2017 & 2018 Napa Valley In Depth


My tastings in Napa Valley this past fall were incredibly illuminating. Although much maligned, the 2017 vintage yielded a number of exceptional wines. Quality is irregular, though, and there are certainly many 2017s that show the signs of a very challenging growing season. Readers will need to be especially selective. Two thousand eighteen is a much more even year. The wines are still in barrel, in many cases not blended, but my early tastings suggest they have quite a bit of potential.

The 2017s…It’s Complicated

Two thousand seventeen will undoubtedly be remembered mostly for the devastating fires that swept across much of Napa and Sonoma counties. The photos and personal accounts of that time are indeed harrowing. When it comes to the wines, though, fires were not the defining event.

Ric Forman's estate vineyard. St. Helena.

The year got started with a very wet winter that caused severe flooding, landslides and a host of other treacherous conditions. By the time summer arrived, the weather turned dry and hot. "We had more than 30 days with temperatures over 100 degrees, which is just crazy" Lou Kapscándy told me. An especially brutal heat spike was forecast around Labor Day. That event turned out to be far more dramatic and protracted than expected. Temperatures reached 120 degrees in some places, with no respite at night. Vines reacted by shutting down. In some places, Brix actually retreated. “I have never seen Brix go back like that,” Mike Smith told me recently. “People were freaking out.” Winemakers had to decide whether to pick or wait for vines to recover and resume ripening. Site, farming and stylistic choices resulted in a wide range of decisions. To be sure, the Labor Day heat would have been even more devastating if not for 2015, after which shade cloth became widely used in the valley.

Proprietor Denise Adams with her new team headed by Winemaker Sarah Donley and General Manager Kit Gilbert at Adamvs.

Then, of course, the fires arrived in October. The early pickers were already in barrel, but others had wines in tank, or fruit on the vine. Power was off for an extended period of time and roads were closed. Some winemakers were able to make it into their facilities to do at least some rudimentary, manual winemaking, others were not. At the far extremes, some wines were completely lost because they could not be tended to, while at the other end of the spectrum, high-end wineries with generator power closed their tanks and controlled pumpovers and punchdowns remotely via technology, literally as if nothing at all had happened. 

E-books, second editions, a digital licensing program and a range of custom map options are just some of what is coming from Vinous Maps in 2020. This excerpt is taken from the forthcoming second edition of The Vineyards of Oakville, by Antonio Galloni and Alessandro Masnaghetti, © Vinous Media 2020.

In tasting, the wines are incredibly variable and range from thrilling to washed out and diluted. Almost all 2017s share a certain edginess in the tannin that is the result of less than perfect physiological ripening. There are a few wines in this vintage that are essentially made from partial crops. Those are wines from estates that like to pick across a wide window and then blend earlier and later picks in the cellar for complexity. In 2017, those wines are made only from the early picks. Examples include Screaming Eagle and Realm Beckstoffer To Kalon. It will be really interesting to see if those wines change perceptions about what ideal ripeness is. 

A stunning late fall day at Bryant Estate.

And what about smoke taint? In the end, most producers told me they bottled only pre-fire lots. Others, including Claude Blankiet and Lou and Louis Kapcsándy, were adamant their post-fire lots showed no taint. One thing is sure, the science and testing around taint remains pretty rudimentary. Barrels, especially those with high toast, release compounds into wines that are hard, if not impossible, to separate from those from smoke taint, which leaves winemakers without clear data with which to make decisions. Moreover, testing needs to be done on young wines, because time in barrel starts to introduce the smoky, charred elements found in tainted wines. After two years, trying to pick out taint in tasting becomes very hard, especially for wines from sites that tend to naturally produce tannic, savory Cabernets, like Howell Mountain or Coombsville. I imagine testing will become far more specific given that the risk of fires is, sadly, likely to increase in the years to come. Readers may want to revisit my article 2017 Napa Valley – First Impressions for more on the 2017s from barrel.

Tasting at Togni during the planned October 2019 power outage.

Looking Ahead at the 2018s…So Far, So Good

I also saw a wide range of 2018s during my fall tastings, but not as many as in a typical year. My impression is that a number of owners did not want to show their 2018s for fear of penalizing the 2017s, which nearly everywhere are less complete wines. In other cases, my fall visit coincided with a good deal of harvest stress (more on that below) and winemakers simply did not have the time to prepare barrel samples at that time. Fair enough. That is also one of the reasons I always taste the new vintage in the spring, so I had plenty of additional data points to supplant the 2018s I tasted in September and October 2019.

"It was a cool year, with long hang time,” Thomas Rivers Brown explained as we tasted through a large number of the wines he makes for both consulting clients and his own labels this past spring. “Winter was cold, and we don’t inoculate, so the malolactic fermentations took a long time to finish.” Philippe Melka had a similar take. “The fruit was very clean. As a result, we did more native ferments than is often the case. We observed wines with deep color, high anthocyanins and lower tannins than in most years. We also extended macerations a bit longer than usual."

A stellar range at Dakota Shy, one of Napa Valley's most exciting young wineries.

