Napa Valley’s Thrilling 2018 & 2019 – Antonio Galloni
Published January 2021 on Vinous.com
Written by Antonio Galloni
Napa Valley experienced two stunning back-to-back vintages in 2018 and 2019 the likes of which I have never seen. Both vintages produced a bevy of breathtaking wines that will thrill Napa Valley fans. The 2018s are refined and vibrant, while the young 2019s have a bit more depth and energy.
Tasting During a Pandemic
Last Spring I decided I would taste all the wines I always taste and publish my normal schedule of articles, pandemic or not. That was probably overly optimistic, but we went for it anyway. For the first time ever I was not able to travel to Napa Valley for my tastings. That’s quite a departure from a typical year in which I spend more than a month in the region between tastings and our map work. On a personal note, this was a very hard article to write. So many winemakers I spoke with recounted harrowing tales of the 2020 fires unlike anything I have ever heard before, and I have heard and seen a lot.
One of the biggest myths around wine tasting and criticism is that somehow wines taste ‘better’ at the properties. After having tasted several thousand wines from around the world at home over the last ten or so months, it is pretty obvious this is just not true. In person visits allow for conversation and a level of context that virtual tastings can’t fully replace. At the same time, tasting with some distance allows for a full focus on the wine, just on what’s in the glass. Another positive aspect of tasting at home is having the ability to follow wines over hours and even days, something that is obviously impossible when traveling. What’s not so positive? Well, taking out the garbage and dealing with recycling are at the top of the list.
I know I spent more time with each single wine than usual. In fact, some estates received their most glowing notes and highest scores ever from me this year. Maybe next year they will politely decline my request for an appointment. “We would rather you taste our wines at home.” I can see it now…
The 2018 Growing Season & Wines
After a very challenging 2017, vineyard managers, estate owners and winemakers welcomed 2018. It was a year with very even, cool weather, no major heat events or other shocks to speak of and a long, relaxed harvest. But 2018 was not without its challenges. Smoke from the Mendocino Complex Fire impacted some parts of the valley, especially Atlas Peak and Howell Mountain. I remember being in Napa in mid-August that year and seeing hazy skies in the distance. Had it not been for the smoke, some producers might have continued to hang fruit, but fires ultimately drew the curtain on the 2018 harvest. Sadly, there are some wines with smoke taint. More on that later. Yields were generous, so much so that when I started tasting the wines in barrel, in January 2019, I was shocked to see the number of barrels in some cellars. Most winemakers I spoke with relayed that the 2018s were difficult to extract and required a bit more time on the skins.
The cool growing season, drawn out harvest and high yields naturally invite comparisons to another recent vintage, and that is 2012. As Vinous readers know, I have never really liked 2012 all that much. The wines were light and lacking in complexity, but they were hyped because they followed 2011, one of the most difficult growing seasons of the last decade. There is no doubt 2018 is a far superior vintage. As a group, the 2012s had more of a red-toned fruit profile. The 2018s are decidedly darker, deeper and more serious wines. They also offer greater complexity, with bright acids and plenty of structure, which is evident to varying degrees, depending on the wine.
What the 2018s don’t quite have is the visceral thrill factor of the truly great recent vintages such as 2013 and 2016, but they come very close. Improvements in farming and winemaking elevate many 2018s into the stratosphere. There are so many 2018s that are simply mind-blowing. But what stands out most about the 2018s is their consistency. It is very hard to go wrong with a bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Tasting the 2019s from Barrel…
The 2019s are just barely a year old, but that harvest feels like it was ages ago. I was surprised by how little winemakers and vineyard managers remembered about 2019, but, then again, they have been through so much trauma over the last few months that the memory of relatively recent events becomes blurred.
As always, I rented a house for an entire month during the fall. What I remember about 2019 is a pretty even vintage, with a few heat events that were not severe. There was some rain in May, but based on the wines I tasted, that does not appear to have been problematic. Yields were high, so much so that sellers of fruit were looking for buyers at the last minute, in the middle of harvest. It was a buyer’s market as prices plummeted. Harvest took place under the threat of planned power outages. Following the 2017 fires and damages well into the billions, PG&E, the local utility, informed businesses and residents they would cut power as preventive measure if winds were deemed to be too strong. So, in the middle of harvest, which also happens to be peak tourist season, power was shut off. No power means no picking, because sorting tables and other equipment can’t be operated. I was frankly surprised to see how many elite wineries (and hotels) did not invest in generators following the 2017 fires. After the devastation of 2020, I find it hard to be too critical, but it seems pretty apparent that energy independence is absolutely essential today. That is especially true for wineries that are at the upper end of the price spectrum.
I saw things in 2019 I have never seen before in Napa Valley. Lines around the block at gas stations in Napa, for example. I returned from my tastings one evening to find the stoplights out on Highway 29 and saw businesses closed and lights out on Main Street in St. Helena. In the field, bursts of heat in October forced winemakers to move pick dates forward at the last minute while they also dealt with power outages and the threat of fires.
