Friday, February 28, 2014

A few more thoughts on Premiere Napa Valley

Just as with last year, I want to write about a few specific thoughts on Premiere Napa Valley in a bit more detail than my initial post.
Premiere Napa Valley 2014 Auction

1. People are enthusiastic about 2012 and as well should be. After a cool trio of vintages, 2012 was acclaimed, by producers and critics alike, as a great vintage even before the grapes were harvested. The warm, dry weather allowed the vines to produce a plentiful crop of high quality fruit. I heard one winemaker say, "if you couldn't produce a great wine in 2012, then you don't deserve to be a winemaker." Well, even a great winemaker can screw things up with even the best fruit, but 2012 made all California winemakers' starting point easier with such good fruit. Consumers looking for the typical California bigness will be eager to add this vintage to their collection, as is evident with the crazy high prices paid at this year's auction.

2. As budbreak looms in the coming weeks, the 2014 vintage is concerning to producers. California currently finds itself in a major drought. A lack of water is always a problem for farmers, and grape growing is no different. Vines need about 20 inches of water annually. Luckily, almost all Californian wine regions easily exceed this number. Vineyards in California are typically irrigated to provide vigor control and to sculpt consistently perfect clusters year after year rather than deal with wild variability. Many wineries have retention ponds that are near capacity. Dan Petroski (winemaker at Larkmead and Massican) and Tegan Passalacqua (winemaker at Turley and Sandlands) suggested that with a few more inches of rain in March most vineyards would be just fine. Mary Beth Novak, of Spottswoode, said she was quite concerned just a few weeks ago because they had received negligible precipitation for almost 13 months. Her St. Helena vineyard was brown and barren just two weeks ago, but since the recent rains and warm weather the cover crop has come in nicely. Novak seemed more concerned about an early budbreak because of the warm temperatures. Early budbreak isn't a problem unless temperatures dip again and cause cold damage to the vulnerable flowers and leaves. Spottswoode tends to have budbreak around March 14, so now they're just waiting and watching. Frost damage after budbreak is a problem that growers in Colorado constantly face. Thankfully most California producers have invested the necessary capital (wind machines) that frost damage is not as wildly destructive there as it is in Colorado.

The drought may cause some issues in the vineyard, but a lot of water is actually used in the winery with cleaning equipment. That is where a lack of water might be more problematic. Perhaps more of a concern than the drought is the fact that 2012 and 2013 yield record crop loads. Producing fruit is a lot of work for vines. Vines need time to recover from working so hard. If 2014 is another perfect growing season, it will take some deft human hands to make sure the vines don't over work themselves. For the good of the vines' health, I am hopeful that 2014 will not be a record harvest. I am eager to see what 2014 brings, and that is one of the reasons I find wine so fascinating: the unknown.

3. The same wines from last year impressed me again this year. It is probably more a reflection of my palate, but I'd like to think winemakers and the vineyards that produced my favorite wines are doing something right. If you look at that list, you might notice that cabernet franc is overly represented. I love the lightness, fruit profile and aromas that cabernet franc gives a wine. The cabernet sauvignons on that list are produced from a combination of excellent hillside or benchland sites and top winemakers. The real reason I liked all these wines above all others was of course that clichéd term: balance. Don't get me wrong, all those wines were still powerful and well structured, but they offered more than just power, fruit and tannins. Flavor intensity is not a requisite for quality, despite what some people might say. There were plenty of massively flavorful wines, but like a massage, intensity isn't necessarily better. There is no truth in wine. I am willing to acknowledge that some people want to taste the wood in a wine and want tannins to beat them over the head. Others like funky, dirty wines. I'm not trying to say that my taste is better than anyone else's, but I want my wines to be smooth and sensual. I'd rather a wine caress my mouth than bludgeon it. Think of it in terms of a massage. I prefer the restraint of a Swedish massage with its essential oils, sensuality and overall relaxing atmosphere than the vigorous and near-abusive atmosphere of a deep-tissue Thai massage. I want my mouth (and nose) to feel invigorated after tasting a wine, eager to taste another glass as opposed to beaten, roughed-up and seeking refuge in a Tecate. Each an every wine that I listed as one of my favorites made me want to just stay at that barrel and hang out with a glass. I can see the appeal of other wines, but with those I was thinking about what would be in my glass next than what was just in my glass.

