Premiere Napa Valley – A Powerful Preview of 2014 Vintage 10 min read
The second week of February is easily the most exhilarating week in the domestic wine world. Premiere Napa Valley, a mega-star event, offers unprecedented opportunities for the trade and media to access and acquire some of the most coveted wines in the oeno-verse.
In its 20th year, Napa Vintners is a trade-only auction of some of the rarest wines from the area. Many well-known, established brands as well as newcomers partake, many guests fly in from all over the world for a chance to taste, mingle and buy. The wines are offered in 5 to 20 case lots and represent unique blends that are not commercially available. Over a 1,000 visitors were in attendance this year, an impressive 5 million was raised in auction proceeds. In addition to attuning to the new vintage and securing the rare gems, a great deal of fun was had by all.
There is a plethora of preview events, each showcasing an appellation, a region or producers that wish to band together to introduce their offers to the wine trade. Each affair offers a chance to sample anywhere from a handful to dozens of wines. Cultish brands, such as Fairchild, Realm, Brand, Nine Suns, Shafer offer barrel samples of 2014 and finished wines from prior vintages. Appellational tastings, such as Yountville, Rutherford, St Helena, etc. showcase their wines in a group setting. An embarrassment of riches, for certain.
One of the highlights of the event is a retrospective blind tasting of three vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon – 2011, 2012 and 2013 from Napa producers, along with a tasting of library wines from the 1996, 2001 and 2006. Evaluating library wines in a blind format offers an insight into a wine’s evolution as it ages in a bottle.
2011 was a cooler vintage that presented many challenges in the cellar. Massive rainfall that year created disruptions in flowering and flavor development. Mold and rot ravaged the fruit. Shatter from summer rains left some wineries with severe damage and loss of fruit. One of the latest harvests on the books, the yields for 2011 were down and the fruit quality was adversely impacted. For many producers, dramatic picking and sorting decisions had to be made. Winemakers had to work exceptionally hard in the cellar to compensate for Mother Nature’s shortchanging the grapes. The result was naturally low alcohols, sturdy structure and lengthy tannins – all factors that bode well for aging. The wines are bright, crisp and texturally sound. Those winemakers that worked their hearts out made wines of solid quality and longevity. Readers would be well-advised not to skip the vintage and treat is as long-term proposition instead. Laying down the wines from ‘11 will be richly rewarded.
On the heels of the difficult 2011, Bacchus blessed Napa Valley in 2012. It was more than a grin, it was a full-on, broad, beguiling, and generous smile that resulted in, many would state, a classic – one of the best vintages in California history. Simply put, if a vintner didn’t make good wine in 2012, he/she should choose an alternate profession. Ideal weather conditions and a long growing season made for an exceptional fruit quality. Coming into the crush pad, the fruit was perfectly balanced—with flawless acid, sugar and tannin ratios. It was also an abundant crop, compensating for the shortages dished out by the leaner, meaner 2011 crop. Lush and infinitely hedonistic, it is vintage for those who seek epicurean decadence.
2013 was spectacular, possibly even better than its predecessor. It was an impeccable vintage, with a warm spring that produced early bud break, perfect veraison and even ripening. Harvest was very early, with most of the fruit picked by mid-September. Yields were generous and qualitatively high. It was a confluence of everything viticulturalists and a winemakers dream about—consistency and near perfect balance. The seemingly unlimited potential of the vintage is self-evident – the wines have been astonishingly delicious on release and will age gracefully.
What about the 2014? Well, it was another early harvest. Suffering through one of the worst droughts in history, the vines finally got some much-needed rain relief in early spring, just in time for the bud break. Warm weather conditions facilitated favorable ripening. In addition, a devastating earthquake wreaked havoc in the cellars and caused millions in property damage. Thankfully the seismic disruption did nothing to harm the vines or interrupt the flow of the harvest. The crops were generous, and exhibited high quality. Perhaps not as consistent across the board as the previous two vintages, the vintage was nonetheless generous to a great many winemakers.
I am a huge fan of 2012 and 2013, for different reasons. The 2012 appeals to my pleasure-seeking side, the 2013 is an ode to cerebral stimulation. Consumers are advised to buy everything in sight and enjoy!
Admittedly, I approached 2014 with some trepidation. Is it possible to have several great vintages in a row? My skeptical side said no. My optimistic one was quite enthusiastic at the possibility.
Premier Napa Valley was my first meaningful opportunity to taste 2014s. It was a great occasion to barrel taste through some of the top producer’s offerings; each made in micro-lots with maximum attention to detail. My annual pilgrimage to the CIA Greystone, to bond with barrels could not come soon enough.
Of the 226 wine lots to be auctioned later in the day, I tasted 120. They were mostly Cabernets, Pinot Noirs and red blends. Smiling, excited vintners filled our glasses while telling their unique wine stories. It was truly an overwhelming experience.
Some general vintage observations:
- 2014 is a “winemaker’s vintage.” When the fruit delivers uneven performance, it is up to the winemaker to get it the wine to an optimal place. A challenging vintage can still produce excellent wines when shepherded by skilled vintners.
- Many top producer’s wines exhibited superior quality and were on par with the prior vintage all-stars.
- 2014 wines have structure similar to 2013 and almost as much fruit as 2012.
- Proper blending will be critical. The wines will greatly benefit from being cohesively composed by their masters. Different block selections, varietals, individual barrels will play crucial roles in this vintage.
- There is a uniformity and gentility to tannin structure uncommon in wines of such young age. Early tannin expansiveness and refinement is a gift that keeps on giving as the wine evolves in the cellar.
