Premier Napa Valley Release Week Tastings: 2020

Premier Napa Valley (PNV) is Napa valley’s primary showcase for futures auction of barrels of its most recent vintage wines. The event attracts wine professionals, and those from the wine trade and media from around the world. It also attracts us. It gives us a chance to taste and report on vintages that we will be seeing in the future.

While tastings sometimes involve white wines (typically Sauvignon Blanc and an occasional Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Valley’s cooler Carneros region), they are, overwhelmingly, a celebration of Napa’s primary wines—the Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet-based, Bordeaux-style blends for which the valley is famous. The new releases, depending on each vintner’s aging practices, consisted primarily of 2018s and 2017s—two very different years. Wineries often accompanied these tastings with some of their earlier vintages to show how a wine might age. The event culminates in the valley’s big, annual charitable event, the PNV Auction. The proceeds help fund promoting, protecting and enhancing the Napa Valley appellation. And since every celebration demands a party, each evening ends with a big, wine-based party. You can find more in-depth discussion of each of the Premier wines here.

2018 Napa Wines

2018 was a good and solid, although not great year for Napa wines. Napa had virtually a trouble-free growing season with relatively cool, consistent temperatures, long grape hang times and good quality and high yields. The resultant wines are generally above average, understated wines with good balance, deeper colors and lower tannins than normal.

However, 2018 Napa wines were, stellar compared with 2017.

2017 Napa Wines

A combination of factors haunts 2017 Napa wines. Much of the produced wine is inconsistent in quality due to:

  • Severe winter flooding and landslides;
  • An ultra-hot summer, culminating with temperatures reaching 105 to 120 during Labor Day weekend in different parts of the valley. Many vines shut down in high temperatures;
  • Fire interrupted picking at many wineries. Smoke tainted unpicked grapes. Many vineyards had to choose between leaving their grapes unpicked or to sell them at rock-bottom prices to bulk wineries;
  • Fire emergencies kept winemakers from getting to their wineries to process grapes that had already been picked; and
  • Wineries suffered from power outages during the fires. Wineries without generators were unable to use electric-powered sorters and pumps, which limited or eliminated their ability to make wine.

In hindsight, the unwelcome summer and Labor Day Weekend heat sped up grape ripening. Many wineries picked earlier than normal, especially whites and pinot noir grapes. And approximately 90% of Napa cabernet sauvignon grapes were picked before the fire. Still, the year’s production is challenging to manage.

2016 Napa Cabernets

Wineries also offered tastes of a number of 2016 Cabernets. This vintage benefited from a balanced grape growing season. They show more classic Napa structure, depth, and harmony. Unfortunately, the year’s yield was approximately 20% lower than normal. Darn.

PNV Wine Tasting

PNV provides dozens of tastings across several wineries spread across the valley over several days. Some tastings are organized by appellations. Others are organized by a specific winemaker and others had no particular theme that we could discern. We sometimes ran into the same wine at multiple locations. But regardless of where we could taste the wine, PNV provides a superb opportunity to pre-taste hundreds of extraordinary wines. We were unable to go to every tasting, but we did hit quite of few of them. Most of the prices for the Premier wines have not yet been determined and most are produced in very small quantities. While final pricing may be out of our league, it didn’t stop us from identifying our favorites. Of course, our tastes may not mimic your tastes. But here are the wines we especially enjoyed in each of the tastings.

PNV Preview Tasting

We began with a small, kickoff, preview tasting on Wednesday evening.

  • 2018 Keenan Holy Trinity blend. Keenan produced only 20 cases of this Spring Mountain wine dry-farmed unfiltered wine. It has equal percentages of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot;
  • Duckhorn 2018 Three Palms Merlot from the rocky and well-drained Block 5 vineyard; and
  • Mondavi To Kalon Vineyard with cabernet grapes from Monastery Block within Kalon Vineyard.

Howell Mountain Tasting

No surprise that the Howell Mountain tasting centered around several Howell Mountain wines. But it also included wines from across the valley and a couple of “interlopers” from Sonoma. Among our favorite from an unfortunately abbreviated visit to this tasting were:

  • Angwin Estate 2014 and 2018 Estate Cabernets. The 2018 premier lot is unfiltered and aged in Hungarian and French barrels.
  • Cornerstone Cellars 2015 and 2018 Estate Cabernets. The 2018 Premier lot is blended with a touch of Rutherford Cabernet, which makes it structured but balanced.
  • Barnett Vineyards Rattlesnake 2017 Cabernet
  • Dyer Vineyard and Meteor Vineyard 2017 Perseid Blend
  • Anomaly 2017 Cabernet which has notes of cinnamon and orange zest

Yountville Appellation Tasting

This year’s Yountville Appellation tasting seemed a lot smaller than last year. Still, we found some wines that we liked.