4. The area around Lake Hennessey is hallowed ground. Brand Napa Valley, Continuum, Behrens Family Winery Labor of Love, Ovid and Pulido-Walker were all made from Pritchard Hill fruit. Oakville East Exposure and Oakville Ranch (both offering varietal cabernet franc) sit just below Pritchard Hill in the Oakville AVA and Stone the Crows is just across the shore of Lake Hennessey. That has to be more than just coincidence that almost half of my favorite wines all sit within spitting distance of each other. The odd thing is that the entire area around Lake Hennessey is not identified as an AVA. I don't know if Pritchard Hill will ever be the name of a distinct district because of Chappellet's trademark on the term, but that area will someday be officially recognized (maybe it's called Hennessey Heights or Sage Canyon). It may be just the small plateau south of the lake, but it may also include the area north of the lake. There is a void between Atlas Peak, Howell Mountain, Chiles Valley and the valley districts with many top vineyards. All the Pritchard Hill vineyards, Bond's Melbury Vineyard, David Abreu's Thorevilos all sit in a no-man's-land without an identity. I don't know if this area will be one, two or three AVAs, but there is just too many top sites for them to be in generic Napa Valley.

5. Price isn't always directly related to price. Of the 110 or so PNV lots I tasted I identified 14 of them that I really, really liked. One of them, Scarecrow, happened to be the most expensive wine sold. Is it worth $4,333 a bottle? Not in my book. Not anywhere close to that, especially consider one of my other favorites, the lot immediately prior to the Scarecrow lot sold for $6,000 for all 5 cases. Granted, that Lateral cabernet franc is a totally different style wine than the Scarecrow. The Scarecrow was definitely on the massively bold end of the spectrum, but it provided a delicateness that many of the other dense (and expensive) wines did not. Take the Shafer Sunspot Vineyard which cost $100,000. Shafer's lots are perennially at or near the top of the bidding. The wine is a very nice wine, but not exactly my style. It is massively dense, concentrated and tannic. I actually prefer the One Point Five cabernet to the Hillside Select or the Sunspot Vineyard because the One Point Five offers a suppleness its bigger brother does not. The Corison and Lail (yes, it was a white wine...) Premiere lots also sold for way less than I thought they should. Those two lots, and their combined 120 bottles sold for what only 7 bottles of Scarecrow cost.

6. I need to drink more Italian wine. After a day of traversing Napa Valley tasting infantile cabernet sauvignon, perhaps two dozen or so Barolo were not the best choice for my palate to recover. A group of winemakers known for their love of ribolla gialla got together for their regular professional development tasting. There is something telling about a group of Napa producers drinking Italian wine on one of Napa's biggest weekends of the year. The tannins in Barolo are still massive and my tongue was screaming uncle by the end of the night. However, Barolo wines have aromas and a delicacy that one cannot find in most Napa cabernet. Tasting wines like 1973 and 1993 Conterno Barolo, 1996 and 2004 Rinaldi Brunate Le Coste and 2004 Giacosa Santo Stefano Barbaresco was an educational experience. And the 2012 Miani Friulano was a white wine like I've never had. So much power and flavor it was almost overwhelming. Sharing wines like that with a group of fun and interesting people is what wine is all about. Now only if I could actually afford to drink wines like that at home.


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on PNV. It's one of those things, that if I don't attend, I see a ton of articles introducing the event....then little to nothing afterward. On the Cabernet Franc side of things, have you run into Mark David yet? It's worth a look although, not a Napa wine-

  2. Mark, I have not heard of Mark David. I'll keep my eyes open and thanks for commenting!