Napa Cabernet: as good as it can get?
Over the weekend, I finished a story on Cabernet Sauvignon that will appear in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast. I found myself typing these words: Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is pretty much as good as it can get — at least, it’s hard to see where it goes from here.
It’s not a thought I’ve entertained consciously before, at least, not in those precise terms. As so often happens with writers, when you’re on roll, pecking away at the keyboard (or even using a rustic old pen and paper), the thoughts just seem to come from outer space, and you sometimes find yourself writing the damndest things. Of course, every reporter has (or should have) a built-in alarm system warning him if he’s written something unsupportable or just plain stupid. So when I wrote this, I sat back, re-read it, re-re-read it again, and wondered:
1. What prompted me to write that in the first place?
2. Should I allow it to live and see the published light of day?
Because, let’s face it, it’s a controversial statement.
Napa Valley is royalty. It’s America’s Bordeaux and Burgundy, rolled into one. And a commoner doesn’t criticize royalty, not unless he’s prepared to be taken to the Tower of London and have his head chopped off. So what do I mean by saying that Napa Cabernet is as good as it can get?
Background: When I first started interviewing winemakers whose wines I had given very high scores to, one of my favorite questions was, “How much better can your [fill in the blank wine] get?” I mean, if a Cabernet earns a 95 or higher, it is, more or less by definition, a perfect wine, and there’s nothing more perfect than perfection, is there?
And yet the entire premise of Napa Valley Cabernet is, and always has been, better and better.
Well, these certainly are wines that have become spectacular in recent years. You really do have to wonder where their evolution will take them. I know some people who don’t like the Napa cult style, which is based on super-mature grapes (with consequent low acidity) and generous dollops of new oak. They’re entitled to their opinion; I happen to like it.
But when you’re on top, you never dare stay still, for fear of being shoved aside by a competitor. Mercedes-Benz doesn’t rest on its laurels but builds better cars all the time. The New York Yankees don’t rest on their laurels. The United States of America doesn’t rest on its laurels, but endeavors to become “a more perfect union” with each passing day. So if you’re Harlan, Shafer, Joseph Phelps, Spotteswoode, you have to be thinking ahead.
These extraordinary wines don’t seem to have a way to get better, only worse (say, from a bad vintage or some hideous mistake in the winery). I guess some people might say the way to make them better is to achieve ripeness at lower brix levels, which is a magic bullet that could be resolved with new strains of yeast and, I suppose, better clone-rootstock matching. Still, the theoretical destination of “ripeness with moderate alcohol” is a bit of an illusion. California isn’t Bordeaux and never will be. These are always going to be big, rich, juicy wines.
So to my second question: Should I allow this statement to live? Well, I just did, didn’t I, by publishing it here. If anybody in Napa gets all sniffy poo about this, I hope they’ll enlighten me, because I really am not seeing where these wines go from here. Is Bordeaux better than it was in 1961 or 1928 or 1874? It’s probably less tannic but an argument can be made that, no, it’s not “better,” just different. Somehow the Bordealais have managed to keep their image vital and coveted even though their product hasn’t really changed much over the years. That’s Napa’s challenge: As things stay the same there, but improve in other regions, they’re going to have to constantly re-persuade the public that they’re special and different and still worth the premium they request. No easy task, especially in this economy.