With all of that as background, the 2019s I have tasted so far are fabulous. The wines feel like they have a little more energy, power and depth than the 2018s. I imagine much of that has to do with smaller berries and higher skin-to-juice ratios. That extra kick of late heat seems to have given the wines just enough added concentration to fill out their frames. Acidities, though, are on the lower side, so the perception is of wines that are both rich and energetic. In some ways, 2019 reminds me of 2010, but not as extreme. Winemakers generally describe the wines as extracting easily, the sign of a vintage that has a lot of natural richness.
Napa Valley Today
Readers will no doubt notice the number of wines with glowing reviews and high scores in this article. A common reaction is to count the number of wines with x score and compare that number to previous articles. It’s a fun game. Some context might be helpful.
Let’s get one thing out of the way. I don’t really like scores. I think they oversimplify both a winemaker’s work and also the thought that (hopefully) goes into a critic’s considered opinion. But scores are helpful, too. For, one they are intuitive. When my daughter comes home with a 95 on a test, I know she did great. But, when the first number is not a ’9’, well, there’s room for improvement. Second, scores force a critic to take a firm view: 89 or 90, 95 or 96, 99 or 100? These inflection points can be meaningful. Lastly, there are those times when wines underperform, for whatever reason, and that should be noted.
When I look back at the wines that received the most positive reviews, I am shocked by how many did not exist at all when I first started covering Napa Valley wines a decade ago! It is truly amazing. In many parts of the world, Europe for example, ten years is nothing. In Napa Valley, it is an eternity.
One of the major trends of the last decade has been an increase of single-vineyard wines, the “Burgundification” of Napa Valley, if you will. These wines are often made in tiny quantities. The chart above shows the average case production for a number of reference-point wines around the world. The largest-production high-end wine in Napa Valley is Opus One, which comes in at around 25,000 cases. The production of established ‘cult’ wines like Harlan Estate peaks at around 2,000 cases. Screaming Eagle is next, at approximately 900. Vine Hill Ranch and Bryant Estate and others follow. In each of these cases, wineries bottle only the very best lots under their flagship labels. That’s not especially remarkable; it’s a common practice around the world. For example, the Bordeaux First Growths bottle about 40% of their production as their Grand Vin.
Going back to Napa, we then find a large number of wines in the 250-300 case range. These are often wines made from purchased fruit. The latest trend is tiny micro-cuvées, like Dalla Valle’s MDV or the Blankiet Mythicus, which are just a few barrels (one barrel equals 25 cases). These wines represent the best of the best. They should have huge ratings. It would be a problem if they didn’t. Now, imagine if Domaine de la Romanée Conti bottled just the best 5 or 6 barrels of La Tâche, or if Masseto bottled just the best 5-6 barrels of their Merlot. What would those wines taste like? Of course, these aren’t exactly apples to apples comparisons. But what we see in Napa Valley is extreme selection. It’s not the tenderloin, but the tenderloin of the tenderloin. And that pursuit of quality is ultimately what drives high scores for many wines.
What’s New Under the Sun?
The answer is a lot. It was a little more than ten years ago that Bob Parker asked me to take over coverage of California wines at The Wine Advocate. The first thing Bob told me was that I would find it very hard to keep up with the pace of change. How right he was. Bob often told me he wished he was my age. I don’t think that was just a desire to be younger. I mean, we all wish that at times. No, I think Bob knew that the best days for wine, and specifically Napa Valley, lay in the future. When I think about the finest wines in this article – thrilling, monumental wines– well, I wish Bob had had a chance to taste them.
One of the real challenges in wine criticism is finding the time to review an ever-increasing number of commendable wines in all regions. These are a few highlights of what is new in Napa Valley, just this year alone. All of these wineries are in the first or second year of commercial release.
A collection of four Cabernets from vineyards in Soda Canyon and Atlas Peak. Andy Erickson is the winemaker.
2018 Expedition Cabernet Sauvignon: The 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Expedition, the first wine in this range, is a heady, exotic Cabernet laced with copious blackberry jam, bittersweet chocolate, spice and new French oak. Unabashedly opulent, this full-throttle Cabernet delivers plenty of intensity in a bold style that will require only minimal cellaring. Soft contours add to its considerable appeal. This is certainly an impressive debut. Hopefully the oak can be a bit more measured in the future, but that’s a pretty small quibble at this level. The Expedition is built around a core of fruit from vineyards in Soda Canyon and Atlas Peak.
Score: 94 points.
2018 Shale Cabernet Sauvignon: The 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Shale is gorgeous. Deep, pliant and aromatically expressive, the Shale Cabernet has a lot going on. Sage, mint, cedar, rose petal, licorice and spice add a brilliant aromatic upper register to play off the fruit. The 2018 is deep and powerful, as all these wines are, but it also possesses tremendous purity from start to finish.
Score: 92-95 points
2018 Basalt Cabernet Sauvignon: The 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Basalt is laced with black fruit, chocolate, gravel and smoke, all of which come together to convey an impression of breadth and brooding power. Full-bodied and vibrant, the Basalt is shaping up to be a jewel of a wine. This is impressive.
2018 Summit Cabernet Sauvignon: The 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Summit is a blend of the best lots in the cellar. It is the most intensely mineral and savory of these Cabernets. Mountain structure and generous inky dark fruit come together in a huge, dramatic Cabernet that delivers the goods. Gravel, dried herbs, crushed rocks and flowers add myriad shades of nuance. This is another compelling and promising wine from Seven Apart.