The 2019 Napa Valley Cabernets: A Deep Dive
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | JANUARY 07, 2022
My annual report on Napa Valley is jam-packed. The 2019 Cabernets are big, bold wines that show the extroverted side of Napa Valley. There are plenty of fabulous wines at all levels, but 2019 does not have the across the board consistency of a truly great vintage, so readers will have to be selective.
This report focuses on the 2019s, most of which were bottled in the summer of 2021. Some of the 2019s were still in barrel at the time of my tastings, most notably those of estates that favor a longer aging regime of 30 months +/- of time in wood. These include Abreu, Harlan, Bond, Sloan, Vineyard 7&8 and Shafer for Hillside Select. A few additional wines had not been bottled because of the global shortage of glass, a reminder of the times in which we live.
Ordinarily, this report includes reviews of the latest vintage in barrel, in this case 2020, but I decided not to include most 2020s here for reasons I explain in more detail below. Instead, I chose to revisit many 2018s because I wanted to compare notes from onsite tastings with my reviews from last year, when I tasted all the wines in New York. Of course, the two sets of tastings are separated by a year, so it is not an apples-to-apples comparison. As readers will see, I found the 2018s I tasted this past fall every bit as compelling as they were last year. I also included a handful of reviews for Sonoma producers who focus on Bordeaux varieties, as those wines are a better fit in this article than in my upcoming Sonoma report.
Jason Exposto made one of the most memorable wines of 2019 at Futo.
The 2019 Growing Season & Wines
The 2019 Cabernets are big, bold wines with huge fruit and tons of richness. Acids are generally lower than in the 2018s, while the wines have more volume. Texturally, the tannins are often quite present, which gives the wines a good bit of energy.
Last year I wrote “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.”
The stunning Sacrashe plateau above Rutherford is shared by Hall, Sloan and a handful of other wineries that source fruit here.
Back then, I thought 2019 might surpass 2018, but today, things look different, for several reasons. The first is that the 2018s keep getting better. That’s pretty remarkable for a vintage that looked a bit light at the outset. The 2018s have bright acids and perfectly ripe tannins. It is an extremely consistent vintage, as can be seen by the quality of the entry-level Cabernets. Two thousand-eighteen is also a very strong year for the late pickers, as those wines have plenty of both richness and energy.
By comparison, the 2019s have generally lower acids and tannins that are a bit more present. My impression is that the late-season heat (which 2018 did not have) resulted in a period of slightly uneven ripening that left wines with tannins that are bit coarse. At the high end, that is not much of an issue. Indeed, the best 2019s are positively thrilling. Those big tannins take the place of acid in giving the wines energy. But quality in 2019 is less consistent across the board. That can be seen in the entry-level bottlings, which as a group, are not as exciting as the 2018s. Many of the riper wines, the best of which are so exciting in 2018, feel a bit heavy and less interesting in 2019. There is less focus and delineation. Again, the late heat was penalizing. This is why many of my tastings that year around harvest were moved without much notice. Fruit had to come off.
Last but certainly not least, it is pretty clear that in some cases producers bottled more 2019 wine than they might have otherwise, knowing they would have very little or no 2020 to offer. I can’t blame anyone for making that decision, especially in light of how devastating 2020 was. At the same time though, that choice does impact the overall quality of the wines and the vintage.
At the end of the day, a comparison of 2018 and 2019 in Napa Valley is a first world problem. Most producers would kill for back-to-back vintages like these. But for the discerning reader and wine lover, the differences are there, and they are significant, just as they are in any field where passionate consumers are energized by gaining a deep understanding of the finer points that ultimately drive quality.
My tasting this year at Kongsgaard was pretty remarkable.
