Thursday, June 17, 2010

What happens to Napa if Cabernet falls?

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.


Amy Sherman said...

How do feel about Napa Sauvignon Blanc? I'm generally surprised at how I like it. I think of SB as a cooler weather wine, but it seems to do alright in Napa.

Amy Sherman said...
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Anonymous said...

Napa is Napa for a reason. Indeed, there is no other California appellation that can produce Cabernet of equal substance, class and elegance. The best Napa Merlots are better than any Merlots made outside of Pomerol. And the good Sauvignon Blancs are made in the style of Bordeaux blanc, and that's not a bad model. So some other region makes a better Syrah, a better Pinot, a better Chardonnay? So what!

Anonymous said...

Look another "what if Napa" article, seems like there is another new one every week if not day. Napa is the #1 wine region in the country for many reasons, such as: quality of wine, size of the region, beauty, restaurants, resorts, spas, proximity to San Francisco and constant media support. I'm curious as to why no one every writes an article that say's why or how Paso Robles, Lodi or Sonoma needs to get better. Why does Napa have to fail before one of these regions steps up and becomes the best?

Anonymous said...

To me the wines that are best from the most published critics score 87-92pts: balanced, true to the varietal; authentic. The 95+pt wines are like "Cabernet syrup" and might as well come in a bottle shaped like a sturdy woman with an apron so you can put it on your pancakes. Napa is a beautiful place, overrun by drunk tourists and inflated land prices. Some of my favorite wines and least favorite pricing are from Napa. Seems like those prices are the economics which drive better winemaking techniques, the most talented production staffs, more input for quality in the vineyards and ultimately more control and better wines. Now is a great time to stretch your dollar, break out of the old molds and examine other regions, varieties and blends more closely.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Well said and correct. Renommée is probably the most expensive and least flavorful ingredient in wine. Those who sell it need beware. Those who buy it, well ...

chris said...

Napa will fall but not because of style or cost, it will be through insect and climate problems. There is too much diversity beyond 95 point cabernets to classify the whole of Napa or any region. I look forward to the eventual return of Charbono and the introduction of Torrontes to replace Cab and Sauv Blanc.

Unknown said...

When you say Napa has terroir, based on what? Napa for the most part is flat, alluvial fill. No serious wine area would seek out such terrain for planting vitis vinifera.

Tim Hanni said...

gc - "Napa for the most part is flat, alluvial fill. No serious wine area would seek out such terrain for planting vitis vinifera."

Like Bordeaux (flat, alluvial), Gignondas (flat, alluvial), etc., etc.?

Picture of Margaux along Gironde: