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The year 2017 will be remembered for the devastating October wildfires, when the Napa Valley was surrounded by fire and smoke from three different fires.

Thousands of people, including those in Calistoga, were evacuated as the Atlas, Nuns and Tubbs fires burned thousands of acres and destroyed 6,000 homes, mostly in Sonoma County. Of the seven people who lost their lives in Napa County, six could not escape from the blazes.

It was also a time for harvesting grapes and although 90 percent of the 2017 crop had been harvested before the fires began late on Sunday, Oct. 8, many cabernet sauvignon grapes remained on the vine, especially in hillside vineyards on Atlas Peak, Mount Veeder and Soda Canyon Road.

Tasting panel starts with cabernet

The St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel started with tasting cabernet sauvignons in January and continued with different varietals throughout most of the year, although no tastings were held from September through November because of the wildfires. The tasting panel ended the year by celebrating its 10th anniversary. During the year, the panelists chose 66 wines as their favorites, with a value of nearly $2,400, not including Premiere Napa Valley wines.

Cabernet sauvignons

In mid-February, writer Catherine Bugue reported on two tastings of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon: one held for the winemakers, assistant winemakers and those in the trade; the other for consumers at the tony St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco.

Both groups discovered they sought balance in these wines, which means the structural components, such as the acidity, tannins, body, alcohol and flavor intensity levels, were balanced. Additionally, the consumers considered two key questions while they were tasting: What are you looking for in a wine? And what makes a wine your favorite? Their answers were revealing: “not a bitter taste at the end”; and “looking for bright fruit, not grippy”; and “not just oak but fruit too.”

Both groups ranked the 2013 Patland Estate Vineyards ($110) and the 2014 Charthia Cellars ($85) at the top of their lists.

Premiere Napa Valley

Each February, the world wine trade gathers in St. Helena at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone to taste and judge the special Premiere Napa Valley wines. For the past few years, we have asked our panelists to each taste 15 different wines and pick their favorite. Overall, there were 217 wines in barrels at PNV, an event created by the Napa Valley Vintners, a trade organization. These wines are special lots, carefully made, with grapes from an unusual or special block of grapes. Most were cabernet sauvignon from 2015 vintage.

Attendees, who are mostly wine distributors and sellers, taste the wines in the morning, then after a CIA-created buffet lunch, they are able to bid on these wines to take home when they are bottled in a year or two.

Last year the auction raised $4.2 million. The top lots included a 2014 Scarecrow Cabernet Sauvignon that sold for $200,000; and two 2015 cabernet sauvignons, one from Alpha Omega, the other from Arkenstone Vineyards, that each sold for $100,000.

Cabernet francs

More than two dozen cabernet francs were on the menu for the tasting panel in mid-March. As a varietal, cabernet franc has been in the Napa Valley since it was first planted in 1885. The grape’s value as a blend with its bright fruits and aromatics continues to be important, especially to cabernet sauvignon with its substantial tannins, acidity, color and core of dark fruits.

During the tasting, though, panelist John Skupny, proprietor of Lang & Reed, said cabernet franc is hard to source. He said, “There are less than 1,100 acres in the valley, versus close to 21,000 acres of cabernet sauvignon. They vie for the same price. The demand is not for making cabernet franc as a varietal, it’s for the uber-blend. A lot of times it’s hard to find really good cabernet franc because it’s being absorbed by the Harlans and Abreus of the world, because it’s a really important addition to cabernet sauvignon.”

Skupny added, “When I worked for Caymus in the ’80s, Charlie Wagner always felt that cabernet franc would impact Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon more than the other blending grapes, because we already had roundness and softness. What we needed was lift, freshness.”

Skupny’s Lang & Reed brand is based on cabernet franc wines.

Rosé

The tasting panelists discussed grape varieties used for Napa Valley rosé as they tasted a large number of wines. Almost all of the wines were dry, and one was sparkling. Pinot noir, sangiovese, syrah, and merlot-cabernet sauvignon based blends were tasted in separate flights, with a fifth flight covering a mix of other varieties or blends. The wines showed a wide display of colors from salmon to pink to orange and light red, and a number of them had a backbone of tannin.

“Pinot noir and sangiovese did well,” said panelist Peter Marks MW. “I was surprised there were no varietal zinfandel rosés submitted. There were also not a lot of grenache, and we love thinner-skinned grape varieties [for rosé].”

Julie Lumgair, consulting winemaker for Ideology Cellars, has made rosé for 13 harvests. She said,“Pinot noir is the queen of rosé, and sangiovese is amazing to work with. When I came to Napa Valley in 2012, I fell under the spell of cabernet sauvignon for rosé; it is rewarding -- it is harder to make. To protect your fruit – your super expensive fruit -- you have to have a good game plan so the grapes don’t oxidize, and so you get all the gorgeousness of the fruit. You are producing a rosé with fruit ripened for red wine. If the rosé is an after-thought, the phenolics (color, tannins) stick out.”

