Sam Kaplan has a right to grin.
Last Saturday afternoon, a pair of wines he made from the acclaimed 2014 harvest earned two of the top three bids at Napa Valley Vintners annual futures auction for the trade.
Three lots each received top bids of the afternoon — $130,000 each — during the nearly four-hour Premiere Napa Valley winter wine auction held at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus in St. Helena. Those lots included:
— Memento Mori 2014 Inebriari in Vitae cabernet sauvignon, 5 cases, purchased by Napa Wine Ltd., Zurich, Switzerland.
— Italics Winegrowers 2014 Numbers cabernet sauvignon, 5 cases, purchased by Cliffewood Wine Syndicate, Little Rock, Arkansas.
— Nine Suns 2014 Houyi Vineyard cabernet sauvignon, 5 cases, purchased by Cliffewood Wine Syndicate, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Memento Mori is a wine founded by three wine geeks, Adriel Lares, Adam Craun and Hayes Drumwright. The partners get outstanding fruit from Andy Beckstoffer’s Las Piedras vineyard, and this harvest added some of the best from the Dr. Crane vineyard in St. Helena. This was the third trade auction for Memento Mori.
“This is absolutely the best wine we have ever produced, bar none,” said Craun, “a perfect expression of Napa Valley from arguably the best growing vintage we have ever seen.”
While they might be new kids on the block, the partners did not exaggerate about the taste of their offering. It’s a wine of great depth, offering black and blue fruit aromas and then a mouthful of dark, juicy blackberry. There’s lovely cassis on the mid-palate that extends through the heavenly finish. it tasted so good that I hated to move on to another wine. Definitely yum.
The other wine made by Kaplan was a first-time auction offering from siblings Jason, Aimee and Chris Chang, owners of Nine Suns, a winery with vineyard on Pritchard Hill. It’s 100 percent cabernet sauvignon from the 23-acre hilltop Houyi vineyard farmed by renowned viticulturist David Abreu. Kaplan said the Changs built Nine Suns winery in 2011 and that this inaugural lot came from a single barrel of cabernet. I didn’t taste this wine.
Including a wine he makes for Arkenstone on Howell Mountain, Kaplan said he’s pleased that he gets to work with fruit from three distinct appellations.
“This was a good day for me,” he said. “I love what I do ... I have so much fun making wine.”
The third wine came from the cellars of Coombsville-based Italics Winegrowers.
“Each year, Premiere Napa Valley winemakers are tasked with creating innovative, showstopping wines that demonstrate Napa Valley’s commitment to the art of fine winemaking,” noted Steve Reynolds, winemaker and partner at Italics Winegrowers. “Today, we surpassed that expectation delivering a wine that scientifically proves how phenols positively affect the structure of the wine.”
Through the study of phenols, the wine is broken down into its key chemical components to determine the optimal levels of extraction while the grape skins are in contact with the freshly pressed grape juice, Reynolds pointed out. “This process determines a wine’s color, flavor and texture. The variations in the phenol levels come from the terrior and something that is inherently natural in vineyard and in the fruit. The science of phenols is used as a predictor of wine quality.”
Named for the concentration of phenolics that have been tested in the wine, Italics Winegrowers’ barrel lot Numbers represented the highest recorded phenolic reading to date at 4,600 iron-reactive phenolics in parts per million. This high reading translates to a more complex wine featuring higher quality attributes, including taste, mouthfeel and body, Reynolds said.
The single vineyard cabernet sauvignon hails from the partners’ estate vineyard in Coombsville. The relatively new wine brand is helmed by proprietors Ken and Mike Martin, winemaker Steve Reynolds and managing partner Andy Wilcox.
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I didn’t get to taste that wine either. However, here are some observations about the wines that I did taste prior to the auction that raised $5 million, third highest total in the trade event’s 20-year history.
— Alejandro Bulgheroni Estate 2014 cabernet sauvignon, a blend of cabernet sauvignon from Oakville Ranch, To Kalon and Las Piedras vineyards, plus a soupçon of petit verdot and cabernet franc from Pritchard Hill. The Debut was the aptly titled first offering from this new wine brand. The first American collaboration by Michel Rolland and Philippe Melka, it’s a round, lush blend of dark fruit and sweet tannins with an intense, lingering finish. Cliffewood Wine Estate picked up five cases for $32,000.
— FlyWine 2014 Mount Veeder cabernet sauvignon, made by Garrett Ahnfeldt from 12-year-old vines, this complex, rich cab displays ripe blackberries and terrific length. The 10-case lot sold for $20,000 to N16 Cellars of Arcadia.
