Napa Valley: The Frantic 2020s & Stunning 2021s


With the first 2020 Napa Valley Cabernets starting to appear, readers will encounter one of the most controversial vintages in the history of Napa Valley. Before we take a look at the year and the wines, allow me to get one thing out of the way first. Two thousand twenty is by far the hardest and most complicated vintage I have ever tasted anywhere in the world. This report focuses on 2020 and 2021, along with some late releases from 2019.

Consulting winemaker Andy Erickson and winemaker Braiden Albrecht have elevated the wines at Mayacamas by softening some of the rustic edges while retaining plenty of classicism.

The 2020 Growing Season

For most of the year, 2020 was characterized by intense heat and drought. All of that was quickly forgotten when the LNU Lightning Complex wildfires began ravaging large swaths of Northern California on the night of August 17. These fires raged for a full six weeks, laying tremendous devastation to homes, businesses and forests. The Glass Fire started on September 27 and was finally extinguished after 23 days. In other words, at times, both fires were closing in on life, essentially, in the middle of a year also marked by the most serious global health crisis most people have ever lived through. Even today, more than two years later, the scars of these fires remain visible in scorched hillsides and numerous damaged structures.

As this was all happening, vineyard managers, owners and winemakers had to make very important choices. Forget about sending in grapes or even micro-ferments for analysis; all labs were backed up for weeks. People had to make decisions with limited or no information. In the face of such a catastrophe, those decisions were quite different. Some wineries picked no fruit at all; others harvested what they could and made wine. In the best of cases, in sites that were relatively close to being ripe and less affected by smoke, or for estates that pick early, some fruit was salvageable. In later-ripening areas, or places especially hit hard by fire and smoke, or for winemakers who prefer to pick later, 2020 is essentially a total loss. There was simply nothing to be done.

“We bottled a bit of Napa Valley Cabernet for Caterwaul, and that is the extent of our 2020s,” Thomas Rivers-Brown told me. “We did not even pick fruit in most cases,” Nigel Kinsman explained. “At one point, we had several five-gallon micro-ferments going, and we did bring in about ten lots, but in the end, the wines were shades of their usual selves. We did not see the quality we are striving for.” Likewise, winemaker Celia Welch bottled no Cabernets for her Corra label or any of her roster of consulting clients. Indeed, I imagine Vinous readers will be shocked to see how many 2020s were not bottled. The number is in the many hundreds of wines that simply do not exist in 2020. There are virtually no wines from Pritchard Hill, virtually no wines from Stags Leap. The western bench, including parts of St. Helena, Oakville and Yountville, and some spots in the southern reaches of the valley are rare bright spots. 

One interesting dynamic is the difference between estates that farm their own fruit versus vineyards that sell fruit and their clients who purchase those grapes. In the case of estates, many made wines, a decision driven in part by having already paid for the costs to farm. Discussions between fruit sellers and buyers were much more tense, as many buyers passed on fruit they felt was flawed. Other wineries may have preferred to take an insurance settlement rather than deal with wines that will be hard to sell; others may be sitting on unsold inventory. Given the recent pace of winery transactions, it is safe to say that any winery shopping itself during this time surely preferred to skip the vintage rather than have wines from a challenging year sitting on their books.

In the cellar, winemakers did everything they could to handle the fruit as gently as possible. Short fermentations were the rule. New oak was generally kept to a minimum. Many wines are blends of only or mostly earlier picks, either because that was the only fruit that was sound and/or because later-ripening fruit never made it to the winery. At bottling time, even producers who made 2020s did not necessarily make all their wines. Some bottled a selection of their wines, while others blended all their top lots into a single wine, generally one of their entry-level labels.

Trying to sort out this tangled mess is next to impossible. Ask ten winemakers or owners about 2020, and you will get eight or nine different opinions. I am certainly not going to judge anyone’s decision during what was the most difficult vintage anyone has ever faced. Readers who would like more context on 2020, may wish to revisit my article The 2019 Napa Valley Cabernets: A Deep Dive, particularly the section that looks ahead to the 2020s titled 2020 – The Vintage of a Thousand Truths.

