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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.

  1. Interesting thought, Steve. I think the key is for Napa to stay fresh, progressive and quality driven in the minds of consumers as wine takes stylistic turns.

    Napa was Napa before Napa Cabs were Napa Cabs. As that current Napa style, over a period of 10-15 years, evolves into something different than what it is today, Napa will have to ensure they’re messaging correctly to maintain their place in the domestic wine hierarchy. It’s not like they don’t have competition. I’m sure the folks over the hill would love to take their spot in consumers minds eye.

  2. Steve – Napa Cabs are like sports cars. Some simply prefer any machine that can go from zero to sixty in the blink of an eye; others love learning about what’s happening under the hood to make that happen.

    As you said, to each their own preference for style. But for me, Napa cult Cabs have tremendous room for growth. If you enjoy the gobby, over-the-top, oak-bathed style, then yes, they’ve reached the limit. I don’t think we’ll see 18 ABV wines or 35 brix. But if you enjoy nuance and, much more importantly, if you enjoy a wine that conveys a sense of place, there are miles more to go.

    I am constantly amazed that wine writers in Napa and across California don’t spend more ink and time on sense of place. I’ve been told, “Napa is still in a comparatively nascent stage.” Well, maybe comparatively, but that’s a cop-out for those who are so desperate for hedonism that they allow it to obscure sense of place. Like you, I “like” the bombastic cult Cab style. I just don’t think it conveys almost anything about what’s going on on the ground.

    In other words, we get it: Napa Cabs can take this car from zero to sixty in a whisper of time. But they’ve gotten so obsessed with speed that the craftsmanship of the vehicle has been obscured and, in some cases, compromised. I’d say that leaves plenty of room for growth.

  3. Evan, can you define more what you mean by a sense of place? I’ve been tasting Napa Cabs for a long time and while styles change, the wines tend to be more alike than not. I sometimes think we’re so wedded to the old Medoc notion of Margaux being fundamentally different from St. Estephe that we more or less insist the same be true between (say) Oakville and St. Helena. Or between two vineyards right next to each other. I have my doubts. In Napa’s hot climate, whatever inherent differences there are between places tend to get evened out by the heat. If you try to counter that by picking early, you run the risk of unripe fruit. This is an inherent paradox and I don’t see how it gets resolved.

  4. Steve:

    At this point in CA wine history, Napa Valley is a fully mature growing area. The wines have attained their level of quality through a process of hard work, dedication to a variety, huge capital investment, and constant reinforcement from the press. What is the difference between 95 and 96 points? And for those searching for Bordeaux alcohol in California…that’s a stylistic goal, not a qualitative one.

    I think the better question (especially for writers looking for new angles, and people trying to produce great Cabernet outside of Napa) is – will Napa ever produce anything truly surprising and exciting again?

  5. Well… this one should get people talkin’! 🙂

    I see Napa Cabernet as getting close to really being able to express terroir (Oakville, Rutherford, Howell Mtn. especially).

    Do I think they are ‘there’ yet? Nope.

    It’s just too early to tell. Napa Cabs have climbed a hill and reached the top – the hill is whether or not Napa was capable of terroir wines and achieving quality levels like the first growths of Bord’x.

    There are other hills to climb, I think, for those who like there wines less extracted, less ‘in-your-face’ but just as complex.

    I suppose I’ll get a deeper dive on all of this next month at Premiere Napa, but I’d wager it won’t be enough to convince me that there’s nowhere left to go for Napa Cab.

    Let’s hope we never run out of those challenges, anyway, so that Napa always stays fresh, and remains the world ambassador for American Cab…

  6. Steven, “will Napa ever produce anything truly surprising and exciting again?” Great question. It’s hard to see how it will, anytime soon. The American wine market is so conservative. It doesn’t reward innovation, but reinforces continuity. Just like Bordeaux. Has Bordeaux surprised or excited for the last 200 years? Not that I can see. I mean, the wines have been extraordinary, but they’re all the same (from permitted varieties).

