Goodwill Hunting at Premiere Napa Valley 9 min read
I love that Premiere Napa Valley is about “others.” You make wine for someone who would cherish and enjoy it, and in turn, the organization also benefits; only to turn around and offer value right back to its members. It is also the fact that during that entire week you meet people that you care about and you enjoy good company, stimulating conversations and great wines – Jean Hoefliger, partner/winemaker at Alpha Omega Winery.
In its 21st year, Premiere Napa Valley is a trade-only futures auction that attracts hundreds of wine retailers from around the world. 217 lots were sold, 172 live, plus 45 e-auction. The day’s total take was $4.2 million, benefiting Napa Vintners, a non-profit association that promotes environmental awareness and Napa Valley wines. It counts 525 members in its ranks, several of which are coveted “cult” wineries.
The wines produced for this event are offered in 5-20 case lots. They are crafted solely for this auction and are not available as regular commercial bottlings. Bidders get a chance to acquire one-of-a-kind offerings from some of the world’s top producers. The excitement and anticipation are electric. You can feel the pulse of the crowd as the morning barrel tasting gets under way. As lots go under the hammer, anxious, eager buyers vie for their chosen prizes.
I have been very fortunate to attend this exclusive affair for several years running. Each year it is the single event that I most anticipate. Why, you ask? As a writer, I am certainly not there for purchasing wine. And I do get ample opportunities to interact with many of the vintners throughout the year. So why does that last weekend in February cause my heart to beat a lot faster?
For a storyteller, there is no greater joy than to discover a tale worth telling. As I meandered through rows of tables offering up samples of dozens upon dozens of wines, I anticipated learning the tales of the 2015 and 2016 vintages. Both vintages were far shorter than the coveted 2012 and 2013. However, both merit an equal amount of attention. Readers will be well-advised not to follow any vintage generalizations and delve a lot further into the matter. I was surprised at how elegant, supple and elongated the tannins were in some examples of 2015’s – a telltale sign of masterful winemaking. Think back to the less heralded vintages. The wines produced in 2006, 2008, and 2011 are bargains relative to 2007, 2009, and 2012. Taste them now. I don’t think it will take long for you to figure out the best-kept secret—”winemaker’s” vintages rock in the cellar. Terroir takes you there; human hand holds you tight. Many of these wines are like perfect hugs, firm yet gentle enough that you don’t feel uneasy.
Here are a few of my favorites from the event:
- One of my top wines was 2015 Jones Family, the Goldilocks of the tasting; everything is just right with it. Winemaker, Thomas Rivers Brown has an imprint on so many cult-like wines; it’s apparent that his rock star status is no accident. Aged for 20 months in new French oak, it reveals great depth and layers of complexity coupled with uncommon elegance for such a young wine.
- 2016 Accendo Cellars, crafted by Francoise Peschon, is a new project by Araujo Family that utilizes multiple vineyard sources. Peschon’s hallmarks as a winemaker are grace and freshness, delineation of flavors and finesse. These elements were present in spades.
- Arkenstone Vineyards offered 2015 Estate Ten, commemorating the best barrel from their 10th It transcended all I thought Howell Mountain fruit could deliver. Some smart folks from Switzerland later paid $100,000 for the 5-case lot.
- Alpha Omega 2015 Cabernet, a blend of Beckstoffer To Kalon and Dr. Crane Vineyards, was a powerhouse. If you haven’t had Jean’s wines, you truly hadn’t lived a wine-life worth living. He seamlessly fuses power and finesse. They leave you fulfilled, yet wanting more. They are perfection without a hint of pretense. The $100,000 hammer price seemed like a bargain, given what I tasted.
- Cliff Lede 2015 Cabernet “Dark Love,” fashioned by Chris Tynan is a showstopper. Aged for 21 months in Taransaud’s T5 barrel it’s darker than all of Scheherazade 1001 nights; pure ink, broody, juicy, intense and complex. Sex in a glass, anyone?
- Dalla Valle Vineyards will always impress wine lovers; it’s only a matter of how much. 2016 is a glorious example of insanely bountiful terroir combined with Andy Erickson’s stellar winemaking. Sourced from 1.75-acre block known as Isabella Vineyard, this 100% Cabernet bottling is extraordinary, even in its infancy. I would give a lot to re-taste it in a year or two.
- One of the event’s biggest surprises was the 2015 Dana Estate Sauvignon Blanc, crafted by Philippe Melka and Chris Cooney. Somehow, this Bordeaux-like creature, nursed in concrete and a cigar barrel, is one of the most beautiful examples of Sauvignon Blanc I have ever tasted. Rich and pure, it revealed whispers of feminine florals and mindful minerality.
2015 Rombauer Stice Lane is brains and beauty. Produced in a classic style, it shows brilliant texture, near-perfect balance, and surprisingly smooth tannins.
- 2015 Shafer Sunspot, sourced from a single vineyard block, has been a perennial favorite. This year’s offering is no exception. Elias Fernandez’s talents shine yet again in this wine. Aged for 32 months in 60-gallon, new French foudres, it’s another winner from Shafer.