The Forman estate vineyard, perched on St. Helena border, is always striking.

Tasting the 2020s

In my recent articles on 2020, I have often stated that cumulative knowledge of smoke taint among winemakers and wine professionals is low. This applies to critics and reviewers as well. Over time, years and then decades of evaluating wine critically, ideally across many regions around the world, a taster acquires a certain amount of experience. I have seen vintages with heavy rain, vintages with frost, vintages with hail, vintages with drought, vintages with late-season heat spikes and vintages with all sorts of other anomalous events. I have learned how to understand these different kinds of vintages, evaluate the wines, and describe them. What fire-ravaged vintages? Not so much. The reality is that tasting wines from fire-affected vintages and how to describe them is something new, something we are all getting used to.

There are some aspects of 2020 that are subjective. Are wines tainted or somehow marked, directly or indirectly, by smoke? That is a discussion we will be having for many years to come. Other things are not subjective at all, rather, they are based on fact. Even before the fires, 2020 was marked by severe heat and drought. The final ripening phase occurred under hazy, smoke-filled skies with blocked limited solar radiation (sunlight) for a period of many days or longer. Some producers spoke of ‘clear skies’ and ‘favorable winds.’ I have no doubt some sectors fared better than others, but they were a very small, a tiny, exception. Harvests were pushed forward, in some cases significantly, not by heat or drought, but by the possible risk of losing everything to fire. Very few people picked anything in 2020 when they wanted to. These are all facts.

Readers will note that scores for the 2020s are all over the place. That’s because the wines are all over the place. Some have turned out very well, while others are highly problematic. Not everyone can decide not to bottle an entire vintage. As a business owner, I highly sympathize with those who feel the need to bottle something. I can’t think of too many companies that can survive without having a product to sell for an entire year, which is why we are seeing so many library offerings this year. I also admire those winemakers who felt it their duty to document the vintage, regardless of the result. If I were publishing reviews and scores for effort, diligence, passion, courage and determination, many wines in this report would have very high scores. But, my duty is to review the wines. The reality is that many 2020s are simply not very good.

The typical profile of most 2020s is ripe fruit (from the hot, dry year), mid-weight structure (from heat stress and blocked physiological ripeness) and searing tannins (from blocked maturity, lack of sunshine and forced early harvests). Many wines also have muddled aromatics and generally poor balance.

Philip, Lisa and Birgitta Togni at their small vineyard on Spring Mountain. Tasting here is always a history lesson.

Some wines show clear signs of taint, although smoke markers are far less pronounced than they were in 2017. Most professionals attribute that to the fact that smoke in many places remained at elevation, and also what is referred to as ‘old smoke’ versus ‘new smoke,’ with the idea that older smoke is less harmful. In a way, this makes evaluating the 2020s even harder. Is a wine tainted or not? It isn’t always obvious or easy to isolate the origin (smoke or something else) of textural markers, such as the harsh tannins found in many wines. “We tested our 2020s many times,” Lisa Togni elaborated. “The results consistently came back clean. We decided to bottle our 2020 main label, but in subsequent tastings, the wine never felt right, so we did not release it,” she added, pointing out how hard it is to grasp the vintage and wines. The best 2020s are pleasant surprises that show well on their own but pale in comparison to more typical vintages. Of course, there are a few exceptions, but they are few and far between.

There is also a place for some 2020s in the broader market, in large-production brands that fall outside of the universe of wines Vinous readers are interested in. Most of us don’t remember what we did last week, much less events from more than two years ago. A large segment of the general wine-drinking population has no memory of fires in 2020 or doesn’t care, and many consumers can’t perceive these flaws. I am sure some of the wines can be (and have been) treated, so that they are stable for another year or two, enough time to be sold in bulk and then repacked for by the glass brands and or labels intended for mass distribution. I don’t say this to cast aspersions on less sophisticated segments of the consuming public, but with any product, there are consumers who care about the smallest, tiniest details, to those who simply don’t, and everything in between.

