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napa's barrel auction still the best--as might be the 2008 vintage

by Monty and Sara Preiser

So we hope you enjoyed our little foray into the Arts earlier this week, but now it is back to wine and the annual Napa Valley Barrel Auction held three months ago. We have not reported on this yet because we wanted to let the showcased 2008 vintage age for three more months before we wrote about it. There is a rhyme and reason to this, and we will let you in on the secret in just a little bit. First, however, let us talk about the Napa Barrel Auction, which as we have said so often, is on a par with the best wine events in the United States. Tickets sell out in hours, but for a fair fee one can stroll the lovely grounds of the host winery, experience food prepared by the top chefs in the Valley, and experiment with any number of wines in order to find a favorite pairing.

However, you won’t find the Preisers out and about – because once the vaunted barrel room opens, we don’t come “up” (it’s really “out”) for air. Inside this area anyone with a ticket for the day can taste barrel samples of the best wines made by about 100 of the finest producers in Napa. Most of what is available are Cabernet Sauvignons, or a Bordeaux style blend featuring Cab, but here and there you find a more equitable blend of the Bordeaux varietals, and sometimes even a wine with mostly some other Bordeaux varietal or the other. We even discovered at least one Pinot Noir and one Malbec on display.

But whatever wines were residing in the barrels that day in the beautiful caves of the Rubicon Estate took us five full hours to sip and evaluate. If you know us, you won’t be surprised to learn that at least 75% of our time was spent schmoozing, an acquired talent that we think is part of such a wonderful day. Many of the vintners and winemakers are in attendance (whether they have donated a barrel or not – yes, these wines are donated for charity), as well as the top press. Casual chatting is the name of the game. At the early press “meet and greet” were, among others, Thomas Matthews (executive editor of the Spectator), noted writer and internet personality Andrea Immer Robinson, famed Napa chronicler Paul Franson, as well as representatives of the Bloomberg News, a number of newspapers, radio stations, and the ever present blogs. Quite a turn out to be sure.

We freely admit that we have trouble attending auctions without seeking out great bargains. And these days wine auctions are the hardest of all for us to resist. On this day, the top 10 bidders for a case from every barrel (which holds 22-24 cases) take that case home. The wineries, as you can calculate, are donating about half of each barrel to charity, and the proceeds that come from the bids are later combined with the monies from the huge live auction the following day and divided among needy organizations in the Napa area. The only wine auction to touch Napa in size of funds raised is held in Naples, Florida, but Naples cannot offer the barrel day. That can only happen in wine country where the vintners reside and wine is produced.

You have possibly already heard that people are carefully and quietly calling 2007 the “vintage of the decade” in Napa. Care is being taken by writers and pundits, however, because the same was said about the 1997 vintage, which understandably saw sales (and prices) skyrocket as soon as the mainstream winepress so postulated. The problem coming to the forefront now, however, is that the 1997 wines seem to not be holding their own in the fashion predicted, due, perhaps, to a touch of lightness in the structure. Most are still drinking well and showing signs of greatness, but many are no longer phenomenal, and we think a majority of pros (including us – whether you think us pro or not) will advise you to begin drinking them now as their future aging is problematic.

2007, on the other hand, seems to have all the wonderful characteristics of the 1997, plus a bit more backbone. This should allow this vintage a longer and more powerful life than the one a decade ago.

We bring up 2007 because if there was anything that stood out during the 2010 barrel tasting, it was that 2008 is a phenomenal vintage. As the next three months have passed, the wines have continued to age before actual release, and writers continue to taste them, there are many that feel 2008 might claim the title of best of the decade from 2007. We are almost prepared to go a step further and call 2008 the vintage of the generation. The black fruit in almost every wine was bright, caressed the mid-palate, and stayed around for the finish. But the defining characteristic of this vintage may be its brilliant structure. Chewy and refined, the tannins are more than apparent, yet welcoming in their subtlety. 2008 simply seems to have it all at this juncture.

When you have a spectacular year like this one, it is difficult to find any Napa winemaker creating bad wines. Therefore, very few of what we tasted would fall into the “not recommended category.” But, as always, certain wines stood out among the rest. With apologies in advance to the many good wines we won’t have the room to mention, we bring you our top 20 in terms solely of wine excellence. We have ranked in order of desirability what we felt that day to be the top eleven, and then alphabetized the following nine because they were so close in quality that to choose one over the other is not only difficult, but unfair. This does not necessarily mean that any of the wines below commanded the highest bidding price or will be marked for sale at the top of the retail chain. They were simply the best on that day as far as we were concerned.

1. Sonador Dreamer: Consistently good, this is the winery’s best effort and, in our opinion, the “gem of the day” in that owners Dr. Sergio Gonzalez and wife Maria not only have a fabulous bottle of wine, but hold the retail at under $50.00. Of the 7 cases we bought, we were Sonador’s highest bidder at $1,100 per case. Seem like too much? Wait until you taste it and see prices commanded by some better known, yet not better, wines.

