When the first European settlers entered what became California’s Napa Valley in the early 1830s, they found six small tribes of Native American Indians who spoke different dialects and were often at war. A smallpox epidemic in 1838 put an end to that situation. George Yount, perhaps the first Anglo settler in the area, built a log house on the Mexican land grant in received in 1836 and planted the first vineyard in Napa, though Charles Krug established the first winery, in 1861. Though by the end of the 19th Century Napa Valley was home to 140 wineries, the rest is not exactly history, at least not of the straight-line sort, because the plant louse Phylloxera followed by the scourge of Prohibition brought a halt to grape-growing and commercial wine production.
Napa Valley’s real influence emerged after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 and the proliferation of and focus on the cabernet sauvignon grape. Such wineries as Beaulieu Vineyards, Inglenook, Louis M. Martini and Charles Krug took the lead in finding the best sites for the vineyards and in putting the name of the grape on the label. These wineries of what I’ll call the first generation were joined in the 1960s and ’70s by a second wave in the form of Mayacamas, Diamond Creek, Heitz, Clos du Val, Freemark Abbey, Cakebread Cellars, Robert Mondavi, Duckhorn, Dunn, Burgess, Chateau Montelena, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Smith-Madrone, Joseph Phelps and many others. Excellent vintages like 1968, ’74, ’78, ’84, ’85 and ’86 and the cabernet wines they produced caught the attention of wine buffs all over the country and in the Old World. It didn’t hurt that two Napa Valley wines, Chateau Montelena Chadonnay 1973 and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV Cabernet Sauvignon 1973, beat their counterparts from Burgundy and Bordequx in the ground-breaking (and infamous) Paris Tasting of 1976. Napa Valley became a name to conjure with in terms of cabernet sauvignon, though of course most of these wineries also made other sorts of wine: merlot, zinfandel, pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc.
The third generation, coming into prominence in the 1990s and often involving huge outlays of fiduciary prowess in acquiring expensive vineyard land and building showplace facilties, includes such “cult” wineries as Screaming eagle, Harlan Estate, Bryant Family and Colgin, followed in the 21st Century by such recent additions as Sloan Estate and Hundred Acre, most sold primarily by mailing list and avidly sought by collectors.
Anyone who has tasted Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon going back to the 1970s will attest to a vast change in style over the decades, a transformation that includes higher alcohol levels — even to 15 percent and over; riper, jammier fruit; and voluptuous textures. The reasons for these changes may be attributable to several factors: global warming, consumer taste and the exigencies of the market, the palates and dictates of high-profile critics and wine publications. Whatever the case, it is and has been fascinating to observe and experience the evolution of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, even if I don’t always agree with the results. I tend to favor more structured, lean and elegant cabernets, the iron fist in the velvet glove approach (in Warren Winiarski’s phrase), as opposed to the more flamboyant and opulent renditions, though I can be swayed by adequate acidity.
Anyway, today I launch a series of posts dedicated to Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon wines, beginning with detailed reviews of six examples, including two Old-School models — Chateau Montelena and La Jota Vineyard — and two quite recent start-ups — Calla Lily and Volta. Some are traditional Bordeaux-style blends, others are 100 percent cabernet sauvignon; some see all new oak for several years, while others are subjected to a less rigorous regimen. These are from 2011, 10 and ’09. The series will continue with group reviews and with posts dedicated to products from a single winery. Napa Valley cabernet has become legendary in the world of wine, but even legends must bear scrutiny.
These wines were samples for review. Map of Napa Valley and its sub-appellations from napavalleypassport.com.
Calla Lily Ultimate Red Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. This bold effort, aged 25 months in French oak barrels, is the first release from a fledgling winery, established in 2013 in Pope Valley, east of Calistoga. The color is dense ruby-purple with an opaque center. Altogether, it displays the gratifying paradox that balances intensity and concentration of all aspects with a generous and expansive character. Highly expressive aromas of lavender and black licorice, espresso and graphite, toasted walnuts, fruitcake and just a whiff of vanilla open to notes of ripe black currants, black cherries and plums; this is succulent on the palate, plush and powerful, quite dry and packed with dusty, velvety tannins and oak that gives off elements of dried woody spice and a hint of exoticism. The finish is austere, high-toned but lithe and supple. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drinkable now with steaks and braised short ribs or try from 2016 or ’17 through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $80.
