a good thing. Oakville East Exposure's and Detert's 100% cabernet francs were also some of the standouts. And in a bit of a twist, O'Shaughnessy's 100% petit verdot was killer juice. Very rarely do you see varietal wines from petit verdot. Maybe next year they'll make a varietal St. Macaire! There were also a few random white wines in the lineup and Arietta's blend of 65% semillon and 35% sauvignon blanc stood out as a refreshing alternative to all the massive cabernet sauvignon based wines.
6. Winemakers and winery owners are real people. Sure, they may be rock stars in this little industry, but they are people just like you and me. They watched anxiously as people tasted their wines and were sincerely gracious when complemented on their product. I stood in the back of the room for much of the auction watching nervous vintners anxiously hold their breath when their wines were up for sale only to let out a sigh of relief when the bidding was over. I sat next to Tim Mondavi for about an hour and we chatted like he didn't have one of the biggest names in the wine world. At no time did I feel like the peon I am in the wine world. Sure, there is a lot of money and big egos in Napa, but isn't there everywhere? Most of the vintners I met were real, sincere people like you and I (except for you, and you know who you are...). I am already looking forward to next year (assuming I'm invited back) and working on convincing my wife to accompany me.