Finding Silver Linings in Napa’s 2011 Playbook

by Chuck Hayward

Each February, The Napa Valley Vintners Associationhosts the Premiere Napa Valley Auction, which has quickly turned into a “must attend” event for the wine industry. Intended as a fund raiser for the marketing and educational efforts of the Vintners Association, the week’s activities provide an array of events, connecting the entire wine trade with the wineries of Napa Valley. The highlight for most of us in the trade is the opportunity to taste barrel samples of the wines up for auction.

The lead-up to the weekend auction is complemented with educational seminars on Napa’s soils and subregions for wine industry professionals from across the globe. Even more important is the annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers held at Meadowood during the same week. The conclave brings aspiring and professional wine writers together to talk about the nuances of writing about the grape. You’ll often find yourself rubbing elbows with guest lecturers at the barrel tastings following the symposium. This year saw Decanter’s Guy Woodward and Steven Spurrier walking through the barrel room of the old Christian Brothers Winery.

The 2011 vintage for Napa cabernet was shaped by some of the worst weather to hit the region in almost a quarter of a century. Two storms in October dumped enough rain in the valley to set off outbreaks of mold and botrytis on fruit left on the vines. Cool temperatures made it difficult for that fruit to fully ripen. This followed a cool and wet spring which delayed fruit set and reduced the size of the potential crop.
This year’s auction seemed to project an increased level of gravitas, with its emphasis on the very difficult 2011 vintage. My first exposure to the 2011s was when they were introduced at the California Cabernet Societytastings last summer and they were decidedly uninspiring (click here). The wines presented at Napa Valley Premier are small-batch selections that represent the crème-de-la-crème of Napa’s winemaking talent when applied to top wineries’ best parcels of fruit. The barrel tasting held before the auction thus provided a chance for the vintage to redeem itself.

A number of wines, however, showed quite well, with fruit-centered palates, good length of flavor and balanced tannins. They had the core of fruit that makes Napa cab so distinctive, shaped in a slightly more elegant profile, with a sense of freshness that provided lift and tension. While few were exciting, the best wines were balanced and displayed Napa’s classic traits of warm, ripe fruit.
Sampling the 2011 barrel samples showed the wide range of styles that will characterize this vintage. Many wines had distinct green flavors and herbal notes, qualities rarely seen in Napa Valley cabernets. In cases where the fruit intensity was deficient, acidity levels left a shrill impression on the palate. In addition, too many wines showed tough, green tannins that provided little assurance that the firm and bitter structures will ever be resolved.

With so many winemakers in attendance, it seemed like a great opportunity to find out what contributed to the disparate styles of cabernets in 2011. There’s no question that mold and botrytis played a big role in the 2011 harvest. Roger Harrison knows a thing or two about botrytis. He is part of Beringer Winery’s winemaking team and has been responsible for Nightingale, the winery’s late harvest sauvignon/semillon blend, for almost 30 years. Harrison said that the fruit suffered some of the worst mold infections he had ever seen. He also noted that larger wineries sourcing grapes from all over the valley could afford to declassify poor lots of wines and still have enough fruit to make good cabernet. Those smaller estates that suffered through adverse weather conditions may not have had other vineyards at their disposal to compose a more complete wine.

A number of other winemakers felt that vineyards in certain locations fared better than others. Tom Rinaldi, the accomplished winemaker for Rutherford’s 
Provenance Vineyards, was emphatic that the vineyards on the western bench land were superior sites. “This sector of the valley had much better drainage and was one of the first areas in the valley where the fog burned off. This allowed us to pick clean and ripe fruit.”Mike Reynolds of Hall Winery thought that new equipment, particularly optical sorting tables, played a key role in improving his 2011 cabernets. These new devices have been part of the Bordeaux scene since 2009 but, according to Mike, there are only 6 such machines in Napa Valley. “We never had to use them last year,” said Reynolds. “But they saved us in 2011. By getting rid of unripe or mold affected berries, even if it’s only 5% of the fruit that we harvested, we saw much less green acids or unripe tannins in the finished wine.”

Clearly, from the diverse observations of the winemakers I spoke with, it’s quite evident that 2011 was not a uniform or homogenous year. When it comes to years like this, it’s going to be a vintage where tasting before buying will be essential so that we get the only the best wines to our customers. You can bet I’ll be in the cellars of Napa Valley wineries quite a bit over the next year, trying to find those wines that made the grade.
Tim Mondavi also agreed that site location was the key factor in determining the quality of cabernet in 2011. Pointing to a picture of his vineyard bathed in clear sunny skies above a thick layer of fog in the valley below, Tim said, “We had no problems ripening fruit as our vineyards were always above the fog. The vineyards below were constantly covered in fog, increasing disease pressures and diminishing the ability of those sites to ripen their fruit.”

JJ Buckley obtains small parcels of Premiere Napa Valley auction lots from time to time. Check back with us if you are interested in these wines.