La Jota Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. La Jota fell off my radar for quite a few years, meaning that I didn’t write about the wines because I received no samples. Then — boom! — comes to my door this dignified-looking bottle of cabernet sauvignon. The winery dates back to 1898, when Swiss immigrant Frederick Hess purchased 327 acres of George Yount’s Rancho La Jota land grant on Howell Mountain. (The jota is a Spanish folk-dance, in 3/4 or 6/8 time, that achieved broad popularity in the mid 18th Century.) Within a few years, La Jota wines were winning awards at national and international competitions. Phylloxera and Prohibition put an end to the winery’s accomplishments, and the estate did not see a revival until 1974, when the original stone winery and 40 surrounding acres were bought by former oilman Bill Smith and his wife Joan. They planted new vines and added acreage, developed several new varieties and were instrumental in persuading what was then the BATF to declare Howell Mountain a separate American Viticultural Area within Napa Valley. In 2001, Smith sold La Jota to Markham Vineyards and its parent company Mercian Corp. The late Jesse Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke acquired La Jota in 2005, and it is now a part of Jackson Family Wines. Winemaker for La Jota is Chris Carpenter.
La Jota Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Howell Mountain, is a blend of 82 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8 percent merlot, 4 petit verdot and 6 cabernet franc. The wine aged 19 months in French oak, 91 percent new barrels. The color is deep ruby-purple with a magenta cast; marked by intensity and concentration in every respect, the wine offers aromas of graphite and charcoal, lavender, violets and bitter chocolate, spiced and macerated black cherries, raspberries and plums. It fills the mouth with dense, chewy, dusty tannins and a texture that feels sleek and chiseled, like arrowheads carved from obsidian; a few minutes in the glass bring out notes of fruitcake and plum tart, sandalwood and ancho chile. Wine reviewers are fond of saying that they can sense the high origins of mountainside wines; I’ll go so far as to say that in this case the prominent granitic minerality feels like a permanent ledge that time in the bottle will gently erode. While the wine developed some notions of being broad and expansive, after an hour or so, it began to shut down. 14.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 or ’18 to 2025 to ’30. Excellent. About $75.
Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Calistoga, Napa Valley. Chateau Montelena is another estate whose roots go back to the late 19th Century. The winery was founded in 1882 by Alfred Tubbs, who commissioned the looming Chinese-Gothic castle that appears on Montelena’s labels. Tubbs’ efforts failed, however, early in the 20th Century, and the property was a “ghost” winery until 1972, when it was bought by James L. Barrett, an attorney from Southern California. His son Bo Barrett is now the winemaker for Montelena. The winery received a huge boost when its Chardonnay 1973, made by Mike Grgich, was named best white wine in the legendary (or infamous) Paris Tasting of 1976. I have a bias toward the cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays produced at Chateau Montelena, because they fall exactly into the parameters that I prefer in such wines, representing an ideal of purity and intensity, without being overripe, flamboyant or scrumptious. You could not find a better metaphor for the perfectly balanced marriage of power and elegance.
The Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Calistoga, is a blend of 91 percent cabernet grapes, seven percent merlot and two percent cabernet franc; the wine aged 14 months is a combination of French and Eastern European oak, only 12 percent of which were new. The color is medium ruby, but fairly opaque at the center; cabernet sauvignon’s classic notes — what to me are classic notes — of cedar, black olives and thyme are meshed with elements of dusty graphite and whiffs of lightly spiced and macerated black and red currants, black cherries and raspberries, all poised over a clean, vivid backdrop of briers, brambles and loam. Tannins are stalwart and slightly lithic, yes, but etched with hints of lavender, black licorice and potpourri, while black and red fruit flavors evolve into a finish that’s sleek and polished yet faintly austere with touches of walnut shell and underbrush. 13.4 percent alcohol. Drink now or let it rest through 2016 or ’17 for consumption by 2023 to 2025 or ’26. Excellent. About $50.
