Tom Rinaldi, long-time winemaker in the Napa Valley, called both the 2012 and 2013 growing seasons ideal. In 2013, in particular, he noted the vintage was going along beautifully, like music, when all of a sudden it turned magic. It was not hurried, and crop levels were balanced by moderate temperatures.

Another long-respected vintner, Bill Dyer of Dyer Vineyard and Meteor Wines, went bold, calling 2013 the best vintage since 1985.

Two dozen of Napa Valley’s top winemakers met this month to taste current vintages of local cabernet sauvignon wines. The St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners tasting panel was held in The Culinary Institute of America’s Ecolab Theater in St. Helena. The caveat: the cabernets retail for $75 or more. While the majority of the wines fell into the 2012 and 2013 vintages, several producers were ready to show off their 2014s. Prices ranged from $85 to $325, and panelists’ favorites (revealed below) included wines at both ends of the scale.

Drought was a concern during all three vintages, but vintners across the valley brought in healthy yields matched by quality in all three vintages.

Vintage review

Following two cooler and wetter growing seasons, the 2012 vintage received a grandstand welcome. A dry winter led to well-timed rain in early spring that saturated the soils and helped fill reservoirs. The region’s combination of warm days and cool nights endured through the growing season, creating the desired recipe for long, flavor-building hang time, and acid retention in the best wines.

Another record harvest, 2013 is being called an “epic” year. It began too dry, with almost no rainfall at the beginning of the year, bringing an earlier-than-usual budbreak. However, April provided a few small rainstorms to quench the vines, followed by warm, dry weather. With minimal heat spiking in late summer, the long, even growing season allowed for full flavor development and an early and healthy harvest.

2014 started rocky, with worrisome, drought-like conditions and many feared a parched, dry spring. Refreshingly, rains came in February and March, providing water for the soils and reservoirs. While the growing season will most be remembered for the Aug. 24 earthquake, wineries around the valley brought in beautiful, healthy fruit.

With quality fruit coming in consistently over these three vintages, ageability was on the winemakers’ minds. A discussion following the blind tasting of several dozen cabernet sauvignons concentrated on the dominant 2012 and 2013 vintages. Stacy Vogel, winemaker at Miner Wines, said the wines overall were “still very youthful,” including the 2012s. How long will they go in the cellar? Stacy sees the 2012s peaking and aging faster than the 2013s.

Joel Aiken, iconic winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards and now making his meticulously crafted Aiken wines, called the 2013s drinkable today, and noted some restraint in the general winemaking as compared to previous decades.

Rinaldi also called the wines youthful, with the promise of ageability, believing that the wines are not yet completely showing their potential. Taking vintages that he says are drinking very well right now – 1994 to 1997 — he estimates the current wines will be drinking at their peak in 10, going into 20 years.

Marbue Marke, winemaker at Caldwell Vineyard and professor of winemaking, commented on the consistency of acidity in the 2013 wines calling it “higher, brighter than with previous vintages,” and remarking on the overall restraint as well. While he believes the alcohols were high on some of the wines, he felt the wines finished clean.

With premium to super premium price tags on these wines, panelists spoke about the pink elephant in the room. Rinaldi found a shock value with some of prices, but admitted it was the “nature of the beast.”

Master Sommelier Bob Bath said expectations should be high, given the retail prices at the higher end of the scale, and questioned the real value at these price levels, open-endedly asking: Can consumers find something under $100 that is a good guide to Napa Valley cab? At the upper end of the scale, are you paying for the experience?

Kari Auringer, winemaker at BRYTER Estate, was happy to see some of her favorites at $100 or less, allowing consumers to “put a beautiful expression of Napa cab on the table for under $100.”

Get to know these top cabernet sauvignons of Napa Valley, winning first place in their flights:

-BRYTER Estates, 2012 Inspired, Napa Valley, $125

Owners Bryan and Terin (Ignozzi) form the name of this estate, and they chose rising star Kari Auringer as their winemaker. Kari worked with Celia Welch, lending her talents to some of the top wines of the valley. This favorite of its flight is dark fruited with black currant and black pepper spice. Rich concentration is balanced by acidity, and the wine finishes with a hint of intriguingly eucalyptus adding to the overall complexity.

-Anderson’s Conn Valley Vineyards, 2013 St. Helena, $85

This winery falls just south of Howell Mountain, tucked into the hills, with the feel of a French country estate. The Andersons have made this spot their home since 1983. Winemaker Robert Hunt started with the Andersons in 2012, and this winning wine is one of his first vintages there. There is generous oak spice here with concentrated, dense black fruits.

-Nellcôte, 2013 Rallye 76, Napa Valley, $325

With inspiration from living in the south of France and working with luxury fashion brands, owner Tyler Olbres is pulling out all the stops for this brand. Physically stopping, however, is not an option. His motto, attributed to Enzo Ferrari, is “rimanere sul gas” or “stay on the gas,” indicating that life is too short and too rich to take it at less than full throttle. The name of the wine comes from Monaco’s auto racing. Sweet caramel, vanilla spice, and concentrated blackberry fruit is lifted by fresh acidity.

-B Cellars, 2014 Star Vineyard, Rutherford, $115

B Cellars hangs with all the A-listers; the top vineyard sites of the Napa Valley, including several Beckstoffer vineyards. The Star Vineyard on the Rutherford Bench was founded by Reg Oliver and winemaker Ric Forman and is cared for by Piña Vineyard Management. Winemaker Kirk Venge puts his master touch on the wines. The wine has a gorgeous nose of blackberry fruit, spice, and fresh oak.

Other favorites include:

-Davis Estates, 2012 Zephyr, Napa Valley, $85

This estate is east of the Silverado Trail in the hills of Calistoga. Visitors can take in panoramic views while spending some carefree time on the porch swings.

The modern-rustic feel of the place is very inviting, and may just be the cause of guests’ post-visit decisions to redecorate their own homes. This cab gets kudos for its aromatics, adding violet floral to the mix of dark fruits and spice. The wine is tight and tannic now.

-Patland Estate Vineyards, 2013, Napa Valley, $110

Some of the top wines of the world are made when vintners get together and work cooperatively. Made in co-operatives, wines from famous regions such as Chablis and Champagne can be extraordinary with the collective grapes and brainpower. This is the case with Patland wines, made at the Caves at Soda Canyon. Jay Buoncristiani is winemaker, one of the four families partnering at the Caves. As if made for the holiday season, this cab comes with aromas of spice, oak, and the hint of pine.

-Yao Family Wines, 2013 Family Reserve, Napa Valley, $225

The former NBA star teamed up with Tom Hinde who has collected numerous titles from CEO, Director of Winemaking and General Manager within the industry, and Larry Bradley, Consulting Winemaker, who has extensive vit management experience (Australia to France and California). This reserve is a complex blend of sweet oak spices and dark blackberry fruit.

-Charthia Cellars, 2014 Napa Valley, $85

Commended as a new mom-and-pop operation, the name of this winery comes from the fusion of owners’ Charles and Cynthia’s names. It is not easy for a mom and pop-type shop to make it in this business today, rising above some big-money brands, but this wine shows just what Charthia can do. Dense red fruits join pungent spice and herbs in this young 2014 cab.

Catherine Bugue, the Star’s tasting panel columnist, loves writing about — and drinking — wine. You can contact Catherine at Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program, visit and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.