Saturday, October 25, 2008

Ramblings on New Napa Cabernet Sauvignon

Recent thoughts and conversations with Napa folks about Napa Cabernet Sauvignon vintages somehow left me with an urge to write these rambling notes.

Mark Grassi sauntered in to the store Friday to introduce himself and to thank me for my support. Great guy. He's a construction man by profession, his Napa construction company builds wineries for Napa's cult wine producers like Screaming Eagle and Ovid, as well as houses for their owners, like Tim Mondavi and Jayson Pahlmeyer.

But Mark seems proudest of all of his latest achievement, releasing the debut 2005 vintage of the Cabernet Sauvignon from his 4-acre estate and residence in Soda Canyon. He believes timing couldn't be better for the debut release as the quality of his 2005 is high. He was happy to point out that his Cabernet, at $60 a pop, is about half the price of the top California Cabernets that the Wine Spectator listed in its current issue on California Cabernets that scored at least 90 points (his scored 91). And to top it off, he was profiled in a piece in that issue regarding eight newcomer producers of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon to watch out for. Hey, everything's going his way right now! Check out the 2005 Grassi Cabernet before it sells out.

The 2005 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon vintage offers the best wines since the 2001. However, James Laube of the Wine Spectator expressed "surprise" at the high quality of the vintage, as he sort of panned it previously. I thought he screwed up, yet again, when he first wrote up about the vintage two years ago. When I also tasted many of the wines from barrel around that time, I thought they already showed wonderful promise. Moreover, Napa Cabernet producers believed that, too, and they were upbeat about the vintage.

For the record here is what Laube wrote after barrel-sampling the 2005 vintage over two years ago: "If 2005 is to end up being a sensational year for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, as so many producers insist it will, the wines will have to make a stronger impression than they did in my preliminary blind tasting in Napa this week... The 2005s do not show as much depth, plushness, concentration or range of flavor as past vintages have displayed at a similar stage of development. This may be both a function of the vintage and the result of a deliberate attempt by winemakers to ease off on superripe wine and soaring alcohol levels." Laube and his poor readers were the only ones surprised.

So the Wine Spectator rates the 2005 Napa Cabernet vintage 93 points, on par with 2002 and 2001. I'd score 2001 and 2005 even higher. But why is 1997 rated 99 points? It is now known, even by Laube's published ten years on tastings, that many of the top-scoring Cabernets from this vintage have had problems lasting a decade, not to mention that so many are showing elevated VA now. I expect the top 2005 Cabernets will both age and taste better than these 1997s after ten years. Let's wait and see.

Tasting some barrel samples of 2007 Cabernet Sauvignons earlier this year at the Cabernet Society tasting in Napa showed the wonderful potential of this vintage. Very much like 2005 in quality. Good vivid flavors, balanced ripeness, and rich tannins. Always the three things I look for when tasting Napa Cabernets, especially from barrel.

But honestly, I'm still at a loss at why vintages can vary so much in quality in Napa. I mean, it never really rains between May and November, and the majority of days are very warm and sunny. It ought to be a slam-dunk each vintage. One has to conclude that it's basically two things why there's inconsistent quality: too many wrong vineyard sites and too many producers not really knowing how to grow good wine.

2005 is a bumper crop in Napa, and the timing for producers couldn't be better considering the current economic downturn. Even at reduced prices they should be able to make it up with sales volume. But guess what, prices are up! The Wine Spectator issue notes that the average price of "outstanding" Napa Cabernets (those they score at least 90 points) is $119/bottle in the 2005 vintage, which is about double what it was a decade ago. I bet you, most, if not all, producers can slash their prices by half to $60/bottle and still make money. Napa producers, you gotta start lowering your prices, like almost everyone seems to be doing these days. Don't let the market force you to do so.

2008 crops are now in and it is clear the harvest is down by as much as 30-40% in Napa. How the heck did that happen? We haven't seen rain in a long time. And though the weather was relatively cool for long stretches, there was no problem getting enough warm, sunny days to ripen fruit in Napa. We are talking of a cool-climate grape here, Cabernet Sauvignon, native to Bordeaux, where the weather is much cooler. Again, I go back to my comment above: too many wrong vineyard sites in Napa and too many Napa producers who don't know how to grow good wine.

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