It’s too easy to get cynical about Napa Valley. And that’s a problem.
Prices seem to be at an untenable premium—for land, for grapes and for the bottle—and you can only stretch the proverbial rubber-band so much by passing on the cost to the consumer before said rubber-band snaps.
Vanity projects abound, and it’s harder to tell the difference between what’s the real thing versus a well-financed, cynical stab at commercial viability. Take a look at this recent The Atlantic article titled “Rich People are Ruining Wine¹” and you’ll see what I mean.
Competitively speaking, it’s a horror-show: over 1,000 wineries in existence in Napa County vying for just 10% of all wine sales in the U.S.² Overseas, in places like China, where status is everything and ultra premium-priced bottles are still the object of desire of the elite, Napa isn’t doing that great a job competing against Bordeaux, Burgundy and, due to favorable trade agreements, Australia—not to mention a burgeoning Chinese winemaking industry that further intensifies the competitive picture.
Here on our U.S. shores, some very intelligent and conscientious people are calling Napa a bubble. It would be entirely un-American to hope that the bubble bursts, but, at the same time, we all hope Napa residents figure out how to foster a more egalitarian environment before the rich eats all of its young and we find ourselves with nothing left to drink but E. & J. Gallo or Constellation Brand wines.
Either way, a lot of what’s happening in Napa Valley these days is such a turn off. Mirroring what’s happening in big coastal cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland and Seattle—when all you become is a paradise for the haves, what you’re left with is a lot of homeless have-nots and those caught in the middle who just want to get the hell out and move somewhere else. In other words, watch out Napa Valley: people are catching on to just how wonderful the wines are from the Central Coast or Oregon or Washington—and shall we even mention Chile, Spain and Argentina?—at 1/3rd to 1/8th of the price per bottle as compared to yours. Napa Valley simply must find a way to stay relevant to the new generation of wine consumers.
Still, despite all the above axe-grinding and resistance-movement élan, there are those Napa wineries to discover that fill you with such optimism—a sunny hope that purity still exists, and the wine is always the star of the show, and the bottle that the wine sits in is priced fairly even while standing firmly on elitist ground.
Following are Napa Valley wines we’ve come across over the past several months that we love and think are fantastic—wines that fetch a premium price while not necessarily receiving premium attention from the establishment wine press. In other words, no Continuum, Insignia, Mondavi Reserve, Dominus or Cardinale (all great wines, by the way). Though there’s a chance you may not have heard of the wines reviewed below, we feel you should make some room on the top shelf along with the greatest names in Napa Valley. For real. Enjoy!
¹ Bias alert: the publication does have a leftist bent and tends to frequently have an axe to grind.
² Reference: “Strong Competition in Wine Sales Will Increase,” by Tim Carl, Napa Valley Register.
ADLER DEUTSCH Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 | Around $130
When concentrated, highly extracted and ripe is up your alley and not a pejorative, it doesn’t get much better than this. Adler Deutsch breaks the stereotype of Napa Cab with a high level of drinkability and pleasing balance that is spot-on in 2015, a tremendous leap forward from the 2014 bottling. Flavor-wise, it’s full throttle dark cherry, blackberry and black plum notes galore. The wine’s very soft mouthfeel is tantalizing and very much a selling point. A winery that seems to be doing all the right things for much bigger things to come.
BOESCHEN Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 (barrel sample) | $110
A small, family-owned Napa winery—no, this kind of winery has not gone by way of the dinosaur in Napa—Boeschen has put together an impressive lineup considering their size, and this 2017 barrel sample hints at greater things ahead. Located off the Silverado Trail in St. Helena, with Spottswoode as a neighbor, their estate Cabernet has the hallmarks of spice and savoriness, soft, luxurious tannins and excellent, very complex structure. After 10 years in the business, it’s clear that the winery is now hitting a creative peak.
THE DEBATE Cabernet Sauvignon, Missouri Hopper 2014 | Around $200
Ravishingly delicious and intense, thanks to an extraordinarily high level of concentration of blackberry, dark plum and mocha flavors, there is a full-bodied density on the palate that just screams Napa in the best way possible. That weight of body comes with elegant finesse, however, making for a wine with tremendous depth of expression. Fruit quality is spectacular, with that special x-factor that puts the Missouri Hopper vineyard along the likes of Pedegral and Tierra Roja among the low-profile great vineyards of Napa Valley. Sold in a 3-pack along with two of their other single-vineyard Cabs, all very fine—the 2014 To Kalon (96 pts) and Dr. Crane (95 pts).
