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More Thoughts on Blind vs. Non-Blind Tasting

Another Reason for Tasting Blind

Girl with a glass of wineThere’s one reason I didn’t mention in my recent article that magazines taste blind: advertising. Wine newsletters, and most blogs, do not accept ads from wineries. Magazines depend on them. This creates considerable opportunity for conflict of interest. The same is true outside the wine industry too, be it music, consumer electronics or automobiles. [Newspapers reviewers don’t always taste blind, but winery ads are an infinitesimal portion of their revenue.]

Magazine publishers talk about “the separation of church and state,” essentially a firewall between the ad and edit sides of most magazines. By and large, this works. There are always advertisers here and there who complain to their ad reps about a bad review, lack of coverage, etc. The sales guys simply say that they don’t have any ability to sway coverage and that ends it. Sometimes a company will pull their ads, but that’s rare.

The potential for influence is there though. The practice of selling a winery ads in the same section in which a positive review or article about that winery appears leads to consumer and industry suspicion. Without blind tasting there would be even more concern about high scores being more likely for big advertisers.

That said, it seems wine reviewers are often held to a different standard than critics in other product segments. Reviews of CDs and concerts aren’t blind. The reviewer always knows who they’re listening too, who the publisher is and the music is received as a free sample, not purchased in a store. Likewise, restaurant reviewers know where they are going, who the chef is and who owns the restaurant. The same is true of reviews for movies, cars, etc.

Surprise Winners in Blind Tastings

Wine and restaurant reviewer Michael Cervin mentioned in a comment on my last article that, in judging situations, he’s sometimes seen people be surprised by the wines to which they’ve given good scores. I’ve noticed this as well. There’s no question that, sometimes, the engineered yumminess of an inexpensive wine wins people over in blind taste tests. Quality in high-volume wines gets better every year.

I’ve also noticed a certain amount of self-selection from wineries when it comes to contests vs. print/online reviews. Wineries which would never submit their product to a newsletter, or even a magazine, will enter into big blind-judging competitions. I can easily think of four different reasons for this.

  • Some producers are concerned their wine won’t make the first cut with reviewers.
  • It’s more cost effective to pay a small fee and send a few bottles to one contest than it is to ship dozens of individual bottles all over the country.
  • Contest results are non-points based. A gold medal is a gold medal, and even bronze sounds better than 84.
  • Medals and ribbons look impressive hanging from bottles in a tasting room.

The Difficulty of Judging Typicity in Fully Blind Tastings

I think knowing the variety while tasting is important. Otherwise, blind tastings can occasionally result in inappropriate ratings due to lack of information. If the goal is just to find tasty beverages or the best among unconventional blends, that’s one thing. But, if the wine is varietally labeled, it should be varietally correct to merit a high score. Varietal labels set expectations for consumers. It’s a reviewer’s job to determine whether or not the wine meets those expectations.

This may seem like an edge case, but non-varietally correct wines appear more frequently than you might imagine. Just the other day I was at a group tasting, blind, of Chardonnay from very reputable producers. One of the wines was enjoyable but did not smell at all like Chardonnay. It smelled and tasted of apricot and botrytis. There was a little residual sugar and fairly high acidity. Had we not known what it was supposed to be, we would have all thought it to be a good-quality Riesling.

 

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

How Critics Taste Wines - On Blind Tasting

You’ve read thousands of wine reviews. But what do you know about the way wine critics perform their evaluations? Frankly, even wine writers don’t always know how their fellow reviewers conduct tastings.

This is the first in what will be a short series of articles revealing how several respected wine critics go about their business. My inspiration was a panel discussion at the 2014 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers held last week in Napa Valley. Moderated by Alder Yarrow of Vinography, Ray Isle of Food and Wine magazine and Lisa Perotti-Brown of The Wine Advocate described their processes in substantial detail. Other writers chimed in. I’ve interviewed still others.

Wine Reviewing Makes You Go Blind. Or Not.

