A tale of two Napas

Usually when Your West Coast Oenophile sits down to compose these installments for Sostevinobile, I have a vague outline of the post mapped out in my mind. I had originally planned to wrap up the chronicle on my summer peregrinations throughout various regions of the wine country here (any pretense I could cover my trips in a single article fell by the wayside when I hit the 4,500 word mark), but I’ve had to shelve Part II temporarily in favor a series of contrasting events I’ve attended in Napa.
The good folks at North Bay Business Journal were kind enough to issue me a media pass for their annual Impact Napa conference. I, in turn, made every effort possible to arrive at the Napa Valley Marriott bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to hear economist Chris Thornberg deliver the keynote address. But somehow my alarm failed to ring, and I found myself strolling in for the last 90 seconds of his speech. I suppose I might justify my tardiness with claims I have yet to hear a presentation by an economist that hasn’t been inexorably soporific, but I’ll demur for now and focus instead on the panel discussion that I did attend.
The Business Journal assembled a veritable marquée lineup from the Valley, with proprietors from revered wineries Araujo and Pahlmeyer, premier Merger & Acquisition specialist Mario Zepponi, and seminal vineyardist Andy Beckstoffer. Now, lest readers think I’ve taken to fawning over viticultural superstars at this juncture, be not alarmed: I am merely essaying to accentuate the tenor of this discourse, which focused largely on the rarefied niche held by Napa’s ultrapremium wineries.
Each of these panelist expounded a personal perspective on how the past few years have impacted their sector of the wine industry, and while the economic downturn may briefly have had a deleterious effect on the pace and volume of high-end sales, the wines and grapes in this echelon quickly rebounded to as robust a level as had previously been experienced.
Unlike Reaganomics, however, the economics of the wine industry have not adhered to the dictates of the dubious Laffer curve, and while the fortunes of Napa’s premier cru wineries may have contravened the otherwise downward spiral of the general economy, there has not been a proportionate trickle-down of prosperity to the scores of other wineries, even in the Napa Valley, that occupy the secondary or tertiary tiers of the industry. Yet I will readily agree with Bart Araujo that the success and prestige of Napa’s so-called cult wines ultimately creates a brand whose recognition and appeal extends throughout the entire AVA and raises the value and perception of all wines produced here.

Nonetheless, I am loath to equate these wines with the kind of vanity that defines such brands as Cartier, Prada, Hermès, Gucci, Ferragamo, Armani, Brioni, Rolex, etc., for the mere notion of a status symbol inherently diminishes the perception that such prominence stems from the informed appreciation of genuine cognoscenti, not the shallowness of dilettantes buying into superficial allure. This pretentiousness, of course, is what creates the all-too-prevalent barriers to entry into China and other export markets where nouveau riche consumers are driven by status consciousness. More importantly, focusing on the prestige of a label quite often belies the true quality and complexity of these wines—the very factors that ought to be propelling them into the forefront.
Admittedly, I can also be susceptible to this allure. Each year, I relish the opportunity to attend Taste of Oakville and luxuriate in a brief interlude with an amazing array of wines, each of which would easily set me back a month’s rent, if not more. And I am as likely as the label-driven neophyte to have my perception influenced by a winery’s cachet, though I would think only to a degree.
My tasting notes from this year’s event unabashedly gave the Sostevinobile equivalent of a perfect score to numerous of the cult wines poured at the Robert Mondavi facility: the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon from Dalla Valle, as well as its incredibly balanced and sustained library version, the 1993 Cabernet Sauvignon; the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from Ren Harris’ Paradigm and from his erstwhile real estate partner’s monument, the 2009 Screaming Eagle; host Robert Mondavi’s autonomous joint venture, the 2008 Opus One; Bond’s 2001 Vecina and quite possibly the greatest wine I have tasted since launching this phase of my wine career, their 2007 St. Eden.
Riding the cusp of this apex, Harlan Estate’s (Bond’s parent label) scintillating 2008 The Maiden; the immensely popular Rudd’s 2008 Oakville Estate; Nickel & Nickel’s elegant 2009 John C. Sullenger Cabernet Sauvignon; host Robert Mondavi’s pre-Constellation 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve; the 2009 Materium from Maybach (of the legendary automotive designers) and, again from Paradigm, the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Even at the next tier, a level at which I still accord superlatives, I could fill the roster with the veritable Rolls Royces and Bentleys (or, if you prefer, the Pétruses and La Tâches) of the Napa Valley. By no means am I demeaning these wines for their vaunted reputation—each and every one of these wines would easily garner my loftiest accolades in a blind tasting. But for every Rolex and Philippe Patek (Quintarelli and Ornellaia?) one found here, there were also as many stunning revelations from wineries that may not share the same iconic status or command a $350+ bottle price.
