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2007 – "The Angelina Jolie of vintages in Napa Valley" (March 6, 2009)

by Jim White

Reproduced with permission from

Fritz Hatton, auctioneer at Premiere Napa Valley, gets the room a-rumblin'.

Napa Valley's winter wine auction for the trade – called Premiere Napa Valley and held this weekend – attracted more than 200 wine buyers from Canada, Japan, China, the UK and, of course from across the US.

One of my favorite wine events of the year, Premiere brings together colorful winemakers and powerful wine merchants. The event is organized by Napa Valley Vintners, a non-profit, trade association representing 350 area wine producers. Dollars raised at the auction are applied to programs, which promote and protect the Napa Valley Appellation.

Saturday's auction of 200 lots raised $1,487,500, a drop of 33 percent from last year's all-time high of $2,245,500. Given the state of the economy, auction sales could have been a whole lot worse. While it's not fair to say that the recent boom in wine sales has gone ker-boom, the wine industry appears to be teetering on the edge.

Wine merchants with whom I spoke at the event, who wished to remain anonymous so that competitors wouldn't know who was singing the blues, confided: "$20 is the new $50 red." Customers who used to buy $40 or $50 wines have moved down to the $20 range.

"Wines priced above $100 per bottle seem to be slightly more immune to the vagaries of the marketplace. Sales are soft but not as precipitous as they are for wines under $100 a bottle." (This is the story merchants tell – whether it's true is not fact-checkable.)

One wine merchant in the Bay area admitted that his January sales, 09 over 08, were down 90 percent for the month. Let me repeat, lest you think this a typo: down NINE-OH percent.

The Food's as Good as the Wine at Premiere Napa Valley

The winter barrel auction is held at the Culinary Institute of America's (CIA) Greystone Campus, in St. Helena. Upon arrival, members of the wine trade and press have access to 200 unique blends of wine, poured at stations of the participating wineries. These are the wines, which will be auctioned later in the day.

At noon, a tremendous buffet is served and, each year that I have attended, this turns out to be my favorite buffet of the year. The fare is fabulous and perfectly prepared and presented. Hats off to the CIA for serving food to complement the wines. Oh, and a lot of them are served; it's a veritable group grape grope as guests reach for any of hundreds of different labels. Guests may return to the wine tables, or food tables, as many times as they like for refills, or diverse taste trials. That anyone is awake for the afternoon auction is a testament to the professional tasting skills of the assembled guests.

Bret Lopez and Mimi DeBlasio of Scarecrow. Their wine, made by Celia Masyczek, received the top auction bid - $80,000 for five cases – or $1,333 per bottle.

Participating wineries at the auction donate a unique blend of wine in quarter-barrel (five-case), half-barrel (10-case), or full-barrel (20-case) lots, which are bought by the assembled retailers and restaurateurs to be resold to their customers.

Winemaker Timothy Milos (left) and owner Marc Cohen (right) of Howell at the Moon, and, in the middle, the smiling owner of Clos Pegase, Jan Shrem.

Each wine is a one-of-a-kind blend, variety, or from a single vineyard unique to the winery. Or the blend may be a collaborative effort among several winemakers. All wines poured were barrel samples, mostly Cabernet based, and mostly from the 2007 vintage.

Judd Finkelstein of Judd's Hill, and Andrew Schweiger, of Schweiger Vineyards.

Prior to the auction, members of the trade belly up to barrels to sample the wines on which they may choose to bid.

2007 – what a glorious vintage

Premiere Napa Valley is really the first time each year that the trade gets a peak at the next-to-be-released vintage of Napa Valley Cabernet. It's a collective first chance to assess the vintage and determine how consumers will like the wines and figure out how the wines might be priced.

I posed a common question to wine makers, asking them to assess the quality of the 2007 vintage. I asked: "If your 2007 Cabernet were a movie star, who would it be – and why?"

  • Suzanne Groth and winemaker Michael Weis of Groth Vineyards opined: "Definitely Drew Barrymore. Young and crazy and unpredictable, but old enough to know better. Sexy voice, too."
  • Tom Farella, winemaker for Farella-Park Vineyards, who makes a delicious, approachable Cabernet (I tried his 2004 at his booth and loved the fruit, balance and ripeness): "2007 was a Catherine Zeta-Jones type of vintage; it is really attractive, it's a big star, it's an instant classic!"
  • Daniel Bailey, who is national sales manager for Jones Family Vineyards, likened his 2007 Cabernet (which I thought was gorgeous, sweet, in a positive sense, and filled with chocolate) called his offering "The George Clooney of wine. It is strong, has a good heart, is sophisticated and has lots of soul!"
  • Tim Mondavi, of Continuum, says of his 2007: "This wine is definitely like Meryl Streep – it has a beautiful voice, lots of finesse and elegance, and shows great persistence." (I found Tim's 2007 spicy, showing lots of grip, power and if anything, feistiness. I am not sure these are terms I would use to describe Meryl Streep. More like Liza Minnelli.)
  • Judd Finkelstein, of Judd's Hill Winery, says that his 2007 Cab is much like Miss Piggy: "The wine shows a lovely femininity… but once you get to know it… you realize there is a lot of assertiveness and power behind the early attractive attributes."
  • Marc Cohen, who produces Howell at the Moon, says his 2007 Cab is "most like Angelina Jolie – big, plump, luscious, soft and memorable."

Auction highlights

Premiere Napa Valley raised a total of $1,487,500 on 200 wine lots.

The highest single bid was $80,000 for a five-case lot of Scarecrow (made by Celia Masyczek). This equals $16,000 a case, or a mind-numbing $1,333 per bottle without mark-ups, taxes, or frequent flier miles.

Celia says she took "the sweetest barrel" from the 2007 cellar and made the best wine she could for today's auction. I thought the wine was memorable, filled with vanilla, cherry and black ripe fruits, loaded with personality, and textbook structure.

The next highest lots:

  • $42,000 for five cases of Ovid
    (I tasted: gorgeous sweet fruit, a stunning silken texture derived from fermentation in concrete and not wood, according to winemaker Andy Erickson.)

Both the Scarecrow and Ovid lots were purchased by Nakagawa Wine Company of Tokyo, Japan.

  • $27,000 for 20 cases of Silver Oak
  • $24,000 for a five-case lot of Shafer Cabernet, taken from a block used in the Hillside blend
  • $22,000 for a 10-case lot of Joseph Phelps Cabernet.

Case price results from Premiere Napa Valley Auction

As some of the lots were quarter-barrels, some half-barrels and some full-barrels, the per case price paid may be a more meaningful way of looking at the results:

  • Scarecrow, $16,000 per case
  • Ovid, $8,400 per case
  • Shafer, $4,800 per case
  • Lewis Cellars, $4,000 per case
  • Realm Cellars, $3,200 per case
  • Hourglass, $3,200 per case
  • Continuum, $3,000 per case

I thought you'd never ask

The 2007 vintage in Napa Valley is considered by area winemakers as excellent.

The year began dry with very cold days and single-digit nighttime temperatures and continued dry with about 60% of normal precipitation throughout the appellation.

The summer growing season was on the mild to cool side; very few days topped 100 F. degrees, even in the warmest locations.

The harvest of Chardonnay began in early August in the Carneros and southern Napa, followed by Pinot Noir. Harvest was just a bit ahead of average.

An Indian Summer delivered warm, clear days when vineyard crews completed the harvest.

That answer your question?




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