Premiere Napa Valley Is All About Cabernet, Camaraderie, & Community

Photo Credit: Alexander Rubin For Napa Valley Vintners

According to its website, Premiere Napa Valley (PNV) is “the best week in Napa Valley.” The annual invitation-only trade extravaganza, which is put on by the Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) and takes place February 18-23, 2019, is indeed an experience unlike any other. It’s the unique time of year when the local winemaking community and the global buyers who collect from the region come together to honor the craft.

The culmination of the event is Saturday’s barrel tasting and live auction. More than 185 of the valley’s top vintners will pour their best wines—small batches (lots range from 60 to 240 total bottles) of one-of-a-kind blends explicitly made for PNV. After sampling the wine during the walk-around barrel tasting, restauranteurs, wine shop owners, and collectors bid to purchase their favorite blends. The funds raised from the auction—$4.1 million was fetched at the 22nd annual event in 2018—support NVV’s mission to promote, protect, and enhance the Napa Valley. While the educational, tasting, and networking seminars and parties are something to look forward to, for the winemakers PNV is a showcase that allows them to reconnect with friends, taste wonderful wine, and show their support for each other.

Vineyards during winter

Photo Credit: Alexander Rubin For Napa Valley Vintners

Napa Valley is known for its picturesque countryside, legendary chefs, and award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon, but while researching this story, I realized that PNV highlights a lesser known side of the area—one of extreme camaraderie and respect for the community. The lack of competition and rivalry is unprecedented. Would Pepsi share its recipes with Coke? Would Google let Yahoo borrow a search algorithm? Would the San Francisco Giants share its playbook with the Oakland A’s? The answer to these questions is most likely a definite no. But in the nation’s top winemaking region, vintners have been sharing tricks of the trade for years.

They may be making the world’s most expensive grape juice, but in their hearts, most vintners are farmers looking to produce exemplary wine. To better understand this sense of harmony, Haute Living sat down with four vintners, Aaron Pott owner of Pott Wine and the 2019 PNV steering committee chair; Michael Beaulac general manager and winemaker of Pine Ridge Vineyards; Chris Phelps the associate winemaker at Inglenook; and Danielle Cyrot winemaker of Cade Estate Winery. In our conversation, we discuss the valley’s team spirit, how PNV cultivates a winemaker’s creativity, what oenophiles can learn from walking the barrel tasting floor, and why PNV is the best week of the year.

Aaron Pott

Photo Credit: Aaron Pott

Haute Living: Why is it important for a winemaker to participate in Premiere?

Aaron Pott: I love the fact we’re making our own blends, and they’re small blends. We get to do whatever we want to, and we don’t have to conform to any sort of corporate idea of a blend. It’s a fantasy blend, and the sizes are so limited. We’re talking five, 10 or 20-case lots—and most people are doing these wonderful little five-case lots.

Michael Beaulac: I use it to showcase what I think Pine Ridge is all about. For me, it’s a fun way to talk to the end buyer about who Pine Ridge is. Other people find a particular vineyard block or a different winemaking technique or something about it that they think is interesting. Most people try to do something interesting.

Chris Phelps

Photo Credit: Inglenook

Chris Phelps: It’s like circling the wagons, 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. I’m getting excited talking about it!

Danielle Cyrot: Premiere Napa Valley is a way for us to showcase one barrel out of our cellar that we think is exceptional. It’s not something that you get to do every day, because usually, my wines are much larger blends of 200 or 300 barrels.

Last year’s barrel auction

Photo Credit: Alexander Rubin For Napa Valley Vintners

HL: Do you think that an auction like Premiere stimulates a winemaker’s creativity?

AP: Yes, absolutely. It takes them away from making blends that need to be sold, and it puts them in the mindset of making a blend that just needs to be beautiful. You see all of the passion of each individual winemaker, what they like, what they want to work with. You know, some people will do whites, white wines, because they just love white wine.

DC: The grape variety that I like to work with I’m still learning about it. I’ve never felt that I’ve made the perfect glass of wine. I’m still figuring it out, and that’s the beauty of it. The challenge and also what makes it exciting and fun to keep doing. I want to do something different than the offerings Cade already has.

An aerial view of Inglenook Chateau

Photo Credit: Inglenook

CP: Blending is a very creative process. When we were making the blends in December and January, finishing in February of 2018, we realized that there was an opportunity to use three different sections to create this exclusive barrel. We think it’s extraordinary. It’s something that’s never been done before. When you’re putting it all together you need something genuinely unique.  I know close colleagues take a lot of pride in coming up with something that’s not only unique but will never be repeated. There’s a feeling that it’s a one-off thing. It’s never going to be repeated, like a little vintage pop-up.

HL: Is getting a high bid something that you think about when blending the wine?

