Smart Gambling on Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

(Photo credit: John Lenart – Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, Sequoia Grove Vineyard, Napa Valley)

Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon can be a gamble, and a pricey one at that. Often times, when considering a purchase, you don’t know what the wine in that fancy bottle tastes like, and at an average price of $45 per bottle the more you know about Napa cab, the more likely you’ll come away with a bottle you love. So let’s take a look at why Napa cab costs so much and how you can make the choice that’s right for you.

In Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon is king. And the numbers prove that statement.

Of the three dozen or so grape varieties grown in Napa Valley, 55 percent of the total crop is cabernet sauvignon. Cab became king of Napa back in the mid 70’s, when the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon – made from vines just 3 years old – bested four Bordeaux first-growths at Steven Spurrier’s legendary Paris tasting. Following this historic win, America’s demand for Napa Valley cabernet exploded. With this booming growth in popularity, over the next few decades, Napa cabernet began to change. Prices skyrocketed, and more importantly, the style changed as well. So, just how powerful is the king, and is worshiping the throne worth the price we have to pay? To find out, we need to look at a bit of history.

When I first started buying wine I was all about Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. I still remember the first bottle of wine I ever bought. It was a 1983 Franciscan Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. I think I paid about $20 for it. Back then, I was still in college and twenty bucks was not cheap for me. That wine bore little resemblance to the Napa cabs of today. It was considerably lower in alcohol, at about 13%, versus the 14 to 15 plus percent of today’s Napa cabs, and the price tag was considerably lower than wines of similar quality today. It was an interesting wine, a bit vegetal with good fruit, big tannin and integrated acid. I found it balanced and enjoyable. Richard Hanauer, Somm at Chicago’s RPM Steak tells us, “In the 70’s and 80’s, Napa was harvesting and growing fruit differently and making wines of slightly less primary (fruit) flavor with more secondary (terroir) flavor. The most common differences are concentration of fruit and alcohol percentage.”

During the economic prosperity of the 90’s America’s thirst for Napa cab continued to grow and winemakers were happy to oblige. Of course, Napa Valley is a pretty small piece of land and the law of supply and demand held fast. Prices for the coveted juice skyrocketed. At the same time, the influence of renowned wine critic Robert Parker was coming to prominence. Parker, founder of The Wine Advocate, is accused of, whether rightly or not, preferring wines that are rich, very ripe, and high in alcohol. Make a wine that scores 100 points from Parker or Wine Spectator and you’ve got a hit. Whether you believe it was due to Parker or not, the style of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon began to get fruitier, more concentrated, bordering on sweet.

It was also in the mid to late 90’s that The Cult Wine was born. Cult wines are expensive. Napa Cult cabernets are extremely limited in production and can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars per bottle. I don’t know about you, but that’s out of my price range. Simply utter the words Screaming Eagle, Harlan, or Schrader while in the company of Napa cab lovers and you’ll get some attention. Not coincidentally, these wines consistently score high marks with Parker and Wine Spectator.

“Over the last three decades, we have learned what Napa Valley has to offer and how to make wines that emphasize its best qualities.” explains Michael Trujillo, President and Director of Winemaking at Sequoia Grove in Napa Valley. “Cabernets from three decades ago are less ripe, more firm, have more pronounced acidity and needed more time to develop in the bottle. Present-day cabernets have a riper style, lusher tannins, more balanced acidity, and are more approachable. Winemakers have learned to accentuate the fruit, tannin, acidic profiles of the vineyard more than they did in the past,”

According to Tom Powers, Sommelier and Owner of the upcoming Chicago wine bar, The Lunatic, The Lover & The Poet, “The rise of the Cult Cab phenomenon saw Napa cabs further soar in price. Consumers wanted a “drink now” model that provides more immediate satisfaction. The influence of the Wine Spectator and Robert Parker certainly helped shape how wines were made.”

Read the tasting notes for cult wines, and the words “big, powerful, and intense” are pretty commonly used. Like kids playing baseball imitating the batting stance of a big league baseball star, winemakers began to emulate this big, fruity, sweet, high scoring style. To fit into the trend of fruit forward wine making, what’s required is that grapes become very ripe. This produces the intense flavors many look for in today’s cabernets. What comes along with this ripeness is a higher level of sugar, called brix. Higher brix, means more potential alcohol during fermentation, resulting in wines that are ripe, yet high in alcohol. Alcohol levels soared from 12.5% to often over 15%, green notes like bell pepper and olive virtually disappeared, fruit and oak beat tannin and acid into the background. But just because Napa cab styles changed doesn’t mean they’re worse. “These new ‘Cult Cabs’ were drawing serious critical acclaim, and the audiences began buying. I think all too often in the wine community these new ‘Cults’ are looked down upon when in fact they are incredibly well-made wines. I prefer to look at the styles as different, not superior or inferior,” says Hanauer.

