ON THE WINE ROAD: Up close and inside the 20th anniversary of Premiere Napa Valley

During the long weekend of February 18th – 21st, 2016 the Napa Valley Vintners Association hosted more than 1,000 wine industry professionals, the international wine press, buyers and sommeliers for tastings and seminars in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Premiere Napa Valley.

By Michael Venezia
Photography by Kathryn Ingall

The barrel tasting and auction is the highlight of the Napa Valley winter wine season. To quote Emma Swain, President of the NVV Board of Directors and CEO of St. Supery Estate Vineyards and Winery, “We are grateful to our friends and colleagues in the wine trade who join us year after year, seeking out the excellence and endless possibilities of winemaking.”

226 unique lots were created by long-established producers and newcomers to the Napa Valley wine scene. Most of the auction lots were produced from the iconic red grape Cabernet Sauvignon and sourced from the highly acclaimed 2014 vintage. From Singapore and Macau to Las Vegas and New York, Napa Valley was the wine world’s ground zero for wine auction excitement, and unbridled industry generosity.

I have been in attendance for several years and the excitement of sharing wine and dollars for local charities was evident on Saturday, February 20th, when more than $5 million was spent for these unique, hand-crafted and one-of-a-kind wines. These micro lots of as few as 60 or no more than 240 bottles, represent the essence of the winemakers art, and confirms Napa Valley’s coveted position in the global wine trade.

Held during the relatively sleepy time of winter where the vines are in repose and the stark beauty of Napa Valley is in relief, the bright yellow mustard flowers dramatically accent the grapevine rows adding beautiful color to the landscape.

Later when pruning is complete, the cover crop will be plowed and turned over so much needed nutrients will be given back to the soil adding important nitrogen components which benefit the microclimate. The soils in the Napa Valley contribute significantly to the vines environment and happy vines, make happy wines.

In addition to the tasting and auction, several smaller events are held preceding the drama of Saturday’s auction. Although the Napa Valley is a relatively small viticultural region I wanted to venture off the beaten track to visit with some old friends who are now high above the fog line.

Perched in the eastern hills high above the Napa Valley are the mountain vineyard estates on Pritchard Hill. The Chappellet Family, Tim Mondavi, the Long family at David Arthur Vineyards, and a small group of other wine growers are exalting these challenging and difficult to farm vineyards, while crafting their signature wines from remote parcels of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, and even Malbec.

Wines from this region of high altitude and low yield vineyards offer vintages of structure, complexity, concentration, and age worthiness. The Chappellet family were the first to decide to occupy this area for grape growing in the 1960’s. The environment is hostile, with dizzying altitudes, step grades, and a complex geology of soils.

On a rainy and foggy February 19th morning I visited with my friend Jay James, MS, Director of Sales and Marketing of Chappellet. Jay, a former resident of Atlanta is now a Master Sommelier and one of the most informed wine professionals I know. It is always a great learning experience to taste wines at the place where they are raised and get a feeling for their origins and DNA.

After tasting the Chappellet lot it was easier to grasp the personality of the wine. Sourced from a vineyard at the top of a ridge looking east, this pure Cabernet offered voluptuous fruit, spice notes, and a powerful structure.

Another impressive wine tasted that morning was the Continuum Estate Proprietary Blend. Cabernet Sauvignon with Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot make up this wine which was fermented in wood and cement tanks, and aged for 20 months in predominately new French Oak barrels. After the auction, the winery holds on to the wine until it is ready to bottle.

Tasting from cask with Tim’s daughter Chiara drove home the theme of Continuum, a lineage running through the Mondavi family for four generations.
Although it is impossible to taste all the lots, I sought out several of my favorite wineries to swirl and sniff some of their offerings. There were several noteworthy experiences.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, 2014 “Fay Edge” Cabernet Sauvignon produced exclusively from a single block of Cabernet Sauvignon, on the estate parcel known as the Fay Vineyard. Similar in geology to its companion, the Stag’s Leap Vineyard, known as SLV, during the 2014 growing season the grapes developed enormous fruit ripeness and great hang-time maturity.

These extremely volcanic soils permit the vines energy to develop fruit which offers a textural sensation which has been identified as “the iron fist in the velvet glove”. This style is deep in color, robust in aroma with a dark fruit basket perfume with a wild edge to its subtle, power in the glass.
TOR Kenward Family Wines, “The Magic” 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon is sourced from the To Kalon Vineyard originally planted in the 1870’s, farmed by Andy Beckstoffer, and made by Jeff Ames. A winemaking marriage made in heaven.

Volker Family Estate, 2014 Cabernet Franc with small amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. This is sourced from a very small parcel of 2 acres, and since 1974 the family has farmed this site organically. It is dense, concentrated, and very well balanced.

Although I didn’t have a paddle in my hand, my glass was never empty and I benefited from the generosity of the members of the Napa Valley Vintners Community who shared their passion and love of wine with the international wine trade.

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