Few places in the New World rival California for cabernet sauvignon. Yes, Washington State is coming on strong, and, once you get past the phalanx of malbecs, Argentina has much to offer. But Napa Valley is still the gold standard, especially to the fervent followers of Robert Parker and The Wine Spectator. Trouble is, many of these are “over-ripe, alcoholic, toasty-oak, food-unfriendly wines” — this in the words of Spectator’s own James Laube, who recently (and proudly, it seems) confessed, “I started the movement.” (Parker, who can be blamed equally — along with the many who followed suit, has offered no such mea culpa.) Along with elevated alcohol and extreme extraction also come high prices, with cult cabernets reaching stratospheric levels.
So Omniboire innocently wondered if there were any Napa cabs out there that did not require personal bottleguards — and that could be enjoyed with a simple steak. Setting a price range of around $20-50, prevailing upon friends from both Glazer’s and Republic distributing companies, plus a little personal wine-shop sleuthing resulted in nine contenders, including one ringer from another region renowned for its cabernets.
Josef Ignacz, sommelier and then some at Silo 1604 was our host and a panelist. Keith Kuhn, accomplished chef and owner of Serendipity Wine Imports, provided another polished palate, as did Gary Turner, wine consultant, collector, and taster-about-town.
OK, the least-expensive wine did come in last, but the priciest did not end up on top. Not that the 2005 Caravan Napa Valley Estate Grown cabernet was exactly cheap at around $36. Caravan, however, is a second label of the much dearer Darioush, and “Its quality and intensity were close to the top for me,” offered Kuhn, who also found quince notes. Turner detected “a strong herbal presence — the nice side of that equation,” and Ignacz praised the “long-lasting flavor.”
Hot on Caravan’s heels was an unexpected winner, the 2004 Buehler Napa Valley, retailing in the low to mid 20s. Kuhn found “lots of distinct flavor notes — including roasted green pepper,” and here is where he and Turner parted company. “It moved too far into the unroasted green pepper `spectrum` for me … the nose put me off,” he claimed. Omniboire liked its minty, dark-fruit qualities. Which is precisely why a diverse panel is always assembled.
Tasting as we did the day before Valentine’s Day, it’s perhaps appropriate that Ignacz found “instant gratification” in the 2004 Terra Valentine Spring Mountain District, our number-three wine. Continuing in the same vein, Kuhn found the wine to be “silky,” with lanolin in the nose and a “candied, sweet-tart quality” that was nevertheless balanced with acidity. “It’s too underwhelming for steak,” he opined, but could be enjoyed without food, while Turner called it an “easy-drinking, backyard-burger cab.” Worlds away from the over-alcoholic fruit bombs of current fashion, in any case — though at nearly $40, a little beyond backyard budgetary limits for this imbiber.
A second label of the Christian Moueix Dominus estate (which occupies a stunning winery done by Swiss architects Herzog & DeMeuron), the 2004 Napanook, a Bordeaux-like blend of 83-percent cabernet with cabernet franc, merlot, and petit verdot, wasn’t universally loved (despite a big Parker score). “Just average to me,” thought Ignacz, while Kuhn said it had “poor cab qualities — though in a positive way” (perhaps a result of the blend). Turner demurred, claiming that it was representative of cabernet, that it “loosened up and lingered” with time in the glass and that, “I’d put it to a steak.” Your scribe loved the “pretty” aromas and detected great balance and nice cherry-berry flavors.
Faust, a wine Omniboire has loved in the recent past (it’s a new product for Agustin Huneeus), was a disappointment. The second label of Quintessa, one website has called this “The epitome of the style that has made Napa cabernet world-
renowned,” yet it reminded Ignacz of Spain, and Kuhn claimed it was “technically correct” but “just didn’t shine.” Turner was more generous, saying, “I loved the flavor, the finish … `and the way` it washed across the mouth.” Its position in the blind-tasting lineup might have been partly to blame for lower scores, as it opened up beautifully from the retasted bottle a day later. But somebody’s gotta go first …
The waiter pouring the wines had been instructed not to pour the ringer first, thinking it would stand out more in the middle of the pack. Two of us picked out the 2004 Larose de Gruaud St Julien, in fact, and the remaining two noted the wine’s “sharp” and “tart” qualities. Ignacz confessed that, “Whoo … the high acidity threw me off,” while visions of a gorgonzola-sauced ribeye danced in Kuhn’s head. A classic left-bank blend with 60-percent cabernet, this wine was set up to be the opposite of all the big, blowzy Cal-cabs, but as they hadn’t lived up to their bad-boy reputation so far, it merely emerged as a more bracing and food-friendly alternative, redolent of cedar, herbs, and deep-red fruit. In a tasting of its peers, it might be expected to do better.
There was unusual unanimity, too, among opinions of the 2004 Ehlers Estate Napa Valley. “Over-average but not brilliant,” “Not yet there for me,” and “lacking intensity and focus — though better on retaste” were some of the comments.
Though it was a personal favorite (and the second-favorite of Ignacz) other panel members found the 2005 Napa Valley Edge “flabby,” and “more like negro amaro but grown in Napa.” A second label of the well-regarded Signorello cabernet, it is said to be “carefully selected from Napa Valley’s most prestigious vineyards. Blended by a notable winemaker … ,” all of which confirms that back labels have their limits.
The front label also knows no bounds if The Grateful Palate’s 2005 Green Lion Napa Valley is any indication. Though the winemaker isn’t mentioned — at least as such — the designer of the over-the-top, Haight-Ashbury-meets-Wizard-of-Oz-in-the-Masonic-Lodge label does get credit. Spend more time on the wine, we determined, though Turner did allow as how “it would be a good burger wine,” and at around $19, that is a possibility. Especially if you happen to make Daniel Boulud-style burgers stuffed with braised shortrib meat and maybe a little foie gras. But if you’re doing that, maybe you’re also springing for Screaming Eagle or another of the current cult classics of cabernet; they’re the ones that must be “overripe,
alcoholic … ,” etc. Damned if we found any. •
2005 Caravan Napa Valley
Cabernet Sauvignon, $36
Minty herbal notes with quince and caramel; long finish
2004 Buehler Napa Valley
Cabernet Sauvignon, $21-$25
Roasted flavors with tobacco and mint; bright, long finish
2004 Terra Valentine, Spring Mountain District, Cabernet
Racy nose with dark fruit, sweet-tart flavors, forward tannins
2004 Napanook NapaValley Cabernet Sauvignon, $30-$35
Caramel and honey meet juicy, dark berry fruits
2005 Faust Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $50-$53
Initially closed, well-balanced, lingering finish
2004 Larose de Gruaud St. Julien, $25-$30
Cedar & herbs on nose, tart fruit, food friendly
2004 Ehlers Estate Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $35-$37
Deep fruit, soft focus
2005 Edge Napa Valley Cabernet
Rustic, cassis and blackberry flavors, short finish
2005 Green Lion Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $19
Good fruit but slightly harsh and unbalanced
Most wines can be found at Central Market, Saglimbeni Fine Wines and other specialty wine shops