Is Napa Valley Cabernet an endangered species? I don’t think so.
Of my 100 highest-scoring Cabernets in 2010, only nine were not from Napa Valley or its sub-appellations. I guess that says something and it’s not particularly surprising. The majority bore the basic Napa Valley AVA. Of the Napans with more specific appellations, the numbers were, in descending order:
Howell Mountain: 7
Diamond Mountain: 4
Stags Leap, St. Helena, Spring Mountain, Atlas Peak: 2 each
Calistoga, Yountville, Mount Veeder, Oak Knoll: 1 each
It would be imprudent to draw conclusions from these numbers. For one thing, in any given year there could be more Oakville wines than Rutherford wines on the list; these things have a randomness to them. There also are a number of Napa Valley Cabernets I simply didn’t review this year, for various reasons, mainly because I can’t review them all. Nobody can. Nobody can even be aware of them all. Then too, the Cabs I reviewed in 2010 ranged from the 2004 vintage right up through 2008. A wine that made the top 100 with its 2005 vintage may not have done so in 2006.
I found it a little surprising that there was only one Mount Veeder on the list, but then, there are relatively few producers up there. Less surprising were the lower numbers from the valley’s southernmost areas–Oak Knoll and Yountville–and its northernmost, Calistoga. Napa Valley’s sweet spots obviously are right in the juicy middle, and also in the mountains.
These considerations in my mind were aroused when I read Tom Wark’s blog the other day. It’s a very long post–his lengthiest ever?–but worth reading, if for no other reason than that it resurrects, Dracula-like, the notion of some kind of ranking or classification, especially for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Now, I am not writing this just because the notion of classifying California wine is always destined to stir the pot and get everybody all riled up. It’s really not even worth discussing anymore, and as much as I respect Tom (and he knows it), his idea of a “Committee of Elders” is as silly and fictional as the Bene Gesserit from “Dune.”
But Tom took as his starting point the analysis by Leo McCloskey in which Dr. McCloskey warns of the commoditization of Cabernet Sauvignon to the point where prices will be forced to drop, thus putting Napa Valley in the embarrassing and unsustainable position of producing an expensive product that people aren’t willing to buy anymore.
This is the real issue about Napa Valley Cabernet, not classification system fantasies. Dr. McCloskey does make some interesting points (although I cannot fathom why he writes, “Over one decade the number of 90-plus point California wines dropped 50% in Wine Spectator,” as if Jim Laube scores were the entrails of chickens, containing divine clues. What in the world does Jim’s scoring history have to do with the commoditization of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon?).
I’ve wondered ever since I’ve been in this business how so many Napa Valley Cabernet wineries manage to stay in existence. Well before this recession, I wondered about it. I remember in the early 1990s there was another recession and everybody was predicting this huge shakeout. It never happened. The current recession is much worse, and there’s a lot more Cabernet planted now than in 1991, but if you think about it, we haven’t seen a massacre in Napa Valley, not yet anyway. Somehow, wineries manage to get through tough times; and keep in mind, a lot of those Napa Valley winery owners have awfully deep pockets from outside the wine industry.
They say that history tends to repeat itself. If that’s true, Napa Valley will do just fine. On the other hand, there are such things as “tipping points” (Dr. McCloskey himself refers to one, for Chardonnay), which are paradigm-shifting events that do indeed have radical consequences. I just can’t see Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon being at a tipping point, personally. Bordeaux has been through far worse, and for far longer, than Napa Valley–world wars, Hitler, empire changes, all that minor stuff–and somehow they’ve survived. So, I suspect, will Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon–even without a classification system.