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Paddles Fly and Prices Soar at Premiere Napa Valley

The auction at Premiere Napa Valley

The bidding war at The Culinary Institute of America lasted three hours and raised three million dollars

During the annual Premiere Napa Valley at The Culinary Institute of America on Saturday, members of the trade got an early look at how the wines of 2011 are shaping up. The annual barrel tasting and auction, inspired by the en primeur market in Bordeaux, attracted more than 1,000 retailers, distributors, importers, restaurateurs and writers from nine countries and 35 states who spent the day tasting wine, schmoozing and bidding on barrels or “lots” blended especially for the occasion.

If prices paid for the wine is any indication, 2011 will not be the failure everyone feared it might be — the vintage was famously plagued with cool temperatures throughout the growing season, rain towards the end of harvest, and in some cases, rot. The top-selling lot, a blend of four Bordeaux varieties by Bevan Cellars and Chateau Boswell, fetched $75,000 for 120 bottles, or $625 per bottle. The event raised over $3 million total from the 211 lots donated by members of the Napa Valley Vintners.

But, as one vintner pointed out, “the prices don’t make any sense.” During the intense, three-hour bidding session, prices are driven ever-higher more by ego and bragging rights than actual demand in the marketplace.

But there is also no denying that the wines are good. Such a challenging vintage gave the most talented winemakers the opportunity to make wine reminiscent of early Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, before overripe fruit and heavy oak regimens became de rigueur. Some of the best lots were beautiful and expressive even in their infancy, and much more nuanced than a typical Napa Valley barrel sample. “It was a year to be nimble,” said Cathy Corison.

Those light on their feet, like Corison, BV, Heitz, Farella and Silverado Vineyards (to name just a few of the outstanding wines we tasted), will make great age-worthy wine, while others who were more stubborn and relied on grape concentrate and tannin additions to make up for what they felt was lacking in the fruit will be less successful. The 2011 vintage will be a year to taste, explore and follow for years to come. And, don’t worry, $625 a bottle will certainly not be the norm.