I have kept drinking windows for the 2020s on the short side. The basic premise for aging wines is the concept that they will develop positively over time. I am not sure how many 2020s will improve in bottle, but I suspect that number will be low. Moreover, no one knows how this vintage is going to age. Prudence and common sense argue for drinking the wines on the early side.

If there is anything positive about 2020, it is that the events of that year have caused Napa Valley locals to take a very hard look at protective measures to ensure another similar scenario never plays out. “We will get past 2020, but another vintage like that might be the end of our business,” a highly respected winemaker told me, echoing the thoughts of many others.

Katherine and Claude Blankiet outside their home on the Paradise Hills property. The Blankiets are among the producers who opted to bottle a single wine in 2020.

The Elephant in the Room – Should I Buy the 2020s?

This is the question consumers have been asking for months. Collectively, I think we have all gotten used to the idea that Napa Valley vintages are some version of good to great. When I say all, I mean all – producers, critics, consumers and trade professionals. And why not? After all, Napa Valley boasts climatic conditions that are ideal for the cultivation of grapes and the production of high-quality wines. The challenges growers and winemakers in Europe face regularly are rarely seen.

But 2020 is not about frost, heat spikes or rain events at critical moments. This is not about diligence in farming, attention to detail or less desirable fruit that can be culled out at the sorting table. The 2020 vintage is not about any of those things. It is a vintage marked by record drought, searing high temperatures and catastrophic fires that raged uncontrolled for weeks before and during harvest. Fires that forced vineyard managers and winemakers to make unthinkable decisions, all in the midst of grave personal danger and during a global pandemic that was still in its early days.

The stark reality is that 2020 is a vintage fraught with unthinkably difficult conditions for producers and ultimately highly irregular quality. It is simply not realistic for anyone to expect to see many wines with huge scores. It’s just not. Ideally, tasting wines before purchase would be the way to go, but that is impractical, if not completely impossible, for most consumers.

Napa Valley is unique in the wine world in that much of the production of the most coveted wines is sold from the winery to the consumer. This creates a much more direct relationship than in other regions. But, and it is a big but, the relationship between consumer and winery selling direct must be a two-way street. I am not sure how many wineries truly understand that. In my opinion, wineries should reward consumers who buy difficult vintages like 2020 with a bump in status, greater allocations in the future and whatever else they can think of to recognize loyalty. At the end of the day, the top Napa Valley wines are expensive by any reasonable measure and certainly compared to peer groups in most regions around the world. In short, consumers should consider buying 2020s from wineries that treat them like valued customers rather than a number.

While we are at it, let me say that first-come, first-served allocations are a horrendous, anti-consumer strategy for selling wine. Consumers who can afford wines sold directly are busy people with busy lives with other things to do than check their email all day long, waiting for the latest email offer to hit. The idea that someone newer to a list but who replies to an offer first might receive greater access to highly coveted wines than a loyal, long-term customer who answers later is not consumer-friendly, to say the least. To be fair, some wineries compensate for this with tiered releases, advance allocations and other tools to prevent the scenario above from playing out. But the best system is allocations that are guaranteed for a specified period.

Note: Much of this section was adapted from my article California North Coast: Eyes Wide Open, which focused on the 2020s from Sonoma County and neighboring appellations.

Tasting component wines and core blends is a great way to get an early sense of a vintage. This tasting at Wheeler Farms encompassed a wide range of wines from top sites, all made by Nigel Kinsman and his team.

