Napa's defining wines stick to their roots

Napa’s current incarnation as a wine-soaked Disneyland makes it hard to remember the early days.

The valley’s reputation was sealed, lest its promoters allow you to forget, bythe famous 1976 Judgment of Paris competition at which California wines beat out France's best. But prior to that, Robert Mondavi’s famous mission-style winery was an extravagance — the exception, not the rule. Many of Napa’s biggest names were still family operations not yet targeted by corporate America.

When the 30th anniversary of the Paris tasting in late May with retastings of the original wines, California was equally triumphant: Its reds occupied all five top slots, with Napa accounting for four: Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973, Heitz 1970 Martha’s Vineyard, Clos du Val1972 and Mayacamas 1971. (For recent releases of California and Bordeaux, the decision was notably more split.)

But if the beauty of the original Napa wines was unchanged, the place itself is barely recognizable. Its fame, built on the backs of such names as Heitz and Clos du Val, has been commandeered by cult favorites like Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate. Its rustic origins have long since been trumped by soaring property values and the extravagances of high-end tourism.

And yet many of the original standard bearers, their reputations long since secured, continue to churn out their trademark wines.

With pedigree comes a steep price tag. The perennial complaint about Napa Cab is that it traffics at unreasonable prices, dictated more by land costs, finances and market economics than true value. It is not impossible to find Napa Cab under $30, but serious players generally enter the field well above that. Eyes no longer pop at price tags above $100.

How well have Napa’s best-established names held up? Fathers of a certain age are the target audience for such wines, partial to labels they’ve enjoyed for two decades or more. With Father’s Day coming, it seemed like the right time to answer that question.

The old prosFor a survey, we tried to limit ourselves to wineries with at least 25 vintages under their belts. A quarter-century hearkens back to 1981, the year before the Napa Valley appellation received federal recognition.

Of interest were Napa cabernets made either from Napa Valley fruit or from a specific vineyard or district — primarily Oakville or Stags Leap. Price tags started at $30, with many soaring past $50 to a $115 price cap. (That limit excluded such venerable wines as Joseph Phelps’ Insignia and Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard.) Of the six California wineries whose reds were featured in the original Paris tasting, we included bottles from four: Clos du Val, Freemark Abbey, Heitz (the Bella Oaks and Trailside) and Stag’s Leap.

For help with tasting, I turned to Phil Pratt, wine director of The 21 Club in New York, a venue as all-American as Napa, with an equally impressive 76-year history.  Its wine cellar has attained near-celebrity status of its own, with a 5,000-pound door built into the foundation wall — a Prohibition-era foil to hide booze from the Feds. Its private stock is labeled with familiar names: Elizabeth Taylor, Ivan Boesky, Richard Nixon. Pratt’s 1,200-label list pays homage to Napa in styles both old (Chateau Montelena) and new (Harlan).

My father joined us as a guest, not only to fulfill our Father's Day quotient but also because his own memories of Napa stretch back to the early 1970s, when he traveled California, putting together winery deals.

The good news is that most wines we tasted seemed to reflect their well-established roots. They revealed a solid structure, well-managed tannins and balanced fruit, and avoided many of Napa’s pitfalls: overripe, cooked flavors, too much alcohol and manipulation. It was an indication, Pratt said, “that they’re still true to their style.”

But were they worth it? In a few cases, absolutely. Standouts could be found among both familiar names (Clos du Val, Montelena) and lesser-known contenders (Flora Springs). Others pleased, but had made concessions to Napa’s modern style. The soft, approachable Rubicon 2002 was clearly tailored to serve a drink-young market.

“You could feel safe ordering any of these wines, and some of them you could get really excited by,” Pratt said.

At the same time, several seemingly bulletproof names failed to impress, names such as Silver Oak, Cakebread and Robert Mondavi’s venerable Oakville bottling.

“They rely too much on their brand strength,” Fred Dexheimer, wine director of the BLT group of restaurants and one of our tasters, later suggested, “and they’re not putting enough in the bottle.”

When I later called my dad, he was even less charitable, especially when I disclosed the price tags.

“There was an awful lot of the stuff that wasn’t really good value,” he said, comparing the Napa offerings to an $8 bottle of montepulciano he’d opened the night before. “Maybe this was all California Cab hype.”

True to formYet experience has its virtues. Clos du Val in particular stood out for its freshness and complexity. Founded in 1972 by businessman John Goelet and French winemaker Bernard Portet, the Silverado Trail winery stands with Robert Mondavi, Montelena (whose chardonnay, made by Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, was the top white in the 1976 Paris tasting), Stags’ Leap and a handful of others as the names who helped put Napa on the global map.

After the tasting, we compared Clos du Val's Stags Leap bottlings from 2002 and 1989, and found in both the same mineral structure and supple fruit density. The ‘89 had retained its brightness, and added layers of herbal and brandied fruit notes. At times, Clos du Val’s adherence to a more Bordeaux-like style has cost it critical praise. But its ability to evolve over time is a sign of the best of what old style Napa can offer.

As it turned out, my father had paid Portet a visit during his early-‘70s travels, and brought home a small bottle of the 1972 cabernet, given as a gift before the winery’s first commercial release. When we opened it a couple of years ago, its freshness and complexity after more than 30 years was stunning. The same qualities were evident in Clos du Val’s new releases.

That isn’t to say brand dominance is always deserved — Cakebread is the most popular label in U.S. restaurants, according to Wine & Spirits magazine’s 2006 list, yet surfaced at the bottom of our results.

But those who call for Napa cab by name can occasionally find good reason to fork over their money. And if your dad is the sort who cherishes these bottles, rest assured that at least a few of Napa’s old warhorses will still please him.