AP:  If you’re the lowest guy on the bidding roll and if you’re the highest guy on the bidding roll, there’s no difference. You’re still making money for the vintners. It’s a good cause. We’re supporting ourselves. I wish people would look less at the numbers and look more at where the money’s going and how it’s being spent.

Michael Beaulac

Photo Credit: Pine Ridge Vineyards

MB: You know for us, of course, I want to get a high bid. That makes Pine Ridge stand out. But it’s not essential to the process that I’m going through. I’m trying to make the best wine I can.

DC: I don’t really know if there is such a specific style or type of wine that gets the high bids, I’m just trying to showcase what I think is the best. Some people may think, ‘Oh this is amazing, and I want to bid a lot,’ and other people will go, ‘Oh it’s not my cup of tea.’ But I make wine for what I think is best and not for anybody else.

Different blends of wine

Photo Credit: Bob McClenahanFor Napa Valley Vintners

HL: What’s the relationship between the vintner and the buyer?

AP: My lot last year was bought by a Swiss restaurant, a restaurant in Zurich, that’s called the NapaGrill. Suddenly I have this new Swiss contingent of friends. I’m going to go skiing with them since they’ve so generously invited to send me over there to go skiing.

CP: Half the time or two-thirds of the time as the winemaker you get to meet the buyer, and it establishes a bond. I’ve run into to people that I’ve bottled the Premiere lot for ten years down the road, and they say, ‘Hey, I still have six bottles of that wine.’ You might not have seen them since they bought the wine, but they still feel that connection, so I think it’s intimate because that connection is almost as unique as the wine itself and the creation of this ultra small lot.

The tank room at Cade

Photo Credit: Cade

HL: What can a wine lover learn from PNV’s barrel tasting?

AP: Premiere Napa Valley’s is the trades’ first taste of the new vintage. It allows them to see what the quality is from tasting all of the wines in the room.  You have almost 200 wines in the same room. That’s going to be a big percentage of what’s being produced in the Napa Valley. So, you really get a good idea of what’s coming out of the different appellations in Napa Valley, from different varieties in Napa Valley.

MB: You get a good idea of what the vintage was like. Because 90%, 95% of the people are doing Cabernet because that’s what we do best here in the valley. ‘17 was a difficult vintage, and I think it will be interesting to taste those wines. It will be everyone’s first opportunity to go around and taste ‘17 vintage Cabernet.

Danielle Cyrot

Photo Credit: Cade

DC: It gives you an excellent perspective of the appellation. You learn how growing grapes from these different areas of Napa Valley impacts what you’re tasting in the glass. You can go around and sample the entire Napa Valley all in one day in the same room and see how each of us fares within that particular vintage. That’s pretty unique, you don’t get to do that every day.

HL: What do you love most about the Napa Valley winemaking community?

CP: I have a whole group of colleagues in the winemaking community that I can call or meet up for lunch or coffee anytime, and they’re very generous with sharing how they do something. It’s not such a huge world when you’re in the world of wine. It’s a tight-knit, small community.

Photo Credit: Bob Mcclenahan For Napa Valley Vintners

DC: We all go around and give each other high fives and say, ‘Hey that’s an awesome wine. Good job.’ You can say, ‘Wow, that’s an amazing glass of wine!’ or ‘What did she do to make that taste so great up on Howell Mountain?’ or ‘What barrel are you using? How do you get these flavors out of it?’ I always think there’s a fun spirit of good congratulatory work. Good job, we made it, we all did it together.

MB: There is a tremendous amount of camaraderie in the valley. For instance, I’m having a barrel tasting next month, and I’ll have 80 people come to it, other winemakers. There’s also a real sense of sharing. Across the street is Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and we share our information back and forth. I needed some equipment earlier, last week, and I called them up and said, ‘Hey can I borrow this?’  The response was ‘Of course you can.’ Everyone is trying to help each other and hoping that we all make better wine. The camaraderie is unbelievable.

Pott pours at the 2018 barrel tasting

DC: Yes, we all understand that if we all make great wine we’re gonna help elevate the Napa Valley appellation and that helps us all. So you know, if I were to borrow a pump from my neighbor I’ve got a couple of people I can call and be like, ‘Hey I’m in a pinch can I borrow a pump?’ 99.9% of the time the answer is yes. We’re all in it together to help make great wine. So from my perspective, there are no secrets in winemaking, and I want to share my knowledge, and hopefully, everybody else will do the same so that we can all make a great glass of wine.

AP: The closeness of it. I made wine for years in Bordeaux, in France, and it was not a close-knit community. I think this is a real example of when all of the vintners come together to do something for the community. So, I like the closeness. I think, you know, it was Robert Mondavi that said, “If one person’s doing well, it’s going to raise the tide and bring up all of our boats,” and I think that idea stuck with people in Napa and it’s a real non-competitive group of people.”

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