The Napa Valley Vintners Association is rumored to have tightened up on their access to the Premiere Napa Valley ® 2002 event, but you couldn’t tell it from my experience. Being local, and being a bona fide "wine writer" (Geez – if that doesn’t send a chill through you, nothing will…), I sailed right in. Kimberly Getto, Director of Communications for the Association, was pleasant and cordial as she greeted us at the door of Greystone upon our arrival.
Unlike the famous Napa Valley Wine Auction (the summertime extravaganza also hosted by this organization), Premiere Napa Valley is for the trade only, and is designed to be smaller and less sparkly. It gives the distributors, retailers and restaurateurs a chance to meet the winery principals in a more casual setting. The tasting consists of five to twenty case lots of wine especially created for the event. After the tasting, and a fabulous luncheon created by the CIA staff, the lots are auctioned. Dean & De Luca contributed a beautiful cheese display that kept two of their staff slicing for most of the afternoon.
The summer auction, on the other hand, attracts high rollers of all description who enjoy bidding on one of a kind auction lots – a large portion of the proceeds benefiting various public service organizations here in the Valley. In fact, they have raised more than $36 million for local non-profit agencies since the first auction in 1981. It’s more of a weekend than a single event, with wineries hosting dinners and special tastings for the attendees.
The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone is the perfect venue for this event. The physical beauty of the building, both inside and out prepares one for the wonderful wines and foods to come. The staff is at their courteous best, and everything is top drawer.
The first taste is with Schramsberg Vineyards, and it is both a pleasure and a privilege to say hello to Jamie Davies (left). She and her late husband Jack are pioneers and icons of winemaking in the modern Napa Valley, and produce what are among the very finest sparkling wines made in California.
She is pouring the 1993 J.L.D. Schram – this five case auction lot is the last rack full of this sparkler, and is currently aging on the yeast in the Schramsberg cellars. The winner of the auction lot will help to prepare the final dosage that will be added when the bottles are disgorged. The wine is poured both still and sparkling. It is Chardonnay based and shows wonderfully fresh and lively crisp green apple aromas and flavors - it is absolutely delicious with a fine bead and a very clean and refreshing finish.
Next is Saintsbury, pouring from a 20 case lot of 2001 Pinot Noir Carneros Brown Ranch, 40% from E block – Dijon clone 115 and 60% from F block – Dijon clone 667. This Pinot has a gorgeous garnet hue – shy aromatically, but does reveal hints of very elegant cherry liquor and exotic spice – quite impressive in the mouth, showing a wonderful purity of Pinot fruit – fairly substantial tannins interrupt the midpalate, but the elegance and breeding of this beauty is undeniable.
And from Bouchaine Vineyards – pouring from a 5 case lot of what they refer to as "Swan Pinot Noir" – I presume this means it is the Swan clone. The fruit comes from their Carneros vineyard, was cold soaked, fermented on a small percentage of stems and is aging in French oak. It has fresh and lively Bing cherry aromatics with a hint of smoke – the flavors follow the nose on the palate with lots of red cherry fruit – moderate but very smooth tannins suggest this will drink well early – long and impeccably clean finish.
P I A
The 2000 Syrah from Frog’s Leap is a ten case lot of the first Syrah they have produced - sourced from the Truchard Vineyard – bright and juicy fruit aromas from the glass – lively in the mouth with zippy acidity – bright and very refreshing. John Williams, Frog’s Leap President, is chairperson of this event.
Keep in mind that these wines are selected and/or blended specifically for this event.
The blend from Pine Ridge Winery is two thirds Tannat (a variety grown primarily in Madiran, near the Armagnac region of France) and the balance is Malbec and Merlot. 2000 Obsidian – deep purplish color – dark and brooding aromatics – in the mouth the wine is very pleasant with rich plummy flavors – not terribly tannic – I guess what I like about it most is that it lacks those easily identifiable varietal markers for me – very pleasant and delicious.
Next was Markham Vineyards, presenting a five barrel lot of 2001 Petite Sirah, sourced from 75 year old vines in a small property not far from downtown St. Helena. This PS will see 100% new American oak for one year, and will then be racked into 100% new French oak for an additional year. As the winemaker says: "It can take it." And it can.
In the glass this bruiser has a dense purple color – restrained smoky aromatics – it’s a very big wine, but shows some surprising sweet fruit before the very substantial tannins interrupt the midpalate. This would be the one to bid on if you like these huge robust toothstainers.
My next stop was with Plumpjack Winery and their resident winemaker, Mary Pisor. While chatting with Nils Venge, their consulting winemaker, he told me they had "tweaked" this Cabernet shortly before its assemblage. Their five case lot of 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon is a blend of selected barrels from two blocks on the estate.
The wine shows somewhat restrained but pleasant Cabernet aromatics – in the mouth it is very successful, with bright currant and black cherry flavors with oak highlights, all held together in a nicely structured package. This is a very impressive auction lot from Plumpjack.
When the ever-present crowd around his table thinned a bit, I had a brief visit with Don Weaver (left) , who handles marketing for Harlan Estate. This 5 case lot of 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon comes from a single block located at the front of the estate.
