‘Vintage of a lifetime’: First sips of this year’s wines taken in Napa Valley

“The 2023 vintage felt like the good ol’ days of harvest in the Napa Valley,” said one winemaker.|

It started as a challenge; now it’s become a tradition. Even as the 2023 harvest has yet to be completed in Napa Valley, the Judd’s Hill Winery team was pouring tastes of the new vintage.

It’s their own local take on the famous Nouveau Beaujolais, the red wine made from Gamay grapes in the Beaujolais region of France. As a vin de primeur, it’s fermented for just a few weeks before being released on the third Thursday of November — Nov. 16 this year — and causing a worldwide race to get bottles to an international market.

The Judd’s Hill approach is considerably simpler. They make and bottle one barrel of a nouveau Napa wine, NVX Rosé, from the current harvest. A different blend each year, this year the NVX is 80% pinot noir and 20% Zinfandel. Sold primarily to wine club members, it’s also poured while the supply lasts at the Judd’s Hill tasting room at the north Napa winery.

“One year we just decided to challenge ourselves and try to do it,” said Eric Lyman, who has been winemaker at Judd’s Hill since 2010.

Then people began checking in to see when it would be available, added Alex Young, the assistant winemaker who joined the team in 2017.

This year the tradition become even more of a challenge, Lyman said, as they found themselves bottling their new wine even as they were still bringing grapes from the late-starting Napa harvest. “Yes, we were bottling on some of our busiest days in the middle of harvest.”

Although they’ve been quietly making the NVX for a couple years, last year was the first the team held a public unveiling of their wine at a dinner at Kitchen Door in Napa. This year Lyman and Young, along with Judd’s Hill general manager Liz Mercer, and Lyman’s mother, Gaetan Price, were pouring tastes of NVX at what might seem an unusual choice of venue, a cocktail lounge — except The Fink is the newly opened venture of Judd’s Hill proprietor Judd Finkelstein.

Finkelstein, a fan of cocktails since his college days and founder of FOAM (Friends of Ardent Mixology), had long cherished an idea of opening a cocktail lounge. He and mixologist Andrew Salazar opened The Fink — the name comes from Finkelstein’s youthful nickname — in July at the old site of Silo’s jazz club on the Napa River. Finkelstein calls it “a local bar for the world traveler.”

In addition to classic cocktails, Salazar concocts his own creations. The bar does serve two Judd’s Hill wines on tap.

In designing the bar, Finkelstein kept the old stage in place, and is drawing in performers, including the internationally known jazz pianist Mike Greensill, a resident of St. Helena, as well as the Twango Valentino jazz band and the country music band Aaron Burnham and the Brushfires. New Orleans jazz is part of the bar’s Seersucker Sundays where wearing seersucker is encouraged, but not required.

The star Tuesday, however, was the NVX Rosé, which the dapper Finkelstein, dressed in a pink shirt with a rose boutonniere, poured for guests.

“A few weeks ago, this was mere grapes,” he said.

Harvest 2023

With the release of NVX, Lyman said they’ll go back to finishing the harvest, which he expects to wrap up “in the next couple of weeks.”

It’s all part of the unusually late and long 2023 harvest, said Teresa Wall of Napa Valley Vintners.

“Generally what I am hearing is we’re done — but then we hear about someone bringing in more grapes,” she said.

The mild growing season meant harvest started about a month later than last year, but it’s also given grape growers and winemakers more flexibility in choosing their time to harvest.

This year has been “a game of patience and reward,” Wall said. The uneventful growing season has permitted longer hang time “because the weather was so mild they could pick when they wanted to pick.”

“I imagine it’s a small percentage of blocks that are still out,” she said. “It seems to me like the majority of grapes are in.”

“People have really enjoyed the extra hang-time,” said Carol Feuchuk from Napa Valley Grapegrowers. “It’s giving a chance for the different AVAs to show their true characteristics.”

“The 2023 vintage felt like the good ol’ days of harvest in the Napa Valley,” said Dan Petroski, founder and winemaker for Massican Wines and Napa Valley Grapegrowers board member.

“It was a season similar to years like 2006, 2010 and 2012, where yields were high and extractions in the cellar were great,” he said. “The white wine grape harvest started around Labor Day, the cabernet sauvignon harvest started the end of September, beginning of October – everything felt ‘normal’ this year.”

The key takeaway, Wall said, is that the lack of drama from the growing season could lead to show-stopping wines for 2023.

“Some have said this could be the vintage of a lifetime,” Wall said.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.