Napa on the Block: Behind the scenes at Premiere Napa Valley

by Chuck Hayward

Napa on the Block: Behind the scenes at Premiere Napa Valley

Post by Chuck Hayward | March 1st, 2012

This past weekend saw the wineries of the Napa Valley host their annual Premiere Auction Weekend. This was the 16th edition of the Napa Valley Vintners Association's second most important event. The Napa Valley Wine Auction held each summer in support of local charities is more well known and geared toward raising funds from consumers. For the wine trade, Premiere Napa Valley is where it's at. Here, auctions of unfinished wines are directed to bidders in the retail and restaurant industry, with proceeds destined for the region's marketing and education efforts. Consumers cannot bid on these lots.

The auction represents the culmination of a week-long series of events in the valley, including a wine writers’ symposium, educational tastings, as well as the traditional parties which form the foundation of any gathering of the wine industry. It brings to mind en primeur week in Bordeaux with familiar crowds of journalists and buyers from across the globe traipsing from winery to winery attending tastings and parties.

Tim Mondavi (l) and Stuart Harrison (c) of Continuum with Joshua Greene (r), Editor of Wine & Spirits

JJ Buckley's domestic wine buyer, David Derby, and I attended not to raise a bidding paddle, but to get a preview of the upcoming 2010 vintage, the harvest serving as the focus for this year's auction lots. We got a very good sense of the vintage by tasting the barrel samples prior to the auction as well as through our visits to regional tastings held up and down the valley prior to the big event. It was tough. But someone has to do it.

JJ Buckley's David Derby assessing the cabernet vertical


The Premiere Auction consists of small lots of 5 to 20 cases prepared by Napa Valley winemakers specifically for the event. These unique wines are considered by many to be the best wines produced by a winery or a chance for the winemaker to stretch out and experiment. They typically sell for high prices, the average hammer price per case this year was $2069, up 34% from last year's $1546 per case.

For us, tasting the samples of the auction lots in the famed Christian Brothers winery provided an excellent opportunity to get a sense of the 2010 harvest. It was clear to see that this is shaping up to be one of Napa's most unique vintages.

The year was marked by a long, cool growing season that saw relatively few heat spikes. This helped to preserve acidity while also allowing the fruit to slowly accumulate the essential ingredients for intense flavors. As the harvest approached, growers found a late heat wave helped to ripen the fruit just in time.

The best wines showed a sense of vibrancy and verve that I have not seen in over three decades of tasting Napa cabernets. There are some deeply concentrated black fruit flavors wound up tightly thanks to the intense acidity. Unlike the 2010 zinfandels tasted at ZAP which were shrill and lean, Napa's intense fruit wove the acidity into the midpalate, creating lively textures. The acid helped to rein in the fruit  preventing the palate from being fat or ponderous. We found that GrothMondavi, and Vine Hill Ranch poured classic examples representative of 2010. For those who say that acidity is essential for aging wines, this harvest will test that theory.

Not all the wines, however, were in top shape, suggesting it might be wise to be selective. A few wines were quite tannic, creating a very firm undercurrent. Samples from Shafer and Ovid saw some strong tannins that battled the fruit. Other samples seemed like finished wines with low acid levels and creamy fruit. Cabernets from Lewis and Schrader were round and supple, already approachable, and showing seamless and integrated flavors.


Entrance to the vertical tasting

While 2010 was the focus of the auction, an important part of the weekend was the opportunity to gain an overview of the 2007, 2008 and 2009 harvests. As part of the auction weekend, Napa Valley Vintners presented those three vintages from 24 wineries in a blind format with only the vintages identified. David and I ranked each wine from first through third and while we rarely agreed on wines, our perception of the vintages was almost identical.

2009:  Clearly showing youthful vitality, the '09s were easily our favorite wines sampled in this unique tasting session. The vintage garnered over half of our first place preferences. With a slimmer profile than the 2007s possessed at this stage of their youth, the wines are showing lots of intense and powerful fruit. Some time will be needed to make these more approachable.

2008:  The "Curse of the '8s" came through again with 2008 following the reputation of the '88 and '98 vintages as difficult harvests. The 2008s we tasted confirmed our initial impression that the vintage is erratic with wines a bit all over the map. The vintage clearly produced some excellent wines but not as many as will be found in '07 and '09. Being selective with this vintage is essential. Nevertheless, just like the "8s" of the previous decades, there will be some elegantly styled cabs that will be perfect for near-term drinking.

2007:  The best vintage since 2004, which was followed by a short spell of difficult harvests. The 2007s initially showed a rich and ripe presence with lots of voluptuous textures on the palate. However, the tasting showed many of these wines are starting to tighten up and begin the transition to a closed state, which probably explained why the '07s were a distant second in our scores. Best to leave these in the cellar for a while.


It had been many years since I immersed myself so completely in Napa Valley cabernet. An event like this is a great opportunity to gain a wider view of the valley's wines. I walked away with a few thoughts about the weekend.

Saintsbury Winemaker Chris Carlson checks out how Napa makes wines other than pinot noir

Napa's wines are more varied and diverse than the pervasive stereotype would indicate. Whether due to the subregional diversity so clearly evident or the preferences of winemakers to come down on one side or the other of the light versus powerful cabernet debate, Napa clearly has much to offer cabernet enthusiasts. Painting Napa cab with a broad stroke is to miss an opportunity to see the grape as interpreted by both site and man.

The Napa Valley Vinters know how to throw a party. The professionalism and attention to detail this weekend was pretty impressive. This was a smoothly run event that allowed us to maximize our limited time efficiently. Combined with the events hosted by wineries and smaller regional groups, the Auction weekend has clearly established itself as Napa's showcase event for the trade.

Sampling young Napa cabernets is nothing like tasting Bordeaux during en primeur. Before my first trip to taste Bordeaux futures, I was warned that it would be a grueling experience for both mind and palate. Surprisingly, the six-month old reds from the last two harvests were very approachable and well on the road to becoming finished wines. While the 2010 Napa cabs had the advantage of another 12 months compared to their French counterparts, they still seemed very young and undeveloped. That brash youth also could be seen in many of the 2009s we encountered. What does this mean? For one, know that young Napa cabs can pack a wallop. More importantly, however, don't dismiss Bordeaux as a wine that needs lots of time before it can be consumed. Those 2009s and 2010s are going to be very fun to drink when they hit our shelves.

The kids are alright. Napa's younger generation of winery owners is beginning to influence things in the valley. Rock and roll was the order of the day and it was clear to me that the valley is loosening up just a bit. That's a good thing. Just like Bordeaux, Napa will need to get younger people to appreciate its wines if they are to remain a viable part of the wine world over the next few decades. A stuffy, exclusionary presence and approach will not make Napa's wines any more popular. Letting loose a bit will help Napa strut its stuff and ensure that new consumers will be drinking their wines in the years to come.