Sanctuary Usibelli Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Rutherford, Napa Valley. Not many wineries place the name of the winemaker on the front label — or the back label for that matter — but there is Dennis Martin’s name at the top, albeit in small letters. He is assisted by a young woman with the wonderful name Zidanelia Arcidiacono, though she is mentioned not on the label but on the winery’s website. Sanctuary obtains grapes from vineyards throughout California’s major regions for its wines, in this case from the Usibelli Vineyard in Napa Valley’s Rutherford AVA.
This is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon. It rested 14 and a half months in French oak barrels, percentage of new barrels not specified. The color is an entrancing deep ruby hue with a magenta rim, brimming with health and intrigue; penetrating aromas of iodine, iron and graphite smolder in the glass, along with notes of spiced, macerated and lightly stewed red and black currants, raspberries and black cherries; the whole effect is of rather fleshy fruit briefly grilled over charcoal. Matters turn fairly serious on the palate, where the wine unlimbers leathery tannins, elements of walnut shell, underbrush and forest floor, and brings the oak slightly to the foreground. Still, the spicy black and red fruit flavors, though spare, are delicious, nestled into a sensuous velvety texture. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $40.
Silverado Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. The Silverado Vineyards compound perches like its own Italian hilltown above the Silverado Trail in eastern Napa Valley. The winery was established in 1981 by Lillian Disney (1899-1997), widow of the world-famous animator and entrepreneur; her daughter Diane Disney Miller (1933-2013); and the latter’s husband Ron, former president and CEO of Walt Disney Productions. The emphasis at Silverado is on cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sauvignon blanc. Winemaker is Jon Emmerich.
Grapes for the Silverado Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley, derive 40 percent from Stags Leap Vineyard, next to the winery; 55 percent from Mt. George Vineyard, east of the city of Napa; and five percent from Oakville Station in the Oakville AVA, the heart of Napa Valley. The wine is a blend of 81 percent cabernet sauvignon, 16 percent merlot, 2 percent petit verdot and 1 percent cabernet franc; it aged 17 months in French oak (90 percent) and American oak (10 percent), the total of new barrels being 44 percent. O.K., enough with the percentages. This one radiates an intensity of purpose and confidence as well as bastions of spicy oak, buttresses of dusty tannins and flashes of electrifying acidity, which is to say that there’s balance here, of sorts, and great liveliness and appeal, but the wine needs some time to let fruit emerge from the structure. The color is a ravishing deep ruby-purple; aromas of red and black currants and red and black cherries are permeated by touches of loam and graphite, cloves, lavender and walnut shell. On the palate, this is dense, chewy, lithe, supple, managing to be both sleek and substantial; the finish is packed with woody spice and granitic minerality. 14.7 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $48.
The image on the winery website has not caught up with newer releases.
Volta Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. This recently founded winery is owned by music industry veteran Steve Lau and finance and real estate expert Frederick McCarthy. Winemaker is Massimo Monticelli, who learned the ropes during a five-year stint at Silver Oak Cellars. The wine is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon from the certified organic Mission Ridge Vineyard; it aged 22 months in 100 percent new French oak barrels. Production for Volta 2009 was 450 cases. The color is deep ruby-purple, markedly opaque at the center; aromas of ripe and macerated black currants, black cherries and plums pull you in to a bouquet that seethes with cloves and walnut shell, lavender and licorice and bitter chocolate, all encompassed by a circumference of graphite, slightly toasty-vanilla tinged oak, iodine and iron. There’s an air here of artfulness but also a tinge of the feral; the wine is dense and chewy, powerfully and dynamically tannic, but also light on its feet, almost balletic in its sense of elevation and wildness. Still, it has some aging to go through, so try from late in 2015 or 2016 through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $60.