Fair warning to readers: this is a long piece including lists/descriptions of 36 wines.
There are a bewildering number of wineries to choose from in Napa Valley. They fit neatly together like a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, aligned in tightly woven vineyard ribbons lacing Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, along the eastern slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains. It’s no small wonder that it takes work – joyful as it may be! – to understand the scope of this complex and diverse American Viticultural Area (AVA or appellation) covering less ground than 1/8 of Bordeaux.
Betting on the notion that a better-educated wine trade would help consumers sort through Napa’s prolific bounty, Napa Valley Vintners Association (NVV) created Premiere Napa Valley nearly two decades ago. As the Premiere event got legs, NVV added events for wine educators and sommeliers. Each year, the wine trade descends upon Napa Valley in droves during the third week in February to revel in all that is glorious about Napa Valley.
Whether you love sun-kissed “big fruit” or more restrained old-world styles of wine, enjoy this delicious sip of Napa Valley taken February 20-22, 2014!
The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers was founded a decade ago by some of the country’s leading food and wine writers in partnership with NVV, The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone and the Meadowood resort. Each year, generous Napa Valley vintners sponsor fellowships for 12-15 writers chosen by an independent panel of judges. The warm companionship between winemaking and wine writing is celebrated during a special dinner at Meadowood on the eve of Premiere weekend.
Because this was the Symposium’s 10th anniversary, each sponsoring winemaker provided a 2004 library wine. One can only hope that some of these 15 wines are waiting patiently in your cellar! But don’t despair – the fellowship sponsors are among Napa Valley’s finest winemakers, so enjoy their more recent vintages available in the market. [alpha winery listing, AVA, grape]
1. BOND “Vecina,” Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon
2. Chimney Rock Winery “Elevage,” Stags Leap District, Red Blend
3. Far Niente, Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon
4. The Hess Collection Winery, Mt. Veeder, Cabernet Sauvignon
5. Hourglass, St. Helena, Cabernet Sauvignon (2010)
6. Mount Veeder Winery Reserve, Napa Valley, Red Blend
7. PEJU Reserve, Rutherford, Cabernet Franc
8. Plumpjack Winery Estate, Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon
9. Raymond Vineyards “Generations,” Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon
10. Robert Mondavi Winery, Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon
11. Saintsbury, Los Carneros, Chardonnay
12. Shafer Vineyards “Hillside Select,” Stags Leap District, Cabernet Sauvignon
13. Silverado Vineyards “SOLO,” Stags Leap District, Cabernet Sauvignon
14. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “CASK 23,” Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon
15. Tres Sabores, Rutherford, Zinfandel
So is it hardship duty for the trade to taste wine at 9:00 am? Perhaps. I read more than one Tweet and Facebook post pondering the state of our collective health. “Sip, swish and spit” skills are mandatory.
The Premiere weekend launched into high gear on Friday morning with a very special tasting opportunity. A multi-vintage perspective included young wines from 2009, 2010 and 2011. A retrospective tasting of library wines from 1984, 1994 and 2004 offered the rare opportunity to experience vintages chosen for decennial rhythm rather than ratings. Most of the library wines were Cabernet Sauvignon (or Cab-predominant blends). Looking back, the top professional raters gave the 1984 vintage a 92-94 score (with differing views on whether this vintage is likely past its peak, so give it a try); 95-97 for the 1994 vintage (definitely drink now); and 91-95 for 2004 (drink now or hold).
It was impossible to do justice to all 39 young and library wines in the allotted two hours, so of the 26 library wines I tasted, these were my top five:
1984 Sterling Vineyards Reserve Merlot was quite washed out in color, but the fresh aroma was medium+ with plenty of fruit; soft tannins, medium+ body and intensity; a balanced wine. Hurry up!
1994 Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was fresh and clean; nice complexity of vibrant black fruit, violets and brown baking spices from oak influence; soft tannins, long finish. Drink now.
1994 Caymus Vineyards Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon presented a soft copper tinge in the glass, but despite a slight overtone of alcohol on the nose, on the palate the wine was soft and complex with notes of cedar along with dark fruits. Drink now.
2004 ERBA Merlot was characterized by a very long finish, a pleasant quaffable wine with velvety tannins and medium+ intensity of aromas and flavors. Drink now.
2004 Corison Winery Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was clearly young and fresh compared to the older library wines, but definitely a balanced wine with well-integrated tannins; complex red and black fruits, medium+ intensity. Drink now or hold.
Premiere Preview Parties moved into high gear at about noon and carried on into early evening with sneak peeks of the 2012 vintage wines that would be auctioned the following day. (Please stay tuned for an in-depth look at wines from four of Napa Valley’s 16 AVAs tasted during preview parties: Oak Knoll, Pritchard Hill, Spring Mountain and Stags Leap.)