  7. Steve, Rhys Vineyards has a cool program for plotting temperature in various vitacultural regions. Here’s a comparison of St. Helena and Bordeaux (you can toggle mean, high and low in the plot window):

    What striking is how much hotter St. Helena is than Bordeaux (not sure which part of Bordeaux this is referencing, though). Especially the highs, though the Diurnal Flux is much larger as well. So perhaps the expectation should be higher sugar, but with balancing acidity maintained by large day-night temperature swings. (Or, more cynically, by tartaric addition.)

    So improvement by less ripe fruit seems unlikely in an typical year. Except in cooler years where phenolic ripeness may occur at lower Brix, it just isn’t going to happen.

    The other possibility is price or value. Napa has a long way to go in terms of producing high value wines. I’d love to find lightly oaked, moderately extracted Napa Cab that one can drink for Cabernet expression, but I fear anything in the $15 range will drink like oak dust kool aid. The higher end wines, meanwhile, simply are too expensive. Napa is using its massive profit margins to feed a lifestyle of excess. Cutting back on spending for the high society lifestyle will make a huge difference in value. I don’t want half the cost of a bottle of Cab to be going to a multi-million dollar sculpture garden, McChateau or debutante ball.

    In a way Napa has no choice in its future. If the climate shift brings hotter temperatures, they can’t plant varietals that prefer hotter weather. Napa Cab is their brand. And moving back to a modest agrarian lifestyle isn’t going to happen, either. At best Napa can hold steady, while other regions with flexibility can match varietal to climate and soil freely.

  8. Interesting topic–especially in light of the Berger accusations of the other day.

    I am finding the discussion a little too simplistic however. Even if Napa is hotter during the day than Bordeaux, which it has been forever, including just three decades ago when fully ripe wines came in under 14% ABV, it is, as has been observed, cooler at night and thus the diurnals keep the total heat summation down.

    Further, all vines in Bordeaux are hedge-trained so that the grapes sit in the sunlight all the time. In CA, the vines are trained differently, and the vineyard managers and wineries typically choose to shield the grapes to some extent. So, direct numerical comparisons do not work in reality.

    There is living proof that Napa wines do not need to be pushed beyond 14.5% ABV to get ripe. Just look at the wines of Corison and Spottswoode, both grown on the west side bench and far enough up the valley to be in warmer locales than those of central Rutherford, Oakville, Yountville and the Oak Knoll District.

    The reason that I bring all this up is to suggest that Napa Cab is not a settled entity but an evolving product. Part of what drove the high ripeness idea was the realization that one could get more intensity in the grapes at higher Brix. More hedonistic pleasure had to mean more and easier sales according to some.

    But, there are two divergent ideas here that need recognition. Some wineries handle higher ripeness better than others. Staglin, Pahlmeyer, Hewitt, Hobbs are all ripe by the Dan Berger standards, and some of those are riper than others, but they all succeed because of two things. They do taste of place and they have fruit and balance. The notion that Napa Cabs do not taste of place is silly. Well-made wines from the west bench simply taste differently from well-made wines of the same appellation on the east side of the valley.

    The big picture generalizations simple do not hold water. There are over 500 hundred Cabs in the Napa Valley and they are not monolithic regardless of what anyone may say pro or con. They range all over the place and they respond to trends, market pressure, perceived preferences and real preferences.

    There is a reason why the wines of Chimney Rock and Clos Du Val are made at lower alcohols than their peers. It is the persons behind those wines. Neither Doug Fletcher nor Bernard Portet want super-rich wines and do not make them regardless of what my friend, Dan Berger, and others may say.

    Finally, and this is the bottom line for me. The last ten years, to the extent that they have been years of super-ripeness, are nothing more than part of a continuum that is shifting back to more controlled levels of ripeness. In so doing, some wines are going to lose their ways because they do better when ripe and some are going to be interesting in a different way. But, this much ought to be clear to us all. These kinds of shifts go on all the time, and when they go too far in one direction or another, they shift back.

    There are distinct gambits and strategies available to the wineries to achieve ripeness at lower Brix, and many of those wineries had begun to work on those techniques as much as five years ago. Napa is not done, has not seen the best it can do.

