I recently visited the Napa Valley
for the first time in about three years. Like many wine geeks, I’m jaded when it comes to Napa Valley wines, almost programed to dismiss them based on their success. You see, to be a true wine geek has somehow morphed into cultivating an exclusive appreciation of obscure wines. Orange wines? Bring them on. Oxidized? Even better. Wines with umlauts and cyrillic letters? Yummo!
The root of this visceral dislike for all things Napa of course has a kernel of truth tucked away in its forgotten core. Many of the wines produced there too are pricey, favored by the monied set, and to a certain extent off limits to mere mortals like me. Add in the fact that something deeply disturbing has happened at many Napa addresses: the transmogrification of once noble Cabernet
into some sort of processed product produced from horribly over-ripe grapes subjected to all sort of tricks of the trade. Inevitably, the results speak for themselves—popular to be sure, but a popularity that seems to be driven by critical acclaim, and that critical acclaim is based on tasting these fruit rich, heavy, explosively detailless wines. If you sit down and try to drink these wines, particularly with food, or god forbid age them for more than a very few years, you quickly see that the emperor has no clothes, and these wines have nothing behind their opulent, sweet, toasty oak flavors and the sheer richness of fruit.
Another Chance, and a Surprise
OK, I may have overplayed my hand a bit there, but only to make a point. While there are plenty of offensive wines produced in the Napa Valley, the only thing truly unusual about them is their success and the accompanying prices charged, and paid for these wines. You have to be particularly dimwitted to paint with such a broad brush that you color all Napa Valley Cabernets with these criticisms, something I admit I’ve come close to doing. (That, of course, is the easy way to go and maintain your wine geek street cred.)
The tougher route to take is to travel and taste the wines. I did. And while not all the wines appealed to me, I was surprised by how many did, and even the ones that didn’t ring my bell got me thinking. Now there is a category of wines produced in the Napa Valley which will likely never change, but they make up a small if important part of the portfolio here. The rest of the wine has to find a home and much of it needs to be sold at a price that may not require a perennial 96+ point score, allowing producers a bit of flexibility.
That flexibility came in handy over the past several vintages, say 2008-2010, a period that saw less than “ideal” ripeness, in contrast with 2007. I say “ideal” because while tasting these more recent vintages I have been struck by the unusual freshness and lightness many of the wines exhibited. To a large degree, this was due to less than “ideal” growing conditions of the respective vintages, but also due to the fact that the winemakers don’t have to produce “knock out” wines at these price points every year in order to sell them through.
Now here’s the interesting part: I preferred some of these wines to their riper 2007 counterparts. In fact I prefered almost all of these wines: they are more complex, better balanced, and easier to drink. Now comes the exciting part. What if most of you out there agree with me?