Both the 2009 Beckstoffer To Kalon Clone 6 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2005 Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon from Tor Kenward, as well as the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon from Tierra Roja, proved every bit as astounding and complex as the Dalla Valle or Bond selections. Tierra Rioja’s 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon led a vastly impressive array of near-perfect wines, which included both the 2004 Merlot from Kelham Vineyards and the 2008 Oakville Merlot Barrel Select from Saddleback Cellars, an exquisite 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon from Oakville Ranch, the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon from Vine Cliff, Vine Hill Ranchs 2008 VHR Cabernet Sauvignon, and a striking 2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Vitus.
In any other milieu, I might have considered the next level the relative zenith; here, it became almost commonplace, with wines from both the more venerable labels and those less renown amply represented. My list of these exceptional wines ranged from Dalla Valle’s 2009 Collina to Flora Springs2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Holy Smoke Vineyard to the exacting 2009 Block 1 the Trail Cabernet Sauvignon from Harbison Estate. The 1993 Harlan Estate, their eponymous Meritage, dazzled, while Sangiovese virtuoso Gargiulo harmonized with both their 2009 OVX Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2009 Money Road Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon.
Calling one’s vineyard Brix may be somewhat akin to naming the family pet Dog or Parrot, but literal nomenclature did nothing to diminish my friend Valerie Herzog’s 2005 Brix Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from her Kelleher Family Vineyards. This same vintage marked incredible bottlings for Nickel & Nickel, with their 2005 John C. Sullenger Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as for Ramey, whose 2005 Pedregral Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon rivaled its 2009 version. Similarly, Oakville East impressed with both their 2005 Exposure Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2009 Core Stone, a true Meritage (Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc), while Oakville Ranch stood parallel with their 2007 Robert’s Blend, a varietal bottling of Cabernet Franc.
It seemed that almost every vintage in Oakville produced standouts, be it the 2006 Bonny’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Meyer Cellars or Robert Mondavi’s post-Constellation 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. Kelham pushed the proverbial envelope with a stunningly balanced 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon, while the eclectic Nils Venge poured an eclectic (for Napa) 2010 Oakville Estate Pinot Blanc from his Saddleback Cellars, in tandem with his 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon.
A final detour from the Cab-dominance of this tasting came from Vitus’ 2008 Reserve Merlot; not to veer entirely from Oakville’s orthodoxy, they also flourished with the 2009 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon at the terminus of their three year vertical. last but by no means least: both the 2009 Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon from Vine Cliff and the 2009 Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon from Stanton Vineyards.
I could continue to list numerous wines that easily would have astounded outside the context of this tasting, but I would hope it is evident that the superb quality of the wines poured here cuts a broad swath, from the cult labels perceived as status symbols to the meticulously-crafted bottlings that garner but a portion of the allure (and the price) these highly-regarded bottlings command. Despite these superficial disparities, the consistent excellence of so many wines bespeaks the need for Napa to promote itself informatively and resist the ephemeral whims of a cult following.
Even so, I recognize that a substantial range of wines throughout the entire Napa Valley, whether a $150 Casa Piena or a $750 Scarecrow, lie well beyond the means of most consumers; in effect, all these wines serve as the vanguard of the Napa Valley brand, justly admired but usually attainable as an indulgence or special purchase. No less a part of the fabric of this storied appellation derives from those unheralded endeavors unprepossessed by fanfare and more oriented toward crafting wines with the simplicity and earnestness of that bygone era in Napa that preceded the Judgment of Paris. This is the side of Napa that has risen from the trenches (or wine cellars) but nonetheless constitutes an equally important and compelling portion of the landscape, one that has formed the backbone of the wine industry for here for numerous generations, and in no small way has given it such special character.
Perhaps nowhere is such endeavor more extolled that in the emerging wineries that comprise the Napa Sonoma Mexican American Vintners Association (NSMAVA). Now in its second year, this nascent trade alliance descent has embraced a number of Sonoma wineries, along with its original Napa members, and will soon extend its reach throughout California. But at its core lies the perseverance of self-determined individuals whose industry and fortitude empowered their rise from the relative obscurity of laboring as a bracero to the founding of labels and winery operations under their own auspices. It is an ascendancy that only a place as beholden to its agriculture—more narrowly, its wine industry—as California could engender.
Prominent among NSMAVA’s founders, Ceja Vineyards, host for this year’s Alianzas celebration, exemplifies this aspiration. Pedro and Amelia Ceja have built an estate and label in Carneros as distinguished for its varietals, blends, dessert, and sparkling wines as they are for the unbridled exuberance they bring to all their undertakings. As with many of the pioneering families in this group, their transformation evolve over 50 years and three generations, culminating in such wines as their delectable 2009 Carneros Pinot Noir.
