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02.27.2006

Napa's Best Cabernet: Tasting The Premiere Napa Valley

Perhaps the most well known event in California wine country is a star-studded auction that takes place every summer, known as Auction Napa Valley. This is the most lavish and flamboyant face of Napa Valley, despite the event's focus on raising money for charity, which weds celebrity, exclusivity, and wine in an evening celebration capable of raising millions. Less well known, and perhaps the more accurate picture of the Napa community and lifestyle is another auction that takes place behind closed doors every Spring. Premiere Napa Valley, modeled in part on the en primeur tastings held in Bordeaux every year, is an invitation-only event attended by vintners, retailers, distributors, and a select few members of the media. Every year for this event, member wineries of the premiere.crowd.jpgNapa Valley Vintners Association produce unique lots of wine in quantities from 5 cases to a full barrel (20 cases), and allow attendees to taste them, and after lunch, these are auctioned off to those in attendance who are in a buying mood.

This event is a perfect microcosm of Napa valley in so many ways. It is laid back and friendly -- a place where the superstars of Napa winemaking and the folks who own the wineries show up in jeans to chat with each other and their customers in the retail industry. There's a lot of camaraderie, there's a boatload of Cabernet, and there's an incredible amount of money being spent on wine. If that doesn't describe Napa, I don't know what does.

For me, this event represents a two-fold opportunity: to get a read on the pulse of the upper end of the California wine industry, and to get a sense of the 2004 Cabernet harvest, as it is offered up for tasting in copious quantities. While the wines on offer are not those that will appear in your average wine shop (many are bought by retailers for an exclusive list of clients) they do represent the potential, if you will, of the vintage, and are a measure of what these producers can do at their best.

As a measure of the state of the Napa wine industry, all signs point to a bull market. The auction this past Saturday brought in $1.87 million dollars, premiere_paddle.jpg which was a 28% increase over last year's auction proceeds. This was stunning to me, especially considering my (unverified) sense that much less wine was auctioned off. The lots, in general, seemed smaller, with many fewer full barrel lots than in 2005, perhaps owing to the smaller yields. The stunner of the auction (there always seems to be one) was V.J. Jazirvar's purchase of 5 cases of Rombauer Cabernet Sauvignon for an eye-popping sum of $85,000. Jazirvar owns a private club for petroleum investors in Oklahoma for whom he purchases wine, though this purchase, he said was not going to be sold to anyone. "I loved the Rombauer last year, and when I tasted it this year I couldn't believe that it was even better," he said. At a purchase price of $1416 per bottle, he clearly thinks it's good stuff. The second highest, and not really any less spectacular of a purchase was made by Ichizo Nakagawa-San of the Nakagawa Wine Company in Tokyo. Nakagawa-san, exchange rates be damned, plunked down $65,000 for five cases of Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon (among many other purchases) which he is buying for a select group of wine lovers in Japan who will share in the purchase.

As for the vintage, 2004 seems very strong at least as Cabernet Sauvignon is concerned. This is partially a bit of a surprise. The 2004 vintage was marked in Napa by an extremely early flowering of the vines and variable heat, with some extreme high temperatures at various points during the summer, leading to a fear of raisining and lower acid levels in the fruit. The grapes went through veraison (a color change where the grapes take on their dark hue) extremely early as well. In general the fruit quality at harvest was good, some places excellent, especially as some mild weeks before the harvest allowed acid levels to catch up to sugar levels, but many vintners reported much smaller crops than usual. I know at least one high end producer who ordinarily might have a barrel on offer as part of this auction, but who didn't feel he had enough wine for it.

TASTING NOTES
The wines below are all barrel samples that are not available for sale to the general public except through those retailers who may put the wine they purchaser up for sale upon release (most of these wines will be bottled in the Spring and released the following Autumn). And before anyone objects to what is certainly a lot of high scores, remember that these wines represent the best efforts of some excellent wineries.

2004 Brown Estate Zinfandel - Cabernet Blend, Napa Valley. 9.5/10.
2004 Grgich Hills Petite Verdot - Cabernet Blend, Yountville. 9.5/10.
2004 Amuse Bouche Merlot, St. Helena. 9.5/10.
2004 Snowden Merlot, Napa Valley. 9.5/10.
2004 Pride Mountain "Carolyn Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District. 9.5/10.

2004 CrauforD "The Kiltlifter" Zinfandel, Napa Valley. 9.5.
2004 Wolf Family Vineyards Cabernet Franc, St. Helena. 9.5.
2004 Spring Mountain Vineyards Cabernet Franc, Spring Mountain District. 9.5.
2004 Ehler's Cabernet - Petite Verdot Blend, St. Helena. 9.5.
2004 Carter Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9.5.
2004 Baldacci Cabernet Syrah Blend, Napa Valley. 9.5.
2004 Tor Kenward Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9.5.
2004 Stewart Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9.5.
2004 Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford. 9.5.
2002 Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford. 9.5.
2004 Cafaro Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9.5.
2004 Peacock Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9.5.
2004 Palmaz "Tortuga" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9.5.
2004 Spencer Roloson "La Herradura" Syrah, Napa Valley. 9.5.
2004 Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District. 9.5.
2004 Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain. 9.5.
2004 Corison "Chronos" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9.5.
2004 Barnett "Rattlesnake Hill" Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District. 9.5.
2004 Artesa Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9.5.
2004 Farella Park Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9.5.
2004 Flora Springs Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9.5.
2004 Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9.5.

