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?
This could be an inflection point, a moment when circumstances conspire to fundamentally change things. We’ve gone through one as recently as 1997, when wines made from super-ripe fruit, fruit that would have been thought of as defective a decade or two earlier, garnered breakthrough scores for tons of wineries. In subsequent vintages, producers intentionally went for super-ripe fruit since it seems to be the key to super high scores, and we know what those scores do.
The world has changed since then. The share of voice among critics is different, and that extreme wine geek attitude, as narrow minded as it may be, has pulled open the range of wines considered acceptable, i.e. successfully marketable. And lets not kid ourselves: wine remains a business, so in the big picture, that’s what’s important. I bet there will be plenty of people celebrating the lighter style of the very pretty and accessible 2009 and 2010 vintages. Truth is 2010 is already being hailed as excellent by many writers—I am just a bit late to the game.
My point here though is not to proclaim that 2010 is so great; I am much more forgiving when it comes to vintages, and think we need to do a better job promoting and appreciating vintages for what is unique about them as opposed to holding them up to some arbitrary benchmark. Just take a look at a vintage like 1999 if you disagree. Not exactly exalted on release, they are drinking remarkably well today.
My point is that 2009 and 2010 are a different style of vintage, and very successful ones at that: vintages that will allow drinkers to experience Napa Valley Cabernet as it once was, on a wide scale. My hope is that they will enjoy the style, talk about the style, praise the style, and then go back to the marketplace looking for more wines in that style. It will be up to the producers to respond, and things on that front are all pointing in positive directions as well.
There is a growing backlash to formulaic wines even in the Napa Valley and talk is once again returning to producing wines that one likes; the fact that the marketplace, both consumers and critics, may be aligning with that direction bodes well for the future of Napa Valley wines. One thing I want to make perfectly clear here is that I am not saying that almost all wines need to change, not that that would be a bad thing in and of itself, but it’s not necessary, at least for me.
Having a dozen or two producers return to making wines that don’t need to be watered back, acidified and otherwise transmogrified would be enough for me. Will it happen? All signs point to yes, but who knows? Me, I’m a dreamer; one with a decades-long love affair with Napa Valley Cabernet, so I’m sure hoping so. And here are some tasting notes to help explain why.
Very fresh on the nose with an early touch of light mocha cream, some smoke, fines herbs with a nice minty top note over bright black fruits. On entry this shows bright acids and feels remarkably transparent, bathing the tongue with bright, tart, blackberry fruit that has just a little medicinal edge. The finish is nice, rich and soft with excellent length and lovely cherry fruit on the finale. This just feels lovely in the mouth—what a great texture. 93pts
A little earthy, a little leafy and mineral-accented gorgeous blackcurrant fruit greets the nose capped with hints of mocha and lightly roasted coffee. This is tight, lean, and focused on the palate delivering pure, rich, ripe yet totally transparent fruit supported by wonderfully ripe tannins that poke through just a hint on the finish, showing a slight little stern and dry note before it ends with beautiful cut red plum fruit and subtle soil tones on the finale. 92pts
Very fine nose with lovely herbal and savory aromas accenting the sweet baking spice nose that is slightly cool and compressed. There is lovely balance on the palate, with real richness of ripe fruit, and no baby fat which the 2007 still retains. The feeling here is cool and pretty Cabernet fruit, bringing along that suggestion of herbaceousness from the nose, as it yields to a ripe fruit-driven finish. Needs a bit of time but this has everything in the right place. 92pts
Really profound blackberry jam on the nose is topped with a slightly herbal note, along with hints of smoke, tar, blueberry and violets. In the mouth, this is soft up front with a nice medium-bodied feel that flows across the palate delivering nice cut cherry and blackcurrant fruit. Nicely done, really showing nice detail, with fine acids and slightly fuzzy tannins that linger on the palate with hard blackberry candy notes. This is still a bit wrapped up in itself and feels a touch chunky on the mid palate but unfolds nicely on the moderately long finish. Give it some time. 92pts