Fast Forward to 2021

During my most recent trip to Napa Valley, I often felt like producers just wanted to press the fast-forward button and focus on 2021, as if 2020 was some bad nightmare. That is certainly understandable. Two thousand twenty-one is a fabulous vintage. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that production is down sharply, 30-50% in many cases. A combination of sustained heat and drought, plus the accumulated shocks of 2020 contributed to paltry yields. “The lack of sunshine in 2020 meant that the vines simply did not store the same amount of carbohydrates they usually do,” explained Nigel Kinsman. “This is especially true of cane-pruned vineyards, where there is less wood (and therefore less potential to store carbohydrates), as opposed to cordon-trained vines, where there is more wood,” he added. “In 2021, the vines responded to the accumulated stress of several years of drought by regulating themselves, with the most critical period being the late spring and early summer of the preceding year, when potential yields are set,” vineyard manager Mike Wolf told me. “We had shorter shoots and smaller canopies to work with. Because of that, we had to thin the crop to match crop loads with what the vines could ripen. A final blast of heat at the end caused further dehydration.” This trend continued into 2022, when yields were even lower, suggesting irrigation can only compensate to a degree for what Mother Nature does not provide, but that is a big subject for another time.

It was another very early harvest, yet the wines have tremendous energy and finesse. In tasting, the 2021s show some of the savory intensity of other drought vintages – 2013 and 2014 come to mind – but with more aromatic explosiveness and greater inner sweetness. So far, the wines I have tasted are immensely promising, but as mentioned previously, not all estates show barrel samples.

Winemaker Meghan Zobeck presented a stellar set of 2021s at Burgess.

New & Notable (Mostly Napa, with Some Sonoma)

Without a doubt, my favorite thing about visiting Napa Valley is seeing new projects get off the ground. Over the years, I have been very fortunate to taste so many wines at the very beginning of their lives. This year the notable debuts are fewer because of the uncertainty surrounding 2020. However, there are still a number of very exciting projects and wines that readers will definitely want to check out. Readers will note an increase in ex-Napa Valley wines. Much of that is driven by the sheer necessity in 2020 to look for fruit sources in other appellations just to have some wine to make and sell. Although many of these bottlings were born out of crisis, I think they are here to stay, for two reasons. First, wineries realize that having all their eggs in one basket (Napa Valley) is risky and that some geographic diversification is probably a savvy business decision. Secondly, talented, ambitious winemakers are energized by the challenge of trying new things.

Aberro – This is a new project of non-Napa wines from Nigel and Shae Kinsman. Like many Napa producers, the Kinsmans were forced to look to other regions to make wine in 2020. Oregon producer Maggie Harrison shared some of her Santa Barbara fruit, which gave birth to two new Syrahs in this range. The latest addition is the 2022 Chenin Blanc, sourced from the 1520 vineyard, the new Diamond Mountain estate re-developed by Nigel Kinsman that encompasses the former Reverie and Von Strasser properties.

Amici (Sonoma) – Amici has been making notable Napa Valley wines under the leadership of Tony Biagi for some time. The Sonoma wines have not been at the same level, but that is starting to change now that Matt Courtney has joined the team.

Annulus – This is a new project owned by Dr. Luke Evnin and Deann Wright, both of whom have a background in healthcare and other related fields. Although not new to Napa Valley, Annulus is their first wine project. The range presently consists of single-vineyard Cabernets from Vine Hill Ranch and Beckstoffer Las Piedras, although there are a few more vineyards in the mix. Nigel Kinsman is the winemaker. The 2021s I tasted are a very strong start.

Burgess – CEO Carlton McCoy and winemaker Meghan Zobeck have breathed new life into Burgess, as witnessed by the stellar 2021s I tasted on a recent visit. The new Cabernet from Clos Abeille, a tiny 1.72-acre vineyard in St. Helena, is one of the most extraordinary, moving wines I have tasted so far from this young vintage.

Cathiard – Florence and Daniel Cathiard of Smith Haut-Lafitte in Bordeaux purchased the former Flora Springs property for their new Cathiard Family Wines label. The debut vintage is 2020, which I tasted from barrel. I will report on the bottled wines as soon as I have a chance to taste them.