2004 Lang and Reed 10 x 10 Red Blend, Napa Valley. 9/9.5.
2004 Viader Petite Verdot, Howell Mountain. 9/9.5.
2004 Volker Eisele Cabernet - Merlot Blend, Chiles Valley. 9/9.5.
2004 Terra Valentine "The Phoenix" Cabernet, Spring Mountain District. 9/9.5.
2004 Rockledge Cabernet / Merlot Blend, St. Helena. 9/9.5.
2004 Dominari Cabernet - Merlot Blend, Napa Valley. 9/9.5.
2004 Shafer "Sunspot" Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District. 9/9.5.
2004 Pahlmeyer Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9/9.5.
2004 Truchard Cabernet Sauvignon, Carneros. 9/9.5.
2004 O'Shaughnessy Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain. 9/9.5.
2004 Jones Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9/9.5.
2004 Hendry "Block 8" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9/9.5.
2004 Bourassa Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9/9.5.
2004 Nickel and Nickel Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain. 9/9.5.
2004 Longfellow Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9/9.5.
2004 Lakoya Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain / Mount Veeder / Diamond Mountain District. 9/9.5.
2004 Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9/9.5.
2004 Ladera Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9/9.5.
2004 Burgess Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9/9.5.
2003 Astrale e Terra Cabernet Sauvignon, Atlas Peak. 9/9.5.
2004 Cain Vineyards Syrah Malbec Blend, Spring Mountain District. 9/9.5.
2003 Spelletich Cabernet Sauvignon, Carneros. 9/9.5.
2004 Clark Claudon Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9/9.5.
2004 Dyer Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9/9.5.
2004 Emilio's Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. 9/9.5.
2004 Fantesca Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District. 9/9.5.
2004 Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. 9/9.5.
2004 Plumpjack Syrah, Napa Valley. 9/9.5.
2004 D.R. Stephens Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9/9.5.
2004 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. 9/9.5.
2004 Hall Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9/9.5.
2004 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9/9.5.
2001 Livingston-Moffett Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford. 9/9.5.
2004 Larkmead Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9/9.5.
2004 Swanson Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. 9/9.5.

2005 Rudd Sauvignon Blanc, Mt. Veeder . 9.
2005 Saintsbury Pinot Noir "Pommard Clone," Carneros. 9.
2004 Benessere Aglianico, St. Helena. 9.
2004 Cloud View Vineyards Merlot, Napa Valley. 9.
2004 The Terraces Cabernet - Zinfandel Blend, Rutherford. 9.
2004 Diamond Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9.
2004 Summers Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9.
2004 Juslyn Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District. 9.
2004 Judd's Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9.
2004 Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District. 9.
2004 Renteria Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder / Stags Leap District. 9.
2004 Thirteen "Fourteen Blend" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9.
2004 Flying Horse Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 9.

2004 Domaine Chandon Pinot Noir, Carneros. 8.5/9.
2004 Bouchaine Pinot Noir, Carneros. 8.5/9.
2004 Arietta "Quartet" Red Blend, Napa Valley. 8.5/9.
2003 Blackbird Vineyards Merlot, Oak Knoll District. 8.5/9.
2004 Chappellet Bordeaux Blend, Napa Valley. 8.5/9.
2005 Frias Family Vineyards Cabernet / Syrah Blend, Spring Mountain District. 8.5/9.
2004 Lynch Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District. 8.5/9.
2004 Peju Province Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford. 8.5/9.
2004 Longmeadow Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 8.5/9.
2004 Regusci Bordeaux Blend, Stag's Leap District. 8.5/9.

2004 Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District . 8.5.
2004 Phelan Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 8.5.
2004 Buehler Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 8.5.
2004 Bighorn Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 8.5.
2003 Schweiger "Squealing Piggy" Red Blend, Spring Mountain District. 8.5.

Comments (16)

Jack wrote:
02.28.06 at 12:21 AM

2004 Pride Mountain "Carolyn Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District - We tasted this in barrel back on July 15, 2005. It was a stunning wine that Joanne and I thought was the best wine of the day. At the time we urged them to bottle it separately and they conveyed that doing so was almost too complicated to do (another SKU, etc). So, I'm very pleased to see they did bottle some of it seperately. Even though the wine doesn't scream Pride Mountain Vineyards when you taste it, it is a great wine! Kudos to the people at Pride, esp. Carolyn Pride. Now how do I score some bottles of it?!