Black fruit that's a little inky, violet dominates the slightly herbal nose which shows a little licorice with hints of red fruit but big grilled meat and black pepper top notes. This is lightly tight on entry with early milky chocolate notes followed by bright, fine grained tannins, mineral notes, smoking wood notes and jammy blackberry fruit. There's nice tension on the palate, some pleasant fruit layered over a rather tightly knit structure,. This is still a touch short on the finish but the lean, rugged feel here, showing fat, power and finesse bodes well for positive development in the bottle. 92pts
2009 White Cottage Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Risa Napa Valley 14.5% $40
Lightly aromatic with herbal and broken basalt aromas over a bed of licorice-tinged blackcurrant and baked plum notes. This shows nice detail and freshness on the nose. A bit tight on entry, showing slightly coiled in the mouth with integrated acids and abundant if soft and polished tannins. The feel is light but not lightweight, with good tension, allowing the wine to deliver some well defined flavors of blackberry, red plum, and earth all topped with a well managed dose of baking spices. The finish is very fresh with a hint of heat perhaps, but excellent inner mouth perfume, persistence and detailed berry fruits with a touch of root beer and maraschino cherry. In context this might be a little lean and a touch austere, but it fit right in my sweet spot. 91pts
Fairly intense black fruit greets the nose supported by notes of lead pencil, vanilla, and dried herbs, all topped with a nice dusty earth note. Rich and yet slightly tight in the mouth, this delivers good depth of flavor, wrapping black currant and black plum fruit in assertive but not overpowering wood spice and topping it all off with aromatic herbal notes in the mouth. The tannins here are firm and slightly assertive, but well buffered by rich fruit with plenty of acidity to keep things juicy. Late arriving notes of mushroom and truffle along with a hint of black pepper add complexity that lingers on the finish, which shows off black currant fruit with a hint of herbs, and a slight touch of heat as well. 91pts
Quite complex on the nose with plenty of savory oak-derived spice but one also finds insinuations of herbs, fudge, espresso, and truffle notes embedded in dark, plummy fruit. This is crisp and seamless on entry, though a paradox of freshness and very ripe fruit flavors. The oak is well integrated, not nearly as prevalent as on the nose forming a backdrop for the dried plummy fruit that does see some red cherry, red currant shadings emerge with air. The tannins are well measured, adding a touch of volume yet remaining mostly discreet right through finish, which does show plenty of oak toast-derived nuances as well as red berry fruit leading to a touch of heat and sweetness on the finale. 91pts
Leafy and light at first, with slow-to-build aromas of earth, light toast, cocoa, and crushed berry fruit emerging with air along with a gamy mutton-like edge.Smooth with juicy acidity on entry, this is full of dark berry fruit wrapped up in Tootsie rolls and damp earth. The tannins are a bit drying and relatively abundant on the palate, adding a little dry nuttiness which also hints at some dried herbal notes along with dark plummy fruit that leads to a spicy, dry finish. There's a lot of wine here, I'm just not sure that the oak and tannins will ever come into balance. 91pts
This is wide open on the nose with dark fruit topped with plenty of spicy oak notes and accents of vanilla and eucalyptus. Broad and appealing on the palate, this shows some fairly dry tannins, but they don't detract from the bright red cherry, cranberry fruit of the mid palate. This does turn dark and powerful on the backend and through the moderately long finish, which shows a nice return of fresh red plum fruit. 91pts
Sweet tarragon-inflected aromas of raspberry coulis greet the nose along with allspice, hazelnut and cherry accents. Very Stag's Leap in style with masses of sweet, red fruit in a smooth slightly low acid style that shows off very ripe, plush tannins. There's lovely cherry, red plum and dried cranberry flavors here that are nicely framed with coffee, cream and caramel notes from well judged oak. The texture is supple and smooth, nothing sticking out and nothing missing right through the moderately long red fruit, coffee, cream and caramel-tinged finish that ends with a touch of red hots. 91pts
