Napa makes some of the most delicious Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab based blends in the world. The style is unique and although it varies, you’ll generally find dark fruit like blackberry, black cherry, black plum, and other notes like cedar, pencil lead, and cigar box in the glass. Napa’s Cabernet can have layers of complexity in texture and sometimes flavors that are nothing short of divine! The upshot: California Cabernet is completely hedonistic.
That said, there is nuance in Napa. Hillside fruit yields intense, sometimes harshly tannic wines with full fruit and alcohol but less plush than the wines from the valley floor. Wines from cooler areas like Coombsville or Carneros tend to have higher acidity. Wines from hot places, like much of Calistoga, are often powerful fruit bombs. Site matters, and so does producer.
But Napa faces a challenge for normal people like us. The Cabs are tasty and they’re a great treat but when faced with a world of choice, are they worth the average $60 price tag? Are the whites worth a minimum of about $30?
With an abundance of similar New World wine from South America, New Zealand, and an improving
Australian selection coming on board at a similar quality for a fraction of the price, the answer for me is usually no. If you want to bring a Napa wine to my house, or offer me one to drink, I’m not turning you down but am I using my dollars to buy bottles? I can confidently say no. Sonoma, Central Coast, or Mendocino? Sure. Napa, not so much. In fact, when I visit California wine country, I barely go to Napa anymore because the prices and attitude of the place is just not for me. Most wineries feel corporate or snotty and it usually feels like the era of the “small gem,” which I value, is slowly evaporating there.
But that doesn’t mean the wine is bad or that we should completely blame producers for this phenomenon. The costs to run a winery, to keep up with the Joneses, to invest in the land have skyrocketed in Napa. And the cost has to be passed on to us. A sad economic reality for those who enjoy Napa wine.
That said, you may not be in the same economic skiff as me OR you may love the style of Napa so much that the increased price to acquire it is ok by you (I’ll say that I’m willing to pay a good amount for a great Northern Rhône, Burgundy, or Bordeaux when I splurge, so I get it!). Either way, I’ve had a bunch sent to me recently, some quite good, that I thought I’d share. Prices range, but quality is pretty consistent – the great thing about Napa is that the overall standards are high enough so that getting a sinker of a wine is nearly impossible these days. Hopefully these give you some idea of styles and new places to visit if you make it to America’s left coast.
Below are some short reviews with pricing (all wines were samples sent to me from the wineries).
Perhaps the TRUE mark that Napa is adult Disneyland, this winery was founded by Diane Disney Miller (yup, that Disney). She purchased two parcels of vineyard land as an investment property, one from Harry See of See’s Chocolates, in the late 1970s. After selling grapes for a few years, the family decided to open a winery. With apparent money to burn, the Disney-Miller clan started snatching up historic vineyard sites and grew the winery over time. They’ve only had two winemakers, the current is Jon Emmerich, a guy that seems to have a handle on their sites and is making great wine. I tasted two of the line, both solid wines that couldn’t be more dissimilar, showing the effect of site and blend:
2013 Silverado Vineyards GEO Cabernet Sauvignon
Place: Coombsville, Mount George Vineyard (Volcanic soils)
Grapes: 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Petit Verdot
Description: Dark in color, the wine is a deep maroon. Elegant fruit, blackberry, dark berry juice, and fresh tomato are prominent in the smell. A lovely earthy component is present, common for Coombsville, a place that’s consistently impressed me in Napa. The flavors are subtle as is the texture – the wine has enough tannin so it’s not overly-smooth or flabby. Its fruit, acidity, and moderate tannin give GEO an elegance that’s often elusive in Napa. Although the alcohol is high, this wine is more Bordeaux style than traditional Napa style. An awesome wine.
2013 Silverado Vineyards SOLO Cabernet Sauvignon
Place: Stags Leap District Napa, Silverado Vineyard
Grapes: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon (the Disney Silverado Heritage Clone – I’m not kidding this is how Napa really IS Disneyland)
Description: Their “big daddy” wine, it’s dark red and has a big aroma of blackcurrant, black raspberry, blackberry compote, and caramel from oak. A typical Napa, from one of the area’s most prestigious appellations, the wine is a killer on the tannin and acidity! With astringent, bitter tannin and sharp acidity, this wine could use another 10 years of age before it’s ready OR you need to have it with meat or meaty food (eggplant, portabella mushrooms) to tame the tannic beast! The irony here: this is NOT a wine you want to have SOLO, leave that to GEO!
My take: I like both these wines, but for the price, it’s hard to tell you to run out and get either one. There is so much wine available for under $75 that will give you a thrill, it’s difficult to justify the spend. That said, if someone gives either of these to you, be happy!
