On a bright, clear February morning, I hop on a shuttle bus at Charles Krug Winery, located off the Hwy. 29 corridor just outside of St. Helena, California.  I’m surrounded by other lanyard-wearing, bleary eyed members of the wine trade. In a few moments, we’ll be be dropped off across the way at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone Campus, where we’ll be attending the 28th annual Premiere Napa Valley, the most high-profile annual business event for people who buy and sell Napa Valley wines. This year, registered attendees are arriving from 29 different states and 10 nations.

It’s 9:00 AM, and most of us have already been here for a few days, attending private break-away events at some 35 different winery locations. Premiere Napa Valley week culminates with the futures tasting we’re all headed to. Futures are wine lots that have not yet been bottled. There will be a live auction the following morning, during which bidders will vie for rare, one-off bottlings made solely for Premiere Napa Valley. Over 300 producers participate and all the proceeds from PNV go to programs that fulfill the Napa Valley Vintners’ mission to promote, protect, and enhance the Napa Valley.

On offer to taste as futures this morning will be 124 Cabernet Sauvignons, seven Cabernet Francs, four Merlots, three Pinot Noirs, four Sauvignon Blancs, three Chardonnays, one each of Chenin Blanc, Rose, Petite Sirah, Riesling, and Zinfandel, a few sparkling wines, and 14 red blends.  Lots are offered in increments of 5, 10 or 20 cases. Retailers and restauranteurs who successfully bid add these wines to their shelves and lists. Donning special labels and elevated prices, these wines are often heavily allocated. Most of the Cabernet Sauvignons are from the 2022 vintage. The three vintages highlighted as futures are 2021, 2022, and 2023.

My morning is off to a rocky start. Although check-in is a seamless experience, I’m quickly frustrated by the more than a few attendees wearing untold amounts of cologne or perfume. I’d like to think I’m not much of a wine snob, but I suppose I am one when it comes to people (especially members of the trade) who choose to wear so much fragrance to tastings. It’s hard to appreciate a fine, nuanced wine when you’re standing next to Mr. Axe Body Spray, which happens at the first barrel where I stop to taste. (Apollo Deodorant Body Spray, methinks. Quite the robust aromatic lift!) Much of my time during the remainder of the tasting is spent trying to avoid these overly pungent folks. When successful, I find a number of the wines presented are truly beautiful, some astoundingly so.

The first wine to capture my imagination to the point where the rest of the room momentarily falls away is a 2023 Napa Valley Rose, made collaboratively by winemakers Rosemary Cakebread (Gallica), Cathy Corison (Corison) and Steve Matthiasson (Matthiasson). This single-barrel lot has boisterous, shiny aromatics, followed by precise, cosmopolitan flavors. Elegant, fun, and bright. Emboldened by this light-hearted beauty, I carry on. In no particular order, here are some of my favorites:

2022 Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc, Le Breton. Made by father-son duo John and Reed Skupny, this Cabernet Franc, sourced from the Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard on the downslope of the Vaca Mountain range, has a violet regalness to it, with a long, haunting finish. I just can’t get enough of Cabernet Franc, and Lang & Reed is one of the top houses for this variety in the country.

2022 Farella Cabernet Sauvignon, Farella Vineyard, Upper Terrace. From the Coombsville district, this serious, delineated Cabernet Sauvignon seems built to age. There’s an understated, modest quality to this wine. It’s balanced and sophisticated without being over the top. Nicely made.

2022 Robert Mondavi Winery, To Kalon Red Blend, Oakville. A predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend, with some Malbec and Merlot added. Winemaker Kurtis Ogasawara seems to have a keen understanding of texture, as this wine delivers such a pleasant mouthfeel that even in its youth, it already seems so complete. A real standout.

2022 Cabernet Sauvignon, Legacy, Oakville. A collaboration between Fait-Main and Tierra Roja Vineyards. Winemakers Benoit Touquette and Linda Neal created something special with this wine. It has a supple, gratifying texture, the prettiest aromatics, and an almost poignant flavor profile. One of my top wines of the day, I found this effort quite moving.

2023 Patent Sauvignon Blanc, Le Sauvage Elegant, Yountville. Napa Valley OG winemaker Tom Rinaldi co-harvested and co-fermented Semillon and Muscat interplanted with Sauvignon Blanc for this energetic, vibrant, palate cleansing wine. Barrel fermented in new and neutral French oak with some stainless. A sunlit wonder.

2023 Gaderian Chenin Blanc, Old Vines, Napa Valley. Super cool and flinty Chenin Blanc by winemaker Shaina Harding. Crisp and easy-breezy, this refreshing wine woke me up! It’s showing a lot in its youth, and I couldn’t help but wonder how this wine will age and what magic might emerge from tertiary flavors in years to come.

There’s a tremendous amount of socializing going on during PNV. It’s by no means a quiet tasting, and networking rules the day. Though I find certain aspects of networking tedious, I’m glad to make the acquaintance of Angela McCrae, an apprentice under the Verasion Project, at Silver Oak Cellars. She’s living in California during her apprenticeship, but up until last July, she was living in her native Harlem. McCrae is keen on advocating for inclusion and education among wine consumers of color. Attending PNV for the first time, she says, “This is just amazing. There are so many beautiful wines.”  She agrees to check back in with me after the event to give me her take-aways.