    But, it has seen great wines, continues to produce great wines and will continue to produce great wines. Whether Sonoma can ever reach that level with Cabernet remains to be seen, but I don’t see why they have to. Sonoma produces better Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, for my taste, than Napa on average. Where is the problem in that?

  9. I read the ripeness/over-ripeness question in the same fashion I do the aged/young wine dichotomy…neither is BETTER than the other.

    Steve alluded to lower alcohol concentrations as a way Napa might still improve its wine, and others here have implied that wines are qualitatively better at lower alcohol levels. Not true.

    Though I don’t think Charlie meant it this way, he adds credence to my idea that the only “truths” that exist in wine are those that (always temporarily) have achieved general consensus when he writes “[Napa] has seen great wines, continues to produce great wines and will continue to produce great wines” to describe its quality through a continuum of alcohol-level changes. I think he touches close to actual truth, though, when he mentions that balance is a preferred quality in wine.

  10. I feel confident that Napa Cab will continue to evolve and get better. Every day I see where improvements can be made in the vineyard and in the winery.

  11. While I appreciate the argument that identifying Oakville Vs. Rutherford blind is very unlikely, anyone who has lived in Napa and then Calistoga can tell you that those are very different climates. That said the mountain fruit coming from the Mayacamas vs. the Vaca range can be drastically different. Just look at the western ridge to see vast swaths of conifers and the eastern ridge with it’s scrub and oaks. To say we have fine and unique soils that require us to designate north vs. south Yountville is rather absurd although I am sure some are trying but to say that all Napa cab’s are the same I believe is a bit of an exaggeration.

    Can I ask, what exactly is surprising or exciting? Wine like most all goods is a mostly consumer driven market. The only time we may see something surprising is if people stop paying attention to the market and make what they want. This may sound fun and exciting but for many brands this will end in financial suicide. Not something most winery owners want. Not do many want or can afford to take on the additional risk in the current market.

  12. This particular subject (i.e can a wine get any better), is pretty interesting, as I recall thinking when I read your Williams-Selyem Litton Estate perfect 100 point rating, “Boy if I had any of this wine, I’d better drink it right now, because it can’t get any better!”…

  13. Great topic. I believe Napa is not a single entity; it represents a huge variety of meso-climates and soils, and I agree that it still has a lot to do in terms of expressing its different terroirs.
    The great majority of Napa’s vines are very young and shallow-rooted. Vines with deeper roots are less susceptible to weather variability and tend to reflect the climate’s medium to long term averages; lowering Brix levels and highlighting soil-geology in a consistent and natural way.
    Napa’s higher valleys and mountain vineyards are still in its infancy, and winegrowers have a thrilling and painstaking job ahead, delineating each terroir’s true identity, and consolidating/strengthening the regions huge long term economic potential.

  14. I think the answer is “yes”. Napa wine is as good as it can get. It can get cheaper, easier to make, more consistent, lower alc, high alc, fewer amines, better on the environment. As far as quality goes it is at about its pinnacle. Can Heinz ketchup get better? Oreos better? Nope.

    At a certain point food and wine hits a certain level and that is it.

  15. Phil:

    The surprising and exciting reference was to wine quality. I can accept the assertion that Napa can get incrementally better, but so what? As I asked before, what’s the difference between a 95 and a 96? Napa is a victim of its own success.

    I was really speaking to the potential for other wine regions, not currently, thought of as world-class, finally achieving that quality level on a consistent basis. For a consumer or a wine writer looking for something new to write about, that would be exciting.

  16. Steve,

    I must say that I am utterly dumbfounded to hear you say that Napa is essentially too hot to allow for any distinctive sense of place. I’m not, in general, a big fan of Napa Cabs, but I love exploring the diversity. It’s based not only on wine style but on sense of place. I promise you the wines from elevation show quite differently in my glass than wines from the valley floor, for example. And that’s before we get into the differences between Oakville, Calistoga, etc.