Vanilla, herbs, leather and cassis great the nose along with a light graham cracker framing note. This smells fairly ripe but with some freshness to the fruit. That ripeness shows on the palate as well with its slightly low acid and bold flavors, though that freshness is also at play here offering up lovely ripe tannins to support the herb and earth-tinged black fruit and slightly jammy plummy notes on the mid palate. The finish shows a bittersweet chocolate edge along with jammy blueberry and blackcurrant fruit, all ending with a dash of nutty oak. 91pts
Cocoa, coconut, mocha, and lovely herb notes come together on the nose here which also shows off some peppery spice and attractive blackcurrant and light peach aromas.This is smooth and a touch soft, with lower acidity than the basic Calistoga cuvée. The fruit is also a bit more intense, slightly chewy with blackcurrant flavors wrapped around toasty spice, a touch of mocha and some peppery notes. The finish shows off fairly big black fruit with a lingering nutty oak note. Rather smooth, this lacks some of the definition of the basic bottling, but does offer up both more complexity and richer fruit. 90pts
A little sweet but rather perfumed on the nose with fresh berry fruit, pencil shavings and a bright, fine herbaceous edge. On the palate, this is complex and deep, smooth and large-scaled, somehow big and powerful but in a relatively feminine way, with dusty tannins supporting tons of fruit. There's a subtle savory edge framing the fruit with just a suggestion of dried and candied herbs, a little minty, serving as a top note. The finish is a touch short, leaving this very front-heavy. 90pts
Gentle on the nose with an early meaty note, followed by a nice blend of balanced tarragon, wet clay, Middle Eastern spice, eucalyptus and spiced cherry aromas. Rather precise and focused on the palate with attractively fresh blackcurrant and black cherry fruit early on that are joined by a little wood spice and gentle earth notes on the mid palate. The finish is bright and juicy with stiff if fine grained tannins and a nice rush of wild raspberry fruit accenting red plummy fruit. There's a nice edge of tension to this wine, with fruit that is pleasantly ripe. 89pts
Sweet and soft on the nose with early accents of mocha, sweet tobacco leaf, allspice and brown sugar joined by dried bay leaf and black currants. On entry this shows excellent integration and while there is plenty of acidity here, it is held nicely in check by the rich yet not weighty fruit. The oak is well measured as well, yielding a rather seamless wine with attractive herb, toast and blackcurrant flavors; elegant and bright with refreshing acidity on the moderately long finish which ends with cinnamon dusted red berry fruits. This probably won't wow many, but it drinks quite well in a rather classic modern Napa Valley style. Snappy, clean and crisp. 89pts
A touch of dusty earth, perhaps even stemmy on the nose, which also shows red currant fruit, well measured vanilla and lightly toasted spices and a touch of toasted almond and dry fruit. Medium bodied and fairly bright on entry, this blends some riper flavors of dried fruit and prune with light caramel edges and layers it all over red currant and cherry fruit. There are nice spice and vanilla accents showing on the mid palate that add complexity but don’t overpower the fruit, leading to a slightly tannic but palate-freshening finish thats pretty long with lingering, slightly spicy black cherry flavors and lightly chewy fruit tannins. With air, a subtle herbal note emerges on the palate as well. Love the way this feels in the mouth, though the flavors are just a touch riper than a very solid value. 88pts
2010 Don & Sons Cabernet Sauvignon B Side Napa Valley 13.7% $22
Dark and sweet on the nose with plenty of chocolate and toasty oak notes over a base of herb-brushed, lightly roasted blackberry fruit. Light and dry on entry, this is rather poised in the mouth and not at all in the common soft style of Napa Valley today. The flavors are well anchored by good acidity and dry, earthy tannins, showing a suggestion of herb, a touch of tobacco and light cedar accents to the red and black currant fruit. The back end shows a little oak, nothing too obvious, and it drives the moderately long finish, which picks up a touch more herb and fruit character. This is relatively complex and elegant in a masculine way. 88pts