2020 – The Vintage of a Thousand Truths
Any talk of 2020 is sure to be charged with strong emotions. Before I get into that discussion, let me address why I did not include barrel reviews in this article, as I typically do. Napa Valley wines are typically blended late. As opposed to say Bordeaux, where the wines are fully blended before the end of the year so they can be presented en primeur the following spring with some age, the custom in Napa Valley is to blend much closer to bottling. When I visit in the fall, the barrel samples that winemakers show are typically ‘base blends’ or ‘core blends’ that are meant to be representative and that are put together for my tastings. They are rarely the final blends and rarely physically assembled blends. With the 2020s, winemakers are still trying to understand the vintage. It is not an easy task, to say the least. Because of that, winemakers are not as far along with their blends as they usually are. Many are not sure which, if any, of their wines they will actually bottle. I tasted many 2020 barrel samples, though, and there is no question it is a very challenging year. For these reasons, I prefer to taste the 2020s when they are finished, bottled wines.
The LNU Lightning Complex and Glass Fires were utterly devastating for Northern California. Driving around Napa Valley this past fall was pretty eerie. Scorched hillsides and destroyed structures are everywhere. Much of the naturally verdant beauty of the valley has been lost, at least for now. Growers and winemakers were forced with heart wrenching decisions as harvest approached. Harvest or not? Make wine or not? To make matters even worse, labs were so backed up that getting test results back in any sort of a timely fashion was impossible. Incredibly, many wineries found it faster to ship their samples to faraway labs on the other side of the world. All of this in the middle of a pandemic and in the midst of grave personal danger.
One of the privileges of being a wine critic is having the opportunity to taste pretty much all the wines of a given vintage. Each vintage is a puzzle. The pieces start to come together over the course of numerous visits with winemakers, proprietors, vineyard owners, consultants and other professionals. In 2020, those pieces don’t come together because each person’s reality is very different. There is no consistency, there are no obvious trends. But there are some general groups of thought.
Some wineries opted to make no wine at all, or more accurately, no red wine where the whites might have been salvaged. In the most extreme cases, a few wineries did not even harvest a single grape. In their opinion, making quality wine was simply not possible. Wineries that will release no reds wines include Phelps, Colgin, Sinegal and Shafer, which is skipping the vintage entirely. Skeptics of this point of view will argue that wineries were sitting on excess inventory and preferred to sell those wines through while taking an insurance payment for their lost 2020 crop.
At the other end of the spectrum are wineries who plan to release all of their 2020 wines, although obviously in limited quantities, including the three Harlan wineries, along with Blankiet, Togni and others, These estates believe their wines show no taint and see no reason not to bottle and release them. Skeptics believe that all 2020 wines are tainted. There is also some concern among those who are not bottling that flawed 2020s will adversely affect the image of Napa Valley as a whole. Personally, that strikes me as a bit exaggerated.
There is a group of estates that may not bottle their flagship wines, but instead blend all their 2020s into entry-level bottlings, appellation-level wines and/or associated sister labels that enter the market at lower price points and that are meant for near-term drinking, where treating the wines might make them palatable for a year or two.
The final piece of 2020 concerns the relationships between growers and buyers of fruit, relationships that in some cases have become very strained. Many buyers bailed on their contracts, citing an inability to make wine from damaged fruit, leaving growers holding the bill for expenses. But not all did. “We did not pick a single grape in 2020, but we paid all our growers something,” Doug Shafer explained. “It was the right thing to do. We all need each other to be successful and thrive.”
“We view these relationships as long-term partnerships,” Bruce Phillips told me at Vine Hill Ranch. “Some people honored that spirit more than others,” he added, not hiding his disappointment with what must have been some very tough conversations. “We knew some of the guys weren’t going to take their fruit,” Andy Beckstoffer said. “But it’s OK, we’re all big boys and girls here.” Beckstoffer, who built his empire on a daring combination of financial leverage and conviction already had a Plan B, and probably a Plan C, too. He took the fruit, made bulk wine, cleaned it up and has probably already sold it for a tidy profit. I would not be surprised if Beckstoffer came out ahead in 2020, as he is in my view the smartest person in Napa Valley. Clearly, not everyone has his resources. “If you are a winemaker, your job is to make wine. Period. You aren’t always going to get pearls,” vineyard manager Mike Wolf told me emphatically, summarizing the view held by many growers.
Charred hillsides are among the somber reminders of 2020.
So, who is right in all of this? The answer is everybody. In the end, only a winemaker knows his or her reality with regards their own wines.