In a similar vein, Ignacio Delgadillo Sr. & Jr. launched their eponymous label as a culmination of over three decades tending vineyards. Much to the envy of other wineries throughout the West Coast, Delgadillo is able to hold back its vintages until they reach a ripened maturity, as witnessed by their current release, the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, a wine aged 20 months in the barrel and 5 (!) years in bottle. Arriving in California in 1991, Alex Sotelo rose from vineyard labor under the tutelage of Robert Pecota and launched his own label a decade later. Like Delgadillo, Sotelo holds his wines back far longer than is typical, resulting in well-rounded bottlings readily drinkable upon release. To wit, near-uniform excellence marked his wines six years after harvest: the 2006 Zinfandel, the 2006 Syrah, a striking 2006 Merlot, and the aptly named 2006 Big A Cabernet Sauvignon.
Nearly 50 years have passed since Salvador Renteria began picking grapes at Sterling, then methodically working his way up through foreman to establishing his highly-esteemed vineyard management company. His son Oscar furthered this ascendancy, founding winemaking ventures comprised of Salva Terra, the ultrapremium Tres Perlas, and the family’s principal label, Renteria Wines. Like many other NSMAVA wineries, Renteria excels with Napa’s white staple, a 2009 Chardonnay Carneros. Nearly as compelling: both the 2008 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley and the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. A similar evolution—in this case, father-daughter—marks the launch of Encanto Vineyards, an intimate, boutique operation Rosauro Segura founded in tribute to her father, Don Enrique Segura, one of Napa’s first Mexican vineyard managers. Her initial offering, the 2008 Pinot Noir Carneros, a 146 case effort, has been followed by a 2009 vintage, as well as the addition of Sauvignon Blanc to her repertoire.
Rolando Herrera labored in a number of positions only tangentially related to viticulture prior to his “promotion” to the wine cellars at Stag’s Leap. Under the tutelage of Warren Winiarski, he honed his skills and eventually launched his own label in 1997. Today, Mi Sueño produces nearly 10,000 cases and offers a limited production select label, Herrera. Continuing their original varietal, the winery clearly excels with the 2008 Chardonnay Los Carneros, matched in intensity by their 2008 El Llano, a proprietary blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Other noteworthy offerings include their 2008 Pinot Noir Los Carneros and a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Coombsville.
Its physical facility is actually on the Sonoma side of Carneros, but Robledo owns vineyards in Lake County and Napa, as well. Honored as “the first winery established by a former Mexican migrant worker” in California, its portfolio of wines includes an exceptional 2009 Pinot Noir Los Carneros from their Rancho Rincon (Napa) and a most striking 2010 Tempranillo Napa Valley. These wines are complemented by the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley–Eighth Collector’s Series, and, like Mi Sueño, a 2008 Chardonnay Los Carneros and their 2006 Los Braceros, a proprietary blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah dedicated to the contributions of the Mexican men and women recruited to work the agricultural fields here during World War II.
Having emigrated from Mexico in 1984 and working in the cellar at Robert Mondavi, Fernando Candelario launched Voces in 2001. His boutique label produces a notable 2007 Petite Sirah Napa Valley and a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, along with a more recent bottling, the 2009 Zinfandel. The age-worthiness of his wines was commendably manifest in the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, an elegantly rounded wine.
Spanning the geographical extremes of Napa, Coombsville’s Marita’s Vineyard marks the 50+ year culmination of Oaxacan-born brothers Manuel and Bulmaro Montes; their 2006 SOMA Limited Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is a testament to their vision and labor. At the northern end of the valley, Calistoga’s Maldonado Vineyards is home booth to one of Napa’s most dramatic wine caves and a highly-prized Chardonnay. Here, the 2010 Los Olivos Chardonnay proved nothing short of spectacular, on par with this varietal’s most storied producers in California. Maldonado’s versatility with white grapes extends to the 2008 Late Harvest White, a Sémillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend, while both the 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2009 Proprietary Red Wine (like Robledo’s Los Braceros, a Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah blend) solidifies their stature.
Even a decade or two ago, it would have been unfathomable that the Napa Valley would be crafting wines more costly than a family’s weekly food budget, but I have little quarrel with the notion that many of the vintages produced here warrant inclusion with the viticultural world’s most opulent offerings. My only caveat is that these wineries should endeavor to be recognized for the superb quality of their vinification and not the patina of a status symbol.
Certainly the prestige of the so-called cult labels lends a luster to all wines in the Napa Valley, much in the same way the name Harvard or Stanford gives intellectual gravitas to all their divisions, even their business schools. And while there may be a whole separate realm within this AVA that does not yearn for the kind of limelight these leading wines command, the incongruity should not constitute a basis for undue stratification. Excellence needn’t bear correlation to price point, as many of the wines cited here have amply demonstrated.
I have no illusions that there will long remain two Napas, one that graces the glossy covers of lifestyle magazines and auction catalogs, the other that modestly dimensionalizes a family meals or intimate gathering. But for all these ostensible differences, the two remain interdependent and will continue to fortify each other, as long as each remains true to their core mission of crafting elegant wines that stand second to none. Which is why an organization like NSMAVA stands as a paragon not only for the aspirations of the itinerant laborer, but for the entire industry in the Napa Valley.

 

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