Live wine auctions are riveting events—emotions can get a little hot as paddles dual. Bids can get out of hand over sentimental favorite wines or the inclusion of an over-the-top trip in a lot.
And, well, that’s the point. Silent barrel auctions, on the other hand, feel a little less like popularity contests and a little more like a jury looking for solid evidence before making judgment calls in the form of bids. Sure, the darlings of the moment hope their fans bid high. But with hundreds of people tasting in real time, the truth tends to come out. Outstanding reputations are confirmed, discoveries are made, and trends emerge.
Barrel day of Auction Napa Valley 2018—which was held on Friday, June 1—was no exception. A shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at historic Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena sipped from more than 100 barrels of (mostly) 2016 Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet blends on offer and watched the screens overhead to see if they were making the cut as one of the top 10 bidders who would each get a case.
The range of styles and profiles across the lots was striking, and it was welcome evidence that Napa Valley Cabernet is far from a single-note pleasure. The valley’s sub-AVAs offered beautiful contrasts in structure and fruit. Even among the top 10 lots, profiles differed widely, from mountain fruit to valley-floor vineyards. But a through-line across the winning barrels was a classic balance of structure, fruit, and acidity—evidence, perhaps, that the taste for ripe and jammy fruit is giving way to a preference for freshness and ageability. The runaway winner, in fact, VGS Chateau Potelle, was a truly Bordeaux-inspired iteration of Napa Cabernet (not surprising, given its French heritage).
Here are the 2016s we’re watching out of the top-10 pack (and the bids that won them).
VGS Chateau Potelle
The VGS Chateau Potelle ($114,300) is beautifully aromatic—but of the earth, with flint dancing with florals on the nose. The palate is a complex and textured marvel of dark cassis, plum, espresso, and mocha.
With the tight structure of youth (yes, these wines are young), the Cardinale ($68,900) still gives up lovely raspberry flavors laced with fresh herbs and minerality. This has the power to live a long time in the cellar.
Staglin Family Vineyard
This vintage from Staglin Family Vineyard ($54,150) gives up spicy aromatics on the nose, swirling with licorice and plum. The palate unfolds under all that with impressive concentration, an elegant tannin structure, and incredible length.
High-toned floral aromas mark this classic wine from Chappellet Vineyard ($38,550), celebrating 50 years on Pritchard Hill. Hillside structure underpins lovely cherry, anise, and mocha and promises good aging potential.
From Napa’s southern, cooler Coombsville appellation closer to San Pablo Bay, Covert Estate ($34,000) offers a wine with a sense of place. A burst of dark, brambly berries—juicy with acidity—shares the palate with layers of licorice, minerality, and earth.