Di Costanzo – Erin and Massimo Di Costanzo add two new wines to their range in 2021. The first is a Chardonnay from Deering, a stunning vineyard in Sonoma’s Moon Mountain District. The Di Costanzo Chardonnay emerges from a block planted with material taken from the former Chuy Vineyard (now Mid-slope), which for years was famed for the quality of its Chardonnay. Also joining the lineup is a new Cabernet from Charlie Smith, one of many sites developed by legendary vineyard manager Phil Coturri.                                              

Kinsman Eades – Nigel and Shae Kinsman add a gorgeous Cabernet Sauvignon from Vine Hill Ranch to their range in 2021. That wine will serve to console readers for the lack of wine from Geeslin, which was recently replanted.

Kongsgaard – To-Kalon fans and historians will want to seek out John and Alex Kongsgaard’s 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon. The Kongsgaards lost all their estate fruit in 2020, but were able to source some fruit from the old, head-trained blocks at MacDonald. Brothers Graeme and Alex MacDonald made their wine at the Kongsgaard winery for many years, so there is a connection between the two families. Sadly, the Kongsgaard MacDonald Cabernet is a one-and-done proposition.

Mabon – This new project from the team at Hourglass focuses on non-Napa Valley Cabernet wines. The two 2021s I tasted were both terrific.

Neotempo – This is the new estate of Kia Behnia and Tracy Borman, who met while working in tech. For the first few years, fruit off this four-acre vineyard in the southern part of Napa Valley went to Shafer and Darioush. In 2021, Behnia and Borman brought on Tony Biagi to make their wine. Their debut is one of the most impressive young wines I have tasted in Napa Valley in some time.

Rivers-Marie Readers will also find much to explore in new wines from familiar estates. The new 2021 Rivers-Marie Cabernet from MBar Ranch is superb. It emerges from young vines in a site in southern Oakville that was a core component of the Mondavi Reserve for many years. The debut is impressive, but future vintages will likely be even better. 

Tasting the young 2022s at Diamond Creek.

A Brief Look Ahead to 2022

I love being in Napa Valley during harvest. Winemakers probably don’t like having to meet for tastings at this time, but there is no better opportunity to watch a vintage unfold. Two thousand twenty-two offered many twists and turns. Production is down again, in many cases lower than 2021. It is a vintage with at least three chapters. Some producers were able to harvest before a period of brutal, unprecedented heat spikes in September that saw temperatures reach more than 115 degrees in some places. Napa Valley has never seen heat like this before. Obviously, a large amount of the crop was on the vine at that time, but the extent of how different places responded to heat during this critical time is quite different. Temperatures cooled off in early October, setting the stage for the last part of the harvest. Two thousand twenty challenged winemakers with elevated alcohols, the potential for high volatile acidities, stuck fermentations and new strains of bacteria that had labs warning their clients to protect the young musts. I expect some variability in the wines and that the cream will rise to the top. There’s never a dull moment; that much is certain.

Schedule of Events

Napa Valley fans will want to keep a few upcoming events on their radar screens.

Napa in the City: March 9-11, 2023, New York City

My first real exposure to Napa Valley wines was selling them in Boston and Cambridge-area restaurants in the early 1990s when I was a struggling musician. I remember pushing wines from Corison, Peter Michael, Harlan Estate, Shafer and Frog’s Leap to pay the bills. A few years after that, I tasted a 1970s vintage of BV’s Georges de Latour. That was it. I was hooked. Ever since I started writing about Napa Valley wines I dreamt of creating a world-class event that would bring together winemakers, sommeliers, consumers and members of the wine trade, with a focus on education, which remains our key mission at Vinous. Napa in the City is our version of Paulée or Festa del Barolo featuring the best of the best. The BYOB Gala Dinner sees attendees share rare wines from their cellars while producers pour library vintages at their respective tables.