Sauvignon blanc

During the May 4 tasting panel, we learned that some styles of sauvignon blanc in the valley hold true to the concept set by Robert Mondavi with his fume blanc. But as winemakers and wineries gain experience with their vineyards, learn new techniques and even start selecting different clones, they are creating beautiful styles that are truly all their own.

When asked about this evolution in styles, Honig’s Kristin Belair said, “I don’t think trying to have a Napa Valley style is necessarily something we want … I think the Mondavi model is based on how we used to grow sauvignon blanc, big vines, heavily shaded, because of the way we grew them and the popularity of chardonnay, they made the wine to cover the pyrazines with oak.”

We definitely saw some beautiful fresh styles with bright fruit to richer wines with oak used as an integrated part of the wine, not the dominating factor. With 28 wines tasted through four flights, many winemakers as well were surprised with the diversity. Chris Phelps of Ad Vivum said, “There is a wide range of pH ... Most are in balance, there are the ones that are clean and are sauvignon blanc in character, while some have muscat or other characteristics, even viognier. So I think it’s a sensitive varietal for blending.”

Chardonnays under $40

In late July, panelists tasted current vintages at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. Prices of the wines ranged from $15 to $40, and the vintages spanned from 2013 to 2016.

When asked her impressions of the wines following the blind tasting, Julie Lumgair commented on the interesting range: “There are bright, crisp wines and classic, fuller-figured chardonnays; very stylish for the price points.”

Ashley Broshious, Advanced Sommelier and a Master Sommelier candidate, was “extremely impressed” by Napa’s chardonnays, saying she would have confused a few of them for white Burgundies if this were a multi-regional tasting. Napa Valley and other premium wine regions around the world create their chardonnays using Burgundy’s long-instilled techniques of barrel fermentation and maturation; malolactic fermentation, and lees stirring, which all add complexity to the final wines. Despite the lower price points of these Napa Valley chardonnays, Broshious found all levels of oak-influenced flavors; something that is more expected at the higher end of the price scale due to the expense of oak barrels.

Pinot noirs

Wines from 2014 and 2015 were sampled, judged and ranked and the panelists picked six pinot noirs that they liked. Behind these pinot noirs are winemakers who take their time to coax the best from these thin-skinned grapes that typically like a cooler climate than is typical in the Napa Valley. With love, care and a careful watch over the summer into the cooling mists of fall these wines show the dedication and love that went into creating them.

Many winemakers appreciated the diversity of styles. Matt Reid said, “Anyone tasting through these wines would be hard-pressed to say this is what Napa pinot tastes like. We saw varied expressions of the grape. I had a lot of favorites and some didn’t work for me but they will work for somebody else, I thought it was exciting there was so much diversity.”

When talking about pairings both Julie Lumgair and Tom Rinaldi commented on their ability to pair with a wide array of food but to be careful of the style coming from 2015. Rinaldi said, “I would not be afraid to have these with dinner any day of the week, especially ribs and something from the barbecue. You know, they are distinctive wines with leather, olive, some toned-down oak. The negative is that some of them poured with earth notes.”

The conclusion was that we give the 2015 vintages time to open up and that they are perfect candidates for another year in the cellar.

2007 cabernet sauvignons

The 10th anniversary of the tasting panel was celebrated in December with two surprises: the tasting and judging of increasingly rare 2007 cabernet-based red blends from the Napa Valley; and a Congressional proclamation honoring the St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners tasting panel and its founders, this editor, Stefan Blicker from BP Wine and the late Terry Hall, who was communications director at the Napa Valley Vintners when the panel began in October 2007.

The panelists was made up of many who have been serving as tasters for years. When asked about the wines, Tom Dinkel of Dos Lagos Vineyards said, “It was hard picking the best – they were wonderful.”

David Stevens of St. Helena’s 750 Wines agreed, noting, “I was surprised how fresh many of them were.” Alan Viader of Viader Vineyards & Winery concurred, stating, “The noses on many of the wines were tight, young – they still have time,” a testament to continued ageability of the 2007 wines.

Winemaker Chris Phelps found a few “raisiny and Port-like,” a statement mirrored by Christie Dufault of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, but Dufault also found “stellar, tremendous, elegant wines that were very balanced” among the group.

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St. Helena Star Editor

David Stoneberg is the editor of the St. Helena Star, an award-winning weekly newspaper. Prior to joining the Star in 2006, he worked for the Lake County Record-Bee, the Clear Lake Observer American, the Middletown Times Star, The Weekly Calistogan and st