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Are Napa Valley Cabernets Getting Better?

In yesterday's New York Times, Eric Asimov wrote a thorough account of his attitudes toward Napa Valley Cabernet. He voiced a preference for a certain sort wine we'd call "old school" (he called them "balanced," "restrained," "subtle," and "nuanced").  He describes many Napa Valley Cabernets, however, as "jammy fruit bombs that overwhelm food."



 

Asimov's high-profile salvo is sure to generate a lot of discussion. In many ways, I couldn't agree with him more.

I tend not to write about Napa myself that often because, to be honest, most of their wines simply bore me.  Asimov’s opinions have been in the air for a while – I’ve had many conversations with sommeliers, consumers, and even Napa Valley winemakers who all voice similar opinions. 

My issue is that too many Napa Cabernets taste too similar.  Why is this? Because many vineyards use identical styles of vinticulture, identical clones, and then end up making the wines in the same way. Also, wine grapes lose their distinctiveness when they get too ripe.  Then when vinters slather excessive amounts of new oak onto overripe wines, individual characteristics are further obliterated.  This has become the dominant style, Asimov points out, because "critics and consumer publications" are "reserving their highest scores for the sweet and plush set."

Don’t get me wrong – when well made these wines can afford a certain kind of pleasure. Though it's usually when they are consumed solo, away from the dinner table. But I have to admit, I rarely find myself interested in finishing a glass, let alone a bottle of these fruit-oak bombs.

I hope Asimov is right that there is a sort of backlash brewing. He celebrates many of the stalwarts of a traditional, more austere style, vintners like Cathy Corison, whose Cabernet I named as one of my top 10 wines of the year in last year's 7x7 wine issue.  I firmly believe that the Napa Valley is one of the greatest places on earth to grow Cabernet Sauvignon. It's just time for more vintners to stand up and not make their wines according to a critic-approved formula, but in accordance to a higher truth – the one dictated to them by their own land.