Inside the Wines of Auction Napa Valley

Photo by Jason Tinacci for the Napa Valley Vintners

Cabernet Sauvignons, wines that tend to be drunk too young, sold for record amounts at the storied wine sale. But how do they age? We found out.

Last month’s Auction Napa Valley, held May 30 through June 2, had the combination of wine-country luxury and earnest philanthropy that it has displayed since its inception in 1980. The auction, held under a tent at the serene Relais & Châteaux resort Meadowood, raised $16.9 million for local health- and youth-related causes, beating the previous record by more than $3 million and confirming its place as one of the world’s top charity events.

The sums paid for these Napa wines—which were often auctioned with lavish trips and meals—were truly eye-popping. A 12-liter bottle of the cult wine Screaming Eagle from the 2010 vintage went for $500,000. Harlan Estate, another revered name, offered four double magnums of its wine along with a tasting, a stay at Meadowood (owner Bill Harlan founded the property) and a special dinner. The winning bid came in at $800,000. A lot from Dana Estates, a newcomer to the auction, included wine and a lavish trip to South Korea; it sold twice, for a total of $1.02 million.

All three of those top lots centered on Cabernet Sauvignon—the king of grapes in Napa. But most of them are quite young and, by most accounts, not ready to drink. Although Napa has long been considered a world-class wine region, it has a shorter track record for aging when compared to, say, Bordeaux, the famous seat of Cabernet-dominated blends.

So how do these Cabernets age?

Napa Valley Vintners helped arrange a tasting exclusively for Departures to help illustrate how some of the valley’s top labels are maturing. Twenty years or so is a good point to check in on a serious Cabernet, which can age much longer under the right circumstances. Our tasting, which took place the day after the record-breaking auction, featured wines made between 1990 and 1995 (with one 1987 thrown into the mix) from a group of the most venerable names in the valley—not the newer cult wineries but the older operations that have helped define the Napa style. All have been in business for at least three decades, and in some cases since the 19th century.

“Most people fall in love with California Cabs in their youthful exuberance, but my impression is that many of them have what it takes to go the distance,” says Andrea Immer Robinson, a master sommelier and three-time James Beard Award winner who now lives in the valley.

But Robinson noted that a lot of collectors have a hard time waiting. “Most of the time the wines never get there because it requires time, patience and good storage,” she says. “I recommend that people give them a chance.”

The wines that follow—which may be available on restaurant wine lists, at auction or by contacting the wineries about their stock of library vintages—have all been given that chance, proving themselves worth the wait.