I’ve only tasted Harlan on a couple of occasions, but this sample has an aromatic profile that matches precisely my olfactory memories of past tastings – elegant Cabernet perfume, In the mouth it is dense and rich with amazing grace and intensity. Only moderately tannic, it has a clean finish and speak eloquently of its heritage – a very delicious and impressive Cabernet from Harlan. This five case lot fetched a whopping $35,000, the highest of the entire auction.
Next was Cathy Corison (left), representing her own Corison Winery. With rare exceptions, I find her Cabernets to be among my favorites from Napa. This five case lot of 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon comes from the 30 year old vines of the Kronos vineyard, which surround the winery North of Rutherford. It is sourced from a single row of this "beautiful, ugly old vineyard" that is being experimentally trained to cordon.
Clear garnet color in the glass – pretty bright red cherry and high-toned Cabernet fruit aromatics – lovely and elegant in the mouth, with smooth and polished tannins – a well balanced and beautiful effort from Cathy Corison. It certainly expresses an interesting counterpoint to the Harlan, which is about power and intensity – this Cabernet shows more of the elegant, and (dare I say it?) feminine side of the grape. Very impressive.
The wine shows restrained but pleasant Cabernet fruit in the nose – beautifully focused in the mouth, with a delicious core of ripe black cherry fruit framed with a hint of oak – long, somewhat restrained tannic finish. It speaks of its origin, and all I could do was smile and nod my head to thank John for another delicious effort.
This sample has a rather shy nose – absolutely delicious in the mouth – it has wonderful body and balance – smooth and polished texture – delightful sweetness of fruit – certainly one of the highlights of the event.
Michael Martini (left) has been the winemaker at Louis M. Martini Winery for 25 years. They are pouring their 2000 Rustic Red, which pays homage to the age worthy Barbera blends they produced in the earlier years of this venerable winery. Rustic Red is a blend of 51% Barbera from Pope Valley and Petite Sirah from Thoman Station in St. Helena, and a bit of Petite Verdot.
Michael describes this as a "fun wine", and I couldn’t agree more. It’s juicy and ripe with pleasing acidity from the Barbera that can cut through even the richest of foods And, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s a pleasure to taste a blend of this type at what is a mostly Cabernet event.
Needing to refresh my palate, I walked upstairs to the teaching kitchens, where a buffet luncheon awaited the guests. Well, I guess "buffet" doesn’t really capture the moment. Foods were grouped according to main ingredient. The seafood dishes included a cold calamari salad, whole glazed salmon filets, and crab cakes with aioli. The meat dishes included a lamb stew served over polenta, game sausages and terrines. The poultry dishes included house smoked turkey breast, frisee with duck confit and other delights. The vegetarian offerings included parsley root persillade, portobello mushroom "steak" with fingerling potatoes and a delicious wild rice salad. It was all too good – absolutely first class, and served by a well trained staff. Two huge tables on either side of the hall held a ridiculous number of wine bottles donated by the wineries for the event.
It was quite extraordinary.
Then, back to the Barrel Room to pick up where I left off.
This was the first time I have met Warren Winiarski (left) from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, whose 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon finished first in the famed "Paris Tasting" organized by Steven Spurrier in 1976, which marked the beginning of worldwide recognition for California wines. Their five case lot of 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon is a core component of the Cask 23, and honors the close relationship between Mr. Winiarski and the late Nathan Fay.
This Cabernet shows an identifiable Stag’s Leap District aromatic profile – smooth entry with pleasing plumy flavors – clean and well balanced with a long finish – a beautifully structured wine.
Toward the end of the tasting session, the crowd thinned out quite a bit. This gave me an opportunity to have a nice chat with Tom Burgess (left) . I’ve been enjoying the wines of Burgess Cellars for twenty five years. We talked about some of his Petite Sirah that Gang Central recently purchased from a retailer who was liquidating an estate. The last vintage that Burgess produced was 1977, and we hope to open these wines with Tom when my fellow Gangsters next get Left.
This five case lot of 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon shows fairly dense color – restrained aromas of purple and black stone fruits – that profile follows in the mouth with pleasing medium weight stone fruits, harmoniously balanced with a hint of oak – moderately tannic, but delicious, and makes the point that Mr. Burgess has certainly not lost his touch.
Lastly, from Lewis Cellars is their 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon, a five case lot selected from their favorite barrels. The wine is plumy and nicely balanced with fairly aggressive tannins that confuse the palate impression – there is, however, a richness and purity of fruit that is quite appealing.
This event highlights the absolute best that the Napa Valley has to offer – the physical splendor of Greystone, the CIA’s incredible culinary resources and the offerings of what are among the finest wine estates in the world. Nevertheless, it manages to eschew the glitz and perceived snobbery that can sometimes overlie these kinds of events. There is a casual feel to this gathering, and one can actually shake hands and chat with winery principals – something that is usually lacking at larger tasting events.
This was an absolutely first-class deal from start to finish, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Many, many thanks to the Napa Valley Vintners Association and the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone for creating a most special afternoon.
From the heart of the Napa Valley,
© Allan Bree March 2002