2. Shafer Hillside Select: No surprise here. John Shaffer’s legendary wines are as good as “advertised,” though at well over $125/bottle retail it is in that range where you can find others almost as good for less money these days. The auction price per case topped out at $6,300.00 ($525/bottle). Silly in one respect, but this was for charity, and gave someone the satisfaction of claiming to be the high bidder of the day.

3. Blackbird Vineyards Bordeaux Blend: A relative upstart in Napa, Mike Polenske‘s wine is always luscious and desired. We bought the 07 last year before they had such a fantastic 2009-2010 in terms of discovery by the wine consuming world. Good thing for us, as the 2007 is terrific and we got a bargain compared to the per case cost this year.

4. Vineyard 7 and 8 Spring Mountain: When GM Wes Steffens poured our sample and said the tannins and depth were hard to describe, he didn’t (and couldn’t) do this magnificent wine justice. And even though it is a kind of under the radar winery, the experts who attended this tasting recognized quality and bid the wine up to $3,600 per case.

5. O’Shaughnessy Howell Mountain: We have tasted wine for some years now with Director of Sales Mike Steffel. Yet this time, when even one sip knocked our socks off and we wanted to let him know, ironically he wasn’t the one pouring. No problem, though, as Mike will know all about it when he sees that we squeezed in at number 8 to get a case at what turned out to be a bargain price of $1,125.00.

6. Frank Family Winston Hill Block V: It is almost impossible any longer to evaluate top Napa Cabs and not include at least one of the Frank Family’s offerings. They offer three, and each is one of the best at its price point. On this day Frank poured its top of the line which went for an amazingly “low” $1,700.00/case. If it was such a good deal, why didn’t we buy it? Well, we did last year and try to collect different wines each June.

7. Hartwell Divine Selection: Almost becoming a cult name, and beloved by their supporters, this year the wine had the caves abuzz. Everyone is always asking everyone else for the best wines of the day (most people aren’t as obsessive as we are about tasting almost all of them), and Hartwell was on many lips, figuratively and literally. We are happy (maybe “proud” is a better word) to report (in a Twitter moment) that we were Hartwell’s top bidders of the day at $1,650.00 per case.

8. Pride Mountain ANV Vintner’s Select: Winemaker Sally Johnson and co-owners Stuart and Suzanne Pride were on hand, and justifiably beaming about this one, as they have a right to do with all their wines. Unlike so many vintners, Suzanne and Stuart were out and about trying the wares of their competitors. Maybe that’s why they seem to know how to take that extra step every year. A bit expensive for us at $2,850.00 a case, though this is one of the few wineries on whose yearly list we remain for the high line allocated Reserve Cab.

9. Honig Bartolucci: Home run for owner Michael Honig and winemaker Kristin Belaire this year, though we confess that it is hard to resist GM Regina Weinstein (hard to resist her “sales technique” we explain) who was at the barrel when we tasted. Good wine is good wine, and good people can make the wine even better.

10. Trinitas Meritage: Hand it to winemaker Kevin Mills, who we dub the salesperson of the day. He knew what we liked and smartly made sure we tried his wine not only more than once, but toward the end. The fruit was so enticing that we made a bid, and were successful at a wonderful $950.00 per case.

11. Rocca Grigsby Vineyards: If you follow our column, you know that it is not only us who laud Mary Rocca’s and Eric Grigsby’s wines. Give them a blind tasting and they will win it. Once more we were the high bidders of the day at $1,600.00, which is really quite a bargain for this luscious entry.

12. Bounty Hunter Blind Justice: Top Bid - $3,100.00

13. Castello di Amorosa: Top Bid - $900.00

14. Crocker & Starr Estate: Top Bid - $2,300.00

15. Nickel & Nickel CC Ranch: Top Bid -$1,450.00

16. Peju FIFTY FIFTY: Top Bid - $1,350.00

17. Revana Family: Top Bid - $1,800.00

18. Reynolds Family Stags Leap Reserve: Top Bid - $1,850.00

19. Rombauer Proprietors Selection: Top Bid - $1,200.00

20. Swanson Napa Valley: Top Bid - $950.00

A Must Mention: hope & grace Malbec: Ranking the Malbec with the big Bordeaux wines would be the proverbial apples to oranges. Suffice it to say that year in and year out hope & grace produces this dark berry wine with exotic spices and toasty oak. A real winner at $64/bottle.

It seems this year that traffic to the Napa Valley has been especially heavy, which is positive for the local and national economy. It is also fun for us as so many people we know or advise have visited. If you don’t live in Napa (or even if you do and have not attended the barrel auction day), you might consider watching the Napa Valley Vintners Website through the late winter and early spring in order to buy tickets for the this day, and maybe even some of the other events surrounding it. It’s a once in a lifetime experience.

Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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