Napa Valley’s Thrilling 2018s & 2019s, Parts 1 & 2


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…

An early morning 2018 pick at Vine Hill Ranch. 

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. 

Catching the tail end of the 2018 harvest at Colgin. 

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.

A bevy of 2019 barrel samples.

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.

This chart depicts the price and production of a number of reference point wines from key regions around the world.

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.

Tasting Blankiet’s 2019s block by block, including core components for the Cabernet Sauvignon Mythicus. These educational tastings are always among my favorites.

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. 

Bella Oaks – A historic vineyard makes a stunning debut as an estate wine under the direction of proprietor Suzanne Deal Booth and winemaker Nigel Kinsman. 

DVO – A new joint venture between Dalla Valle and Tuscany’s Tenuta dell’Ornellaia. Maya Dalla Valle and Axel Heinz source fruit from a number of top hillside vineyards for their wine.   

Heimark – A striking site in Calistoga at 1,200 feet in elevation. The Heimarks sell most of their fruit to outside wineries, but started making a small amount of Cabernet under their own label with the 2016 vintage. Mike Wolf is the vineyard manager while Françoise Peschon makes the wine.

Fe – Super-impressive wines from a new estate on Spring Mountain. Aaron Pott is the winemaker. An exciting project, to say the least.   

Impensata – Owned by the Ciminelli family, Impensata sources from their estate Engelhard Vineyard in Calistoga’s Franz Valley School district and Ecotone (formerly Thorevilos) in St. Helena. Nigel Kinsman is the winemaker. 

Lyrix – This new Cabernet from proprietors Chris and Andrea Diamantis is a blend from Houyi (next to Colgin and Brand) and a first-rate site on Howell Mountain. Thomas Rivers Brown is the winemaker.

Radio Silence – A private label from retailer WineAccess that sources from top estates and offers terrific value. 

Seven Apart – A collection of four Cabernets from vineyards in Soda Canyon and Atlas Peak. Andy Erickson is the winemaker.

J.H. Wheeler – The new incarnation of Bart and Daphne Araujo's former Wheeler Farms label, with a far greater emphasis on quality than the early wines.

New Wines from Familiar Wineries

At the same time, existing wineries continue to expand their ranges. These are some standouts, all wines that are new this year.

Accendo Laurea – The new second wine from Accendo is superb in its debut release.

Caterwaul Cabernet Sauvignon Cemetery Vineyard – This new Cabernet, from a parcel next to the St. Helena cemetery, is fabulous.

Cornell Courtship – The new second wine from Henry and Vanessa Cornell is superb. Cornell is one of a handful of Sonoma estates I have included in Napa Valley coverage of late as the estate is on Spring Mountain, just across the Napa/Sonoma county line and the focus is Cabernet. 

Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Three Vineyard Blend – An experimental blend from the estate’s three main vineyards that is being commercially released for the first time now, with the 2013 vintage. 

Dunn 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve El Camino - A one-off wine made from old vines that have since been replanted, is one of the best Cabernet Randy and Mike Dunn have ever made.

Kinsman Eades Cabernet Sauvignon La Voleuse du Chagrin – This new Cabernet from Nigel and Shae Kinsman is sourced from Geeslin, a small vineyard in Calistoga that was once part of Eisele.

Pott Agnes Sorel – 100% Cabernet Franc from Aaron Pott’s estate vineyard on Mt. Veeder tastes like Loire Cabernet Franc on steroids, with the volume turned up to eleven. Yeah, I loved it. 

Promontory Penultimate – The newest wine from the Harlan family’s Promontory estate is compelling. 

Sinegal Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Details – This new bottling from Sinegal and winemaker Ryan Knoth shows just how appealing Sonoma Cabernet can be, and it’s a steal.

Randy Dunn's firetruck ready to spring into action, as seen in 2015.

Some Thoughts on 2020

How fast things can change. I had started some tastings for this report in September. Up until then, Napa Valley looked like it would largely escape untouched by fires that had been devastating in Sonoma and the Santa Cruz Mountains. That all changed on September 27, when the Glass Fire ripped through Napa Valley and caused unprecedented damage. Many homes, businesses and wineries were lost. I heard so many tales of remarkable heroism that saved lives, property and livelihoods. 

Vineyards are often firebreaks. In 2020, many vineyards were hit hard because of the sheer severity of the fires. Moreover, it has been a dry summer and the vines did not have the level of moisture they had in 2017, which has been a far rainier year. Vineyard damage won’t be fully evident until the spring, but many fear that, even if vines have survived, they will collapse with the first heat spike or other shock. Wine production will be down sharply. Many estates will skip the vintage entirely. To say the situation is dramatic is an understatement. And yet, even with all of that, I am struck by the resilience of the wine community. Many people said “It could have been much worse” or “we were very lucky.” Another comment I heard frequently was “You will see things look very differently the next time you come out.”

I have been back to places that burned. Signorello and Mayacamas come to mind. I can only describe that feeling as being enveloped by a deep and profound sense of sadness. Of course I see that only as an outsider. The emotions of those directly involved must be a thousand times worse. 

Two thousand twenty was a very traumatic year. As harvest approached, several fires burned. In some places, most notably Sonoma, producers rushed to pick what they could, often harvesting 7-10 days earlier than they had planned to. Winemakers rushed to test fruit on the vine for smoke taint, but to little avail. Labs were backed up for weeks, which meant that winemakers were forced to make picking decisions before results came back. Some did micro-ferments in the hopes of getting those results faster, but with limited success. Others shipped samples to places as far away as Australia in an attempt to get much needed answers in time.

Smoke taint is a tricky thing. For starters, it is not very well understood and the tools for measuring it are limited. Some of the compounds that trigger elevated readings are the same compounds toasted barrels add to a wine. Sensory perception and lab readings don’t always align. In tasting, wines from appellations like Atlas Peak, Howell Mountain and Coombsville, especially those aged in a fair amount of new oak, often display charred, savory and gamy qualities that are similar to those found in tainted wines. That’s one of the reasons testing has to be done early, before wines start the aging process. But it’s complex. Many winemakers have told me of submitting wines with known smoke exposure for testing that do not test positive, and others with no smoke exposure that do come back positive. The biggest marker of taint in wines, in my experience, is not the flavor profile, but rather a very strong drying quality in the tannins. The big take away is that it is pretty clear much more work is needed in this field.

Sadly, fires appear to be part of a ‘new normal.’ The first time I remember really seeing the immediate threat posed by fires was in 2015, when I stopped by Randy Dunn’s place right before Howell Mountain was evacuated. The handwritten sign at the entrance ominously read “805 Defensible, 10,000 gallons.” As we drove in, I saw Dunn’s vintage fire truck ready for action, with the hoses neatly arranged on the porch, next to two gas masks. Since then, fires or the threat of fires has been a part of nearly every growing season. I can only hope that some meaningful learning emerges from 2020, such that similar situations don’t happen again. They can’t happen again. Not just for the wine industry, but for all other related industries that depend on a thriving wine industry. If taken alone, California is the world’s fifth largest economy. That so many lives and jobs are under threat every single year is just incomprehensible. 

Farming at Sleeping Lady, the southernmost vineyard in Yountville, has improved dramatically in recent years, making it one of the top sites in Napa Valley.

In Closing, For Now…

The large number of wines and the logistics of managing the delivery of hundreds of wines, some barrel samples, others in bottle, during a pandemic necessitates this report being published in more than one installment. I expect the next set of reviews to be ready within a few weeks. For the avoidance of doubt, there is nothing to be inferred about the estates covered in this installment and those that will be added to this article in the future.

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