    Certainly I’m a geek for sense of place, and in love with the story of wine. But how can a writer like yourself declare that sense of place doesn’t really exist in Napa? That’s unfair to the region and the producers who are expressing it. I just spent four days out there and profoundly enjoyed the experience, and believe me, the winemakers I met not only believe in sense of place: they’re proving it exists.

  17. Another point, then, Steve: Do you believe there is anything special about a site like To Kalon?

  18. Steve: I appreciate your point. I am not sure that Napa will be able to surprise us in the sense of quality like you and many have said Napa has a style and from quality standpoint can really only improve incrementally. However I think we could drop some jaws with QPR. If would love to see more new hot shot wine producers creating new brands that sell for 18 not 50 to 100 dollars or how about some of our famous consulting winemakers working on value projects. Sara Gott is working with Clif family winery making a fun red blend that is a good value. Lets see more of that. You want to surprise me offer a stunning Stags Leap Cab for 25 bucks!

  19. Evan. Well, there are different Tokalons. There is Mondavi Tokalon which is a very good Cab and let’s hope it stays that way. Then there is Beckstoffer Tokalon that shows greater variability because he sells grapes to different wineries.

  20. Evan, different reviewers will come away with different conclusions. I can only say that, when I look over my years of reviews of Napa Cabernets, they come from all over the place. Valley floor, mountains, Yountville, Calistoga, east, west and all points inbetween. I have generally found that the best wines are not because they have a sense of place, but because the owners have enough money to buy perfect viticulture and impeccable winemaking technique. Perhaps a sense of place can only be realized when lots of money is spent perfecting it.

  21. Steve, I think you miss part of the point. It is not money exclusively so much as attentive viticulture and picking choice that are the biggest influences on the differences you see in wines from similar places in Napa.

    Indeed, when one sees the various results with Beckstoffer ToKalon grapes, it is clear that winemaking has more influence than money on how the wines turn out.

    You were onto something when you called out Dan Berger’s comments on Cab the other day. Yet, some of what you have said suffers from the same overgeneralization that plagues Dan’s comments.

    Consider the wines of Corison, Spottswoode, Staglin, Hobbs ToKalon, Dunn Howell Mountain, Phelps Backus. Each of those wines, no matter whether 13.5 or 14.8 ABV has distinct flavors that reflect place first.

    You and I agree that there is more than a little poorly made wine in this world. Frankly, it keeps guys like you and me in business. But, we are also kept in business by wines that are at the very top of quality/hedonstic list–and, it would be my contention that those very good wines, more often than not, reflect not just ripeness, fleshiness and expensive barrels. They also reflect where they came from.

  22. No region means wine overwhelmed by Mega purple (black wine dye) and tap water additions than Napa Valley. It is not the intense heat that makes many valley floor Cabs taste the same, it is the additives; Mega Purple™, grape concentrate, acid adjustments and tons of water. Napa is ground zero for artificially made and altered wines, made in factory grade diesel and dairy tanks. It has become a “wine mill” of poorly flavored, watered down, indistinct, hollow centered and generally terroir-less Cabernets that are characteristically not Cabernet varietally correct if you hold Margaux, St. Julien and Pauillac as the example of true characteristic Cabernet fruit flavors of cassis, violets and cigar box. Most of Napa’s valley floor is unfit to grow Cabernet. Until the focus goes back to Diamond Mountain, Pritchard Hill and Mt. Veeder based Cabernets Napa will only continue it downhill descent toward cashing out. The heyday of Napa Cabernet was the 1970’s to the 1980’s and every year it goes downhill from there. Napa has become many writers false poster child for Cabernet because they don’t fully understand the true origin of the flavors that they taste in the wine. 90% has no nobility left and the other 10% in unattainable by most wine drinkers. Napa Cabernet is the GMC of the wine world as soon is there is real competition and development elsewhere it will find itself not only ethically bankrupt in the winemaking process but financial bankrupt as well.

  23. I totally feel the same way about the mountain wines as Rober O’. They taste different and more distinct. Warren Winiarski’s obsession for studying the frost lines turned out to be an intuition of a fundamental truth of the region.