The one thing I am 100% sure of is that very few people in this world make their own decisions. Most winemakers have to answer to an owner. I remember sitting down with a winemaker a few years ago. Her 2017 was very clearly tainted. “My boss told me to make a 500-case blend, and this is it,” she said. That is the reality for most winemakers and wineries. Yes, Napa has plenty of well-heeled owners. But for most wineries, vintage 2020 is about finding a way to survive. Because 2018 and 2019 were generous, those wines might be able to be stretched across three calendar years, but 2021 is a low yield vintage, which means many wineries are in a precarious financial situation that could become dire in the event of another catastrophic vintage. People are on edge. Understandably so. And of course the world is still grappling with a pandemic, which certainly does not make matters any easier.
One of the interesting aspects of the 2020s, is that they are less obviously smoke tainted than the 2017s and even some 2018s. The reasons for this are many and are related to the timing of smoke, its age (new versus old) and where it sits in the air. But in tasting 2020s, I found them less impacted than some of the wines from a few years ago. Of course, how smoke compounds react in wines, especially once bottled, is a complex subject that is not at all understood. When the 2020s are bottled, I will taste them with an open mind, as I always do. It is a vintage where consumers will have to be very selective.
The Vineyards of Coombsville by Antonio Galloni and Alessandro Masnaghetti, © 2022 Vinous.
Vinous Napa Valley Maps
As Vinous readers know, over the last few years we have been hard at work on a series of vineyard maps. Vinous maps arose from my frustration in trying to learn about the Napa Valley and its top sites. The paucity of available information eight years ago, when we started, was truly dumbfounding for such an important, world-class region. Since then, we have worked to gain an understanding of Napa Valley’s appellations and vineyards, and to distill those learnings into a series of maps. It is a lifetime endeavor that I suspect will keep us busy for several decades.
Coombsville Vineyards. Starting from far left to right and then top to bottom; Haynes, Meteor, Rewa and Konsgaard – Stonecrest, by Antonio Galloni and Alessandro Masnaghetti, © 2022 Vinous.
Our latest Napa Valley map is Coombsville. The appellation just turned ten, which seemed like a good occasion to commit pen to paper, as it were. Like all of our most recent projects, the Coombsville map consists of a large AVA map and a collection of the single-ranch maps we are increasingly being asked to design. We are thrilled to share our progress so far. The Coombsville maps in this article are all working drafts, but will give readers a good idea of what we are working on. I have also included two maps of well-known vineyards in other appellations that are closer to being finalized.
Coombsville Vineyards. Starting from far left to right and then top to bottom; Italics, Covert, Farella and Faust, by Antonio Galloni and Alessandro Masnaghetti, © 2022 Vinous
Once Coombsville is complete we will set our sights on Spring Mountain, which will cover both the Napa and Sonoma sites of this stretch of the Mayacamas Mountains on one map, along with our large map the entire Napa Valley AVA. There is plenty more on the way beyond that.
Vinous single property maps: Blankiet and Shafer, by Antonio Galloni and Alessandro Masnaghetti, © 2022 Vinous.
Vintage Retrospectives & Verticals
At Vinous we have always strived to be as comprehensive as possible, not just with regards to current releases, but also in revisiting older wines readers are cellaring or may wish to acquire. Now that Steve Tanzer has retired, the time seemed right for a transition of that coverage to me. In the coming months we will publish a retrospective on the 2001s. It’s a vintage that holds special significance, as I tasted hundreds of 2001s at age ten alongside Bob Parker back in 2011. Speaking of 2011, that is a vintage I covered on release, so I am personally on the hook for the initial reviews. Behind that I have a huge retrospective of Realm in my archive plus a more recent vertical of Vine Hill Ranch on the way.
Proprietors Dirk Fulton and Becky Kukkola, left and center, with winemaker Tony Biagi, right, at their Vineyardist estate in Calistoga.
