2011 Napa Cabernet: Through the Lens of Auction Napa Valley

The event called Auction Napa Valley is actually three auctions in one. I wrote yesterday about the fireworks at this year’s auction, which smashed all previous records of charitable giving. But that account focused primarily on the live auction, where more than 40 different star-studded lots are auctioned off by charismatic live auctioneers.

While that part of the auction is quite the spectacle, my attendance at the event every year remains focused on the less glamorous barrel auction, in which barrels of wine are auctioned off, a case at a time to the 10 highest bidders by the time the clock stops. While the bidding for these cases can sometimes get heated (this year, excited wine lovers pushed my top rated wine, the 2011 Shafer Hillside Select, to a price of $8000 a case) my interest lies in the fact that prospective bidders, as well as journalists like me, get a chance to taste all the wines.

Unlike the Premiere Napa Valley barrel auction that takes place in February each year, in which the wines are often unique creations crafted explicitly for that auction and represent the very highest quality wine that a given winery can produce, the barrel auction in June sometimes involves wines that are much closer to the finished wines that normal folks could theoretically buy on the street. Some producers continue to offer wines that are outside of their normal range of production, but quite often the wine at the ANV barrel auction is merely one of the better barrels that would generally make it into one of the winery’s top wines.


So with 100 wines offered up for tasting, the barrel auction offers myself and anyone else interested in such an undertaking the opportunity to get a close look at the qualities of a particular vintage — in this case 2011.

2011, of course represents one of the most challenging vintages to hit Napa in decades. An unseasonably cool and rainy spring made for smaller crop loads throughout the generally uneventful and cool summer. And then the rains hit in early October. And then again in mid-October. And then again in late October. And then the rot and mildew set in, and all hell broke loose.

Many vintners threw away more than 50% of their crops in an attempt to make sure only the cleanest fruit ended up in their fermenters. Tales abound of even more extreme measures that involve high technology and/or truckloads of grape concentrate to compensate for under-ripe fruit.

Despite the horror stories, some wineries managed to get some or all of their fruit harvested before the first rains. And some, either because of their specific site or simple diligence, were able to keep fruit clean into the drier parts of November when a relatively normal, if a lot smaller, harvest could be made.

Even in the best of cases, those with completely clean fruit saw ripeness levels a good notch below what Napa usually delivers, and generally corresponding high acidity — both factors that, frankly, Napa could use more of in my opinion.

For that reason I have been quite intruigued to taste the 2011s, and particularly these barrel samples for ANV after having a glimpse of the vintage at Premiere.

Having tasted all 100 barrels on offer, my opinion of the vintage remains relatively unchanged from the impression formed at Premiere, except for an increasing sense that the wines are better than many people think.

While there are a few wines among this group that were uneven, awkward, or simply not great, the vast majority of these wines were excellent, and suggest that far from being a disaster, 2011 will yield some very tasty juice.

Alcohol levels are generally lower, by up to 1% in some cases, acidity higher, and an overall sense of tautness or tension appears in many wines. All of this is a very good thing in my opinion. While some winemakers had no problem getting their grapes ripe enough to make 15% alcohol wines that resemble an average Napa year, some wines do, for the first time in years, and perhaps for the first time in many winemakers’ careers, display some green, vegetal character. These pyrazines, a common flavor signature of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, will undoubtedly not taste good to a segment of consumers who expect ultra-ripe, even sweet fruit in their Napa reds. I don’t find such flavors objectionable provided they are grace notes in the wine, rather than the dominant chord, but many will not share that opinion.

I dare say that some major critics will feel the same way, and even in the absence of greenness, there is enough variability in the vintage that I predict it will be generally, if gently, panned in the broader consumer marketplace.

For acid freaks like me, however, 2011 represents a true bounty. Some producers (see my list below) made some really cracking wines, if you’ll excuse the use of the British expression. The best of them are nervy bottles of red lightning compared to your normal ripe Napa year, and will undoubtedly age beautifully for decades.

More than most vintages, it will be critical for folks to taste 2011 wines before buying a lot of them, lest they get stuck with something they don’t like, but if these barrel lots are any indication, many vintners managed to pull off some pretty good wines under some pretty challenging circumstances.

In short, bring on the 2011s. I want to drink them.

