Finding and Buying Napa’s Rarest Wines

You’ve undoubtedly heard of Napa’s so-called “cult” wines—expensive, limited-production wines that are only sold to mailing-list customers, some of whom wait years for the chance to get off a waiting list and become buyers. These highly-allocated wines regularly garner three-digit scores from critics (always carry three-digit prices) and are considered trophies of a kind among certain wine circles.

But what if I told you that there was a class of Napa wines even rarer than these cult wines? Wines that represented the pinnacle of Napa winemaking—so unique that they sometimes are made once and never again?

These are the wines of Premiere Napa Valley.

Every year, in order to raise funds for the Napa Valley Vintners Association, a private auction takes place for the wine trade. Each auction lot is a single wine from an individual winery, made in quantities of anywhere from 60 to 240 bottles. In order to be included in the auction, these wines must be different and more special than what the winery normally produces.

Napa Valley producers take different approaches to crafting these auction lots, sometimes highlighting a grape variety they don’t often make, but most commonly making a unique blend or selecting their very best barrel from their top-tier wine to offer at the auction. In short, these wines often represent the apogee of a winery’s efforts in a given vintage.

For the past 15 years, I have been attending the Premiere Napa Valley auction, and it has become something of a personal sport for me to attempt to taste every single one of the auction lots. Regular readers will be familiar with my coverage of the event.

I like to say that some people run marathons for fun. I don’t like running. Instead, I taste the Premiere Napa Valley auction lots each year.

This annual tasting regimen gives me the opportunity to both get a clear sense of the vintage quality in Napa, as well as to taste the very best of what roughly 200 producers are capable of making that year. It’s hugely educational and lots of fun.

The people who bid on and buy these auction lots are a mix of retailers and private trade groups, as well as occasionally winemakers themselves. The retailers often make the wines they purchase available for sale to collectors, but quite often in ways that fly under the radar.

A box of Premiere Napa Valley wines.

But the sub rosa status of these wines is changing. Both the retailers and Napa Valley Vintners are increasingly focused on making sure that consumers can get their hands on these wines if they want to.

To that end, they’ve selected this week beginning November 9th, 2020 as Premiere Release Week, and they have compiled a listing of all the Premiere Napa Valley wines that are available for sale to the public and made it easy for consumers to purchase these wines from the retailers who have decided to offer them for sale.

By way of introducing people to these ultra-rare wines, they are also hosting a couple of online sessions, tomorrow and Wednesday, with some of the retailers who buy these wines and the winemakers who make them.

Because of my familiarity with these wines, thanks to my annual masochistic tasting regimen, they’ve asked me to moderate those conversations, which I’m going to be quite pleased to do, in part because I don’t often get the opportunity to revisit these wines after the initial barrel tasting.

These webinars are free, and a great way to learn about just how special these Napa wines are.

On Tuesday, November 10th, at 5:30 PM Pacific Time, I’ll be speaking with vintners Ted Edwards of Freemark Abbey, and Brooke Shenk of St. Supery Estate Vineyards & Winery about their Premiere Napa Valley wines along with retailer Peggy Perry of Willow Park Wine and Spirits in Canada who has them for sale.

On Wednesday, November 11th, also at 5:30 PM Pacific, I’ll be talking with Aaron Pott of Saint Helena Winery and Katie Leonardini of Whitehall Lane, along with retailer Gary Fisch of Gary’s Wine and Marketplace, who is offering each of their wines for sale.

In each of these sessions, we’ll be tasting the Premiere Napa Valley wines available for sale, as well as some current releases from some of the wineries, talking about what makes these rarest-of-rare wines so special, and discussing how people can get their hands on a bottle.

To get us all in the mood, so to speak, Napa Vintners sent me three bottled Premiere Napa Valley wines to taste this week.

This is a first for me. Because these wines are so rare, and so sought-after, the only time I have ever tasted them is during the preview tastings that lead up to the auction itself. Those tastings feature barrel samples of each wine, but the wines are, in some cases, 18 months from being bottled.

I have never, before today, had the opportunity to taste a bottled version of a Premiere Napa Valley wine, so this is quite a treat for me, especially with the added context of being able to look and see what my notes were like when I tasted them years ago.

Premiere Napa Valley Tasting Notes

2013 Gallica “Premiere Lot #117 – Bottle 25 of 120” Red Wine, Oakville, Napa, California
Inky, opaque garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich black cherry and violets. In the mouth, intense and dark black cherry and plum fruit positively vibrate with electric acidity, bringing a purple neon flicker to the cherry and cassis notes that slide across the palate. Velvety tannins cushion the edges of the mouth, as darker hints of earth perfume the core of dark fruit. A touch of licorice root lingers in the finish. Outstanding. Drinking beautifully now and probably for the next 5 to 10 years at least. 14.4% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10.

My initial notes from barrel tasting this wine in 2015 were: “Bright cherry, plum, cocoa powder. Great acidity, and voluminous tannins.” I rated it between 9 and 9.5 on my scale, which in retrospect was quite conservative. This is a stunner of a wine.

This wine is not available to purchase as part of Premiere Release Week but the 2014 wine that winemaker Rosemary Cakebread created for Premiere is available.

2017 Keenan Winery “Encore II – Premiere Lot #58” Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District, Napa, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of mocha, roasted nuts, and bright cherry fruit. In the mouth, intensely juicy flavors of cherry and cedar and cocoa powder are draped in a fleecy blanket of tannins, whose fine-grained musculature carries notes of fennel seed and oak into the finish. There’s a slightly drying quality to the tannins in this wine, leaving the mouth faintly parched, but apart from that, the wood is beautifully integrated in the wine, which has enough acidity and richness to subsume this wood in a few years’ time. After all, this is still a baby of a wine, with easily a decade of improvement ahead of it. 14.3% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend one and only one Premiere Napa Valley event in the past 15 years, and it was the tasting of the 2017 wines, so I don’t have previous notes on this wine.

This wine is not available to purchase as part of Premiere Release Week, but the 2016 version of this wine (a similar selection of Cabernet Sauvignon) is available for sale. My notes on that wine were: “bright and juicy” and I rated it between 9 and 9.5 points.

2016 Seven Stones Winery “Artist’s Proof – Premiere Lot #157” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and black cherry fruit with a hint of tobacco leaf. In the mouth, gorgeously bright flavors of black cherry, blueberry, and cassis mix with blackberry and chopped herbs underneath a suede throw of extremely fine-grained tannins. There’s a wonderful darker earthy note that rumbles a low bass below the alto and tenor lines of the fruit. Notes of licorice root and dried flowers linger in the finish. This wine marries brawny power with lithe grace thanks to its fantastic acid balance, and is certainly built for the long haul. 14.2% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.

As I noted above, I make the effort to taste every single auction lot each year, but I don’t always accomplish my goal. I believe that in the case of this wine, I either ran out of time, or the limited amount of barrel samples that each producer brings had been finished by the time I made it around to this tasting station.

This wine is not available for purchase as part of Premiere Release Week.

Feeling thirsty? Go shopping. Check out all the Premiere Napa Valley wines available for sale.