Evaluating Napa and Sonoma’s 2018 Vintages

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This harvest appears to be one of the biggest and best in several years. Each phase of the growing season in Napa and Sonoma this year seemed to emerge with near-perfect weather conditions.

There were no significant fires or “weather events.” It was a long and even growing season without heat spikes. Mother Nature cooperated perfectly. Wine pricing should see some relief when this bumper crop of beautiful wines hits the market.

2012-2014 saw three beautiful, bountiful vintages in Napa and Sonoma. 2015 was stunning, but production was down on average 40%. Prices skyrocketed. Vintage 2016 was slightly below average, but the wines were desperately needed, as there wasn’t enough wine in 2015 to fill existing distribution channels.

While varietals like pinot noir and chardonnay looked good in 2017 — and were harvested before the firesthere was a lot of damage to Bordeaux varietals still hanging on the vine.

I sampled cabernet sauvignon from the 2017 vintage that was fundamentally flawed with smoke taint. The tricky thing with smoke taint is that even if wines have undergone reverse osmosis, the particles and compounds that cause the nasty ashtray-like taste can re-attach at any time.

Reputable wineries with smoke-taint issues typically destroyed their 2017 vintage, or sold the damaged wine with (hopefully) full disclosure in the bulk market. Wineries would not risk their reputations by bottling juice that was potentially suspect. Smart buyers were careful when purchasing. Thus, 2017 cabernet sauvignon prices spiked due to demand for quality juice that was free of smoke taint.

Then came the 2018 vintage.

As I write this in the third week of October, the Valley has eluded major smoke or rain events. Some Bordeaux varietals still hang on the vine.

The weather cooled down in October. Harvest has generally been pushed back a couple weeks. Some grapes may not be picked until early November. Most wineries have reported a huge crop of exceptional quality. The size of this harvest has put some stress on wineries and growers, as resources were pushed to the limit.

Experienced Sonoma winemaker Nancy Walker was jubilant about 2018. “The quality is exceptional and the harvest will be 25% to 33% above average,” she said. Walker recalled only one significant weather event — over an inch of rain in early October. Since then it’s been perfect. Walker believed that some winemakers maybe got nervous and picked after the rain, but most were smart and showed patience.

Many negociants and bulk sellers feel that cabernet sauvignon pricing is about to see a downward readjustment. In particular, Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon has gone up dramatically over the last 2.5 years and at some point pricing loses touch with realities of the marketplace.

Growers are the most nervous, as lower prices hit them the hardest. But this has been a reality check, with 2018 prices on the bulk market already dropping by more than 30%. Even in elite sub-appellations like Napa Valley’s Howell Mountain.

Economic growth, and the reputation of Napa and Sonoma Valleys among wine lovers, has allowed many wineries with ultra-premium pricing to prosper. But it’s good that pricing of cabernet seems to be starting the process of coming down. It would seem that with more availability, more consumers can access these wines later in 2019.

As chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, Jonathan H. Newman was the nation’s largest wine buyer. He has received significant industry accolades during his career. Follow him on Twitter at @NewmanWine and visit his website: newmanwine.com