TASTING NOTESOur blind tasting included over 30 Napa cabernets, almost entirely from the 2001-2003 vintages. (Vintage depended on current release and availability.) Below is our list of the 10 best. A couple other wines scored nearly as well, including the Beringer 2002 Private Reserve and the Fisher Vineyards 2001 “Coach Insignia.”

Flora Springs 2003 Napa Valley ($30): This top contender, from the St. Helena winery founded in 1978 by Jerry and Flora Komes, and developed by their children, John Komes and Julie Garvey, has the benefit of being one of the most affordable bottles we tasted. It even beat out its more expensive sibling, the Flora Springs 2003 Rutherford Hillside Reserve ($100). Defined by a dusty, dry-wood character from 24 months in oak, it’s a chewy wine that still needs time to unfold. Black fruit wraps around a forceful structure, with raspy tannins on the end.

Chateau Montelena 2002 “Montelena Estate” ($95): Montelena’s current incarnation dates back to 1972, when owner James Barrett hired winemaker Mike Grgich. Its crowning moment came when the Montelena 1973 chardonnay took top honors in Paris, a triumph for which both men, now estranged, continue to claim credit. Tougher times came two years ago, when the Wine Spectator alleged that Montelena’s cellars were rife with the compound that causes corked wine. The Calistoga winery spent months defending its long-established reputation. Their latest estate bottling is rich, dense, peppery and perfumed, with scents of dry herbs and graphite. Tastes a bit light up front, with a tart finish but terrific presence and definition. Savory, elegant and ready to evolve over the years.

Clos du Val 2002 Stags’ Leap Oak Vineyard ($62): The pricier of Clos du Val’s bottlings harnesses the supple, wind-cooled fruit and loamy soils of the Stags Leap area. A heavy oak presence, despite just 50 percent in new barrels, but there are also scents of fresh dried branches and graphite (one taster wondered if there was cabernet franc in the mix; there isn’t). A dense, complex structure overshadows any clear fruit flavors, but the style offers a big nod to left-bank Bordeaux, and shows great aging potential.

Clos du Val 2003 Napa Valley ($30): The winery’s cheaper bottling was no slouch either. Rich, filled with herbal complexity (and, again, an unmistakable dose of oak), it finishes bright and long. Still wound a bit tight and coming together, but it’s evolving into a beauty.

Rubicon 2002 Rutherford ($100): The Rutherford estate’s history dates back to 1880, when Gustave Niebaum purchased the Ingleno ok property. But this top-level bottle so defines Francis Ford Coppola’s winery that what had been Niebaum-Coppola was renamed Rubicon Estate. The latest incarnation is built around 90 percent cabernet sauvignon, with cabernet franc, petit verdot and merlot accounting for the rest. It’s thick and silky, with zesty overtones above the dark ripe fruit and a well-concealed use of 100 percent new French oak. Full of finesse, though almost too soft.

Mt. Veeder Winery 2003 Napa Valley ($40): Now owned by major player Constellation Brands, this hilltop winery outside Napa got its start in the mid-‘60s, with a first commercial vintage in 1973. Napa’s mountain wines often have a reputation for tough tannins, but they’re under control here. Full of blackberry and toasted oak, it’s a bit obvious at moments, but with beautiful thickness, terrific purity of fruit and a fine finish. “Classic Pauillac,” noted Pratt.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2002 S.L.V. Napa Valley ($110): Warren Winiarski’s winery has been a Napa pace-setter ever since his 1973 took honors in Paris. At a time when Napa faces endless corporate pressures, Winiarski has retained his relatively small boutique status. The current S.L.V. hails from the same Stags Leap District vineyard that produced the famed ’73, though for the ’02 vintage the plot was in the midst of replanting. It’s weighty and fragrant with burnt herbs and dusty cherries, with a bright core of acidity and slightly grainy tannic punch that lingers pleasantly on the finish.

Silverado Vineyards 2002 Napa Valley ($40): This majestic-looking Silverado Trail winery opened in 1981 and makes my frequent Napa-Disney comparison more literal than figurative: Its founders were Walt Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, her husband, Ron Miller, and Walt’s widow Lillian. Their 300-plus acres include impressive swaths of Stags Leap land. The wine reveals massive licorice and menthol scents, with hints of cassis, a precisely defined structure and fine gripping tannins. Not the most profound bottle, but hardly a Mickey Mouse effort. (Knew that was coming.)

Freemark Abbey 2001 Napa Valley ($35): Until 1939, this St. Helena winery was known as Tychson Cellars, the first California winery operated by a woman. Ownership has traded around ever since, though its current holding company, Legacy Estate Group, filed for Chapter 11 last November. Opinion was split on this relative value pick, with its elegance, rich fruit and subtle, perfumed nose as selling points, but also a slightly musty note and a sharp finish detracting from the package.

Beaulieu Vineyard 2002 “Georges de Latour Private Reserve” Napa Valley ($85): It’s hard to find a more pedigreed Napa winery than the 106-year-old Beaulieu, founded by Georges de Latour and cemented in history when in 1938 de Latour hired winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, soon to be a legend in American winemaking. Now owned by Diageo, the winery often known as BV is better known for its value wines. But this namesake reserve has long been its hallmark, a sign of the best Napa could produce. Opinions were sharply split, with one taster gushing over its “explosive” potential, but several of us taking issue with a reductive, drab quality. Alluring, but also pungent and merlot-like, despite being 100 percent Cab. (N.B., The more affordable Beaulieu 2003 Rutherford ($25) tied for the lowest slot in our tasting.)