320px-Blindfold hatThere is ongoing debate between wine reviewers on the pros and cons of tasting wines blind. Newsletter reviewers, such as Antonio Galloni, Doug Wilder, and those at the Wine Advocate, do not taste blind. Critics for top wine magazines—Wine Spectator, Wine & Spirits, and Wine Enthusiast—do.

In a note to Jameson Fink, Harvey Steiman, who reviews the wines of Australia, Oregon and Washington for Wine Spectator, said, “At Wine Spectator every review in New Releases is the result of a blind tasting. We believe that blind tasting insulates our judgments from any bias that might result from knowing producer or price. It’s the fairest and most objective way to allow every wine to show its true character”

In a recent blog of his own, Steiman suggests that even knowing the stated alcohol level of a wine prior to evaluation can color one’s opinion. “Some high-profile wine writers are suggesting that that they shouldn’t have to taste blind, that it’s unnecessary unless you have an agenda. I would submit that a preference for low-alcohol wines is an agenda. Just how much alcohol is present is not so obvious when you can’t see the label.”

Alcohol isn’t the only bit of information that might sway an opinion. Reviewers could potentially be biased with regard to price point, producer or certain varieties in a particular region. Even bottle weight and label design could sway perception.

Joe Czerwinski, managing editor at Wine Enthusiast where he also reviews wines of Australia, New Zealand and the Rhone, tells me that he knows what countries might be involved in his review tastings due to his beat. When tasting for a particular feature article, he may also know the specific region and varieties. He never knows the price or producer though.

At Wine & Spirits, reviewers have three pieces of information. They know the region, the variety and whether or not the wine costs less than $15. The latter helps them earmark wines for “best buy” designations. Knowing the region and variety lets them judge typicity, eg. does a particular Dry Creek Zinfandel meet expectations as such.

Some reviewers, myself included, often taste blind but don’t do so exclusively. In an email to me, Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle said, “I’m increasingly of the opinion that blind tasting isn’t really that useful when tasting critically.” The Chronicle’s panel tastings are typically conducted blind but, when tasting on his own, Bonné usually sees what he’s pouring. This is common with solo reviewers. The logistics of managing the blind tasting of a multitude of wines by one’s self makes it highly impractical.

Bonné also poses the question, “Why shouldn’t a critic evaluate a wine the way his or her readers do?” I’m sympathetic to that view and try in other respects, such as selection of glassware, to taste wines the way I think enthusiasts might. Perhaps more importantly, Christophe Hedges of Hedges Family Estate suggested (in that same article by Jameson Fink) that he believes blind tasting removes important context from the evaluation process.

What context matters? Knowing the vintage can help you judge whether a wine is an excellent 2011 or a lean 2009. Region, even vineyard, and variety can indicate typicity. Knowing the producer, and their track record, provides important clues as to the likely aging profile.

Context is, along with practicality, the primary reason given by critics for not tasting blind. At the Symposium, Lisa Perotti-Brown said she tries to ensure her tastings at wineries are under controlled conditions, but she always tastes non-blind and with the winemaker. She asks a lot of questions as she tastes. One of her main goals is to get as much information as possible for her vintage reports.

In a past interview, Antonio Galloni told me, “I generally prefer not to taste blind because the questions readers ask of me require some context.” Reader questions he fields include comparisons of different vintages of a particular wine, wines made by different producers from the same vineyard, differences between vineyard blocks, etc. Therefore, he likes to taste three successive vintages of each wine: the one being reviewed, the preceding vintage and a barrel sample of that upcoming. He, and other reviewers at wineries, will also taste a variety of vineyard designates side-by-side.

As important as context is, the issue of reviewer bias always arises when discussing non-blind tasting. Can critics completely divorce themselves from prejudices of any sort? The mind is a sneaky thing. Objectivity can be easily, and stealthily, clouded. There’s a reason why doctors aren’t (officially) allowed to treat their family and why judges recuse themselves from cases.

Even if one can be totally objective, non-blind tasting creates doubt in the mind of consumers, wineries, etc. For example, going back to that Jameson Fink article one more time, Hedges assumed Wine Spectator didn’t taste blind and that Steiman’s reviews might somehow be biased against them. Neither was true, but the doubt and perception affected Hedges’ own behavior.

