Where Money Flows Like Wine
James Laube Inside Premiere Napa Valley
YOU CAN FOOL some of the bidders some of the time, but most of the top lots sold at Premiere Napa Valley 2001 on Saturday were exceptional wines from the exceptional 1999 vintage.
They are also some of the most expensive cases of wine you'll ever see purchased in this or any other lifetime.
Lewis Cellar's Premiere, a 1999 Cabernet blend, is a rich and seamless wine with pretty, toasty oak shadings, and it won the day's highest bid at $38,000, which comes to $7,600 a case, or $633 a bottle. While it's another tremendous effort by Randy and Debbie Lewis, it's not the absolute blockbuster that their 1997 Cabernet is (97 points), and for $150 a bottle, the 1997, which is still available, is clearly the better buy.
And no big surprises that the Shafer, Dalla Valle, Duckhorn and Viader lots drew high prices, as they are all among the top producers in Napa Valley right now.
Curiously, missing in action were some of the biggest draws in past auctions. No wines were auctioned by Araujo, Colgin, Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Grace or Diamond Creek -- all members of the Napa Valley Vintners Association, which sponsors the annual barrel auction as a fundraiser.
YOU COULDN'T HAVE asked for better wine-tasting weather for the auction. It was damp and rainy outside the Culinary Institute of America building in St. Helena, with gray skies and off-and-on showers, providing the kind of atmosphere conducive to tasting wine from barrel.
You also couldn't have asked for better wines or more diversity and range of styles, though no doubt you would hope for lower prices and higher case volume.
While there were 120 wines being auctioned and poured, I focused on Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah, and also looked for new wineries and wines I hadn't tasted before.
Even if you spit, which I did, tasting 50 to 60 samples is a good workout before lunch, especially when vintners are asking, "Want to taste some ink?"
WHAT'S IMPORTANT TO understand about Premiere is that it encompasses unusual wines sold only to members of the wine trade (retailers and restaurateurs) and made in very tiny quantities, usually just five cases. (And I can remember the days when if Justin Meyer of Silver Oak Cellars really liked a wine, he bought five cases just for his cellar.)
Among the unique examples, as an ode to the wines of Cahors, France, Pine Ridge produced the appropriately named Blackbird, a dark blend of Tannat-Malbec-Merlot, from the 1999 vintage.
John Kongsgaard and Fritz Hatton of Arietta produced a 1999 Merlot beefed up by 25 percent Syrah, with all the grapes coming from Hudson Vineyard in Carneros.
And Niebaum-Coppola poured its new Rutherford Grange, a tribute to Australia's great Penfolds Grange, a blend of Shiraz (78 percent), Cabernet Sauvignon (19 percent) and Cabernet Franc (3 percent), mostly from young vines.
ONE OF THE wineries that crept into the auction's Top 10 was a newcomer called Darioush, which drew a $24,000 bid for five cases of Darius II, an estate-grown Cabernet-based blend. Darioush occupies the former Altamura Winery, on Silverado Trail, north of Napa.
Other newcomers of note were Pillar Rock Stags Leap District Cabernet 1999 -- a smooth, supple, rich and complex wine, with layers of currant, black cherry and plum -- and D.R. Stephens Moose Valley Vineyard Cabernet 1999, a very rich and concentrated wine from a 9-acre vineyard on Howell Mountain Road.
Among the '99 Cabernets, I also liked Bill Hill's Bighorn Ranch Broken Rock Block and Lail Vineyards Vine Hill, a very dense youngster. And Larkmead and David Arthur's Stone Corral were dark and potent.
I was also impressed by a number of '99 Merlots, particularly Hartwell Stags Leap District, Signorello and Freemark Abbey Bosché Merlot. Also noteworthy on my scorecard were Rombauer, Robert Keenan and Cuvaison.
In the category of Syrahs, Petite Sirahs and unusual blends, the most striking were Viader Syrah, Phelps Cabernet-Syrah, Swanson Schmidt Ranch and Markham Petite Sirah.
STICKER SHOCK ASIDE, once you sift through the numbers and let the averages settle in, the average price per case on Saturday came to $1,253 -- or $104 a bottle.
Still, wine lovers have to wonder whether these kinds of price trends are really glimpses into prices of the future.
If that's the case, it's more of a Scary Movie than a pretty picture.
James Laube's new edition of Wine Spectator's California Wine is now available.
For the top 10 auction lots and total results, read:
This column, "Unfiltered, Unfined," features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Tuesday by a different Wine Spectator editor. To read past "Unfiltered, Unfined" columns, go to the archives.
(And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)
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