  • Ad Vivum 2017 Cabernet
  • Kapcsandy Family’s 2017 Estate Cuvee Cabernet
  • Paean 2018 Napa Valley Cabernet

Atlas Peak Tasting

  • Hesperian 2016 PAWA Cabernet
  • Hill Family 2016 Atlas Peak Cabernet
  • Lobo 2016 Atlas Peak Cabernet
  • Prime Solum 2013 Circle R and 2014 Cabernets
  • VinRoc 2016 Atlas Peak and 2018 Red Lava Atlas Peak Cabernets

Oakville Tasting

  • Far Niente 2017 and 2018 Estate Bottled Oakville Cabernets
  • Gamble Family 2015 Family Home Cabernet
  • Gargiulo 2018 G Major Augmented Cabernet
  • Harlan Estate 2016 Estate (a bargain at only $900 a bottle)
  • Hoopes Family 2017 and 18 Oakville Cabernets and 2018 Cabernet Blend
  • Nemerever 2018 Hillside Select Cabernet
  • Nickle & Nickle 2017 and 2018 John C. Sullenger Vineyard Cabernets
  • Oakville Ranch 2016 Cabernet
  • Opus One 2016
  • Rudd Estate 2017 Crossroads and 2018 Leslie’s Block Mt Veeder Cabernets
  • Spotto Family’s 2016 Private Reserve and Oakville Cuvee Christiane Cabernets
  • Turnbull Cellar’s 2917 Oakvile Reserve Cabernets
  • Vine Cliff 2012 and 2013 Estate Cabernets

St. Helena Appellation Tasting

  • AXR 2017 VM Cabernet
  • Ballenine 2016 Estate Cabernet
  • Pellet Estate 2018 Trousvaille Cabernet
  • St. Helena Winery 2016 Sympa Cabernet

Stags Leap District Tasting

The tasting represented a number of wineries.

  • Baldacci Family 2016 Black Label and 2018 “First Born” Cabernets
  • Chimney Rock 2015 Tomahawk Vineyard and 2018 Omega Pont Single Barrel Cabernets
  • Cliff Lede 2017 Stags Leap District, 2017 Poetry and 2018 “California Thrill” Cabernets
  • Malk Family 2013 Hirondelle Vineyard Cabernet
  • Pine Ridge 2018 4/x5 Cabernet
  • Quixote 2016 “Helmet of Mambrino” Stags Leap District Cabernet
  • Stag’s Leap Cellars 2018 FAY Block 2 Cabernet
  • Stags’ Leap Winery (yes, this, as denoted by the different placement of the apostrophes, is separate from Stag’s Leap Cellars) 2019 Audentia Estate Grown Cabernet
  • Stelzner 2017 Stags Leap District Cabernet

Odette Vineyard

Odette Vineyard hosted a separate tasting of wines from three Plumpjack Group wineries: Odette (Stags Leap District), Plumpjack Estate (Oakville) and Cade Estate (Howell Mountain);

  • Odette 2017 Estate Cab (Stags Leap District Cabernet
  • Cade Estate 2016 Reserve Cabernet 7 Estate Cabernet and 2018 Sauvignon Blanc

Spring Mountain District Tasting

In addition to the wines, the venue was a real treat as it took place in a historic building on the vineyard.

  • Barnett Vineyards 2017 Spring Mountain District Merlot and Cabernet and its 2018 Rattlesnake Cabernet Blend
  • Keenan 2010 Mernet Reserve Cabernet/Merlot Blend, 2016 “Holy Trinity” Merlot Reserve and especially its 2016 Mailbox Vineyard Merlot Reserve
  • Pride Mountain 2017 Merlot and Cabernet and especially its 2010 Vineyard Select Cabernet
  • Schweiger 2013 Dedication (Cabernet/Merlot/Malbec blend) and 2014 Cabernet

Spring Mountain winesSpring Mountain food table

Coombsville Tasting

  • Arrow & Branch 2015 Blend and 2018 Vinehill Ranch Cabernet
  • Farella 2015 Merlot and 2016 Cabernet
  • Rocca 2016 Collinette Vineyard Cabernet
  • Silverado 2016 Coombsville Merlot, 2016 and 2017 Coombsville Cabs and 2017 Mount George Cabernet Franc
  • Tournresol 2014 Proprietor’s Blend

Rutherford Dust Tasting

  • Amici Cellars 2016 Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet
  • Foley Johnson 2018 Rutherford Cabernet
  • Frank Family 2016 Winston Hill Cabernet
  • Hewitt 2016 Cabernet
  • Honig 2018 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc
  • Jean Edwards Cellars 2018 Trious IV Cabernet
  • Peju 2015 Cabernet Franc
  • S.R. Tonella Cellars 2016 Cabernet Reserve
  • Taub Family 2017 Beckstoffer Georges III Cabernet
  • William Harrison 2019 Argentum Red Wine

Pritchard Hill Tasting

Pritchard Hill is another of our favorite appellations who wine is famous not only for he finesse of its Cabernets and Cabernet blends (many of which retail for more than $300), but also its other varietals. Couples with the wine, the event’s lunchtime food offerings went way beyond the normal charcuterie, cheese and raw vegetable plates. They passed appetizers including cheeseburger sliders, baby lamb chops and more. And, oh yes, then there were the wines.

