Every year, vintners from around Napa Valley create some of the most exclusive wines in the world. And every February, hundreds of members of the wine trade—retailers, restaurateurs—gather to barrel-taste the newest collection and bid at the Premiere Napa Valley auction for the right to take ownership of the lots that have impressed them the most. Eventually. Since this is a futures tasting, the wines generally won’t be bottled and released for more than a year, and sometimes longer. When they are, though, this relatively small number of Napa’s best bottles—unique, one-off wines—make up a rich cache for collectors averse to cookie-cutter cellars.
The vintage offered up this February was, for the most part, 2018, and it’s a promising one. Sip after sip in the pre-auction tasting added to a collective profile: powerful but elegant, ripe but vibrant—significant polished tannins suggesting the wines will be generous with pleasure as soon as they’re released but will also have much to offer as they evolve over time.
The robust paddle action in the live auction that followed was proof that the trade shares the excitement over the 2018 vintage. The vintners offer lots of 5, 10, or 20 cases (60, 120 and 240 bottles, respectively). As is often the case, the top winning bids were sentimental ones, honoring much-loved vintners who died recently. A five-case lot from Shafer Vineyards—made from “John’s Upper 7, the first hillside vineyard planted by the late John Shafer in the mid-1970s—went for $85,000. (Do the math, and that’s an eye-popping $1,417 per bottle… wholesale.) And the room erupted when the five-case lot from Rudd Estate, until recently helmed by highly regarded Leslie Rudd, fetched $200,000, a cool $2,000 a bottle. The final number for the 200-plus lots: $3.9 million in support of the Napa Valley Vintners.
I was on a different mission this year. It was clear, through the morning of tasting, that it would be hard to go wrong with any of the wines in the cavernous barrel room at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. Many of the lots represented the winemaker’s choice of best barrel in his or her cellar, or a particular prized vineyard (maybe even best rows). But browsing the catalog lot descriptions turned up some more unusual wines—single clones highlighted, for instance, unique fermentation vessels tried out or unusual barrels tested for aging. I was on the lookout for some of the auction’s most unique wines.
Here are 13 that would intrigue your most wine-steeped friends. (Bottle prices are rounded, but keep in mind this is what the retailer or restaurateur paid—there’s no formula for the markup after that for these rare bottles; sometimes, in fact, it’s very little.) They’ll be available under the unique Premiere Napa Valley label (signed by the vintner/winemaker) at a range of restaurants, private clubs and retailers, from high-end shops to Total Wine & More. The Napa Valley Vintners have helped out by putting a wine finder on the Premiere website, where you can pre-order the wines. Collectors will have the chance to experience the wines themselves at tastings and events across the country during the Premiere Napa Valley Release Week, this year November 9 to 14. Watch that site for details.
Honig Vineyard & Winery 2018 39 Going On 40 Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford
It might seem surprising, but this is the first estate Cabernet that iconic Honig has ever produced. It’s medium-bodied and elegant, with layers of earth and spice under plum and cassis.
Winning bid: $26,000 for 240 bottles or $108/bottle
Cain Vineyard and Winery 2018 François’ Pick Malbec, Spring Mountain District
The surprise here is the singling out of one Bordeaux variety on the part of a producer known for blending all in Cain Five. Cain practices an incredible level of sustainability in its hilly vineyards, so it’s no wonder that this Malbec is a beauty, with florals, herbs, spices and tobacco swirling around bright mulberry fruit.
Winning bid: $7,000 for 60 bottles or $117 per bottle
YAO Family Wines 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford
Long-time NBA star Yao Ming (who played for the Huston Rockets for nearly a decade and was selected as an All-Star five times) is the proprietor in this wine brand that doubles as a bridge to China, where he is president of the Chinese Basketball Association. This is the only 100 percent Cabernet the winery has made, and the only Rutherford nested appellation wine in the Yao Family portfolio. It layers intriguing herbal notes and minerality under red fruit, with great balance and character.
Winning bid: $7,000 for 60 bottles or $167 per bottle
Viader Vineyards and Winery 2018 Block B2 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Mother and son winemakers Delia and Alan Viader (shown here) isolated their steepest block on sun-exposed west-facing slopes for this lot, then aged it in a 500-liter French oak barrel on the lees to tame its tannins. While powerful, the wine is ripe and beautifully balanced for a long life.
Winning bid: $42,000 for 240 bottles or $175 per bottle
St. Supéry Estate Vineyards and Winery 2018 Louis XIV Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
The Louis XIV moniker for this St. Supéry Cab refers to the barrel it was aged in—made from a 350-year-old oak tree grown in France’s Réno-Valdieu state forest. A collaboration between winemaker Michael Scholz (shown here, with CEO Emma Swain) and consultant Michel Rolland, the wine has classic blueberry and cassis flavors and seamless, fine-grained tannins (that barrel speaking).