Rich and dark on the nose with fine earth and dried herb base notes topped with vanilla, wood toast, black cherry licorice, and blackcurrant aromas. This is a pretty spicy Cabernet, with notes of black pepper and licorice interwoven with sweeter notes of vanilla and toast on a bed of dry blackberry and black cherry fruit. the tannins are a bit spiky, but pleasant—more hard than abundant—and they add some nice cut to the palate and extend on to the slightly astringent yet well-fruited finish. A nice blend of wine that toes the line between traditional and modern. Would be best with food. 88pts
Pretty intense on the nose, with aromas of cocoa, caramel, mocha, earth, dried herbs and licorice over a base of cola tinged plummy fruit. A large scaled opulent wine, this is dense and dark as it spread across the palate delivering dark, musky fruit drenched in briary, licorice and oaky flavors. The finish is cut short by fairly aggressive tannins and shows a decidedly minty edge to the rich chocolaty flavors and has some obvious heat. A powerful wine but one that lacks detail and elegance. 88pts
Vanilla, herbs, raw wood and jujube aromas greet the nose. Subtly complex with a light gaminess to the black fruit on the nose. Smooth and polished with nary an edge to be seen though the flavors here run towards the oakier, savory end of the spectrum with lots of mocha, cocoa, and dried spice flavors framing nice blueberry fruit. Well balanced and interesting, this lacks some complexity and depth but should make for fine early drinking. The finish is fairly short with some drying wood tannins and toasty spice notes. 87pts
A touch sweet and toasty on the nose with a nice light licorice top not floating over moderately spicy and slightly leathery black fruit. Balanced and focused on entry with a nice integrated, decidedly medium-bodied mouth feel and layered flavors of toasty oak, leather, licorice, black plum skin, and a touch of green walnut. This turns a touch minty on the back end where the sweetness of wood picks up a bit, leading to a moderately long finish that shows a bit of oaky harshness and more licorice notes. 87pts
A nice minty, herbaceous edge greets the nose, adding freshness here to the slightly oaky and hard dark currant fruit. This smells unforgiving. Tight on entry, there's a good amount of fruit here, but this is not fleshy and plump but rather focused and crisp, medium weight with black cherry and currant fruit topped with a hint of mint and laid over a base of cedary oak. This seems to need some time in the bottle, not soft but neither oppressive for its a slightly fruit-driven classic Napa Valley Cabernet, though perhaps not representative of the typical warmth of Calistoga. The finish shows more of the oak, dry and nutty with lingering vanilla sweetness matched by the compressed cherry fruit and ending with a touch of smoke on the finale. Should benefit from 1-3 years in the cellar. 87pts
Smoky on the nose yet bright with fresh red currant and lightly jammy blackberry fruit, all cupped in a gently sweet vanilla note. A touch rough around the edges, this shows some noticeable wood tannin in the mouth with good acidity adding some freshness to the dark cherry/blackberry flavors. There's also noticeable oak sweetening the palate and adding vanilla and spice notes that persist on the moderately long finish, which also shows some cherry pit notes and a touch of heat. 87pts
Hints of stem, smoke, brown sugar and mint accent the cool rut that's topped with savory and slightly medicinal, chocolate notes on the nose. This is soft and transparent and noticeably tannic in the mouth, showing off good tension with a wide band of savory oak across the mid palate, and a dry tannic finish that is pretty long, if a touch flat, while showing off nice dry plum fruit. 87pts
A bit sweet and simple on the nose with intense vanilla, jammy cherry and sandalwood aromas. This is round and smooth in the mouth, a bit on the low acid side and with only modest tannins making it “fruit forward” and there's plenty of fruit here, really quite raspberry-toned with notes of red cherry and blackberry thrown in for good measure. The finish is modest and clean with good freshness. Not complicated but easy to drink and well made. 85pts
At first oaky on the nose but air quickly brings out attractive blackcurrant and herb notes that help to lend the aromatics some balance here. Nice freshness and weight on entry carries through across the palate with some woody tannins and a touch of caramel and fudge topping the modest red berry fruit here. The finish is relatively bright and fresh, if short. Nothing out of place, but at the same time this is an awfully safe wine. 85pts