Life is a Cabernet

Location: North America, USA

Napa has myriad terroirs, dozens of soil profiles and hundreds of producers. So why is it dominated by one-note Cabernet Sauvignons? Simon Woods joins a puzzled group of sommeliers to find out

DAY 1: I’ve never had a breakfast briefing on a wine trip before, but then for myself and the various sommeliers assembled, this wasn’t a wine trip, it was a FAM tour. Finest American Merlots? Flipping Alcoholic Monsters? No, fam’ as in ‘familiarisation’. And familiarisation meant that we would be having breakfast briefings, with the topic for the first day being ‘Putting it all into perspective’.

You soon realise that there’s Napa Valley and there’s Napa Valley. It stretches about 50km from north to south, and about 8km across at its widest point. Thanks to shifting seas, tectonic plates and volcanic activity there are dozens of different soils in the region. At the southern end, there are vineyards not much above sea level, but up the slopes that form the side of the valley – the marine sediment based Mayacamas range to the west and the more volcanic Vaca range to the east – you’ll find vineyards above 700 metres.

Then there’s the fog. It’s cold out at sea, it’s warm inland, and thanks to this temperature difference cool moist air is drawn inland early every morning, turning to fog in the process. Later, as the air warms up, the fog dissipates, but not before it has provided both a cooling influence and some shade from the sun.

It soon became clear that one grape

monopolised plantings – more than 90% of

the wineries produce a Cabernet Sauvignon

In Napa, the southern end of the valley close to the San Pablo Bay is the place that feels this effect most, but the northern end of the valley also gets some fog drawn in through the Chalk Hill gap.
So then, the middle of the valley is the hottest part? It’s not that simple. The fog settles on the valley floor, but many places on the slopes lie above the fog line, and so receive no cooling effect at all.
This combination of soils, aspects and altitudes, with fog thrown in for extra seasoning, gives a wide variety of growing conditions that should be ideal for a broad selection of wine grapes. But it soon became clear that one grape monopolised plantings – more than 90% of the wineries produce a Cabernet Sauvignon.

We got to the Trefethen winery for a presentation of Cabernet blends from valley floor AVAs (Napa Valley is itself an AVA – American Viticultural Area – but there are 15 sub-appellations, such as Rutherford, Oakville and Spring Mountain, within its boundaries). With vineyards stretching from close to the Napa River, right to the foothills of the two mountain ranges, it would be understandable for there to be considerable differences between the wines – even within the same AVA; however, what seemed to come through more strongly is the imprint of the producer.

One of the panel, Cathy Corison of Corison winery, talked about playing on the boundary between power and elegance, and her gentle approach came through in her wines. Others seemed to have abandoned any idea of freshness and elegance. The result: lots of ‘impressive’ wines that I didn’t want to drink.

Lunch was focused on Sauvignon Blanc. I’d love to report that my general opinion of Napa Sauvignon was elevated by the wines we tried, but too many spoke of overcropped grapes in too warm a region, and picked too late. Grgich Hills Fumé Blanc 2006 was my pick of the bunch.

Next, another panel discussion and tasting, this time focusing on Chardonnay. Representatives from the wineries whose wines I wasn’t so keen on went into detail about how they’d been made – I get twitchy when people talk about ‘the building blocks for complexity in a wine’.

Meanwhile, the winemakers from my two favourites, Hyde de Villaine, with Saintsbury close behind, felt no need to get bogged down in such minutiae. Freshness rather than a desire to overwhelm was the hallmark of their wines.

DAY 2: Wednesday saw us getting down and dirty. We split into pairs and headed off to various points of the valley with different wineries. Laura Rhys MS, former head sommelier at the New Forest’s Hotel TerraVina, and I found ourselves heading up the east slopes of the valley
to St Supéry’s Dollarhide Ranch for a quick lesson in pruning. Were we any good? Well, let’s just say that if yields are low in certain parts of the vineyard in 2011, it’s probably our fault…

Then it was up to Shafer for a session on Hillside Cabernets. The previous day, we’d heard how the hillside vineyards generally gave denser colours and stronger tannins to the wine. I’d say that on the whole wines had richer, sweeter flavours than the valley floor examples, but once again, there was too much of that sweetness and desire to make an impact, and not enough freshness. But I did like the wines of Rubissow from Mount Veeder, which had a svelte character and lovely balance. 

DAY 3:  This trip to Chateau Montelena to meet four Napa legends was a definite highlight of the week. John Shafer of Shafer Vineyards, Boots Brounstein of Diamond Creek Vineyards, Margrit Biever Mondavi of Robert Mondavi Winery and Jim Barrett of Chateau Montelena could probably have sat and chatted all day about how the valley has changed in the last 50 years.

(If you want to find out about skinny-dipping, Château d’Yquem lollies and which winemakers get paid in bags of gold, check out the video on my website

Next we headed up to Volker Eisele’s vineyard in Chiles Valley. It was tipping down with rain, but Eisele marched us into the storm anyway. Wet or not, we agreed that his 2006 Terzetto (Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc/Merlot) was a pretty smart wine, with a fragrant minerality lacking in many other cellars.

