Premier Napa Valley is an annual event, and one of the most prestigious affairs of the year, in a valley that has more than its fair share of glamorous occasions. For the week leading up to the Saturday event, the highways and byways of Napa Valley are thronged with limousines. Wineries shut their doors to the public and open them to special guests, usually well-heeled, who can be expected to spend large sums of money to buy special bottles.
And special bottles is what guests find at Premier Napa Valley. Or, rather, special barrels, each of which holds approximately 5 cases of wine. Each participating winery crafts one barrel of a wine that represents a shift from its usual approach. A house famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon might produce a Petit Verdot, or perhaps a blend of Cabernet Franc and Syrah. The idea is to surprise and to stun guests (mostly members of the wine trade), who, after a walk-around tasting, then proceed to an auction, at which astronomical sums are bid for the privilege of owning a wine the likes of which no one else can ever have.
This year's event had been threatened by record cold temperatures and even the possibility of snow. But although the day was unseasonably chilly by Napa standards, the sun shone brightly. Inside the ancient stone walls of the Culinary Institute of America, the former Christian Brothers facility located north of St. Helena on the famous Highway 29, guests mobbed the large space, lining up three deep at the more famous wineries, hoping for a brief chat with superstar winemakers.
Most of the wines were from the 2009 vintage, and the event represented the first opportunity for most of us to taste them in large quantities. My impression is that the vintage is a very fine one-not quite as lush, ripe and accessible as 2007, but firmer in structure and potentially more ageable, with lower alcohols. Of course, since these are the finest barrels the winemakers can assemble, with wines meant to dazzle and cause frenzied bidding, one must realize that they are not necessarily representative of all of Napa Valley's 2009 vintage. Yet I feel strongly the year will be recorded as one of the best in the last 15 years.
There were a lot of Cabernet Francs poured, surprising in a valley so famous for Cabernet Sauvignon. There are various explanations for this. One is that Cabernet Franc is softer, sweeter and lusher than Cabernet Sauvignon, which makes it a good wine for Premier Napa Valley. It may also be that many of the winemakers themselves find their personal preferences shifting toward Cabernet Franc. The 2009 Cabernet Franc from Clos du Val, made from grapes grown in the Stags Leap District, was charming and made for early drinking. Another Cabernet Franc was the 2009 "Last Stand" bottling from Lang & Reed, who specializes in the variety; the grapes come from the heart of Napa Valley, in Oakville.
But, for me, the wine of the day was the 2009 Cabernet Franc from Levy & McClellan. Bob Levy is the head winemaker at Harlan Estate; Martha McClellan, his wife, presides over the wines at Sloan.The auction itself raised a record $2.4 million for charity. Some interpreted the result as a "barometer of confidence" in the American economy. The highest-grossing lot was a barrel from Scarecrow Wine, which went for $125,000.
After the excitement of Premier Napa Valley, the valley quiets down for a few months. Soon, the warm weather will return, and as the summer season approaches, all the buzz will be about the Napa Valley Auction, scheduled this year for June 2-5.