Plumpjack: Tasting Auction Napa Valley and Premier Napa Valley Wines

Every once in a while, I am able to attend a tasting like the one I went to at Plumpjack Winery in June 2016.  The event was hosted by the Plumpjack Group winemaking team: Aaron Miller (Plumpjack Winemaker), Brett Brockmeyer (Plumpjack Assistant Winemaker), Jeff Owens (former Plumpjack Winemaker and current Odette Winemaker) and Danielle Cyrot (CADE Winemaker). I loved the juxtaposition of this informal tasting of very exclusive wines—all of which were made solely for Auction Napa Valley (ANV) and Premier Napa Valley (PNV)—dating back to 1997. I was lucky to be in attendance among the dozen or so members from the winemaking teams of the three estates. Following this once in a lifetime tasting, a tasty and casual BBQ of local meats from Bud’s Custom Meats in Penngrove made for the perfect summer day.

What I loved most about this tasting was the casual atmosphere. All too often, the glitz and glamor of the wine industry is promoted while hiding the realities of viticulture and winemaking. It’s a dirty industry: full of manual labor, hard farm work and endless hours of toiling in the cellar to create quality wine.

I’ve been to a lot of those glitzy and glamorous tastings, but this Plumpjack tasting brought Napa Valley back down to earth for me. What appeared to be several simple card tables were placed together in the tank room of the cellar. Brown craft paper had been taped to the tables. Glassware was the only fine item on the table; there were copper spit cups, large plastic white dump buckets and small plastic cups for water. The winemaking team was dressed for the workday in jeans and t-shirts. The smell of tank room set the scene, alongside the coolness emanating from the cement floors and the excitement of the winemaking team members, many of whom were about to taste these older vintage ANV and PNV wines for the first time. It was an honor to be seated alongside them.

The friendly banter, laughter and storytelling from the likes of Napa Valley legend and original Plumpjack Winemaker, Nils Venge, elicited a sense of camaraderie and history—things that far too often don’t make their way into the formal speeches at elegant tastings or sit-down, reserved experiences at wineries.

The day began with a fun tasting of the 2012 Plumpjack Syrah, bottled with two types of screw cap (Saran Tin liner and Saranex Liner) and one cork. The tasting, as you may have guessed, was a trial to see how the wines with differing closures have fared since they were first bottled.

My notes pinpointed the Saran Tin Liner screw cap closure as having the freshest and fruitiest aromatics, full of fresh raspberry, blackberry and leather. The palate was juicy with a ton of pepper and spice, as well as fresh red fruit and purple flowers. In my notes, the other two bottlings seemed more alike and stood out from the first wine. The latter two wines were closed with a traditional cork and a Saranex Liner screw cap. It was interesting that the Saranex Liner screw cap aligned more in aromas and flavors with the natural cork, whereas the Saran Tin Liner screw cap seemed to be the most noticeably different from the set of three. Of the whole group, the Saranex Liner screw cap was favored most for its overall profile (only by a small margin of three votes), while the Saran Tin Liner screw cap and natural cork were both tied in second place. Fascinating results, to say the least! It would be interesting to go back and continue tasting the same 2012s at various points over the next 2-6 years to see how the wines continue to evolve under their respective closures.

Next was the exciting lineup of ANV and PNV wines. Dating all the way back to 1997, Plumpjack, Odette and CADE bottlings were poured up through 2013. Some hailing from the likes of top-vineyard site ToKalon in Oakville and Plumpjack Estate’s famous I and N Blocks, there almost couldn’t have been a more exclusive lineup of wines to taste in Napa Valley.

As you likely know, these ANV and PNV wines are extremely small production (six cases only—five of which go to the lot winner and one of which is kept back at the winery in case of TCA). It is rare to have the chance to taste these wines if you are not an auction lot winner.

When making these wines, "We try to find something that stands out and is unique—a favorite block or barrel or blend," says current Plumpjack Winemaker, Aaron Miller. "This is something that isn't available anywhere else and you want it to stand out." Of course, the proceeds from these small production, auction lot wines help sustain the Napa Valley community. ANV proceeds go back to the community by way of local charities, organizations and programs. Whereas PNV funds the Napa Valley Vintners (NVV)—the local organization that puts on ANV, and works to promote and sustain the wine region as a whole.