On the other hand, blind tasting tempts one to make guesses which may also be a distraction. Unless the tasting is not just blind but double-blind—when the reviewer has no idea whatsoever which wines are in the tasting—there’s a natural tendency to look for hallmarks of the known regions or producers in various bottles. That can lead to false assumptions that skew results more than non-blind tasting would have.

That’s why magazines’ office-based tastings are generally double-blind. They also have enough staff to be able to receive, catalog and pour bottles without involvement from the reviewers. Home-based reviewers can’t do that unless they have a part-time helper. [Reviewers may taste 50 wines per day, six days per week. Setting all that up is very time-consuming and even the most gracious spouse or friend won’t want to spend 20 hours a week doing that over the long term.]

Jon Bonné adds this on blind vs. non-blind, “One significant thing: When I looked at how Robert Parker and the Advocate was tasting, it was clear that they increasingly opted for non-blind tasting, often with the producers themselves. Context seemed to be more important. Over and over again, my conclusion was that non-blind tasting led to better criticism.” Bonné and Wine Advocate are famously at odds with each other. His praise for their methodology therefore speaks well of that system and Bonné’s own objectivity.

In reality, neither tasting method is perfect. What we see is that the method used depends on the practicality of tasting blind, the intended use of the evaluation and the intended audience.

If the critiques will be going into a large compendium of capsule reviews without much context, such as those found at the back of magazines, then blind tasting makes sense. It evens the playing field, creates the perception of fairness and most readers are simply looking for a list of solid wines from which to select a few bottles for purchase anyway.

The newsletters address a different type of buyer. These subscribers may be purchasing in case volumes or higher. They are looking at more expensive wines on average and have more concerns about aging potential, resale value, etc. Such readers are also more likely to be using their wines for formal tastings, perhaps verticals or horizontals. Then, the added context provided by a Galloni or Perotti-Brown educates and provides creates discussion points.

Wine evaluations for inclusion within a regional or producer profile are different still. This is the type of writing Ray Isle typically does for Food & Wine. In this case, readers are primarily interested in the story or learning about the overall topic. Notes on the wines are used almost adjectivally, adding color or supporting a broader point. Tasting non-blind does no harm and is often essential.

The good news is that, regardless of their tasting methodology, the vast majority of professional critics are just that—professional. They do very the best they can in every circumstance to be objective. Personal taste, be it for intense, mouth-filling wines or lithe, high-acid ones, plays a much larger role in the scores than does knowledge of producer, price point or region.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. Photo of blindfolded woman by Isarra. All rights reserved.

Robert Parker's Advice to Wine Writers

Wine-critic-Robert-Parker-010Given the quantity of articles last week on Robert Parker’s appearance at The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, and the length of this one as it stands, I’m not doing the compleat review I’d intended here. Instead, I’m focusing on his advice to wine writers, which was intended to be one of the primary benefits to us of his talk.

Though some disagree, I believe Parker thought the issue through and was genuinely trying to be helpful. Wine writer Elin McCoy, who wrote the 2005 biography of Parker, The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste, also attended the conference and saw his appearance similarly, “What struck me first was his clear desire to reach out to this group of wine writers, certainly generous given his current health issues. – i.e. back surgery, and he has bad knees, too.”

In his opening remarks last week, Parker said, “In the time that I have here today, I’d like to share as much information as I have because I want to see all of you succeed. I came out of basically nowhere… and never dreamed of the kind of success I would have…. I have some ideas how I got there and I want other people to succeed.”

But then he added, “When I retire, I don’t want to see the wine writing profession just sort of dwindle away.” That led to open-mouthed gapes. Does he fear that, without him as shepherd, the huge flock of contemporary wine writers will lose focus and drift off into oblivion? To some writers, Robert Parker seems like one of those fathers who dispenses encouragement and sage advice, urges you to work hard and then pauses to remind you (again) that you’ll never be as good as he is. It can be maddening. But, perhaps, we are hearing what we expect, not what’s said.