The evening saw us at the Generations Dinner at the Viader winery, where two generations of producers from a number of different wineries presented their wines. I like generational changes at wineries – the young guys learn after a couple of years that maybe their parents weren’t all that stupid after all, while the parents, even though they are often loath to admit it, discover that the winery has benefited from the new blood.

The generational change at Viader seems to still be in a slightly prickly stage. Delia Viader made her name with a restrained Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc blend but her son Alan has now enlisted Michel Rolland as a consultant, and mum isn’t convinced it’s the right move. Oh for a trip in the Tardis to see how they get on over the next 20 years…

DAY 4: This was a week of intense wine activity for the Culinary Institute of America (CIA!), culminating in the Premiere Napa Valley, an annual auction of specially created wines, with proceeds going to the work of the Napa Valley Vintners Association.

There was also a Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, and we joined in for a blind tasting of three different vintages of 12 Cabernets (2006, 2007, 2008) and eight Pinot Noirs (2007, 2008, 2009), each one from different Napa wineries. The conclusion? Tasting 60 ambitious wines in little more than an hour isn’t really fair on the wines, the wineries or the tasters.

In the evening, we got to try a variety of odd bottles of ‘different grape varieties’ that had appeared at the hotel. Highlights of the impromptu line-up were the Von Strasser Grüner Veltliner and Artesa Albariño, and there were also examples of Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Malvasia, Roussanne, Verdelho, Grignolino, Tempranillo, Charbono and Aglianico.

To be honest, most fell into the ‘interesting’ rather than ‘tasty’ camp and, not for the first time, we wondered what had happened to the old Zinfandel and Carignan-heavy blends that must once have thrived in the valley before Cabernet became quite so ubiquitous.

DAY 5:  Yet another indication of the sheer strength of Cabernet’s grip on the area came on the Saturday morning, when we were back at the CIA for a chance to taste through barrel samples of all 200 of the Premiere Napa Valley auction wines. There were three Pinot Noirs. There were nine Cabernet Francs – those from Lang & Reed, Detert and Paradigm were excellent. There were a dozen red blends, including one called – wait for it – Incest…

And, of course, there were the obligatory 148 Cabernet Sauvignons.

And it was one of these, the 2009 from Scarecrow Wine made by Celia Welch, that broke the Premiere record for a single lot, with a five-case parcel being sold for $125,000 to a Japanese wine company. Plenty of shouting, whooping, cheering and high-fiving ensued.

The evening’s farewell dinner saw us at Bond Winery, sister to the iconic Harlan Estate. Our host, estate director Paul Roberts MS, was seated next to Oz Clarke. When asked what had been the highlights of the trip, Clarke replied: ‘Boots Brounstein’s timeless beauty and Hailey Trefethen’s body.’

Roberts was lost for words. Fortunately, the Bond wines, from five different sites throughout the valley, were able to do the talking for him.

Napa is undoubtedly one of the world’s great wine regions and one that I’ll be looking forward to visiting again very soon. But next time, I want to taste more Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, more Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc, more Charbono and Albariño.

Though I’ll also find time for a glass or two of Cabernet Sauvignon…

Napa in a Nutshell

Hamish Anderson, Tate Restaurants
‘For a region that has such a diverse range of characters, Napa has a rather narrow range of styles and grape varieties. The predominant style has limited appeal to the UK consumer, particularly as the price of the wines places them in the upper echelons of a restaurant list. Most (although not all) UK consumers of top end wines are after classical, restrained wines with a European bent. Even so, I’ll be looking to add a few of the names I enjoyed such as Corison and Diamond Creek to my list.’

Rob Graves, Harvey Nichols
‘Napa wines, mainly the Cabernets and Cabernet blends, have a certain style and reputation and continue to appeal to a loyal but limited client base. I’d like to see more experimentation with alternative varietals, and for there to be more accessible, vibrant styles of wine for everyday drinking and food matching at lower entry price levels. My favourite wine? Hyde de Villaine Chardonnay.’

Yohann Jousselin MS, The Vineyard at Stockcross
‘I know that Napa is often seen as expensive in the UK – it would be great to be able to buy the top wines at a much lower cost. However, this trip has inspired me to extend our list to better reflect the diversity of Napa. My favourite wines were the  Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 2008, Cardinal 2007, Corison Rutherford Cabernet 2001 and Shafer Hillside Select 1999.’

Laura Rhys MS, ex-Hotel TerraVina
‘It was great to get into the vineyards, and meeting the pioneers was just amazing – to see what they have achieved and listen to their stories was inspiring. While the price of the Napa wines can often be an issue for some restaurateurs, I believe they can prove to be a beneficial and interesting addition to a list. I was especially impressed by Cabernet Franc and would look to add one or two to my next list.’

Xavier Rousset MS, Texture, 28°-50°
‘The UK is a very competitive and price-sensitive market, and most of the wines we tried don’t represent good value. But it was good to taste some of the older wines such as the Viader 1995, Spottswoode Cabernet 1993 and Clos du Val Cabernet 1992.’

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