On Saturday morning, the Premiere Napa Valley Barrel Tasting and Auction event machinery worked smoothly to transport hundreds of people from remote parking to The Culinary Institute at Greystone and get them checked in for the barrel tasting and auction. On the second floor, 225 stations were ready to roll for the brisk three-hour marathon tasting of 2012 barrel samples, already being touted as “very good to excellent” vintage overall. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!
First, a bonus note about my permanent “best of show.” Keever Vineyards, owned since 2003 by Bill and Olga Keever and their children Jason and Ashley, has been a favorite wine of mine for many years. Their winemaker Celia Welch is a rock star in Napa Valley. Often impatient for that “drink now” moment to arrive, I have managed to preserve a Keever library of wines from 2006-2009. Growing in popularity, their 2010 vintage sold out in three months, but it is possible to taste the 2011 vintage at the winery in advance of release and get on the list for annual wine allocations. www.keevervineyards.com
Wine writers who attended the Symposium were asked by NVV to taste 14 randomly selected wines, choose a favorite, and write a note about the wine and/or winemaker. These notes will be compiled and published soon in the St. Helena Star.
In the meantime, here are my notes on the top five 2012 barrel samples from Lots 113-126, along with a list of the other wines, all in order of personal preference:
1. Robert Keenan Winery (Spring Mountain) took a unique twist for Premiere Napa Valley with a mouth-watering “A Nod to History” Zinfandel blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc (10% each) as well as whiffs of Carignane and Alicante. Aged primarily in neutral oak, this special heritage blend offered bright cherry and raspberry notes. Nils Venge, consulting winemaker. [Lot 120]
2. Harbison Estate Wines (Oakville) “The Trail” Cabernet Sauvignon. Owned by Joe and Pat Harbison, the new winery produced its first vintage in 2008. Already receiving top scores from Wine Advocate – 96 points for the 2011 and a tentative score of 100 points for the 2012 – Harbison wines look to be on the way to cult status, but still under $200. Even in its youth, the barrel sample was refined and elegant with an even finish across the palate. He said: “anybody can make a big ass wine.” She said: “it takes finesse to go with food.” Russell Bevan, winemaker. [Lot 121]
3. Paradigm Winery (Oakville) Cabernet Sauvignon is small-production (5,000 cases). One third of the property’s 55 acres of grapes are used to make Paradigm wine, and the rest of the fruit is sold to Nickle and Nickle. With delicate floral and herbal aromas yielding to rich fruit and earthy flavors, this wine strikes a balance between feminine and masculine styles; long aging potential. Heidi Peterson Barrett, winemaker. [Lot 119]
4. Ehlers Estate (St. Helena) “Block 4” Cabernet Sauvignon is a spicy wine with beautiful, soft tannins. Ehlers Estate wines are generally 75% new French oak, though winemaker Kevin Morrisey may shift some of the juice to neutral barrels to avoid excessive oak influence. [Lot 115]
5. Barbour Wines (St. Helena) “Man Cave Blend” Cabernet Sauvignon. A perfect specimen of “medium plus” intensity wine in every regard – color, aroma, body and aging potential. Owner Jim Barber says his wine style is “whatever Celia says” about the fruit each year. Celia Welch, winemaker. [Lot 122]
6. Frias Family Vineyard (St. Helena) Cabernet Sauvignon. Todd Heth, winemaker. [Lot 113]
7. Erba Mountainside Vineyards (Napa Valley) Cabernet Sauvignon. Luc Morlet, winemaker. [Lot 118]
8. Cakebread Cellars (Napa Valley) “Suscol Springs and Arroyo Creek Vineyards” Cabernet Sauvignon. Julianne Laks, winemaker. [Lot 124]
9. Neal Family Vineyards (Rutherford) Chardonnay. Gove Celio, director of winemaking. [Lot 114]
10. Aloft Wine (Howell Mountain) Cabernet Sauvignon. Angelina Mondavi and Thomas Brown, winemakers. [Lot 117]
11. Rocca Family Vineyards (Yountville) “Row 57 Old Vines” Cabernet Sauvignon. Paul Colantuoni, winemaker. [Lot 116]
12. Purlieu Wines (St. Helena) “Cachere Cabernet Sauvignon. Julien Fayard, winemaker. [Lot 123]
13. Hewitt Vineyard & Provenance Vineyards (Rutherford) “Cab Meets Cab Franc” Red Wine. Chris Cooney and Tom Rinaldi, winemakers. [Lot 125]
14. Vineyard 29 (St. Helena) “St. Helena Special” Cabernet Sauvignon. Philippe Melka, winemaker. [Lot 126]