  24. Sometimes I think Steve takes a random thought and says to himself, “I don’t really believe it, but it is sure to stir the sh*t.” And here I am, responding.

    Can Napa Cab get better? Yes. Yes on every level you can consider.

    Can the hundreds of Napa Cabs not named “Harlan, Shafer, Joseph Phelps, Spotteswoode,” aspire to be included in that sentence next time Steve burps a thought at us? Indeed, they can. Whether they wish to is another question, but they certainly can aspire, and some, if they wish, can achieve.

    Can the wines that choose to go in another direction, whether to climb Napa’s hills seeking cooler plots or to bottle tiny lots, vineyard by vineyard, or play with the blends, or any of a thousand other choices the winemaker has, do so successfully? Can they make “better” wine? Yes.

    Can the wines named “Harlan, Shafer, Joseph Phelps, Spotteswoode,” make better wine? My bet is that if they didn’t think so they would stop trying. Wine is more than a business, it is an act of commitment and of art. There is not an artist worth the label who does not always believe her real masterpiece is her next one, not her last one. The people behind those names are among wines most celebrated artists, and I have no doubt they are mixing on their palettes right now, preparing their next creations for our palates.

  25. Kevin Sidders says:

    Did you really try to claim that Bordeaux hasn’t gotten “better” in the last 100 years? Despite all the advances in knowledge, winemaking techniques, and technology, not to mention the ability to charge higher relative prices enabling things like dropping more fruit and harsher selections on the sorting table? God knows I’ve left out a ton of other things, but it seems patently obvious to me that Bordeaux has improved markedly in the past twenty years I’ve been paying attention (as measured by the average overall quality of wine produced there), much less the last 100. Apply that lesson then to Napa and I’d argue, absolutely there can (and will) be continued improvement for all the analogous reasons…

  26. Kevin, no one alive ever tasted a young 18th or 19th century Bordeaux, so we can’t say what they were like, and we certainly can’t do a horizontal tasting with modern wines. All we know about Bordeaux from long ago is that it was the most famous red wine in the world and the greatest connoisseurs and gourmands praised it. So I figure it must have been pretty good stuff. Bordeaux is still pretty good stuff today. But I don’t know how anyone can say it’s “better.” Modern Bordeaux may be less subject to technical flaws. But can we really believe there’s anything from Bordeaux today to rival 1875 Mouton, of which Prof. Saintsbury said “I don’t think I ever had a better”? Are today’s wines superior to Margaux 1870 or Latour 1869, which H. Warner Allen called “masterpieces of Nature” and stated, “There are no Clarets worthy to take their place”?

  27. Abraham Perold says:

    Looks like it’s time to start planting Pinotage.

  28. Steve: I’d like to see you back up and explain how Napa Cabs today are better than in the past. There are surely more good Cabs than ever before. But are the best of today better than the best of the past? People who are older than us have asserted that they are not. I am not sure I am qualified to answer the question. But it must be asked.

  29. Blake, where did I say Napa Cabs today are better than in the past? The closest I got to saying that was “these certainly are wines that have become spectacular in recent years.” By that I mean the best of the best. They are spectacular. But I don’t know if they’re “better” than anything Napa ever made. I would not make that statement.

  30. Napa Valley is still making wine? Hadn’t noticed. I’m to busy thinking about wine to actually stop and drink any.

  31. OK. Let me make the statement for you.

    Napa Cabernets are better than they were in the past. And I am older than Blake and and you and I have tasted those wines.

    First, a bit of cover my ass position: There are too many overripe and underfilled Napa Cabernets to make the claim that all Napa Cabs approach anything close to grandeur.

    But, having tasted the Cabs of the 60s, and remembering that day-to-day wines from the likes of Beringer and Christian Brothers and Louis Martini were what we had to choose from. And remembering that there were very few heralded vintages in the 1960s until one gets to the end of the decade, I just don’t see the love for those old wines.

    Furthermore, until we get to the 1970s, we are talking about wine taht was made in big tanks, stored in big tanks, sent to the world when it had lost its vitality. No one compared Napa Cabs of the 60s with their French counterparts. It is why my cellar has 60s from Bordeaux and very few CA wines until 1968 and 1970.