Angela McCrae

I’m also curious what retailers think of this year’s PNV, so a bit later I approach a group of them standing around eating lunch at a small bistro table in the CIA’s teaching kitchen. We take a brief second to collectively praise the short ribs before we start chatting. Retailer Blake Van Treese, President of Last Bottle, First Bottle, and Last Bubbles, E-comm platforms that ship nationwide, says, “We always look forward to PNV week every year. It’s a great opportunity to connect with wineries and preview the upcoming vintage. Highpoints this year are getting to know some of the brand-new wineries and getting acquainted with the 2022 vintage. Despite some difficulties with the harvest and in the cellar, the wines exceeded my expectations. My favorite part of PNV is the camaraderie and community. It’s a great opportunity to check in with wineries about the upcoming wines they will be releasing.”

Properly hydrated and satiated, the tasting continues:

For consistency, it’s hard to beat three stalwart producers of the Napa Valley: Lewis Cellars presented a well-made 2022 Cabernet Sauvignon, while Crocker Starr presented the gorgeous 2022 Goddess, a 100% Cabernet Franc sourced from their estate in St. Helena. And it’s hard to go wrong with a wine from Elizabeth Vianna of Chimney Rock. Their 2022 Swan Song Cabernet Sauvignon is a stunner. The Alpine Vineyard, where the fruit is sourced, is being replanted, hence the wine’s name.

Rebekah Wineburg, winemaker at Quintessa, brought a 2022 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Rutherford Bench that had more than a few tasters, including this one, swooning over its sagebrush sensibilities and tender tannin profile.

One of the valley’s most underrated winemakers is Christopher Howell from Cain Vineyard and Winery. Their 2022 Picnic Tree offering from the Spring Mountain District is simply remarkable. It’s special to see the tasters around me fall silent while tasting this wine. Even in a room full of noisy, restless bodies, one singular wine can call the moment into focus.

Winemaker Francoise Peschon has a way with Sauvignon Blanc. One of the highlights of PNV week for me is attending the break-out Sauvignon Blanc tasting at PRESS restaurant, during which a ten-year vertical of Sauvignon Blancs (2013 to 2023), made by Peschon for Accendo, is poured for guests. Accendo’s 2023 Sauvignon Blanc, offered at the futures tasting and organically and biodynamically farmed, is breathtaking.

Peshon also knocks it out of the park with the 2022 Almacerro Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, made in tandem with winemaker Matilda Scott. Made from Old Vine (e. 1997) Cabernet Sauvignon, tasting this wine reminded me of the great Howell Mountain Cabs made in the early to mid-‘90s. Thoughtful, restrained, yet very pleasurable.

Personal favorites Dakota Shy, whose 2022 Cabernet Sauvignon Best Barrel, Napa Valley, was on offer, didn’t disappoint. It’s always great to taste those wines. The 2021 Lithology, made by winemaker Matt Sands, left me nearly speechless: A perfect wine, though I’m hesitant to call anything perfect because it might suggest the thing lacks a certain amount of character, and this wine has tons of character.

Julie Johnson’s 2022 Tres Sabores Zinfandel lends the day a special kind of context and gravitas. The site from which this fruit was sourced celebrates its 50th anniversary with this offering. A mysterious, dark, arresting wine.

The next day at auction, I find myself seated next to wine writer Roger Morris. Morris, who was in his late 50s when he began writing about wine in the early aughts, is 80 years old now. Sharp and prolific, he has a genteel manner and is a fun tablemate. “I enjoy seeing the continuing transition among cult and other luxury producers from delicious big reds to more structured, more elegant, perhaps more enjoyable reds,” he tells me. “I also love the continuing progress among Sauvignon Blanc producers to match Bordeaux in terms of elegance – a few are close to those of Margaux and Pessac-Leognan, but most still have work to do.”

While we are seated next to each other at a small table reserved for the media, a winemaker comes by with a decanter of her PNV Cabernet Sauvignon lot for us to taste. It has a tremendous amount of oak on it and astringent tannins. A couple of writers, me included, immediately announce that it has too much oak. The winemaker is barely out of earshot. Morris simply smiles and says, “It’s pretty good!”

He later adds that “few things are more enjoyable than talking with a great winemaker over a glass of her wine about the philosophy of making wine from vine to bottle, then talking with another great winemaker about his completely different, equally passionate philosophy. To me they both make great wines – the philosophy is more about style.”

Altogether, the 28th annual Premiere Napa Valley auction brought in around 3 million dollars.

After PNV, I check back in with McCrae, the Verasion Project apprentice, to get her take on the event. The Verasion Project is a non-profit organization committed to reshaping the beverage industry by creating an industry that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive. She tells me, “It was quite an overwhelming experience, to say the least. What really stood out to me was the excitement around the collaborations lots like Ovid Napa Valley and Spottswoode. I learned that through collaboration, the possibilities are endless and allows brands to blend their unique styles to create something new. I would love for this model to be used as a creative way to open doors for smaller and overlooked producers, for an opportunity to bring something fresh to rejuvenate the experience and bring new people into the NVV community.”


By R.H. Drexel
Contributing Writer
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