HERTELENDY Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 | $135
A knockout Cab from one of the most exciting young wineries in Napa, just five vintages in but making wine like they’ve been making it for twenty. Sumptuous, savory notes of baking spice, clove and cardamom characterize a eminently sophisticated, complex and bold mountain Cabernet rich and deep in blackberry, boysenberry and creamy espresso flavors. Texture is pristine—there’s no mistaking this is a high-end wine with its effortless finesse and refinement. The use of Hungarian oak barrels along with French make a fine contribution to the wine’s overall polished quality. Comprised of a combination of estate and sourced fruit, which also includes Petit Verdot, Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc, the art of the winemaker is on full display.
HESPERIAN Kitoko Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 | $150
From a single vineyard in Atlas Peak, one of the highest points of the Napa region, the micro-winery Hesperian produces a stunning Cab that possesses classic structure, incredible balance and the kind of brightness and freshness you’ll find in the best mountain wines. The cooler air from the elevation brings about fruit that is piquant, wild, highly nuanced and expressive in character. Somehow, all of the individualistic and distinctive traits in evidence come together into a pristinely integrated wine that’s so clean and pure.
LEVENSOHN Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 | $175
Like Justify, this is a horse you want to bet on when it’s young. By the time it’s ready, it’ll cross the finish line with style, leaving most high-priced Napa Cabs behind in the dust. The wine is pure class—it’s just one of those things you can tell as soon as you taste it. There’s a quiet finesse that only things of confident stature possess. Superfine tannins practically glisten alongside succulent fruit, adding an element of fashion and luxury. There’s a bourgeois largess and generosity to the wine’s multi-layered complexity that makes you feel special. Call it high-brow, call it high-end—this Napa Cab is on the money.
MATTHIASSON Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 | $60
The name Steve Matthiasson is spoken with reverence in Napa Valley wine industry circles, as the winegrower is one of the true purists you can count on to remain pure. However, like cinematographer Janusz Kamińksi takes second to Steven Spielberg or editor Thelma Schoonmaker takes second to Martin Scorsese, behind-the-scenes players rarely become household names. Matthiasson’s relative obscurity is our gain, as every wine under the master’s label is worth pursuing, not the least of them the Napa Valley Cab—at such a fair price for such vibrant character and freshness that is just palpable in the most thrilling way possible. Notes of violets, dried flowers and cherries add an element of movie screen romance.
TUCK BECKSTOFFER ESTATE Amulet 2014 | $150
We know the Beckstoffer family grows legendary vineyards, but how are they at making wines? Damn good. With imaginative and evocative names for each of the red blends in the portfolio—including ”Amulet,” “Mockingbird” and “Dancing Hares”—all very fine and highly recommended, our top pick is Amulet, a Bordeaux blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. There’s 4 prestigious Napa Valley AVAs tucked into the bottle (sorry, couldn’t resist), and the amalgam is gorgeous finesse and silkiness, bright cherry fruit notes on top of full-bodied richness, great balance and stylish flair. A quintessential expression of Napa and a paradigm of the art of the blend.
YOUNT RIDGE EPIC Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 | $240
Winemaker and consultant Celia Welch is a legend of Napa Valley, and 2014 is the inaugural vintage of her new label’s ultra-premium, flagship wine. Having tasted Yount Ridge’s thrillingly vivid $100 entry-level 2014 Oakville Cab (96 pts) prior to this wine should have been a clue, but still, nothing quite prepares you for the masterpiece that is the truly epic EPIC 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. The nose on the wine is magnificently vibrant and mellifluous—fresh cut flowers, violets and lavender especially, and black cherry, boysenberry, graphite and the woods—and it’s equally magnificent on the palate. Add additional notes of cacao and spice, exquisite tannins, amazingly sophisticated structure and perfect balance, and you’ve got a high-wire act that enthralls, pulls you into a state of awe and just about restores your faith in all that is good in Napa Valley.