    OK, so let’s write off the 60s. How about the 70s? In order to posit that the wines of the 70s were better than the wines of today, one has to argue that wineries like Stag’s Leap WC, Ch. Montelena, Chappellet and all the other producers who came to prominence in the early to mid-70s were actually making their best wines in their first two to four vintages. That notion is simply counter-intuitive.

    Today, we have more complex wines with better blending grapes, we have replanted clones, we have better barrels, we have better tannin management.

    There were some great wines made in the 1970s. I have a cellar full of them, but to suggest that Corison and Spottswoode and Hobbs and Paloma and ……… are going backwards in their knowledge or are not making balanced, place-oriented wines is, in my humble opinion, totally inaccurate.

    The 1980s were kind of a weird time for Napa Cab. Many very good wines made, but very few legendary wines. The food wine craze of the early 80s took the stuffing out of too many wines as did the weak vintages from 81 to 83. We all thought that 84 to 86 (or 87 according to some wags) were a string of great vintages. Not only as that turned out to be untrue on an across the board basis (and thus one sees very few wines from that era ever talked about–no question that Bordeaux had the upper hand in the 80s), but we ended that decade with the dreary 88s and 89s.

    Given all those facts, it is hard to make a case that Napa Cabs were better in some earlier era. If you think that, name the era. I will give you a hint. It might have been in the short period of 1968 to 1970. But that is not really an era. It is too short and thus anecdotal. The 73s were structured and have lasted, but are not gorgeous, just very good, and too many 74s died an early death (Heitz MV notwithstanding).

    So, there it is. Today’s best wines are not only more plentiful but also more complex and equally ageworthy, and they are much better made if for no other reason than the inevitable learning curve that has made them more polished and less subject to winemaking variability.

  32. Kevin Sidders says:

    @Steve: First, my point is that over the last 20 years I personally have perceived an increase in the overall level of quality of wines from Bordeaux, none of which was addressed by your comment. I’m curious, have you not? Have others?

    Second, if we presume for the moment that your comment is accurate, let’s look at the logical consequence: namely that such truth would mean that all of the time, effort and money that has been expended in improving the quality of Bordeaux over the past 100 years has been for naught. Are you really going to take that position? Really? I wonder if they agree?

    If you’re looking for a controversial statement to try to defend, I think this is a better one (though it does help illuminate the answer to your original one).

  33. Steve Hamilton says:

    Fascinating stuff but can we all just get along? It seems at times we forget that what we should respect and admire most in wines or wine regions is “difference”. Whatever it may be that makes that wine different or distinct from another wine. I agree wholeheartedly that there is alot of “sameness” in Napa Valley but i think that’s more a function of us all being slaves to style.Ever wonder why acid-washed jeans that come with holes in the knees already have become popular? As a friend of mine once said there is a lid for every size pot…we are all distinctly different.Is that a bad thing…i think not.Napa Valley in my tiny corner of the world clearly has a sense of “place” or if you like terroir. And every corner from Mt. Veeder to Chiles Valley has it’s own sense of place.Napa Valley will never be Bordeaux…thank goodness for that.Let’s celebrate the difference and not tear it down because we’re not fans!

  34. Kevin, I’ve heard people complain that Bordeaux is getting worse as it gets Parkerized and higher in alcohol. As usual, we’re dealing with matters of taste, not fact. You may perceive an increase in quality; others may not. As for all the time, effort and money being spent (not just in Bordeaux), don’t forget that at the level of Bordeaux or Napa, wine is a fashion commodity, like clothing, automobiles or stereo equipment. People demand that styles change, that every new year bring “new and improved!” products. Is every new iteration of Downey Fabric Softener or Crest Toothpaste better that the previous incarnation? I don’t think so. But consumers like the feeling that manufacturers are always working to make things better. In wine, I’m sure they work very hard to make things better. But that doesn’t mean they are.