Let’s look at his words again. He did not say “wine writing.” He said “the wine writing profession.” He’s not saying that we aren’t good writers. He said the opposite, “There’s a lot of good talent here. I think there are infinite possibilities to do something very, very special.”

He’s worried about the profession. “When I started in 1978, and looking around the room I think this makes me the premier geezer in the room [he and the room laugh], in 1978 when I started most magazines that dealt with any kind of lifestyle involving food had wine writers. I’ve seen a lot of those publications reduce their staffs. They’re under strict budgets and that’s unfortunate.” We have seen most all newspapers cut their paid wine columns too, and trim their culture sections overall.

How many professional wine writers today make a living based solely on that vocation? A survey at last year’s Symposium revealed that most of the attendees made less than $20,000 per year writing about wine. How many wine scribes make the kind of money through wine writing that Parker has? Probably none. Other areas of journalism are little better. This is what causes him trepidation, not our talent. He’s not demeaning our capabilities. He’s realistically appraising the state of paid journalism today. It’s abysmal.

Later, Parker hit on that topic in a different way. “The idea of giving content away makes no sense at all. People will always be willing to pay for independent expertise. In the overall blog world I see content that is derived from other sources, it may be good reading and attract a lot of hits but we’re talking about people willing to pay you for content.” I’ve heard wine writer and educator Karen MacNeil give this advice more bluntly, “Never do anything for free.”

Parker is not criticizing us as writers. He’s cautioning us, bloggers in particular, as business people and he’s correct to do so. Very few writers have the financial wherewithal and stubbornness to continue writing quality articles day after day, year after year, without compensation. And nobody has meaningfully monetized a personal wine blog. Meanwhile, the internet’s demand for new content every day almost guarantees a great many blog articles will be superficial, derivative or navel-gazing—not the kind of thing people will pay for.

Creating enough valuable, unique content to drive a profitable level of paid subscriptions, let alone ads, is hard. The niche isn’t big enough to support everyone that might want to do it either. But the market has already proved free wine content with an ad- or affinity sales-based model won’t support anyone at all. There is a good number of subscription-based content providers who have achieved at least modest success though. Some have done much better.

Parker suggests teaming up may be a way forward. “If you have a website, and there are some really good websites… there’s got to be real content, original content not derivative stuff… We’re talking about making money. People willing to pay you, $9.95, $20 or whatever for that content. You may have to do it with a group of people [to get enough content].”

The already successful sites and newsletters also reinforce something else Parker said. Despite complaints from many writers about the banality of wine reviews, people still want to read them. The majority of consumer-focused, subscription-based wine newsletters have wine reviews at their core. Even so, the market for paid wine newsletters in the United States is small and more likely to decline than improve.

There will never be another figure such as Parker in wine for the western world. “Today,” he said, “the internet sort of neutralizes things. It’s a reservoir almost.” The great ease with which wine writing can now be published and the broad access to it for consumers precludes that. Parker’s empire is being divided among many hundreds of writers and thousands of citizen reviewers.

This leads into Parker’s next point. "“The real growth market, and this is why I sold the majority of the Wine Advocate to guys in Singapore, is in Asia. There is no question about it, even though the economy in China has slowed a bit; it’s still booming.” There is virtually no credible, Chinese-language writing on wine, but many of the wealthy in Asia who can afford fine wine are comfortable with English.

“I really think the opportunity today,” Parker continued “is live-streamed video, high-quality video content… I think the future is in an educational wine video program that streams through all of the different Asian countries. If you do it as professionally as possible, and don’t charge too much for it, you’ll have success because the volume of people in these countries dying for education is enormous.”

I know this to be true. The number of applicants to the Wine & Spirits Education Trust for authorization and training to teach WSET curriculum throughout Asia is startling, as is attendance in the resulting classes. Some well-established western wine writers, such as Australia’s Jeremy Oliver, are spending more and more of their time in China serving this thirst for wine education. And Robert Parker, with his reconstructed back and aching knees, wouldn’t be embarking on a month-long trip to China were it not important.

