A report on Premiere Napa Valley wine auction and the 2017 vintage

Elaine Chukan Brown reports on the annual Premiere Napa Valley - a preview of Napa’s latest vintage - where buyers bid on wines made specially for the auction

Words by Elaine Chukan Brown

The crowd erupted into cheers. Winemaker Aaron Pott stood on stage and grabbed the microphone. “Are you ready?” he yelled. “Let’s get it on!” More than 1200 wine trade professionals – winemakers, sales people, buyers, and journalists – filled the upstairs hall of Greystone, home to the Culinary Institute of America and one of Napa Valley’s most venerated historic buildings. Dance music burst through the speakers and the crowd cheered wildly. The annual Premiere Napa Valley auction, with Pott as this year’s honorary chairman, had officially begun.

Over the next four hours 185 auction lots were sold to raise almost $3.7 million “to help the Napa Valley Vintners and their ongoing effort to promote, protect, and enhance” California’s most renowned wine region.

A vineyard in Napa Valley California
A vineyard in Napa Valley California

The Premiere Napa Valley wine tasting is a preview of Napa’s latest vintage. It’s a model originated by Bordeaux and brought to a level of indulgent celebration only possible in California. The day comes with surprise musical interludes, and snack breaks of artisanal foods made in the region.

Unlike Bordeaux, buyers at Premiere bid on unique wines made specially for the auction. Buyers range from retail giants looking to score coveted brands at discount prices, to brokers representing a cache of collectors seeking unique investments. Prices can be stratospheric.

Napa Valley Vintners

Included among the highest bid lots were several featuring wines made by Pott himself. He sat in the audience next to Danika Patrick, America’s most celebrated woman racing driver and now owner of Somnium winery on Howell Mountain, whose wines Pott makes. Five 12-bottle cases of Somnium went for $42,000.

By the end it was the Schrader Cellars Cabernet made by Thomas Rivers Brown that earned the highest per-bottle price, taking $80,000 for 5 12-bottle cases. The highest priced lot overall was $140,000 for 20 cases of Silver Oak, the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon known for its signature of American oak.

This year Premiere included several white wines from the 2018 vintage, including winemaker Mike Chelini’s final bottling of Stony Hill Chardonnay before the new winery team takes the helm. It’s a turning point in Napa history. Chelini is a Napa legend: the valley’s longest tenured winemaker. There is no one in  North America with more experience of making Chardonnay.

The oldest vintage wine up for auction was actually sparkling – the J. Schram – a 1998 late disgorged sparkling Chardonnay from Schramsburg.

Wine bottle at Napa Valley Vintners

But the auction mainly featured a first look at the controversial 2017 vintage. It was a year of appalling wildfires throughout California’s North Coast; it was feared the vintage would be ruined – a minor issue compared to the tragic loss of life and devastation of communities, but a worry for the wine industry nonetheless. Tasting a preview across Premiere’s 172 red wines put fears to rest. Not a single wine tasted of smoke.

The 2017 vintage centres on aromatics and finesse. It also lends itself to winemakers with a lighter touch in the cellar. The best examples offer great complexity of flavor on a slightly finer-boned frame. Wineries typically focused on richer, bigger wines had a bit more of a challenge: the year simply didn’t lend itself to that style.

People embracing at Napa Valley Vintners

Wines purchased at the Premiere Napa Valley auction will begin appearing in various retail outlets, and collector venues later this year and into the end of 2020.

Standout wines from the auction lot tasting, featuring Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays

Schram 1998 Late Disgorged Sparkling Napa Valley
100% Chardonnay
60 bottles. Estimated release: October 2019

Picked primarily from hallmark vineyards of the Los Carneros AVA, then aged a remarkable 20 years on lees. Depth of aromatics carry into the palate offering savory flavors and bursting acidity with a seductively smooth mouthfeel. The bubbles here are persistent while incredibly fine. Nuanced with an impressively long finish.