The wines and their ratings below are accompanied (in italics)by the verbatim notes I jotted down as I was tasting the wines. Sometimes when I’m tasting a large number of wines like this, I do make complete tasting notes on my favorite wines, but in this case I chose not to, opting instead for just a few words about a larger number of wines. I’ve only spell-checked and grammar-checked the text, but other than that, you’re getting my unvarnished thoughts. Take them for the fleeting impressions they are.

2011 Shafer Vineyards “Hillside Select” Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District – Phenomenal purity and length, remarkable cherry, cassis. Stunning.

2011 Ehlers Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena – Bright, juicy, great acids, cherry, cola, smooth, balanced.

2010 Spoto Wines “Private Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville – Cherry bright, juicy, lifted, bright. Yum!

2011 Cardinale Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Gorgeous, lean. Strong oak influence (more than I’d like) but the cool, taut fruit shines though it. Awesome.

2011 Kongsgaard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Intense cassis fireworks, juicy, bright, taut tannins.

2011 Hess Collection “Small Block Series” Malbec, Mount Veeder – Juicy mulberry blueberry, bright, suede tannins, great acidity. Outstanding

2011 J. Davies Vineyards “Nopales Block” Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain District – Juicy, bright, effortless, incredibly juicy, cherry explosion. Yum!

2011 Blackbird Vineyards “Auction Napa Valley Cuvee” Red Table Wine, Napa Valley – Juicy, cherry, leather, hazelnut. Yum!

2011 Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena Lean – Juicy, well balanced, smooth taut, cherry, earth, rocks

2011 Realm Cellars “Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard, Clone 4” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Rich, cherry, cassis, black, aromatically sweet, fleecy tannin

2012 Continuum Estate “100% Estate” Red Table Wine, Napa Valley – Smooth balanced, bright, cherry, cassis, espresso, long, great. Best release so far fromm them.

2011 Kenzo Estate “Rindo” Red Table Wine, Napa Valley – Tight, Lean, great acid, bight, cool, cherry, huckleberry.

2011 Red Mare Wines Cabernet Sauvignon, Calistoga – Vegetal green bell pepper but just the right amount, cherry, nice balance, earth.

2012 Ovid Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Beer-like nose with cola spice cherry cola powder. Deep. Rich.

2012 Nickel & Nickel “John C. Sullenger Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville – Big strong tannins. Lush cherry fruit. Nice minerality.

2011 Robert Mondavi Winery “Z Block, To Kalon Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville – Bright cherry, earth, mineral, cola.

2011 Hartwell Vineyards “Think Outside the Bottle” Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District – Bright, juicy, touch of sweet fruit, long.

2011 Amici Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District – Bright tobacco, lean, great acidity, touch of oak.

2011 Pahlmeyer Red Blend, Napa Valley – Bright, juicy, a touch heavy on the oak.

2010 Spelletich Family Wine Company “Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Bright, jiucy. Yum.

2011 Vineyard 7&8 “Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District – Chewy tannins. Big. No, massive.

2009 Tetra “TETRA” Red Table Wine, Napa Valley – Cool, taut, smooth, tight tnnins, bright. Somewhat more oak influence than I’d like.

2011 Gemstone Cabernet Sauvignon, Yountville – From an older barrel, and much lower oak influence than usual. Best I’ve ever tasted from them and wish they’d make everything in a 5-year-old barrel.

2012 HALL “Howell Mountain” Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain – Gorgeous lush, bright, jiucy, long, great acid, lovely.

2011 Silverado Vineyards “Heritage Clone, Home Ranch” Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District – Great acidity, wonderful brightness, tight tannins, juicy.

2011 Terra Valentine “Marriage” Red Table Wine, Spring Mountain District – Hint of vegetal, bright, great acid, nutty, restrained wood.

2011 Pride Mountain Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Intense black cherry cola, great acid, juicy, long

2010 Promise “Promise” Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford – Intense, rich cassis black cherry, juicy, incredibly well integrated oak.

2011 Outpost Wines “True Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain – Juicy, dark cherry, earth, cocoa powder.

2012 Dancing Hares Vineyard “Mad Hatter” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Lush, bright cherry, velvety, slightly lower in acidity, juicy,tasty, thick tannins.

2011 Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Nice balance, good oak integration, somewhat drying tannins. Juicy.

2011 Alpha Omega “Proprietary Red Wine” Blend, Napa Valley – Nice lean, taut. Bright fruit.

2011 Oakville East Exposure “Franc ‘N Stern” Cabernet Franc, Oakville – Outstanding Franc. Best wine I’ve tasted from this producer?