We can laugh at stories about people in Asia mixing expensive Bordeaux with Coca-Cola, as I heard some writers do. Or we can let those folks pay us to help them enjoy the nuances of great wine, straight-up, no chaser. We can titter at the idea of doing videos from home while we write our pajama-clad, freelancing-butts off for fifty cents per word, or we can give Parker’s suggestions a shot.

Nobody in Parker’s audience at the symposium was a serious videographer but video, even mediocre video, will be more compelling to this audience, and many others, than the same content in writing. Jancis Robinson spoke to this when addressing bloggers in Virginia two years ago. She urged them to integrate video into their repertoire. She said it didn’t have to be sleek, if the information was solid and unique. Antonio Galloni has made videos a big component of his Vinous Media site.

In a post-symposium discussion, David White of the excellent Terroirist.com told me, “I think writers are still hoping for Parker to become the elder statesman he pretends he wants to be… We still revere him. Yet over and over again, he’s divisive and dismissive.” There were definitely moments of that in Parker’s session and they’ve been well-documented. However, his advice to us as professional writers was solid and well-intentioned.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. Robert Parker photo by Shahrar Azran/WireImage. All rights reserved.

Back Labels I Can Get Behind

The vast majority of wine back labels are a waste of ink and your time. Their branding messages are weak and don’t help with buying decisions or inform your drinking experience. There’s not enough space to tell a compelling story about the winery or it’s owners. Descriptions of flavors are rarely meaningfully different from those on other bottles of the same variety nearby on the shelf.

Calera takes a very different approach with its single-vineyard wines and I love it. There’s no marketing blather or flavor descriptors. The text is focused, objective and its sole focus is to explain how the wine and the vineyard from which it came are distinct from other vineyards, including others at Calera.

This detailed, somewhat scientific, approach is not for every wine consumer. Many of the statistics are too technical for most wine drinkers. Casual sippers may not care at all. But then they are unlikely to be buying a Calera vineyard-designate anyway.

Calera-Ryan-Back-Label
Back label from the Calera Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011

For avid wine lovers—and wine professionals—the labels rock, communicating vitals on the wine, vineyard and AVA clearly and concisely. This is particularly valuable for wineries, such as Calera, that market multiple vineyard-designate wines of the same variety. If there’s no clear difference between wines from the various vineyards, why make designates? But few labels communicate those differences effectively.

Another winery with really good back labels is Ridge. They take a more prose-heavy approach but still communicate very clearly on key topics: vineyard location and soils, weather throughout the vintage, yield and production volume, winemaking processes and their effect on the wine’s character, and estimated age-ability of the wine. [Alcohol percentage and percentages of each grape variety are prominently noted on the front label.]

When relevant, Ridge also compares the wine with others in their lineup. For example, the back label for Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon contrasts it with Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon. All of the text is well-written and descriptive but not flowery. I hope other wineries move in this direction.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

Napa Valley Premiere - Competitive Juices Yield Record Prices

On Saturday, February 22, 225 one-of-a-kind lots of meticulously produced Napa Valley wine were offered at auction to some of the world’s most passionate and well-moneyed wine sellers and restauranteurs. Four-and-a-half hours later the last gavel fell and a record $5.9 million had been realized, nearly doubling last year’s take which had been an all-time record itself.

2014pnv-6671
The gavel falls on the last lot at the 2014 Premiere Napa Valley Auction.
Photo Bob McClenahan.

The proceeds of Napa Valley Premiere go to support the efforts of the Napa Valley Vintners in promoting, preserving and improving that AVA, but there’s much more on the line. There is pride. There’s reputation. And, to some extent, there’s the promise of winery revenue. Stratospheric auction results aren’t an abstract number. They are to some degree a measure of the winery’s reputation, the star-power of the winemaker. Top results mean a press release and the opportunity to edge the price of all wines upward.

One particularly competitive winemaker stumbled toward me, crestfallen. “I’m a loser!” he said. This from a guy who was actually among the top sellers. But a handful of lots had gone for more than his best. Moments later when the 60-bottle lot of Scarecrow made by Celia Welch sold for a mind-blowing $260,000, he looked like he wanted to throw up. He was now “loser” by an order of magnitude.