Stony Hill 2018 Chardonnay Spring Mountain District
60 bottles. Estimated release: October 2020

Picked from 30-year old, dry-farmed vines in the style on which Stony Hill was founded. This Chardonnay offers fresh aromatics with an impressive core of dense white and yellow fruits with just enough flesh to balance the vibrant acidity. This wine will only get better with age.


Lang & Reed 2018 Chenin Blanc Oak Knoll District
60 bottles. Estimated release: October 2019

Fruit sourced from one of only 17 acres of Chenin Blanc found in Napa Valley. With zesty aromatics followed by a palate of firm, crisp fruits, this wine offers impressive concentration and vibrancy with a seductive balance of flesh and bursting acidity. This wine will only get better with age.


Tres Sabores 2017 Zinfandel Rutherford
100% Zinfandel
60 bottles. Estimated release: January 2020.

Picked from 1971-planted, dry-farmed Zinfandel grown along the Rutherford bench. An elegant, aromatic expression of California’s founding variety. With lovely transparency, and depth of character showcasing a mix of tree blossoms, mixed plums, and bramble with just a hint of dark chocolate. Nuanced, mouthwatering, and lengthy.


Pott 2017 Cabernet Franc Napa Valley
65% Cabernet Franc 35% Cabernet Sauvignon 5% Merlot
60 bottles. Estimated Release: October 2020

Grown at high elevation at 1600-feet in the Mayacamas mountains. Notes of lavender, flowering herbs, dark plum, and earth emerge from the glass and carry into the palate. The wine is quite nuanced, gaining more presence and revealing its complexity with air.


Cain 2017 Red Wine Spring Mountain District
55% Cabernet Franc, 39% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Petit Verdot.
60 bottles. Estimated release: October 2020

Biodynamically farmed, and picked from some of the oldest vines on the property, and the coldest, windiest part of the vineyard. Aromatics burst from the glass with lovely nuance and complexity that carries into the palate. There is a lovely harmony here of floral, fruit, and earth notes carried through fine-grained tannin with a finessed, stimulating and lengthy finish.


Corison 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
100% Cabernet Sauvignon
60 bottles. Estimated release: October 2020

Featuring a blend of vineyards from the Rutherford to St Helena bench, including the famed old-vine Kronos Vineyard. This distinctive Cabernet carries from nose through palate a beautiful cascade of violets, and plums – fruit and flower – lifting above a dark brooding core. With firm, while fine-grained tannin the wine is simultaneously age-able and approachable. Fresh, finessed, and lengthy.


Larkmead 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Calistoga
100% Cabernet Sauvignon
60 bottles. Estimated release: October 2020

Grown exclusively from Larkmead’s signature vineyard, the Lark, and aged entirely in French oak. The 2017 Larkmead brings together the richer, darker flavors of Calistoga, with the elegance and nuance of Larkmead’s signature vineyard. Offering great depth of flavor, and beautifully integrated oak spice on a frame of fine-powder tannin with an almost cashmere mouthfeel.


Matthiasson 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Oak Knoll District
100% Cabernet Sauvignon
60 bottles. Estimated release: October 2019

Picked from 35-year old vines, and made in tribute to the old school Napa Valley Cabernet’s that made the region famous. There is a great focus on freshness here with a lovely depth of character featuring notes of mixed plums, black currant, and flint. This wine is not afraid to include just a bit of rusticity while maintaining pleasing texture and stimulating length.


Quintessa 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford
A blend of Bordeaux varieties from the oldest terraces on the Quintessa property
60 bottles. Estimated release: October 2020

With notes of floral perfume, firm dark fruits, gunmetal, and mixed earth the Quintessa offers a lovely balance of freshness and profound flavor with impressive persistence, and lightly tactile tannin.


Spottswoode 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
93% Cabernet Sauvignon 7% Petit Verdot
60 bottles. Estimated release: October 2020

Picked from the oldest vines on the Spottswoode estate. Featuring a complex of mixed plums, dark fruits, and sweet spices from the nose through the finish. The Spottswoode offers powdery fine, while abundant tannin and great acidity for a pleasing mouthfeel on an age-worthy wine.