A long, cool growing season with very few shock events gave producers the conditions to make very finessed, aromatic wines. Yields were very generous, though, so managing vineyards was critical. Large volume vintages often create logistical challenges that aren’t so obvious on the surface. These include the pressure of having to pick large crops and the space and time constraints that become issues in smaller wineries and custom crush facilities. To give but one example, at most custom crush facilities, tanks are rotated. That means winemakers are given a fixed number of days in tank. What do you do in a vintage like 2018 when the wines extract slowly, and you have to get out of tank? Smoke taint was also an issue in some upper elevation areas to the north, especially on Howell Mountain at Atlas Peak. Readers may want to revisit my article on the 2018s from barrel for more detail.

A view from Dominus with Blankiet in the background, Yountville.

The Current State of the Market

As has been my custom for a number of years, I spent four weeks in Napa Valley this past fall, visiting wineries and watching what turned out to be a fascinating harvest bring new developments seemingly every day. Before leaving for California, I received an unexpected call from one of Napa Valley’s most well-known landowners telling me that the grape market was very weak. I was frankly a bit surprised. In my mind, I thought that above average yields of 2018 were probably a good balance to the far lower yields of 2017. So, what is the significance of another high yielding vintage (2019) leading to a total collapse of grape prices? To be sure, the price for bulk wines had also dropped sharply. The market was awash with smoke-tainted 2017s no one wanted and plenty of excess 2018s. At harvest, the situation for a lot of contract vineyards came down to something like “pay me what you can” to “just pick the fruit” to “just pay for the labor” as growers struggled to find buyers. Ultimately, two back to back high production vintages following a short year result in a precipitous drop of grape prices that very likely means there is a good bit of unsold wine from preceding vintages piled up somewhere. Another generous crop in 2020 could put grape growers in a real bind, while creating an extraordinary opportunity for large, multiple-label behemoths to swoop in at the last minute and buy very high-quality fruit at rock bottom prices.

Harvest in full swing at Colgin.

At the higher end, there is no question the market is softening. The proliferation of high-end brands continues. I was reminded of that when I tasted a bottle of Colgin’s 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Tychson Hill during my trip. The first thing I thought when I saw that label was the number of wineries that did not exist when that wines was made! The dual pressures of consolidation in distribution and high prices for the very best, most premium grapes means wineries, especially those that don’t own land, depend on selling direct to the consumer. For those wineries, the name of the game is finding the case production they can sell direct without having to hire a large staff and rely on distribution, a margin killer for small wineries and only practical for wineries with scale. So case productions for a number of high-end bottlings continue to quietly retract.

Massimo Di Costanzo's 2017s and 2018s are off the charts.

Napa Valley’s New Normal

On top of all of that, Napa Valley felt like a very fragile place this past fall. Constantly changing weather had winemakers making last minute adjustments to pick dates. Things got very stressful in October when PG&E announced a series of planned power outages. Winds were expected to pick up, and California’s energy utility wanted to avoid a repeat of 2017, when fires created what is estimated to be tens of billions of dollars in insurance claims. The math is simple. Inconveniencing business and consumers for a few days added up to a far smaller number than massive claims from another set of devastating fires. PG&E’s message was also pretty clear in transferring liability to consumers and businesses. On the night of October 9 power went out across a number of places in the town of Napa and up through the valley. I have never seen anything like it, at least not in the Unites States. The lines at gas stations wrapped around corners, stoplights were out on Highway 29, making driving both eerie and dangerous, schools were closed and entire commercial districts, such as St. Helena’s Main Street, were completely shut down.

Left to Right: Winemaker Adam Goodrich with Whitney and Rob Fisher. The estate's new releases are among the most compelling wines I tasted this year.

In the middle of all this, vineyard managers were trying to pick grapes and winemakers were trying to make wine. After 2017, many wineries decided they needed to have full energy independence, so they bought generators. But not all did. Including some very big names. No electricity means no sorting tables, which means no harvesting. So just as harvest started to reach its peak of activity, everything just stopped for a few days. It was really quite dramatic. Wineries weren’t the only businesses to not have generator power. Even high-end hotels could not take care of their guests. There is no reason to believe anything is going to change going forward. Ultimately businesses, including wineries, must be totally self-sufficient. This is the new normal.

Chris Phelps in one his blocks at Sleeping Lady, Yountville.

A Special Thank You…

This year, as I did my tastings, I often thought about Bob Parker. I am not sure why. Maybe I was in an especially introspective mood. Or maybe it was Bob’s formal announcement of his retirement earlier in the year that was on my mind. The fall of 2019 marked ten years since Bob first asked me to take over coverage of California wines at The Wine Advocate. Maybe that’s what I was thinking about. In any event, being in Napa Valley brought back an especially strong set of memories of the time I spent with Bob tasting and visiting wineries with him. Bob basically taught me everything I knew about Napa Valley wines at the time. It was the very same feeling I had when I studied voice in Milan with a former assistant conductor from La Scala, a feeling that something of great value was being handed down to me. So, I would like to dedicate this article to Bob.

