Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Sweet Spot of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon $20-40

Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon more often than not is one of the most expensive wines in the marketplace today. The name “Napa Valley” alone garners a wine an air of prestige and quality amongst professional, connoisseur and novice wine drinkers and collectors. What contributes to these prices? Cult status? Barrel costs? Property and vineyard management costs? Marketing? The answers are all yes and of course for different wines the impact is at different levels. Just in time to stock up for the fall and the first half of winter, this blog entry will spotlight what I call The “Sweet Spot” of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The sweet spot being those Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons priced in the neighborhood of $20-40. Not many well made, hand crafted, outstanding cabernets from Napa are in this price range, they are usually a lot higher in the $50-100 range. However, in this blog I will highlight those few that are consistently well made and in this “sweet spot” price range.

An Eagle vs. Chuck

Wines with a “Napa” name tag or source of origin range in price from over $1,000 for a single 750ml bottle at auction to as low as $2 at the grocery store. Rare and hard to find Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon “cult wines” fetch prices in the stratosphere at sometimes $200 from a winery allocation list to over $1,000 at auction for the likes of Screaming Eagle - the original "cult wine". Then there are “those” winemakers - usually monolithic corporation types that try to capture the notions of prestige and quality by using the name Napa Valley in bargain priced wines commonly priced around $5-10. Napa Ridge is one such commonly found wine that capitalizes on this practice. Not one drop of juice for the wine comes from Napa Valley. This same company (Bronco Wine Co.) is the creator of the famed, and not for any reason in quality but price, Two Buck Chuck - or as the label calls it Charles Shaw. This company recently lost a lawsuit filed against them to remove the name Napa from its wines since none of the fruit used to "manufacture" these wines comes from Napa Valley. An educated consumer or collector would know better, but a novice or casual wine drinker that has not been around the block a few times may not know better and think that since it has the name “Napa” in it, it must be good. The wine still sells well, mainly because of the cheap price tag and not because of any reason such as quality.

Apart from being some of my favorite wines, these are solid buys for immediate satisfaction, or will further reward the buyer with patience for cellaring the wines a few years to mellow out those sometimes brawny youthful tannins and allow the wine to further mature. Most of these wines have been in this price range for years and rarely have climbed drastically in price. Unless they are awarded 95+ points by Mr. Robert M. Parker’s Wine Advocate or the Wine Spectator’s James Laube, don't expect prices to rise too much.

On to the bottles…

2003 Provenance Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer Tokalon Vineyard, Oakville $35

What a mouthful! Just wait till you taste it. New to the market this year is the 2003 Provenance Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer Tokalon Vineyard, Oakville. Andy Beckstoffer owns the Tokalon vineyard and is part owner in Provenance. He sells most of the fruit from this vineyard to other wine makers who make their own Tokalon bottles such as Paul Hobbs ($175-300), Schrader ($125-250) and Behrens and Hitchcock ($150). Robert Mondavi also owns a large part of the To Kalon vineyard and it is bottled into the Reserve and the Oakville bottlings. In special years it will get its own labeling as a designated single vineyard. This beauty starts out brimming with cherry and cassis aromas with a hint of black olive and a slight whiff of fresh violet flowers. On the palate we have rich cherry fruit framed by vanilla and toasty oak notes imparted from the oak barrels. Fine grained, but youthful, tannins, coat the palate, wile the package is completed by a solid, clean finish. Nice structure, great concentration, yet slightly elegant. Drink now or hold for up to 10 years. But why wait? It’s drinking great now!

Worthy Sophia’s Cuvee $25

The next wine in the lineup, WORTHY Sophia’s Cuvee, has been solid in its first 3 years of production and continues to impress critics and connoisseurs alike. The nose starts with a deep concentration of cherry, vanilla and blackberry, accented ever so slightly by some spices, and some cedar. Silky smooth flavors of cherry and blackberry, earthy black tea, vanilla/sweet oak, and a touch of spice round out the flavors. Maybe lacking in acidity but full of ample, velvety tannin. Dark and well endowed with ripe tannin and fruit, Worthy is one of my favorite wines and I bought a case of the 2002. The 2003 consists of a blend of 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc, and the remaining 5% is equal parts Merlot and Petit Verdot. This is the baby brother of the cult wine AXIOS from Napa Valley, made by the famed winemaker Bob Egelhoff. Axios, which in Greek means “Worthy” stands apart for slightly more structure, if not its better aging potential. This is due to the fact that Axios is made from the best fruit, while Worthy is the declassified Axios fruit not used in the premium bottling. Leftovers they are not. Such a word should not be used for such a well made wine. Drink now or hold for 5-8 years.

