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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.

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