Is Napa Valley really the best terroir in California?
That idea is the foundation of its success, and every year it gets reinforced by Robert Parker and Wine Spectator, which both coo over its Cabernets, doling out 98 point scores while other varietals from other regions rarely top 93.
That's why wineries making mediocre Cab from Napa feel like they can get away with charging over $50 when it's hard to get that much money for, say, the best Grenache in the country. And it's not just Cab -- everything from Napa Valley costs more. Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese, Petite Sirah -- it all demands premium retail price if it's from Napa.
I believe Napa Valley is the best terroir for Merlot in the United States. It's also the best terroir for Cabernet in California (though parts of Washington state might be just as good.)
But -- and this is a huge BUT -- Napa's not the best at anything else.
Chardonnay? Napa Valley Chardonnay is often an overpriced joke. There are still some good ones from Carneros; Mike Grgich knows what he's doing, and there are other exceptions. But the majority of Napa Valley Chardonnays are cynical cocktails of butter and oak. If you like Chardonnay, you should be buying it from Russian River Valley or the Sonoma Coast or other cooler places.
Zinfandel? This might be the third-best wine produced in Napa, but you can get better ones from Sonoma or Contra Costa County, and even Paso Robles.
Syrah? Cooler regions are better. And cheaper.
Every other variety? Please see Syrah.
All of Napa Valley's reputation rides on Cab and Merlot. To be fair, this is the same as Burgundy, where all the reputation rides on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, or Rioja, where it's all on Tempranillo, or many other great regions.
What this means is that Napa Valley has a huge interest in making sure Cab and Merlot remain America's favorite red wines.
But will they? As we get more sophisticated as a wine-drinking nation, some people are beginning to ask for more food-friendly, balanced wines. Right now it's a tiny movement of sommeliers and aficionados.
Yet I cannot remember the last time I met a wine professional who said, "I really like Cabernet." Usually it's the exact opposite. Sommeliers, wine buyers, wine writers, wine bar owners: they're just not drinking Cabernet anymore.
Eric Asimov recently wrote in the New York Times that millenials aren't ordering Bordeaux anymore. What happens when they realize that Napa Cabs, while giving more forward fruit, are generally even less food-friendly?
Meanwhile, I was perusing a list of tasting-room fees in Napa and was shocked: $25 is the new $10. And for that, you don't even get to taste the reserve wines.
Napa still gets plenty of wine tourism because it has average Americans convinced that it's worth it. Why waste $5 in a tasting room in Santa Barbara County on its non-Cabernet wines when they only get 90 points, when you can pay $30 to taste wines from the neighbor of the place that scored 99! And you might even be able to see the bottle (though no touching, please.)
Maybe this will go on indefinitely. Maybe Americans can only remember wine facts in shorthand: "Cab good. Napa good. Worth more."
I do know this: I would not like to have my own money invested in the continuation of that belief.