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The epically challenged 2017 vintage that had early rains, heat spikes and devastating fires was on display at the recent Premiere Napa Valley auction.

And although the total take — nearly $3.7 million — was down from last year and significantly less than its peak of $6 million in 2015, a deeper dive into this year’s annual trade event shows an almost Herculean effort from those involved and highlights some bright spots for both the community and the much-maligned vintage.

About the Premiere Napa Valley auction

Now in its 23rd year, the Premiere Napa Valley auction is held in February at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. Premiere is not a typical auction in that the bidding guests are made up of only wine-trade professionals (retail shops and restaurants) and the proceeds go directly to the Napa Valley Vintners, who use the funds to augment the annual member fee to help pay for administration, charitable causes and marketing efforts to promote the Napa Valley.

Vintners donate wine that is often still in the barrel, creating special “lots” in various case amounts (typically five, 10 or 20 cases) that are then bottled and distributed (sometimes a year or more after the event) using a special “Premiere Auction” label. Because these wine “futures” are sold to the trade this is unlike most other auctions where the end consumer purchases the wines directly at an event. At Premiere, the attending trade bid on the wines offered because they believe they can sell them later to their own customers back home. Thus, the Premiere auction has become a bellwether for Napa Valley vintages.

The Napa Valley winery owners who donate their wines to Premiere do so for a host of reasons but primarily out of a desire to support the mission of the Napa Valley Vintners organization and also so that they might commingle and build relationships with the trade who attend.

2017 vintage — challenges and opportunities

In what amounted to a warning for the 2017 vintage, last October the influential Wine Advocate’s editor-in-chief, Lisa Perrotti-Brown, wrote:

“It [2017] was a year that started with a deluge of rain, including widespread flooding in Sonoma, later got blasted with intense heat during Labor Day weekend and, before the fat lady could sing, suffered the most devastating wildfires this area has seen just at the tail end of harvest. After all is said and done, I only judge what’s in the glass. Now that I have had the chance to taste a fair number of 2017s from barrel from throughout the valley, I need to caution readers that this is a very inconsistent vintage for red Bordeaux varieties.”

Because of the challenging weather and the wildfires of 2017, many wineries opted out (or had no wine to showcase) at this year’s Premiere. Although many reports suggested that 90 percent of the grapes in Napa Valley were harvested before the fires, other research suggests this number is overly optimistic. Beyond this discrepancy, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are often left on the vines to ripen longest, so they were the grapes most often affected by smoke damage, which can impart off-flavors in a wine in what’s called “smoke taint.” Consequently, there are wineries that have skipped making wines from the 2017 vintage altogether, either because they were unable to harvest the grapes or because of concerns over quality.

Quoting Screaming Eagle’s winemaker, Nick Gislason, Perrotti-Brown wrote in the same article:

“As for 2017, the Merlot that came in at the beginning of harvest before the fires struck was very nice, along with the first couple of small Cabernet blocks [Gislason said]. However, the vast majority of our fruit was still on the vines maturing when the fires came and, thus, was lost to us. When the smoke finally cleared, we cut and discarded all of it. Any wine for a 2017 Screaming Eagle or Flight would be made exclusively from our tiny pre-fire harvest, is likely to be minuscule and may not be released at all if it does not meet our quality standards. As a harvest cut short, we have very few blending components to work with, and this may limit our ability to put together blends of sufficient quality.”

With this as background, the feeling of most within the press and many of the trade before Premiere was that the auction could be an utter bloodbath. But it wasn’t. In fact, the results were impressive when one looks into the numbers.

Making seriously good lemonade out of seriously damaged lemons

To make great wine in a great vintage is easier than making great wine in a difficult vintage. Yet of the 191 lots (down from nearly 300 lots in recent years) entered into the 2019 Premiere Auction there were apparently some standouts. In interviews and discussions with those who attended, the quality of at least some of the wines was excellent to outstanding. The 2017 Cabernet Francs from Morlet Family Vineyards and Ehlers Estate were among them, with 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon wines from Hourglass, Schrader Cellars, Inglenook, Baldacci Family, Matthiasson, Larkmead and Keenan also exhibiting excellent quality.

To highlight the quality, W. Blake Gray, in an article for Wine-Searcher, calculated that the average bottle price — $217 — was $1 more than last year, and Schrader Cellars (now owned by Constellation) had the top average per-bottle price of an impressive $1,333. So although the total take of the auction was lower than last year’s $4.1 million the price paid per bottle of wine was actually slightly higher. Couple this with the fact that the 2016 vintage (on display at last year’s auction) was often touted as the “vintage of the century.”

What does all this mean? Well, a few things: 1) there are some exceptionally good Napa Valley wines to be found within the 2017 vintage, 2) the NVV did an impressive job, and 3) those vintners and trade who attended displayed what it means to be a strong community.

“The wines being showcased at this year’s Premiere were highly selective — it is basically a quality vs. quantity year,” said Jim Lutfy owner of Michigan’s Fine Wine Source retail shop. “Because there is so little wine that will release from the 2017 vintage, many of those released will be seriously cherry-picked and good wines, but there won’t be much of it to sell, which will likely keep the pricing up.”

Lufty has been attending the annual event since its inception. Beyond his gourmet shop that sells wine, he has also recently opened a wine bar/restaurant with his daughter Remy in downtown Detroit, called Vertical. According to Remy, Vertical has 120 wines by the glass and a cellar of more than 2,600 wines, 40 percent of which are from the Napa Valley. Their establishment has garnered the 2016 Wine Enthusiast’s “American’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants” award, was listed in Wine Spectator’s 2018 list of “Best Restaurants for Wine” and was recently listed as No. 1 on Food & Wine’s “America’s Best New Wine Bars” list.

Circling the wagons and finding community

Speaking to Haute Living about Premiere 2019, the winemaker for Inglenook, Chris Phelps, explained why it was important to be involved this year.

“It’s like circling the wagons,” he said, “and it’s a reminder that we’re not just promoting ourselves as a brand, as a winery, as an entity, but that we’re all kind of in it together. There’s a very collegial team-based feeling that I think exists with vintners in general but specifically with Premiere. You know most everyone there, and it’s like being on a big team. The intimacy of that room when you’re tasting wine, it distills Napa Valley, which is not a vast growing region, down to something even smaller that you can get your arms around.”

If I were on the NVV team, I’d recommend finding a way to honor each and every vintner member who donated to this year’s auction and figure out how to bring those who didn’t into the fold. I’d also search for a way to do the same with the trade. Examine the list of attendees of Premiere 2019 and you have the makings of a stronger future but one that has roots in the past.

“It’s always a fun week, but it was very important for us to come out to support this year,” Lutfy said. “There are some great wines, and we also know it was tough for many out there. We’re in this together and so here we are — when it comes down to it, wine is many things, but maybe most importantly it’s about relationships.”

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