Rombauer Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 2014
Established in 1980 by the husband and wife team Koerner and Joan Rombauer (his great aunt, Irma Rombauer wrote the Joy of Cooking), Rombauer is known for its oaky, buttery over-the-top Napa Chardonnays and full fruited Zinfandel. Although Cabernet was among their first wines made, Rombauer because synonymous with 80s/90s style Chardonnay (oak and butter bombs) and their reds were not as well known. A shame, since they do a good job with Cabernet. I’ve had a few over the years and all are at least solid, some are quite tasty.
Place: ALL OVER! Stags Leap District, Atlas Peak, Mount Veeder, St. Helena, Calistoga and Rutherford
Grapes: 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Petit Verdot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 5% Merlot
Description: The wine is dark purple, stains the glass when you swirl it, and has thick tears from the alcohol. The aroma is two-fold: strong oak and cigar box, and powerful blackberry and other black fruit notes. It’s balanced between these two sides and tastes as it smells with moderate, though bitter, tannins. It’s actually far more temperate in body than I expected, which was totally pleasant.
My take: My challenge with this wine is one I have often in Napa – the fruit is perfectly ripe and was picked for flavor at the right time, however, the tannin is bitter and sharp. It seems like the winemaker faced a big problem: pick when the fruit is good and the tannins under ripe, or pick when the tannins are smooth and the fruit is obnoxiously overripe (i.e., what you’ll find in Rombauer’s top sellers – their Chardonnay and Zinfandel). Here they seem to have done the former, but I’m not sure, even with age, that tough tannin will mellow. For $55, this wine is good, but doesn’t compare to what I could get from Chile, Argentina, Italy, or some parts of France for the same price.
Note: They also sent me the Sauvignon Blanc. It was tart, over-the-top in its fig, grapefruit aroma, and unbalanced for me. I’m not giving it a full review but if you’re thinking about grabbing it, it’s $24.
Made from their estate grown fruit high atop Spring Mountain, the brothers Smith, who own and operate the winery, are focused, land-oriented, and produce one of the best and most affordable Cabernet Sauvignons in Napa Valley. Vines have thrived on the hillsides of their 200 acre property for over 100 years, and not much has changed. Smith Madrone dry farms their estate (they don’t use irrigation/watering), they study terroir – especially slope and soil type – to match the grape to the site, and the result is distinctive wines that have a sense of place.
The best part: these wines won’t break the bank. The Cabernet is probably the best wine for the money in Napa.
Smith-Madrone Spring Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon, 2013
Place: Spring Mountain District, Napa
Grapes: 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, 6% Merlot
Description: Dark red with decent legs on the swirl, the aroma of this Cabernet is mouthwatering! Subtle oak hits first, then a dark flower note, and then tons of pure tasting black fruit — blackcurrant, blackberry, black cherry, black plum show themselves perfectly. The wine tastes like it smells with excellent tannin and acidity that are perfectly balance. This is a wine made in a focused, thoughtful way. It’s clear that the picking was expertly timed and the decisions in the winery were made to achieve maximum balance. The only Cab on this list that over delivers at the price, for me.
Smith Madrone Spring Mountain District Riesling, 2014
Place: Spring Mountain District, Napa
Grapes: 100% Riesling
Description: A pale straw color, this wine smells like lime and limeade! Jasmine flower, gardenia and other white florals with a stony, earthy quality fill out the aroma. The taste is a slightly toned down version of the smell with high acidity but a round, soft texture. A dry Riesling, the flavor has an herbaceous, stony quality to balance the citrus notes. Amazing that you can grow such a lively, tasty Riesling in Napa. It’s a feat many try but at which few succeed!
Smith Madrone Spring Mountain District Chardonnay, 2014
Place: Spring Mountain District, Napa
Grapes: 100% Chardonnay
Description: A golden straw color, the wine has a strong aroma of vanilla, caramel, butterscotch, and all other things oak. Underneath the oak climbs out lovely stony minerality (similar to the Riesling!), pear, peach, and tropical notes. The acidity is strong, giving the wine a nice balance to the oak and fruit. An excellent wine for those who love oaky Chardonnays but not flabby, one-note, boring ones! This wine is an example of solid oaked Napa Chard.
My Take: Smith-Madrone Cabernet frequently blows other Napa wines out of the water for me. The flavors are so clear, the fruit so clean, and the winemaking so skillful that it’s hard to believe this is possible in a valley that prides itself on monster Cabernets. And at the price, it’s hard to beat. The Riesling is an awesome example of Napa’s diversity. The grape of Germany thrives on the slopes of Spring Mountain — its cool nights do wonders for the acidity while the warm days bring out the best in the fruit. And then there’s the Chardonnay. In the past, I’ve found bottle variation with Smith-Madrone’s wines but by and large I would say that my wish for this wine is that they used a far lower percentage of new French oak, and let the fruit that seems to be struggling to get past the oak just shine as it should. I understand there’s a market for every wine and people do love their oak, but here I feel it’s a bit of a shame to cover up what appears to be some beautiful fruit with a touch too much oak. But that’s just me!
What do you think about Napa prices? Worth it or over the top? Drop a comment and let me know!