What if we could assemble every winery that put Napa Valley on the map? And what if we could taste the most important wine they ever made? The answer, of course, is that would one would be one epic tasting. And it was.
For two consecutive days, a panel of experts — composed of Anthony Dias Blue, Karen MacNeil, Sotheby’s Nicholas Jackson and wine blogger Alder Yarrow — and a room full of wine professionals and wine lovers gathered at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena to taste what was described as the most definitive tasting of Napa Valley wines to date.
The list read like a Billboard Chart 100 list — from the 1966 Charles Krug (the year Robert Mondavi left to start his eponymous brand) to Joseph Phelps’ first Insignia (1976) to modern-day “cult” Cabernets like Screaming Eagle and Harlan, the tasting showcased the evolution of a young but determined wine region.
A lot has changed since the year Lois Martini made the first-ever Carneros Pinot Noir in 1957: The region, as MacNeil put it, “was full of sheep” and less than six percent of the Napa Valley was planted to the variety it is now famous for — Cabernet Sauvignon. As late as the 1980s, “we were still figuring out how to grow Cabernet,” said the winemaker for Far Niente.
Today, not only do we “have better grapes,” according to Ivo Jeramaz, Mike Grgich’s nephew, than we did the year his uncle made the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, but what happens in the winery has changed dramatically as well. Winemakers have discovered how to harness malolactic fermentation and can afford new oak barrels.
While, for some, the glory days of Napa Valley will always be the 1970s — the days captured best by the beautiful 1978 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard — what makes modern-day Napa Valley so broadly loved is its diversit. Where else can you get a Chablis-like Chardonnay (Stony Hill) and rich, powerful Cabernet Sauvignons (every wine made from To Kalon)? It is after all, as MacNeil puts it, the Wild West of winemaking.