Star/NVV panelists select their favorite Premiere Napa Valley wines

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What makes a wine someone’s favorite? Often it is the flavors of the wine itself; like a dark berried cabernet sauvignon layered with dark cocoa and vanilla spice.

Or it may come down to texture — flavors that glide along a silky path into a long, lingering finish. For fans of mature wines, it could be the softer tannins and integration of complex flavors that comes with time. Sometimes, however, it is the story behind the wine itself: a journey, a twist of fate, or a certain owner’s commitment that fuels a connection with the wine. For Premiere Napa Valley, held in late February at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, where vintners can create something completely different from their usual, it could also be the rarity of the grape variety or wine blend made that year.

There were 217 different Premiere Napa Valley lots on offer this year. The list of wines was divided between 14 panelists on the St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintner Tasting Panel. Each panelist entered the Feb. 25 barrel tasting with the same intent: to select their favorite and to indicate why it was their preferred wine of the tasting.

This is no easy task, mind you. Every vintner in the room was showing a unique wine made just for Premiere Napa Valley. What were the favorites and why? Our panel of winemakers, retailers, and wine writers found these wines the most exciting or tasty of Premiere 2017:

David Stevens of St. Helena’s 750 Wines chose the Ellman Family Vineyards 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, a 100 percent varietal wine from Coombsville, saying “If ever there was a ‘sleeper’ at PNV, this is it! This is the first public showing of their wine, and I believe it is destined for greatness. They have done everything right: hired Mike Wolf to manage the vineyard and Andy Erickson to make the wine. It is impeccably balanced and exhibits classic Napa Valley cabernet aromas and flavors of wildberry, black cherry, cocoa, and a hint of vanilla. The first release of the winery’s Estate cab will be in 2018 and we’ll be lining up for some.”

Sara Fowler, winemaker at Peju, called the S.R. Tonella Cellars 2015 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon “quintessential Rutherford — nicely balanced, fruit-forward with smooth tannins – a delightful wine.” Frederick Delivert is winemaker.

Master Sommelier Bob Bath boldly stated, “The Stony Hill will outlive most of the cabernets in the room,” when he chose the Stony Hill Vineyard 2016 Spring Mountain District Chardonnay. Michael Chelini is winemaker.

Janet Myers, winemaker at Franciscan Estate, selected the Dana Estates 2015 Sauvignon Blanc from Howell Mountain, calling it “a revelation; a stunning wine made in 50 percent concrete egg and 50 percent barrel fermented and aged sur lie for 16 months, giving gooseberry, boxwood and grapefruit aromas that burst from the glass with such intensity and purity. The palate was weighty and crisp with rich flavors extending on and on. A very distinctive example of sauvignon blanc; one of the best I’ve had in a long time.” Philippe Melka and Chris Cooney are the winemakers for Dana Estate.

Monica Stevens of 750 Wines chose the Perliss Estate “The Ravens, Aphora” 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, made from the winery’s Ravens Vineyard in Calistoga. She enjoyed the story of Anthony Perliss and his family. “Small but mighty, they’ve done a lot of things right including hiring Aaron Pott to make their wine. Nestled in Calistoga is where the grapes come from. I’m always inspired by vintners that work hard, have a great attitude and want to be a contributing part of the Napa Valley community of philanthropy and generosity. The wine, interestingly, is Amphora-aged — and classically delicious!”

The Coho 2015 “SoNa” Red Wine is made from cabernet sauvignon sourced from the cooler areas of Coombsville and southeast Napa. It was vintner Eric Titus’ choice, chosen for its balance, extraction and soft tannins. Made from 90 percent cab and 10 percent petite verdot, Eric liked the wine’s dark fruit, slate and chocolate flavors.

Panelist Jack Marx commented, “In a room full of superb wines, it is difficult to choose a single favorite. Since most of the wines are cabernet sauvignon, what stood out was the 2015 ‘Majek’ Cabernet Franc from Oakville East Exposure.“ Marx appreciated the wine’s “ripe red raspberry fruit, fleshy tannins, bright acidity and long finish.” Marie-Laure Ammons is Head Winemaker.

Julie Lumgair selected the Buoncristiani Family Winery 2015 “Black Ink” Petite Sirah, made from a single vineyard in Calistoga that was planted in the 1980s. Julie calls this wine a “classic petite syrah style: chalky, with generous fruit; a wine that will age well. Jay Buoncristiani is winemaker, and cautioned Premiere guests that “this dark-as-midnight wine will stain your teeth, mouth and clothing. Swirl and sip with care!”

Kim Nicholls, winemaker at Markham Vineyards, said the Odette Estate Winery 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags Leap District is “everything cabernet should be, and then some — sexy, masculine, powerful and totally seamless; blackberry pie deliciousness!” Jeff Owens is winemaker at Odette.

Irene Moore, who attended the Meadowood Wine Writers Symposium the week leading into Premiere, discovered that she preferred “Bordeaux style” wines after reviewing dozens of Premiere lots. Her favorite is the Pine Ridge Vineyards “5X5” 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon because of the wine’s bright fruit, high acidity, lower brix, and the fact that is a Bordeaux-style blend. Winemaker Michael Beaulac used all five classic Bordeaux varieties from five estate vineyards.

Honig winemaker Kristin Belair said it was a tough call, but chose the Schramsberg 1996 Late Disgorged sparkling wine, asking, “How does ANY cabernet compete with that? She added, “And there were some extraordinarily lovely cabernets.” Kristin described the Schramsberg as “a perfect balance of delicate and rich, still bright with lots of baked, toasty, yeast characters. It was seamless, complex and delightful!”

^pWinemaker Mike Conversano liked the Barnett Vineyards “Older Vine Estate” 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon “for its wow factor.” With all the red blends, he explained, he was looking for the wine that expressed itself and could be enjoyed with dinner. The wine included “root beer, blackberry, bright good acidity, layered fruit, candy apple red fruit and layered oak on the finish.” David Tate is both winemaker and general manager at Barnett.

Panelist Doug Boeschen chose the Summers Estate Wines 2014 Calistoga Cabernet Sauvignon “because of its pure fruit, and the fact that it is well-balanced – not over the top; a great example of rock solid Napa Valley winemaking.” Ignacios Blancas manages winemaking and vineyards operations.

Also working the barrel room was this writer, choosing the Yao Family Wines 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Rutherford AVA. This is the only wine Yao makes from a nested appellation; all other wines are labeled under the Napa Valley AVA. Expecting the wine to be overly powerful and unapproachable in its youth, it was instead full of bright, aromatic fruit with a great lift of acidity. Another important reminder to taste before you judge. Fruit comes from the Morisoli, Beckstoffer and Slaughterhouse vineyards. Tom Hinde is head of winemaking.

Catherine Bugue, the Star’s tasting panel columnist, loves writing about — and drinking — wine. You can contact Catherine at catbugue@gmail.com. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program, visit napavintners.com/programs and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.