Napa’s Best Cabernet: Tasting the Superb 2021 Vintage at Premiere Napa Valley

Some people run marathons. Me? I taste 150 or so Cabernets before lunch. That’s the way I like to describe my annual tradition of experiencing the event called Premiere Napa Valley.

Each year, the Napa Valley Vintners Association hosts an annual fundraising event known as Premiere Napa Valley. Premiere consists of a barrel tasting and auction, in which the wines on offer are all unique creations made specifically and only for this event. Premiereoffers bidders the opportunity to own an incredibly rare wine that often represents the very pinnacle of a winemaker’s efforts in that vintage. All the invited bidders are ostensibly in the wine trade (retailers, distributors, etc.), while other attendees include the media and winery staff. The proceeds from the auction go to help fund the Vintners Association itself.

It’s been referred to as the world’s most expensive bakesale.

From my standpoint, the event is always an opportunity to do three things: connect with the broader Napa winemaking community; get a sense of the vintage as a whole (since most wines share a common vintage); and taste some of the best wines made in Napa Valley.

Rare as Snow in Napa

The wines made for Premiere are often the very best barrel produced by each winery that season or are special blends made exclusively for sale at the event. Offered in 5, 10, and 20-case lots, they are often, and accurately, described as the rarest wines made in Napa.

Tasting through 150 or 200 of these lots from the same vintage gives me a deep sense of the potential for a given year’s work in Napa, as well as shows me what Napa winemakers are really capable of when working at the peak of their craft.

Snow above Shafer Vineyards the afternoon of February 24th, 2023

Yesterday morning, February 24th, I joined hundreds of my industry colleagues in the extremely chilly barrel cellar at Charles Krug Winery to taste through 154 lots being auctioned off this year. While the cellar was cold, everyone was chillier than usual having woken up to the unusual sight of snow on all the surrounding mountains thanks to what meteorologists are calling the most intense winter storm to hit California in decades.

In fact, everyone attending the event only got the chance to taste 153 samples of wine because the poor folks at Keenan winery were stuck on Spring Mountain, their path to the tasting blocked by a massive tree (bigger than the chainsaws owned by neighbors) that had fallen across the road.

Six to twelve inches of snow fell in some places high in the mountains surrounding Napa on Thursday night, drifting to nearly two feet in some places thanks to strong winds. I’m still waiting for photos of someone snowboarding through vineyards on Spring Mountain or Howell Mountain but I trust (and pray) these photos will surface with some time.

So of the 153 wines available to taste, most were from the 2021 vintage. I was (and am) incredibly excited by what I tasted.

Napa’s Best Vintage in a Decade

Coming off of three years of drought, the 2021 vintage was destined to be small. The winter delivered a scant amount of rain in January and February and then almost nothing after that. While this lack of moisture had the effect of limiting the amount of fruit that the vines were ready to produce, the lack of adverse weather also meant that both bud break and flowering proceeded uneventfully.

The Spring came early and warm, and the growing season proceeded accordingly, with early bud break, early flowering, and earlier veraison than average (whatever that is in this age of climate chaos). As a result, the 2021 harvest was extremely early—for some the earliest on record. The 2021 summer was marked by no significant heat events, unlike some other recent vintages, allowing for smooth and even ripening.

With the memories of the prior year’s horrific fires still relatively fresh in everyone’s mind, the early and unhurried harvest after an idyllic…

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Napa’s Best Cabernet: Tasting the Superb 2021 Vintage at Premiere Napa Valley  
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