Cabernet Franc Is In, Baby
One of the challenges for any critic is keeping up with the ever-expanding universe of wines. Franc has been on the uptick in Napa Valley for a number of years, but this past fall I tasted more Francs than ever. Varietal Franc bottlings seem to be especially ‘in’ these days, it appears. I am a big fan, generally, but not all of the wines are great, and not all of them should be bottled as varietal wines. The quality just isn’t there. Franc can be quite exotic and seductive, especially in its aromatics, and yet not all sites seem to consistently be able to capture true varietal character at the level of the best wines in Napa and the three other regions where Franc can be truly exceptional: Bordeaux’s Right Bank, the Loire and the Tuscan Coast. Franc is like Pinot Noir. When it is good, it is really good. But when it is bad, it is really bad.
The oldest Cabernet Franc in Napa Valley is believed to be in the East Block at Detert, which was planted in 1949 and was once part of the original To Kalon. Dalla Valle’s Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc blend Maya, was one of the first wines to show the potential of Franc at the high end. David Abreu took that one step further by featuring Franc, but co-fermented with other grapes, rather than as blends composed at the end of aging. Wolff (now Sinegal) is among the sites that have long been known for compelling Franc. Today, many producers make notable wines of real distinction that feature Cabernet Franc. These best of these are absolutely thrilling.
But Franc is hard to farm. It does not excel in all sites or vintages. In my view, it also is rarely capable of carrying a wine on its own. Yes, there are exceptions. And what notable exceptions they are. Just in this report, the 2019 Kapcsándy Rapszodia and Sinegal Old Vine Franc are both breathtaking. But I also tasted many wines that were green, thin and not varietally expressive, much less compelling or worth your time. It will be interesting to see where the Franc trend goes. For now I can say I tasted too many Francs that just aren’t up to par. Whether they can get there in time is another story.
Martha McClellan made one of the wines of the 2018 vintage at Sloan.
Ultra-Heavy Bottles – Time to Say Goodbye…
As I worked through the more than 1,500 wines I tasted for this report, I could not help notice how many wineries still use ultra-heavy bottles. This practice, meant to convey prestige and quality, is shockingly out of touch for today’s world. The insistence on using bottles so heavy that they require significant strength just to lift is even more appalling considering that Napa Valley’s future viability as premier wine producing region is very linked to how severe the effects of climate change will ultimately prove to be. Using ultra-heavy bottles is just irresponsible, tone-deaf and offensive to common sense, not just for the glass itself, but for the additional fuel and other costs required to transport these wines. Given that many estates will bottle lower volumes than normal with the 2020 vintage, now seems like a perfect time to reconsider bottle weights and other packaging choices. I hope to see a significant change in two years’ time when the 2021s are bottled. If that does not happen, I will be far less diplomatic about my thoughts on this topic. The time to make a positive change for the future of the planet is now.
Winemaker Ryan Knoth and Proprietor David Sinegal presented some of the most memorable wines I tasted during the month I spent in Napa Valley.
New & Notable
Napa Valley is always a hotbed of new activity. There’s a bit less in the way of new wines this year, which is surely related to the uncertainty around 2020. These are some of the most exciting new wines I tasted.
Baker & Hamilton – A new Cabernet Sauvignon from the Phillips family, owners of Vine Hill Ranch, and the team led by winemaker Françoise Peschon and vineyard manager Mike Wolf, meant to be sold on premise and in retail shops.
Greer – This Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon has been an insiders’ wine for a number of years, but production is going up, so it should be easier to find.
Meia – This new Cabernet Franc-based wine from Gandona, is superb.
Morlet Force Tranquile – Luc and Jodie Morlet add a Cabernet Franc-based wine to their range with Force Tranquile, from their Cœur de Vallée vineyard in Oakville.
Terramagra – This new value-priced Cabernet Sauvignon from Tony Arcudi is seriously impressive.
The Vineyardist – Notre Mystere is The Vineyardist’s new Cabernet Franc-based wine. The debut release is impressive.
Vine Hill Ranch Proprietor Bruce Phillips, with Vineyard Manager Mike Wolf and Winemaker Francoise Peschon.
These are some of the most memorable wines I tasted for this report. Not just the very high scorers, but wines of true distinction readers should be on the look for. These are the wines I would want to personally own most.
2019 Abreu Madrona Ranch – A fabulously, elegant, refined wine from David Abreu and Brad Grimes.
2019 Amici Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Cimarossa – One of the best wines ever from Amici.
2019 Bella Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon – An epic wine from proprietor Suzanne Deal Booth and winemaker Nigel Kinsman.