  35. Eventually, critics with adult pallets will emerge, and we will then begin to see more expressive, layered, and balanced wines from Napa. For now, count on more of the same: jam on toast. Hopefully it’s just a phase.

  36. I endorse and subscribe to Mr. Heimoff’s words when he says: “As usual, we’re dealing with matters of taste, not fact. You may perceive an increase in quality; others may not”. Bordeaux’s five First Growths always had the best vineyards; the lowest yields; lower correlation with vintage quality variation; the best winemakers and winemaking practices; the best (new) barrels; and zero tolerance for technical flaws.
    Winemaking style is always changing; trying to comply with consumers’ taste.

  37. Re 19th Century Bordeaux, I told you I was older than you. I might be old enough to have tasted them. :-}

    Nah, but I do have a book published first in the 19th century and then updated later with chemical analysis of 1860-era Bordeaux.

    They were in the 9 to 10% ABV range with very high acidity. Today, those wines would be thrown out as undrinkable if someone tried to sell them. Things do change, and while not always for the better, I think we can point to some things that have made Napa Cabs and Bordeaux better in the past three to four decades.

    As for comments like “jam on toast” and “Napa is ethically bankrupt”, well, I do read this blog for amusement as well as for its very evident intelligence. A good laugh a day is as good as an apple.

  38. Mr. Olken,
    Yours is an interesting and unique point of view. I wonder if you could quote your source, because I found a majority of opinions which are drastically opposed to yours.
    Clive Coates, in “Grand Vins” (U.C.P.;1995), appraises the Château Margaux 1900, as: “Fine colour. Still very vigorous. Splendid nose. This is a great wine. Very rich concentrated fruit. Fresh and with great finesse. Fabulous palate. Some age, but sweetness, concentration, depth, class, and real harmony and intensity. And has as much vigour as the 1959. This is very grand vin”.
    Michael Broadbent, in “Wine Vintages” (M.B.; 1999), asserts that “the start of 20th century was heralded by one the finest vintages (1900) ever: the best, and best kept, wines still beautiful to drink”. I reckon some people will say Michael Broadbent is a notorious appreciator of 8.5/9.0 ABV German Rieslings…
    But most of all, it is the “free-market” that seems to contradict your affirmation that “today, those wines – 19th Century Bordeaux – would be thrown out as undrinkable if someone tried to sell them”. I did a little research, and found out the opposite is true; there is a steep downturn in (Bordeaux First Growth) prices from the late 19th century, to the late 20th century, as you can see as follows: 1) Château Latour: 1900 (US$ 6,750); 1945 (US$ 3,422); 1990 (US$ 1,007); 2000 (US$ 935). 2) Château Margaux: 1900 (US$ 10,956); 1945 (US$ 2,656); 1990 (US$ 1,224); 2000 (US$ 884).
    Sources: [1] [2] Wine Price File; 15th Edition-2001; W.A.G.

  39. Mr. O’Connor, I am missing something here. What parts of my comments do you think need source quotations?”

    As to the notion that 9%ABV wines with green flavors and very high (0.90) acidity would be thrown out today, that is (a) my opinion (b) hard to see that such wines would be held in enormous regard given the way that every major house in Bordeaux now makes wines and (c) a direct “paraphrase” from Jean-Michel Cazes from my visit with him in 1978 (he is also the source for the book which gives the technical analysis of the wines of the era). And, I say paraphrase because, after 30 years, I would dare not try to quote him directly.

    The point, however, which he brought up, was that change is inevitable as research and understanding grow.

    I am hoping that two of your points are intentional exaggerations for the sake of discussion.

    –Comparing todays prices for rarieties with necently made wines is so far from a proof of anything about price trends as to be misleading if taken seriously and unfortunated if offered seriously. How about comparing prices for those wines when offered?

    I have some 1970 Mouton for which I paid $15 when issued. How much does a newly released bottle of Mouton cost today?

    –The subject here is Bordeaux, not Riesling. I truly hope that your comment about low alcohol sweet wines was not meant to be viewed as some kind of justification for an argument that is in favor of 9%ABV clarets with very high acidity.