Premier Napa Pritchard Hill food spread

  • Bryant 2016 Cab and Bettina Proprietary Blend,
  • Chappellet 2017 Hideaway and 2018 Estate Cabernets
  • Colgin 20119” IX Estate” Blend
  • Continuum 2017 and 2018 Sage Mountain Blends
  • David Artur 2016 and 2018 Elevation 1147 Cabernets
  • Gandona 2015 Estate Cabernet
  • Krupp Brothers 2016 Synchrony Blend
  • Ovid 2016 and 2018 Cabernets

Friends and Neighbors Tasting

This venue draws a number of smaller producers

  • Anthem 2015 Cabernet
  • Crocker & Starr 2016 “1 Post” Cabernet
  • Dariousch 2012 Signature Merlot and 2014 Darius II Cabernet
  • Palazzo Wine’s 2014 Right Bank Reserve Proprietary Red and 2018 Cabernet Franc;
  • Robert Craig 2016 “The Stick” Howell Mountain Proprietary Red
  • Tor 2018 Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet

Family-Owned Winery Tasting

  • Ideology 2016 Estate and Reserve Cabernets
  • Crocker & Starr 2018 “The Goddess” Cabernet Franc
  • White Rock Vineyards 2014 Cabernet
  • Elizabeth Spencer 2016 Napa Valley Cabernet
  • Silver Oak 2015 and 2018 Cabernets

Vintage Perspective Tasting

All of the wines that are offered at the Saturday auction are blind-tasted at this event. It is held at the historic Inglenook Winery. Since we were not participating in the auction, we did not taste the hundreds of wines that were being offered (although we did taste many of them at the above-discussed tastings). We did, however, partake in and the tastings of 2018 Cabernet and especially its lovely 2016 Rubicon blend.

Cliff Lede Party

This party is one of the event’s classic celebrations. It takes place after the first day’s tastings. In addition to wines supplied by Cliff Lede,  guests also raid their own cellars and bring a special wine to share.  Some pull out all the stops, with 10, 20 and even 30-year old premium wines (particularly Cabernets and blends) from Napa, Sonoma, Washington State, Bordeaux, Australia and other regions from around the world. As always, a fantastic party.

Our Own Independent Tastings

Since we went up to Napa a day before, and returned a day after the formal tastings, we also managed to squeeze in a few tastings at some of our favorite wineries. These included:

  • Chimney Rock Winery, where we were taken by its 2011 Cab and particularly two of the winery’s premium cabs: 2013 Ganymede and 2016 Tomahawk
  • Cliff Lede Vineyards, especially for its 2016 High Fidelity blend and Rock Block Series “Soul Fire” Cabernet
  • Hall for its 2016 Bergfeld Cabernet and 2017 WALT Sierra Mar Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot
  • Provenance Vineyards, especially for its 2016 Diamond Mountain and Sleeping Lady Cabs and its 2014 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc
  • Duckhorn Vineyards, where we particularly enjoyed its 2015 Cabernet and its flagship, 2016 Three Palms Vineyard Merlot
  • Joseph Phelps Vineyards, where we enjoyed the 2016 Cab and loved, but could actually bring ourselves to buying two of its $300+ flagship wines: 2016 Insignia Blend (Cab/Malbec/Petite Verdot) and 2016 Bacchus Cab

Napa Restaurants

Our dining opportunities were limited as each of the wine tastings were accompanied by food charcuterie, cheese and other snacks), after-parties and many overstressed palettes. This said, we managed to fit in a few small restaurant meals. These included:

  • Bui Bistro. Chef and Owner Patrick Bui’s casual, downtown Napa restaurant serves up French-Vietnamese food. During our lunch here, we enjoyed three dishes: shrimp spring roll, lightly-fried calamari and duck leg with red curry. Definitely a place to revisit.
  • Celadon. We have eaten at this restaurant before. This time, we were very disappointed with our meal and have decided to take this restaurant off of our return-visit list. True we only ordered appetizers. But based on those dishes, we chose not to order anything additional. Our appetizers were hoisin-glazed pork ribs, crab cakes with arugula salad, and pork belly lettuce wraps with pickled vegetables. Wine consisted of one glass apiece of 2017 King Estate Willamette Valley pinot noir and 2015 Black Stallion Napa cabernet.

How did our choices compare to last year’s even. Read our Premier Napa 2019 review.

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