That being said Trujillo explains “I believe grapes can be at full maturity at a lower brix if grown properly. Balanced farming will get you earlier and balanced maturity in grapes.”

As time went on and we got to the 2010’s, this idea of “balance” came to prominence. “Many Napa Cabs are balanced, many are not, but this is a hot marketing term right now. Most winemakers will say that their wines are ‘food wines’ and are ‘balanced’, but that is certainly not always true. As parents may have trouble acknowledging their children’s shortcomings, winemakers and their marketing teams often present their wines in glowing terms that are not accurate,” says Powers.

What all of this boils down to is that Napa cabernet sauvignon can vary in style, from the earthier greener, lower alcohol styles of the 70’s and 80’s to the huge fruitier styles of the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

But wait! There’s more! Lumping all Napa cabernet together based on when they were produced would be like saying all cars made in the same model year are the same. The idea of terroir is important when it comes to Napa cab. Terroir is a fancy wine term that basically means what the specific location of the vineyard lends to the taste of the wine. Differences in soil composition, sunlight, and wind can have a major influence on a wine’s flavor.

Knowing what characteristics different growing areas give to wine can help you pick a wine you’re gonna love. And when you’re gambling your $50 you want to make a smart bet. These areas are divided into appellations and further into sub-appellations. Napa Valley was designated as California’s first appellation in 1981. Today 16 sub-appellations exist within Napa Valley and each can produce unique wines from the same cabernet grapes.

(Map Courtesy of Napa Valley Vintners)

In some cases when you look at a wine label you’ll see the sub-appellation listed. What does it mean? Well, if a wine label says, for example, Rutherford, it means that, by law, at least 85% of the grapes used to make that wine must be from the Rutherford sub-appellation. So if you know where the grapes come from and have a bit of an idea about the terroir of the area, you can make a pretty solid bet that you’ll know what the wine inside will taste like.

Here are the flavor characteristics you can find in the more common Napa sub-appellations.

Diamond Mountain District: Firmly structured, rich and fairly tannic when young, with strong blackcurrant, mineral, and cedary flavors. Less supple and fleshy than valley or benchland wines, with good aging potential.

Spring Mountain District: Of all the mountain appellations, Spring Mountain tends to be the most fruit-forward. Bright red fruit characteristics.

Mount Veeder: Firm, herbal characteristics, tannic structure with strong earth-berry aromas and rich, but powerful flavors.

Calistoga: Difficult to determine due to a number of geographic influences such as the tightening of the hills and Russian River influences through wind gaps in the Mayacamus. But in general, expect cabernets that are riper flavored and lower in acidity.

St. Helena: Deep, ripe, often jammy flavors, with firm tannins for structure and acid for long cellaring. Appealing aromas of currant and black fruit.

Rutherford: Intense cherry and mineral, almost earthy aromas. Flavors are full, ripe currant with firm, but supple tannins for extended aging. Earthy characteristics lend to the term “Rutherford Dust.”

Oakville: Ripe currant and mint flavors, rich texture and full, firm structure tempered by rich fruit with chocolate and olive notes. Some Oakville vineyards produce cabernets with more herbal flavors.

Stags Leap: Distinguished by lush, velvety textures and fine perfumed cherry and red berry flavors, supported by soft tannins.

Yountville: Ripe, violety aromas and rich, but supple flavors and firm tannins.

Oak Knoll: Elegant style is the common theme with fruit flavors of cassis, tobacco, and spice typical to Bordeaux-style reds.

Howell Mountain: Powerful, firm, blackberry-currant flavors and often richly tannic, with excellent acidity for aging.

Chiles Valley: Cabernets usually reveal a lush yet firm texture with good acidity, firm tannin and distinctive cherry-blackberry flavors.

Atlas Peak: Smooth richness, without being overpowering. Silky, cherry, mocha notes.

Now that you know a bit about how current tastes and styles of grape growing and wine making influence cabernet sauvignon and a bit about the terroir of different Napa sub-appellations, you can make a wiser bet when you plunk down your $50 or $100 or more for a bottle of the king of Napa Valley, cabernet sauvignon.

John Lenart is a wine writer based in Chicago and recipient of the 2016 Professional Wine Writer’s Symposium Fellowship. He focuses his work on writing articles that help consumers make better choices about wine, whether it’s in a restaurant, in a wine shop, direct from the vineyard, or at auction. Lenart has been passionate about wine for almost three decades. It all started when a friend got a job for a wine distributor and started taking him to tastings and wine events. John quickly became fascinated with not only the amazing wines, but with the people who made them, and the stories of the places the wines were made. But what really drove his passion for wine is how it can bring people together. Whether it’s dining out in California’s wine country or sitting down to dinner on a Tuesday evening, sharing a meal and a bottle of wine brings people together like few other things can. Passion for wine is about a connection with people, places, times and events, and Lenart’s writing can help you enhance those connections.

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