2019 Colgin Cariad – A worthy follow up to the brilliant 2018.
2019 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon Kronos Vineyard – A superb wine from Cathy Corison.
2019 Cornell Cabernet Sauvignon – Another magnificent showing from Henry and Vanessa Cornell, and their team led by winemaker Elizabeth Tangney.
2018 Dana Cabernet Sauvignon Lotus Vineyard – Even better from bottle than it was from barrel.
2019 Di Costanzo Cabernet Sauvignon Farella Vineyard – A stunning wine from this benchmark Coombsville vineyard.
2018 Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon El Camino – A fabulous wine from a three-acre parcel within Park Muscatine that has since been replanted.
2019 Futo 5500 – The best wine ever from Tom Futo and winemaker Jason Exposto.
2018 Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard – Still in cask, but super-promising.
2018 Hyde De Villaine Syrah Californio Hyde Vineyard – One of the finest California Syrahs I have ever tasted.
2019 Kapcsándy Family Winery Rapszodia – Pure Cabernet Franc in Napa Valley is rarely this magnificent.
2019 Kinsman Eades Cabernet Sauvignon La Voleuse du Chagrin – All three wines are superb in 2019, but the Voleuse is extra special.
2019 Kongsgaard Chardonnay The Judge – Striking, compelling and pedigreed in every way.
2018 MacDonald Cabernet Sauvignon – Another brilliant showing from brothers Alex and Graeme MacDonald.
2019 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon – Still in cask and shaping up to be truly profound.
2018 Promontory – The finest wine yet from the team led by David Cilli. Monumental.
2019 Scarecrow Cabernet Sauvignon – A truly breathtaking wine from the team led by winemaker Celia Welch and vineyard manager Mike Wolf.
2019 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon – Elegant, refined and magnificently beautiful.
2019 Sinegal Estate Cabernet Franc Old Vine – Proprietor David Sinegal and Winemaker Ryan Knoth turned out a stunning set of 2019s led by the truly profound Old Vine Franc.
2018 Sloan Estate – I have tasted them all, and the 2018 Sloan is the finest ever. It’s a towering achievement from the team lead by Martha McClellan.
2019 VHR, Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon – Another remarkable wine from the Phillips family that will take its place among the greats here.
2019 Zakin Estate Wines Cabernet Sauvignon – One of Napa Valley’s under the radar jewels.
How I Tasted The Wines
This article contains more than 1,300 reviews, a number that will surely increase when I taste some late arrivals. No estate is ever intentionally omitted; with the exception of wines that I feel won’t be of interest to our readers. There are a few wineries that missed our deadline, which is a necessary tool to manage the sheer volume of samples and ensure that articles are published in a timely manner. Lastly, there are a handful of estates that chose to not present their wines because they are unhappy with past reviews. That just comes with the territory. You can be sure I will always tell you what I think, good or bad, regardless of the reputation of a wine, estate or vintage.
I tasted virtually all of the wines in this article during a month I spent in Napa Valley in Fall 2021. Of that month, three weeks consisted of estate visits, which I consider essential for gaining the context needed to fully appreciate these wines. The fourth week was filled with comparative group tastings, which are also helpful, as they provide an opportunity to discover new wineries and taste wines in more than one setting. I then re-tasted a number of wines back in New York that I felt needed additional time to recover from bottling.
“You don’t actually taste all of those wines and write all the reviews yourself, do you?” a famous fashion designer asked me over lunch in St. Helena a few years ago. Well, the answer is yes, I do! I did back then, and continue to do so today. But articles like this one aren’t the work of a single person. Scheduling appointments, coordinating samples, gathering technical information and editing is enough for two full-time jobs. I am incredibly indebted to my team for all of their hard work behind the scenes.
All of the wines for this report were tasted in our offices in New York City through September and October 2021.
© 2022, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.
You Might Also Enjoy
Napa Valley’s Thrilling 2018s & 2019s, Parts 1 & 2, Antonio Galloni, January 2021
2017 & 2018 Napa Valley In Depth, Antonio Galloni, January 2020