Steve wrote:
02.28.06 at 8:01 AM

Jack, if Capitol Cellars is in the mood to sell some, you can find their contact info here:
http://www.napavintners.com/auctions/Premiere_Wine_Auction/pnv_wineries_participating_alpha.asp?offset=110

Jack wrote:
02.28.06 at 8:59 AM

Steve - Thank you!!! - Jack

Jack wrote:
02.28.06 at 9:16 AM

Well, doing the math: The Pride lot was purchased for $26,000 - 5 cases = $433.33/bottle. I guess I won't be seeing some of this after all. :(

Geoff Smith wrote:
02.28.06 at 2:03 PM

Alder,

I'm gonna take issue with you on the 2004 growing season. Since having worked at various wineries, and basically having an agricultural backround, I notice growing seasons by habit in exceptional detail. For example, I can remember a September 14, 1989 rainstorm which dumped over three inches of rain on Russian River Valley grapevines and thus washed out that vintage.

The 2004 growing season in Napa Valley (mind I live in Calistoga and work in St Helena) was remarkably even. My overall impression of the season was a long, even growing season where temps would rise into the low 90's (but never high to close the grape leaf stomates and shut off photosynthesis), and then dropping down into the 70's at night. Overall, in having monitored growing seasons in the North Coast carefully since the early 1980's, I have never seen such a perfect growing season!

Cheers,

Geoff Smith

Alder wrote:
02.28.06 at 2:59 PM

Geoff,

The short story I have heard was scary at first, then decent fruit for the most part, but less than usual. My information is based on various reports I've read from online sources combined with discussions with a couple (not a lot) of Napa winemakers and winery owners.

But you live there, so I'm not gonna argue with you! Certainly these wines are very high quality indeed.

Geoff Smith wrote:
02.28.06 at 4:22 PM

Not to belabor a minor point, but one thing in the "wacky world of wine" which is truly wacky: the enormous amount of disinformation about technical data----especially weather information! I've read about great warm summer vintages such as 2001 being described as "cool" (now I think of 1985 as "cool"), etc. And how many wineries or wine sites talk, for example, about the "big bake" we had in 2002, when we had a heat streak for quite a few days in October? (Most never mention this or most will claim their grapes were picked before the hot days (but I saw many grapes harvested during this spell). Cheers, Geoff

Alder wrote:
02.28.06 at 5:55 PM

Geoff,

I do believe you're correct. I think part of the problem is that people all over are guilty of extrapolating their microclimate experience, or even their particular undocumented memory of the season to everyone else.

Lenn wrote:
03.01.06 at 4:42 AM

I obviously have no experience talking to Napa winemakers or vineyard managers, but I do have quite a bit with Long Island ones...

Almost to a person, they are unwilling to openly call a growing season a "tough one" or even worse.

Fact is, vintage differences are huge here, being such a small region it gets magnified probably as well. I've been here in years when we get a TON of rain...but it's still called an "exceptional vintage" by some marketing-minded winemakers.

I guess my point is that you always need to consider the source.

cd wrote:
03.01.06 at 5:21 PM

just curious, when you list names like brown zin / cab blend, then 2 scores, which are you scoring? both? normally i would assume a 9/9.5 would mean the wine fell in between there. but I'm pretty sure brown doesn't mix zin and cab. not 100% sure though. little help here?
thanks.

Alder wrote:
03.01.06 at 11:24 PM

CD,

The score 9/9.5 is indeed as you surmise a score of somewhere between a 9 and a 9.5.

The Brown wine is a blend of Cab and Zinfandel, like many of the wines in this list, made especially for the auction and not for commercial release.

Denis Hache wrote:
03.02.06 at 7:12 AM

How did these people get wealthy buying a wine like the Rombauer Cabernet Sauvignon for an eye-popping sum of $85,000 (or 1400$ a bottle). This is a new vintage and most of the best older vintages from any country rarely sell for over a grand.

They must be showing off but I would see them as pathetic - like a child getting attention.

Alder wrote:
03.02.06 at 10:33 AM

Denis,

You must not be particularly familiar with the high end of the auction market, as older vintages sell for much higher than $1000 per bottle. So do some new releases, like Romanee Conti. As for the fact that these are new releases, yes that's true. They are also totally unique wines that cannot be purchased anywhere else in the world. If there's one thing I've learned about money, it's that people have wildly different senses of what "value" is.

Paying a lot of money at this auction can hardly be seen as showing off. Most of these people are reselling these wines and making a profit, and given the amount of money spent overall, the folks in attendance aren't the type who are impressed by big dollar signs.

cd wrote:
03.02.06 at 11:02 PM

Alder,
thanks for the response. Since I know they make both, it doesn't surprise me that they did a special blend. seems apropos for an event like this. cheers,
casey

Ore wrote:
08.13.09 at 7:52 AM

Alder,

I just received notice that the 2004 Flying Horse Cab. Sauv. from Napa Valley is on SALE for about $25 a bottle and half for a 375 ml. You rated this wine as a 9.

In your opinion, is this a good value? Having never heard of this wine, winery and wine maker, I'm in the dark.

Thank You.

Alder wrote:
08.13.09 at 12:27 PM

Ore,

Yes, I think that's a pretty good value. I don't know much about the winery or winemaker either.

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