    Finally, while ageworthiness is a wonderful trait in wines, it is by no means a determinant measure. No wine needs to be able to age to one hundred years to be considered great wine.

    I am afraid that if you hold the views which I have suggested you hold, then we are simply going to disagree. And if I have misstated your views, then I apologize and would ask you to expand your comments.

    Charles Olken
    Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine

  40. Dear Mr. Olken,

    First, I would like to thank you for your reply, and apologize if I did not make myself clear. I‘ll try to defend my arguments now, one by one:
    1) I never expressed any personal opinions in my last comment. I merely quoted two wine writers who tasted Bordeaux’s First Growths from the 19th century, and liked it a lot.
    2) I simply asked you to quote the book you said was “published first in the 19th century and then updated later with chemical analysis of 1860-era Bordeaux” and asserted that wines in those days “were in the 9 to 10% ABV range with very high acidity”.
    3) If that assertion is true, my best guess is that wines used to be lower in alcohol and higher in acidity because the late 19th Century/early 20th Century consumer favored it this way. My unpretentious remark about “Rieslings” suggests that Michael Broadbent is still one of these consumers; he loves (digestive) wines low in alcohol.
    4) I ponder you’ve made a pretty serious generalization about the quality of 100-year-old Bordeaux’s wines, by saying that “today those wines would be thrown out as undrinkable if someone tried to sell them”. Although it is a fact that the best Bordeaux, like the best wines from Napa, evolved technically in conformity to available technology; which certainly made both wines more consistent, easily reproducible and less risky to be made; it does not mean you cannot make exceptional, age-worthy wine without cutting-edge technology. In fact, many wine experts believe truly great wines are made in natural, non-invasive ways.
    5) I agree that the 1900 “First Growths” are rarities. But so are the 1921’s, 1945’s, 1982’s and 1990’s. And the 1900’s are still twice the price of the others. As for comparing prices when wines are first offered, that can never be done seriously, or for scientific purposes, for there is (monetary) inflation.
    Finally, I wish to say it was never my intention to display any judgment of value, or preference, for this or that type of wine, wine-region or winemaking style. My goal is, whenever possible, to enrich the debate with hard facts; not with opinions or tastes. I am truly sorry if I did not accomplish that.
    Best Regards,
    Peter O’Connor

  41. Good Article and I agree on many points that you make Steve… hey its a great conversation starter that is for sure… Good job !!

  42. Mr. O’Connor–

    Thanks for the full and thoughtful reply. I am going to limit my further comments to just a few points as I think we have pretty clearly staked out our positiions and have explained them enough that they do not need a lot more air.

    I will look for the book with the information I mentioned. It was given to me by Jean-Michel Cazes of Ch. Lynch-Bages during a day-long visit with him some decades ago. The question of modern versus old-fashioned winemaking came up because he commented that he was going to remake his chai to clean it up and eliminate the “bugs” that had taken up residence there.

    It was his comment that the wines of the 1860s would not be commercially viable today. It is not just cleanliness, however, that was at the root of his, and subsequently, my comments. There may be climatological reasons for some of the advanced ripeness in Bordelais wines, and there certainly is “preference” at work as well. But, there are also changes in plant material and in viticulture that have transformed the wines.

    We are not talking about natural versus artificial means here, but simply healthier plant materials and much better understandings about how to farm.

    Beyond that, we are both guessing as to whether green, acidic wines that takes decades to age out where really the preferred alternative or the only alternative 150 years ago.

    Thanks again for the spirited exchange of ideas.

  43. Dan Berger is acutely correct with his recent piece on Cabs.

    Napa (as well as many (most)) Cabs are dead in the water. alcohol and Viscosity levels are at an all time unpleasant state… somehow coopers have muscled (through large publications most likely) their way into an acceptable 50+% scheduling and most Napa winemakers are allowing a mere 9-11 months in barrel. THIS IS NOT HOW IS USED TO BE.

    Contemporary California Cabs are similar to museum pieces… you collect them, show them off, talk about them but can’t actually enjoy them.

    We’ve painted ourselves into an ackward corner here.


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