Some of my favorites were:
- Alpha Omega – Dr. Crane and To-Kalon blend, unfined/unfiltered. Profound depth and concentration. Perfectly composed by Winemaster, Jean Hoefliger. Drink early or decades later – either way, it’s stunning.
- Arkenstone – Powerhouse Howell Mountain fruit tamed by Sam Kaplan. He managed to coax unreal flavors out of this beautiful beast.
- Barbour Vineyards – Winemaker Celia Welch crafted a wine with soul. Jim Barbour is THE viticultural sage of Napa Valley. Sourced from a dry-farmed vineyard, the wine is everything you can ever want. I found myself near tears due to the realization that fermented grape juice can be elevated to these heights. Wine of the tasting.
- Cliff Lede Vineyards – made by Chris Tynan, a winemaker who never misses, it’s an SLD Cab with attitude. The rocky estate that serves as fruit source produces wines that are big on power and long on concentration. Add some sass to all that class and call it a winner.
- Davis Estates –This offering, crafted by Philippe Melka is a beauty. Complex and ultra-sophisticated, it boasts well-integrated tannins and dark, seductive fruit.
- Entre Nous – Modern meets classic, history meets present, hands-on approach meets noninterventionist. Sounds like a contradiction in terms, yet this conundrum yields a wine that is as memorable as it comes. Just gorgeous.
- Fairchild Napa Valley – an easy favorite at each tasting opportunity, this yet another Melka feat is as meticulously crafted as it gets. Unreal levels of concentration. Extraordinary richness and depth of aromatics. Bravo!
- Gandona Estate – Phillippe Melka’s supreme winemaking skill shines in this astounding offering. A boxer’s fist in a velvet glove.
- Hunnicutt – Crafted by Kirk Venge, it’s a 100 Cabernet aged for 28 months in French wood. Seriously lush, plush and astoundingly approachable.
- Memento Mori – Dr. Crane & Las Piedras vineyards fruit, 24 months in a custom-toasted French Oak. Sex is a bottle. (Incidentally, at $130,000 for 60 bottles of wine it was the highest-grossing lot of the day.)
- Nine Suns – Flavor concentration of gargantuan proportions. This inaugural release crafted by Sam Kaplan from Pritchard Hill fruit is destined for greatness. I would strongly advise the readers to get on their mailing list.
- Notre Vin – crafted by Denis Malbec, this Howell Mountain Cabernet is surprisingly elegant for its size. Focused and pure, it is a marvelous effort.
- Ovid Napa Valley – an easy favorite. Power, finesse, laser-like focus and enviable structure frames its dazzling mountain fruit. Bravo!
- Paul Hobbs – the namesake brand’s Cabernet blend is estate-sourced and spends 20 months in French oak. Mind-boggling layers of dark fruit and mocha.
- Perliss Estate – an exciting endeavor by Aaron Pott, a rock star winemaker. Aged in terracotta, this Cabernet Sauvignon is astoundingly different than anything I’ve ever tasted. The texture is silky, the finish everlasting. The wine is vast, yet light on its feet.
- Pride Mountain Vineyards – Winemaker, Sally Johnson, brings elegance and refinement to everything she touches. This gorgeous Cabernet, sourced from two select blocks, has a profound depth of flavor with endless class and style.
- Realm – stunning stuff by one of the most talented winemakers I know – Benoit Touquette. A Bordeaux blend of 10 different vineyards, this wine, titled Absurd the Rhinoceros, is absurdly delectable.
- Schramsberg Cellars – this bottling has rested on lees since 1990. The astonishing level of depth and complexity cannot be overstated. J Schram would have been very proud.
- Shafer Vineyards – crafted by the inimitable Elias Fernandez, it is 100% delightful. Formidable power and concentration, combined with bright, enticing fruit flavors.
- Spottswoode Vineyards – estate Cabernet that possesses a style and grace that is uncommon. Already a classic.
- Tate – David Tate has been crafting lovely wines at Barnett for years. This is his own project. A meticulously farmed, tiny gem of a vineyard, makes for a phenomenal fruit source. It shows layers of flavor, a striking core of pure fruit and a long finish.
- The Debate – Hoefliger genius strikes again. Missouri Hopper, To-Kalon and Dr. Crane, a trio of arguably some of the most illustrious Napa vineyards, join forces to create a powerful blend that is as complete as the great wine can get.
- Vice Versa Wines – Showing Heart and Soul, it also happens to be the name of the wine. Beckstoffer To-Kalon, Las Piedras, and Dr. Crane fruit shine brightly in this ultra-refined, deftly balanced offering. Dazzling till the last drop.
- Vineyard 7 & 8 – Martha McClellan recently took over the winemaking reigns at this winery. The wine is elegant, refined, and cohesive; a symphony of flavors and sensations. It will spend 26 months in a 225-liter barrel, an unusual aging regime.
Much like a partner in life, there is a vintage that is right for you. If you fly a “Hedonists Unite” flag, go after 2012s. If you prefer structure, depth and delineation, 2013 is your best friend. Should you opt for a “smooth operator”—a wine that exudes quiet confidence, you may want to wait for 2014s. I know I will.
I can’t wait to reunite with some of the aforementioned wines, once they are bottled. It is increasingly clear that Napa Valley is one of the most optimal places on the planet to grow grapes. The small valley has a powerful confluence of components that ideal for viticulture. The range of soils, microclimates, human terroir and technological innovation is unparalleled.
Barrel tasting of such impressive young wines proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the force is strong with Napa. Delineation, dimension, and depth of flavor define the wines of this region. No matter what curveballs Mother Nature tosses their way, Napa Valley vintners rise to the occasion. Cheers to that!