2012 Conn Creek Winery Blend, Napa Valley – Pure fruit, bright, cassis, long, great balance.

2011 Parallel Napa Valley “First Temptation” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Tight, bright, lean, cherry, fine tannins.

2011 Bounty Hunter Rare Wine “Blind Justice Beckstoffer ToKalon” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
2011 Clark-Claudon Vineyards “Eternity Select” Blend, Napa Valley
2011 Crocker & Starr Wines Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena
2012 HdV Wines – Hyde de Villaine “Hyde Vineyard” Chardonnay, Los Carneros
2011 Titus Vineyards “Titus Vineyards” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
2011 Tom Scott Vineyard “Barn Burner” Cabernet Sauvignon, Yountville

2011 Clos Pegase “Hommage Artist Series Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Beautiful, but too much oak

2011 John Anthony Vineyards “RESERVE” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Huge. Too much oak.

2010 Salvestrin “3D” Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena – Quite ripe. Black cherry cola. Somewhat overdone.

2011 Hewitt Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford – Thick tannins.

2011 Clos Du Val “The Rock Block” Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District – Tight, lean, mineral, stony, long.

2010 Baldacci Family Vineyards “Heirloom” Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District
2011 Beringer Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
2012 Cakebread cellars “Suscol springs vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville
2011 Duckhorn Vineyards “Monitor Ledge Vineyard,Auction Cuvee” Blend, Napa Valley
2012 Etude Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
2011 Far Niente “Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville
2011 Ghost Block “Single Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Yountville
2010 Ideology Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley
2011 Joseph Phelps Vineyards “Insignia Auction Napa Valley Special Cuvee” Blend, Napa Valley
2011 Laird Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Yountville
2012 Newton Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
2011 O’Shaughnessy Estate Winery Petit Verdot, Howell Mountain
2011 Paradigm Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville
2011 PEJU “Fifty/Fifty” Red Wine, Rutherford
2011 Provenance Vineyards Cabernet Franc, Calistoga
2010 Raymond Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
2012 Saintsbury “Brown ranch” Pinot Noir, Los Carneros
2011 Sterling Vineyards “Platinum” Blend, Napa Valley

2012 Rombauer Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Atlas Peak – Heavy-handed oak influence. Sweet.

2011 Darioush “Darius II” Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder – Too ripe.

2012 Acacia Vineyard Pinot Noir, Los Carneros
2012 Artesa Winery “Estate Reserve” Pinot Noir, Los Carneros
2011 Beaulieu Vineyard “Estate Single Barrel Blend” Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford
2011 Bourassa Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
2012 Cimarossa “Rian Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain
2011 Frank Family Vineyards “Winston Hill” Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford
2011 Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder
2011 Frias Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah Blend, Spring Mountain District
2011 Louis M. Martini Winery “Lot No. 1” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
2010 Martin Estate “GOLD” Late Harvest Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley
2011 Mi Sueño Winery “Seleccion Herrera” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
2012 Mount Veeder Winery “Northern Landing” Cabernet Franc, Mount Veeder
2011 Oakville Ranch Vineyards “Robert’s” Cabernet Franc, Oakville
2011 Oakville Winery “Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville
2011 Round Pond Estate “Rutherford” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
2011 Swanson Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
2011 Trinchero Napa Valley “Central Park West Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena
2012 Truchard Vineyards Pinot Noir, Los Carneros
2011 William Hill Estate Winery “Unfiltered” Chardonnay, Napa Valley
2010 ZD Wines “Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

2011 Castello di Amorosa “Il Barone” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Tight, over-aaked

2011 Ahnfeldt Wines Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville
2012 Bennett Lane Cabernet Sauvignon, Calistoga
2011 Chase Cellars “Hayne Vineyard” Zinfandel, St. Helena
2011 Knights Bridge Winery “Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena
2012 Madonna Estate “Madonna Estate” Pinot Noir, Los Carneros
2011 Miner Family Winery “Stagecoach Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
2011 Paraduxx “C Blend Wine Auction Cuvee” Blend, Napa Valley
2012 Stags’ Leap Winery “Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District

2011 Clif Family Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain – Roasted espresso. Seriously over-oaked.

2011 Cain Vineyard & Winery “Cain Five” Blend, Spring Mountain District – Brettanomyces

2011 Atalon Winery “Keyes Vineyard” Merlot, Howell Mountain
2012 Tamber Bey “Deux Chevaux Vineyard” Chardonnay, Yountville
2012 Trinitas Cellars Chardonnay, St. Helena