Chappellet Signature Cabernet Sauvignon $40

The Chappellet Signature Cabernet Sauvignons of 2002 and 2003 are some of the best wines for the money that I have had in the last 2 years. In fact the folks at Chappellet and many wine critics think that these are their best wines in years from Chappellet. I almost kicked myself for drinking the 2002 it was so good and perfectly made (I only bought 2 bottles). The 2003, though not as superb as the 2002, is by no means far behind in quality. Different wines structurally and from a flavor perspective, they are what California Cabernet Sauvignon are all about when well made. First, the 2002. I have to say this may be one of the best 2002’s I have tried. The nose starts with aromas of crème de cassis, a perfect amount of oak, a touch of chocolate and some minerals. On the palate, pure flavors of cherry, sage and plum cascade repeatedly with a long, solid 60 second finish. Finely grained tannins, ample acidity and the perfect amount of fruit define this beauty. Drink now if you dare or hold it for 12-15 years! In the 2003 we find more notes of chocolate and deeper notes of dark cherry and black fruits, as well as an ample waft of oak. Espresso and vanilla in addition to the cherry and black fruits round out the nose. The flavors roll in like a ripe bing cherry covered in sweet, oaky vanilla and chocolate. Spices, mocha, herbs and coffee round out the fruit and vanilla attack on the palate. The tannins are a bit more pronounced, yet big and round. Not as balanced as the 2002, drink the 2003 now decanted or hold for 8-12 years.

A short alphabetical list of extraordinary Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon priced $20-40:

- Buehler Napa Estate Cabernet Sauvignon $20-30 - always seems to get that 90 points from the WS
- Chappellet Signature Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Pritchard Hill (solid, best in years - awesome, read above) $35-45
- Chimney Rock Stag’s Leap District Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (always a reliable 88-94 pointer) $35-45
- Cross Barn by Paul Hobbs (see my first blog) $35-40
- Franciscan Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (consistently delicious) $18-25
- Groth Napa Cabernet Sauvignon (classically made and has been around for years) $40
- Heitz Cellars Napa Cabernet Sauvignon (one of the originals) $25-35
- Honig Napa Cabernet Sauvignon $25-30
- Mount Eden Estate Bottled Santa Cruz Cabernet Sauvignon (not Napa but I HAD to include it) $27
- Mount Veeder Napa Cabernet Sauvignon Napanook Napa Red $35-40
- Pine Ridge Rutherford Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon $25-30
- Provenance Beckstoffer Oakville Tokalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (awesome, read above) $30-35
- Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (Mondavi is making their best wines in years) $17-25
- Robert Mondavi Oakville Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon $28-35
- Rombauer Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon $30-35
- Silverado Napa Cabernet Sauvignon (owned by Disney’s children) $30
- Stag's Leap Wine Cellars "Artemis" Napa Cabernet Sauvignon (a classic wine, elegent, refined, nicely structured, better with age too and includes 33% of the Fay wine that costs $75)
- St. Clement Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (one of the best values in Napa) $35-40
- Whitehall Lane Winery Cabernet Sauvignon (consistently a 90+) $30-35
- Worthy Sophia’s Cuvee (excellent, read above) $25-30

These are all exciting wines drinking well now, but also have the stuffing to age a few years (5-12) and mature into a finely aged beauty. These are well crafted wines of personality, depth and complexity worth aging. 2004 seems to be a very uneven year with over-ripe, jammy wines being the hallmark trait of a hot vintage to watch out for. But the majority of 2004 Napa Cabernet from these makers will not hit the shelves until mid-2007. All of these wines are currently available for purchase and are in good supply, though some may take some effort online to find ( Some stores may have these priced above the $40 price point, but most can be found for under $40 or when bought by the case you save that extra 20%.

I encourage you to please add your own feedback, recommendations or experiences below!


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