Our Masterclass tasting the next day is the single best opportunity to taste just-released Napa Valley Cabernets that I know of anywhere in the world. Fifteen producers present their wines, all served in optimal conditions, during a lively, interactive discussion. No one has a chance to taste wines in this format, not even critics or winemakers. It is a special moment. For this event, we prepare a custom edition book of our vineyard maps that attendees can reference during the tasting and take with them as a memento.

This excerpt from our forthcoming book Napa in the City 2023: Vinous Maps Collection shows Dalla Valle and neighboring estates in Oakville. © 2023, Vinous.

Coombsville Map Launch: May 4, 2023, CIA at Copia, Napa

I will be in Napa on May 4 to launch the next Vinous Napa Valley Map, The Vineyards of Coombsville, which we are producing in partnership with renowned Italian cartographer Alessandro Masnaghetti. The seminar will consist of presenting our new map, single ranch maps of a number of reference-point properties and a panel discussion. If you are interested in attending, please contact us at

Inspire Napa Valley: May 5-7, Napa Valley

Founded by Kerrin Laz, Inspire brings together several top wineries and wine personalities for a weekend that combines education and fun, all supporting the Alzheimer’s Foundation. The weekend kicks off with an outdoor dinner prepared by a number of wine professionals led by Katherine and Brad Grimes. You will find me in the kitchen cleaning vegetables or engaged in other tasks that won’t materially affect the quality of dinner. There is something magical about the evenings in Napa Valley in spring, which makes this dinner an event I look forward to all year. I always bring a few bottles from my cellar, so make sure to stop by the kitchen, but don’t tell anyone. Saturday starts with an update from Dr. Maria Carrillo, Alzheimer's Association Chief Science Officer, and then a panel tasting led by yours truly with a group of wine luminaries.

With education taken care of, it is time to taste an incredible collection of Napa Valley wines. This year’s walk-around tasting will be held at Round Pond, a stunning property in its own right. Afternoon melts into dinner and a very fun, engaging charity auction. Sunday brunch at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc is the perfect place to enjoy a Bloody Mary or two and catch up with friends.

Winemaker Helen Keplinger and Director of Research and Development Shawn DeMartino and their team turned out a brilliant 2019 at Grace.

About This Report

This is an unusual report in that so many wines I would have ordinarily tasted were not bottled in 2020. Any large article on a popular region like Napa always elicits many readers questions about which wines I tasted or did not. In addition, it is important to document wines and vintages for the future integrity of our database, especially a few years from now, when the challenges of 2020 are likely to be a distant memory. For these reasons, I have chosen to catalog all wines that I would usually taste but were not made in 2020. These wines appear in our database with this text: This wine was not bottled in 2020 because of wildfires. Attempting to document an entire vintage in Napa Valley is a significant task, so I imagine this part of the report might contain some small errors, which we will address immediately.

With regards to the 2021s, this year, I decided to publish notes even on wines tasted as components or individual lots so that readers would have a chance to at least get an update on their favorite wines. In some cases, these samples were from single barrels or core blends. Providing scores and/or drinking windows seems premature, but readers can at least get a sense of how those wines are shaping up. Unlike Bordeaux, where wines are fully blended in the months following harvest, in Napa Valley, the custom is to age component wines separately and work on blends throughout aging, with the last touches done relatively close to bottling. The vast majority of 2021 Cabernets will be bottled this summer.

I tasted the wines in this report mostly in September and October 2022, with some follow-up tastings in January 2023. The end of the year is always an extremely busy time for tasting that also requires some decisions regarding publishing schedules. Because so many wines in this report are 2021s that will only be released next year, and there is strong reader interest in the 2021s from Sonoma (which are available now), I decided to publish this report a bit later than usual. I suspect we will return to a more typical publishing schedule with the next cycle of reviews.

© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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