Winning bid: $44,000 for 240 bottles or $183 per bottle
Palmaz Vineyards 2018 Slippery Slope Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Here’s one for the geekiest of collectors—a Cab from Palmaz’s steepest vineyard (33 degrees), clone 338, planted on 420A rootstock. And since I know you want to know, the row direction on that slope is 38 EoN. As for the wine, it’s aging in shade-aged French oak (you wanted to know that too, right?). It’s an intense Cabernet, with crushed-rock minerality under briary berry flavors, but the tannins are nicely integrated (that shaded oak?).
Winning bid: $11,000 for 60 bottles or $183 per bottle
Paula Kornell 2018 Something Old, Something New Sparkling Wine, Los Carneros
This beautiful bubbly from Paula Kornell, who has released the first two sparklers under her label this year, spans California’s méthode champenoise history in an irresistible way. For it was her father, Hans Kornell, who pioneered the best-quality sparkling wine method back in the 1970s. To mark the full circle she’s making with her new brand, the dosage for this rare auction lot is made up of his cuvées going back 25 years. The wine is rich with brioche and nutty character, but also bright with red berry flavors.
Winning bid: $13,000 for 60 bottles or $217 per bottle
Davis Estates 2018 Phase Five: Loving Life! Cabernet Sauvignon–Syrah, Napa Valley
Winemaker Philippe Melka is the experimenter-in-chief behind this Davis lot. And while the auction catalog lists the wine as Cabernet with “a touch of Petite Sirah … for its dark fruit, structure, and enhanced complexity,” we have it on good authority that fully 50 percent is Petite Sirah. Reference points fail, but the wild blueberry, dark plum, and blackberry flavors, all wrapped in florals, spice, and elegant tannins, are head-turners for sure.
Winning bid: $15,000 for 60 bottles or $250 per bottle
Gandona Estate 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Here’s a study in clone and fermentation vessel, also from winemaker Philippe Melka. The Cab is 100 percent Clone 337 from Gandona’s estate on Pritchard Hill, fermented in concrete tanks and macerated on its skins for precisely 27 days. Expect striking aromatics—lovely florals—around generous blackberry and plum flavors, layered with elegant minerality.
Winning bid: $19,000 for 60 bottles or $317 per bottle
Paul Hobbs 2018 Nathan Coombs Estate: Block 2 Cabernet Sauvignon Coombsville
If you think a vineyard designation is too broad, and that a single block within a vineyard is more interesting, this lot from Paul Hobbs is for you. And the vineyard in question (owned now by Hobbs) is historic, named after the man who mapped out the town of Napa, in the valley’s newest AVA, which once was considered too cool to ripen Cabernet. This wine shreds old notions. It’s snappy, fresh, aromatic, and elegant, offering up ripe dark fruit edged with minerality.
Winning bid: $20,000 for 60 bottles or $333 per bottle
Spottswoode Estate Vineyard and Winery 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena
It’s a little-known fact that Spottswoode now uses a little Hungarian oak in its estate Cabernet, inspired by a visit winemaker Aron Weinkauf made to the country’s forests and Kádár cooperage. And for this lot they went with 100 percent custom Hungarian oak barrels. The wine is rambunctious in the best way (obviously still in its infancy), with spice and textured structure around vibrant red fruit.
Winning bid: $40,000 for 60 bottles or $667 per bottle
JCB by Jean-Charles Boisset 2018 Hedonistic Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
The inimitable Frenchman Jean-Charles Boisset (shown here, right, with Fritz Hatton, left) found a new way this year to defy tradition, aging his Cabernet lot (made together with winemaker Stephanie Putnam and consultant Philippe Melka) in a novel “Phi” barrel—in this case, wrapped in leopard print. The name refers to the so-called Golden Ratio, or Divine Proportion, found in patterns in nature such as the seeds in a sunflower, the Nautilus sea shell, and the honey bee—a mathematical concept thought to represent perfect beauty. For the rare Phi barrel (only two are made a day), the goal is to create perfect harmony between oak and wine, a surface that offers the softest and most elegant contact. The wine is indeed “hedonistic,” with ripe, dark fruit delivered with elegant power.
Winning bid: $40,000, 60 bottles or $667 per bottle
ZD Wines Non-Vintage Petit Abacus Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Abacus, which 50-year-old ZD produces using a solera system, from which a percentage is removed each year and some of the new vintage is added, is consistently one of Napa’s most unique wines. Including a bit of every Reserve Cabernet that ZD has ever produced (27 vintages, plus a splash of 2019 Petit Verdot), this lot from their solera has no reference points. Earthy complexities of age meld with bright, fresh younger fruit flavors for amazing depth.
Winning bid: $60K, 60 bottles, $1,000/bottle