Cliff Lede and his team led by COO Remi Cohen and Winemaker Chris Tynan made some of the finest wines I have tasted at this address.

The first tasting Bob and I did together in Napa Valley was a retrospective of the 2001s in 2011 at the Napa Valley Vintners over the course of several days. I was so nervous. I would basically pour the wines in flights for us and just try to absorb as much as possible as Bob broke down each estate and wine. At the end of every session we compared favorites. Most of the time, our views were pretty similar. The next year, I was a bit more relaxed. In addition to tasting the 2002s, we visited Harlan Estate, Beringer and had a simple dinner with Christian Mouiex and his wife, Cherise, at Ad Hoc.

Tasting a few older vintages at Mayacamas while poring over Bob Travers' meticulous harvest notes.

The ten-year mark of regularly visiting Napa Valley to review the wines also seems like a good moment to address a few things. I was struck by a comment from a winemaker during my tastings: “People were terrified of you when you first started coming here. We just couldn’t figure you out because you were so hard to read,” he said. It wasn’t the first time I had heard a comment like that, but for some reason this year it resonated more. That led me to ask myself: “What should the role of the wine critic be?”

Cleo Pahlmeyer and winemaker Jen Williams.

Well, I am pretty sure I know what it should not be. Let me start there. I don’t think a serious critic should act like a frat boy or sorority girl. Not every wine is great. The ratings scale for Napa Valley Cabernet does not start at 95 points. Blind tasting for the purpose of writing critical reviews is a waste of time. Let me be clear, there are settings where blind tasting can be helpful, even essential, for example in technical tastings where there may be some bias at play, or for tasting exercises that involve breaking wines down into components for analysis. But for writing reviews, tasting blind is a waste of time. I was reminded of that recently in Bordeaux. I came across an unusually floral and savory wine in a flight of Pomerols, which are heavily Merlot-based wines. Then I remembered the wine in my glass was from a site with a high percentage of Cabernet Franc. Now, the wine made sense, and I could write something meaningful about it. We don’t expect food critics to review restaurants blind, or music critics to review concerts blind. Context is everything.

Winemaker Nick Gislason showing me some 2019 Merlots at Screaming Eagle.

I believe spending time physically in the vineyards and talking with winemakers in wineries and in the field is essential. Ultimately a critic can’t taste wines in a vacuum or be totally detached from people. Instead, a good critic is able to take all of the information that comes in from various sources and distill that into an informed opinion. Let’s face it, it’s not that hard to give scores to wines in strong vintages. Some wines are better than others. Fine. What about difficult vintages, or cases where well-known estates underperform? That’s when you see the true value of a critic. Over the years, a handful of wineries have let me know, in various ways, that I am no longer welcome to visit and taste. In Napa Valley, these include Eisele Vineyard, Schrader and Maybach. That, dear reader, is the price of Freedom and true Independence.

Round Pond is one of the great recent success stories in Napa Valley. From left to right: Consulting Winemaker Thomas Brown, Owner Ryan MacDonnell Bracher, Winemaker John Donegon Wilson and Owner Miles MacDonnell.

When Bob asked me to take over coverage of California he was still very much in his prime. Bob could have chosen anyone from within The Wine Advocate, or outside, to assume coverage of Napa Valley. It was the one and only time in his career Bob handed over one of his major regions to another critic voluntarily, by choice. By Choice. Not because of health issues, fatigue, the lack of desire or inability to travel, or pressure from investors, all factors that drove every other major coverage decision that followed, but by choice. To be perfectly honest, it took me a few years to feel comfortable as Bob’s heir, and to settle into that role.

When you know that what you write, especially if it is very negative or very positive, will have serious financial repercussions for other people and their families…well, let’s just say it is a pretty big responsibility. So, yes, I take tasting and reviewing wine seriously. What might come across as aloofness is in reality concentration and focus. I won’t apologize for that. And you should not want it any other way.

Proprietor Tor Kenward with Winemaker Jeff Ames, COO Matt Deller MW and Assistant Winemaker David Grega at Wheeler Farms. The TOR wines have never been better. 


So often at Vinous we write about estate owners, winemakers, vineyard consultants and other high-profile professionals on the production side, many of whom achieve a great deal of notoriety, even celebrity. But behind them there is a much larger group of people who work tirelessly behind the scenes in a wide range of marketing, operational, administrative and support roles who will never be known to the public. These people are every bit as important in ensuring that their companies operate efficiently. Jim Caudill, Treasury Wine Estates’ Director of Marketing Communications was a total pro. He always had everything super-organized for my tastings and crazy schedule. Like any good marketer, he always prodded me to taste more of his brands, each of which he was incredibly passionate about. I was very saddened to hear of his passing a few weeks ago. He was truly one of a kind.

I tasted all of the wines in this article between September and December 2019. Ideally, I would have liked this article to appear earlier. Severe water damage to my home, where I have not been able to live since August, delayed a large part of my writing and tasting. Readers will also note that this article is being published without producer commentaries. I believe this contextual information is vital, but under the circumstances I simply could not finish it all by our deadline. However, we will be adding that information over the next week. Thank you for your understanding.

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