A true window into the world of the exclusive wines, the artisan craftsmanship and quality of these bottlings shined extremely bright. From the powerful and youthful 2010, all the way back to the beautiful 1997, these wines are all clearly stunning and certainly prove to be be cellar-worthy.

The Plumpjack 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon is gorgeous. Enticing aromas of cedar, wood spice, vanilla and dried fruit waft from the glass of this 19-year-old wine. In the mouth, this Cabernet Sauvignon still possesses excellent structure with a surprising amount of tannin that still lends the wine texture and complexity. Dried raspberry and tobacco stand out prominently. A wine made by legendary Napa Valley icon, Nils Venge, the 1997 is a great success from a classic vintage. “As you know, 1997 was just a fabulous vintage—everything came in great,” Venge says. And after 19 years, it has certainly held up well.

Despite that Venge remembers 2000 as a “large harvest” vintage that yielded “less structure,” the 2000 Plumpjack Cabernet Sauvignon showed well. Noted as being made from two favorite blocks and two favorite coopers—likely from the Plumpjack Estate’s revered I and N Blocks, Miller notes—the aromas are a bit savory on the eucalyptus and chocolate-tinged nose. Fruit still abounds on the palate, though, making this 2000 still feel incredibly youthful. Red cherry, raspberry and baking spices are enveloped in this full-bodied, well-structured and seductive wine.

I also rather liked the 2006 Plumpjack Cabernet Sauvignon made with strictly I Block East fruit, planted to Clone 7. “This block was on the skins for about 20 days,” Jeff Owens, who was the Plumpjack Winemaker during this vintage, states. “Free run [juice] only was drained to barrel. One Taransaud barrel was selected for the PNV wine,” and it “was bottled at about 22 months, unfiltered.” The aromas still have a strong fruit presence, with black cherry cola and chocolate scents. Grippy tannins on the palate will give this youthful Cabernet Sauvignon longevity, while its finessed structure, silky texture and spiced red fruit profile give it a lively and energetic showing today.

The 2010 Plumpjack Cabernet Sauvignon comes from two very famous vineyard sites, ToKalon and Plumpjack Estate’s I Block East, respectively 50% each. Miller says that the I Block East possesses soils of mostly “volcanic range….the reddest, rockiest soils on the estate,” which are representative of the Vaca Mountains. Alternatively, ToKalon on the western Mayacamas Mountains side is more “oceanic floor.” He furthers, however, that “they are somewhat similar in their rocky soil structure—both alluvial fans that give more stress and higher quality.”

Owens says that the 2010 fruit from ToKalon was Clone 337, “fermented hot and fast (7-8 days), and blended with I Block East, with extended maceration to make this unique ‘East meets West’ blend.” Again, the free run juice was drained, though this time to “new Darnajou and Taransaud barrels, and aged for 22 months.” It was bottled unfiltered. “The ToKalon block we had was fantastic...and it was fun to offer this wine in special blends to PNV,” Owens proudly states.

ToKalon, of course, is one of the most—if not the most—esteemed and coveted vineyards in all of Napa Valley. With a rich and detailed history dating back to the 1880s, the property has changed hands many, many times, but has always remained one of the valley’s most sought after sites. Today, ToKalon belongs to three primary holders: famous Napa Valley winegrower Andy Beckstoffer, Robert Mondavi Winery and Opus One. Lucky for Plumpjack, they are one of a small selection of wineries who purchases ToKalon fruit.

Aromatically, the 2010 is still showing primary aromas of blackberry and red cherry fruit, with a bit of warm earth and gravel underneath. The palate is powerful and tannic, though already silky in texture, with a ton of structure and layers of unfolding flavor. Ripe blackberry and cassis are wrapped up in the wine’s full body. There is a lot of extraction here, no doubt a result of the extended maceration to which Owens refers. During the tasting, there was discussion about how the I Block East brings elegance and acid, with primarily red fruit and savory/earthy qualities, while the ToKalon site contributes darker fruit, more structure and richness/fullness to the wine. You can taste that dichotomy in this powerful and seductive Cabernet Sauvignon, which promises years and years of longevity.

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