For the most part though, Napa Valley Premiere was an “all smiles” event. Dozens of winery-hosted events earlier in the week had drawn trade buyers, top sommeliers and press to the valley. New releases, library wines and the auction cuvees were poured side-by-side. There were big dinners, quiet meetings, cocktail parties, dancing and more.

The after-lunch auction itself was preceded by a tasting of all the lots that morning in the historic barrel room of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. It’s the best meet-and-greet-and-taste that this country’s most important wine region offers with samples poured by the winemakers, proprietors or both for a crowd small enough to enable friendly conversation and detailed questions.

I didn’t taste every wine this time, opting instead for deeper conversations and very detailed notes on a select number of wines which I was reviewing for the St. Helena Star. Alder Yarrow did make it to nearly every barrel though, so keep an eye on Vinography for his commentary.

Of the wines I did taste, I found much to love. There was the savory complexity of the Mt. Brave and the dynamically fruited Ovid. Oakville Ranch offered yet another supple, stunningly gorgeous Cabernet Franc. Inglenook’s wine is showing heightened sophistication under estate manager Philippe Bascaules. New label Pulido-Walker debuted with a wine made by Thomas Brown that offered amazingly pure aromas of freshly crushed black currants. Another wine by Brown, for THE GRADE, offered mineral-laden scents and a beautifully creamy mouthfeel. Schramsberg refreshed and delighted with a late-disgorged sparkling wine from the 1993 vintage. I taste thousands of wines every year. Many of them are truly excellent. Nonetheless my pen was shocked to be writing scores such as 95, 96 and 97 with such frequency. 

Quick Stats for the 2014 Premiere Napa Valley Auction

Auction lots - 225
Total revenue - $5.9 million
Average bottle price - $283
Highest-selling debut offering - Pulido-Walker for $65,000

Top Ten Lots
$260,000 from The Wine House for 60 bottles of Scarecrow made by Celia Welch
$100,000 from Beverage Warehouse for 60 bottles of ZD Wines made by Brandon deLeuze and Chris Pisani
$100,000 from Zoes Restaurant for 60 bottles of Shafer made by Elias Fernandez
$100,000 from Bounty Hunter for 60 bottles of Schrader made by Thomas Brown
$90,000 from Wine Library for 240 bottles of Robert Mondavi Winery made by Genevieve Janssens
$90,000 from Wine Library for 240 bottles of Cakebread Cellars made by Julianne Laks
$85,000 from Wine Library for 120 bottles of Bevan Cellars & Chateau Boswell made by Russell Bevan
$80,000 from Cliffewood Wine Syndicate for 240 bottles of Reynolds Family, Constant and David Arthur made by Steve Reynolds
$80,000 from Imbibe Wine & Spirits for 60 bottles of VHR Vine Hill Ranch made by Francoise Peschon
$80,000 from Total Wine for 240 bottles of Silver Oak made by Daniel Baron

Top Five Bottle Prices
$4,333 for Scarecrow
$1,666 for ZD Wines
$1,666 for Shafer
$1,666 for Schrader
$1,333 for VHR Vine Hill Ranch

Most Represented Winemakers
Thomas Brown - eight wineries
Philippe Melka - seven wineries
Aaron Pott - four wineries

Top Grossing Winemakers
$340,000 - Celia Welch
$302,000 - Philippe Melka
$255,000 - Thomas Brown
$113.000 - Russell Bevan 

Top Buyers
Total Wine & More of Potomac, MD
Bounty Hunter of Napa, CA
Cliffewood Wine Syndicate of Little Rock, AR
Wine Library of Springfield, NJ
The Wine House of Los Angeles, CA
Gary’s Wine & Marketplace of Madison, NJ
Nakagawa Wine Company of Tokyo, Japan
Beverage Warehouse of Los Angeles, CA
Yakiniku Hiroshi of Honolulu, HI
Meritage Wine Market of Encinitas, CA
Zoes Restaurant of Virginia Beach, VA
HEB of San Antonio, TX.

Specifics on each wine can be found at http://premierenapawines.com/2014/

Download a Full List of 2014 Premiere Napa Valley Auction Wines & Realized Prices

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.