— Leto Cellars 2014 St. Helena cabernet sauvignon, now that he’s left Foley Johnson, Brad Warner and his wife, Lisa, are concentrating on their own brand, some 850 cases that include sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, cabernet franc and pinot noir. So drinkable now, this cab came from 45-year-old vines on Pratt Avenue. It has a great mouthfeel, texturally soft yet packing a punch on the finish with cassis and blackberries. Five cases went to Gary’s Wine & Marketplace in Madison, New Jersey, for $10,000.
— Ghost Block and Markham Vineyards 2014 Yountville Red Wine, a collaboration of winemakers Robert Lawson and Kimberlee Nicholls, this was a power blend of cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, merlot, malbec and cabernet franc from Yountville and Oakville vineyards — oodles of ripe red and black fruit, a WOW wine. The 20-case lot was sold to H-E-B of San Antonio, Texas, for $45,000.
— Caspar Estate 2014 Rutherford cabernet sauvignon, Julien Fayard crafted the wine for this small direct-to-consumer producer from an organic vineyard at the top of Whitehall Lane, a layered, complex cab with a ripe, almost exotic mid-palate, lots of black fruit, balanced, tannins evident on the long finish. Cliffewood Wine Syndicate snapped this five-case lot for $14,000.
— Gandona Estate 4014 Pritchard Hill cabernet sauvignon, this wine by Philippe Melka has it all — big ripe fruit from the steepest and highest block of vines on the property, mature tannins, complexity. I bet this one could age forever — love to taste it in 20 years (okay, make it five). The five-case lot sold to Zoes Restaurant in Virginia Beach, Virginia, for $55,000.
— The Debate 2014 cabernet sauvignon, a debut offering blended from Missouri Hopper, To Kalon and Dr. Crane vineyards by partner Jean Hoefliger, lovely mouthfeel on this big ripe cab from a trio of distinguished vineyards, blackberries linger on the lovely finish forever. Oklahoma City’s Petroleum Club grabbed this five-case lot for $50,000.
— Rubissow 2014 Hawkwind cabernet sauvignon, all cabernet sauvignon from Mount Veeder, Timothy Milos’ cab offers ripe fruit that doesn’t overpower but rather blooms in the mouth giving off delightful aromatics and flavors that eventually dissolve in a long finish. Artisan Wine Depot of Mountain View picked up this 10-case lot for $14,000.
— Coup De Foudre 2014 Lightning Bolt cabernet sauvignon, rich, ripe and resplendent, this 100 percent cab from Calistoga was crafted by winemaker Kent Jarman, dense with oodles of black fruit and an intoxicating finish. Meritage Wine Market from Encinitas picked up the five-case lot for $50,000.
— Duckhorn Vineyards 2014 Napa Valley merlot, if both memory and palate are in sync, this one is as good as that inaugural release from the 1978 harvest. Today, Duckhorn owns that extraordinary Three Palms vineyard, 80 percent of which is now planted to merlot. This blend incorporated some Yountvile fruit — the wine is soft and sexy, that’s why Tokyo’s Nakagawa Wine Company scooped up all 20 cases with a high bid of $60,000.
Yes, there was a little white wine in the sea of red at Greystone last Saturday. Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris, Grgich Hills Estate once again displayed its winning house style with a 2015 chardonnay made from 27-year-old Carneros vines. Beckendorf Liquors from San Antonio, Texas, picked up the 10-case lot for $14,000.
Progeny Winery offered five cases of a white Rhone — a 2014 blend of marsanne, roussanne and viognier from winemaker Sean Capiaux — that had distinct floral notes and tasted of honeysuckle and apples. Costa Mesa’s Hi-Time Cellars was high bidder at $10,000.
John Skupny and son, Reed, made a 2015 chenin blanc from a one-acre Oak Knoll tract for the family’s Land & Reed Wine Company. Seems like chenin blanc is no longer favored here, as Skupny noted there were 2,800 acres of the variety here in the 1980s, now but 14. This one was a classic, tasting of white peaches, honeycomb, lemons and apples. The Wine House in Los Angeles was impressed, grabbing the 10-case lot for $5,000.
On the way to lunch, I walked by the Arkenstone station, and winemaker Kaplan offered a taste. Even though my palate was taxed, there was no doubt that this 2014 Howell Mountain cabernet sauvignon — which he called One Point Twenty-One Gigawatts — was yet another winner. Yum, yum, yum. The gang from Arkansas that got his Nine Suns lot picked up this five-case offering for $55,000.
Keep an eye on Kaplan. Better yet, try to get some of the wine he makes. I just got in that line.