- Who doesn’t love Spottswoode? 2015 Cabernet composed exclusively of Spottswoode own clonal material dances on the palate with the grace of a ballerina. Bright fruit, solid structure, beautiful delineation, polished tannins.
- 2015 Vineyard 7&8 is a stunner; pure and simple. Winemaker Martha McClellan and vintner Wes Steffens make a dream team. Whole berry, barrel fermented in new French oak, it is the embodiment of terroir. Spring Mountain never tasted so good.
- Yes, I am obsessed with Schramsberg. 1996 J. Schram Late Disgorged instantly became the sparkling love-of-my life. This 85% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Noir which equals 100% palate ecstasy. Offering off-the-charts aromatics, mind-blowing depth of flavor, and a never-ending finish, what more can you want!?
- Tate is a namesake wine by David Tate that is a pure joy to taste. A blend of predominantly Howell Mountain fruit with some Mt Veeder thrown in for structure the wine is intense yet playful, sophisticated yet a tad flamboyant. David’s motto is to let the vineyard and the fruit shine, without masking a thing. He is a true purist. My kind of people.
- The Debate made by Jean Hoefliger is the wine lives entirely up to its name. 100% barrel fermented, unlined and unfiltered, it is larger-than-life, profound and slightly wistful – one that insights philosophical and cerebral undertaking. What a uniquely stimulating mouthful. Bravo!
A special shout-out goes to a producer that is currently “under the radar.” Nellcote 2015 Cabernet ingeniously titled “Tender in the Night” won me over at first sip. Aged for 21 months in ¾ new French oak, it is liquid hedonism. If you love juicy, dark berries, intermixed with coffee bean and baking spices, all neatly merged in liquid chocolate, this wine is for you.
When I arrived at the Scarecrow table, I was more than ready to taste their wine. Scarecrow has only made four appearances throughout the history of this auction; all selling for record amounts and garnering abundant attention. Five cases in 2009 went for $80,000, in 2011 they sold for $125,000, and in 2012 the price doubled to $260,000.
Their 2014 Cabernet was sourced from a single block from JJ Cohen Vineyard in Rutherford. The vines were planted in 1945 on St George’s rootstock. The fruit from the 430 “Old Men,” 72-yr old plants, was harvested by individual bunches. The yields are minuscule, averaging a half ton, so there is never more than a couple of barrels. The wine was aged in roughly 90% new French oak for 29 months.
Scarecrow’s winemaker, Celia Welch, is a woman with kind eyes and intense intellect, all accented with a sharp wit. She is one of the most revered winemakers of our time. As a scientist, she is as straightforward and no-nonsense as it gets. Her artistry is precise and inimitable. I have had several conversations with her over the years, each one was inspirational and slightly intimidating. When you are in the presence of such talent and sensibility, how can you not be overwhelmed?
My conversation with Celia soon shifted to life in general. Her success came from a place of tenacity, wisdom, and humility. She makes wine for people she connects with – as simple as that. Apparently, choosing your partners or bosses, however you want to look at it, based on flawless synergy, is good for your career. A powerful sentiment, indeed. The tremendous amount of work that goes into scrutinizing every berry and every barrel cannot be understated; the instructive part is that it happens one cluster and one cask at a time. A woman of formidable internal strength, solid philosophy of life and steel will, she has a simple approach to her craft, and the results are nothing short of astounding.
A few hours later, 5-case Scarecrow lot hammered at $200,000. It was sold to Pierre-Yves Robin and Melissa Devore of Total Wines and More. I watched the intense bidding, wondering if the competing bidders were awe-struck by the extraordinary “old men” vines or Celia’s prowess. Or maybe, the wine just tasted good, which is quite good enough.
It’s difficult to ascertain why a particular wine moves us. All I know is that certain wines give me goosebumps. Some wines transcend fermented grape juice and become a story in a glass. Whether that tale comes with a $33 or $3,300 price tag doesn’t change the core reason behind the emotional response to the wine.
There are many stories at Premiere Napa Valley, with each barrel sample revealing its own. I truly wish that I could tell them all, as each is worthwhile.
The tale of mega-exclusive and mega-expensive Scarecrow seemingly comes with the implication that at least some of it must be about the money. I submit to you that it’s not. It is about the desire to create the best of the best, at all cost. The rewards often, but not always, follow.
And then there is the main story. The kindness that Jean Hoefliger spoke about, the “pay it forward” mentality that cannot be underestimated. Nowhere is it more evident than when folks have so many options. Envision one of the most successful wineries in the world showing uncommon largesse, the kind that leaves you breathless. Now multiply it by hundreds. Leading by example in the way for many Napa Valley vintners. Agonizing over every component for that special barrel, nursing it every step of the way, and then letting it go and fulfill someone else’s wine dreams.
If you are still not convinced, come to Napa and taste for yourself the goodwill of the wine people.