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2008 Napa Cabernets, through my eyes and others

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Go ahead and read this article from The Drinks Business, which modestly describes itself as “Europe’s leading drinks trade publication.” It’s about a tasting held recently at the Culinary Institute of America and sponsored by the St. Helena Star newspaper and Napa Valley Vintners.

The tasting was of 2008 single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley. The article suggests that the 2008 vintage was viewed with skepticism early on, with one of the panelists saying it was “Initially written off as sub-par to 2007…”. I’m not sure I agree with that. I always thought that 2007 was a great Cabernet vintage, with lush, opulent, fat wines, but I liked 2008, too. It wasn’t as precocious, but was better structured. I scored it 92 points on Wine Enthusiast’s Vintage Chart, but that, of course, was a generalization. Vintage assessments mask (or exaggerate) individual properties. When it comes to specific 2008 Napa Cabs, I rated 23 2008 Napa Cabs at 95 points or above. (My highest-scoring ‘08 was the Venge Family Reserve, at 99 points.) In my vintage diary, I quoted numerous winemakers to the effect that the long, dry growing season would result in very good Cabernet, which it did.

So it was a little bizarre to read, in that Drinks Business article, that “even critic Robert Parker agreed Napa Valley exceeded all his expectations in 2008, and Napa Valley was the most successful appellation in the state.” What does the speaker mean by that “even” Robert Parker thing? Is it supposed to imply that, if Parker says something, it’s So Metaphysically Correct that “even” God would have to agree? People, do we need an intervention here? And why would Parker have an “expectation” unless he doesn’t taste blind and arrives at his tastings with preconceived notions? Beyond that, to say that Napa Valley is the most successful appellation in California in any given vintage is nonsense. Napa Valley always succeeds, unless the vintage is horrible, which almost never happens; and it’s ridiculous to pit Napa Valley Cabernet against, say, Anderson Valley Pinot Noir or Russian River Valley Chardonnay or Santa Barbara County Syrah. If you do, then you’re admitting you don’t taste enough wine from across California, but are only obsessed with Napa Cabernet. I understand why a Parker would say something so triumphantly quotable, but a “wine expert” who repeats it with such worshipful seriousness isn’t really being serious but is merely tedious.

Anyway, what the panelists noted are mostly things I agree with. “[T]he wines were ‘crowd-pleasers’,” said one. That surely is the mark of Napa Valley Cabernet, from 2008 or any other vintage. I often (maybe too often) use the phrase “made in the modern style” in my reviews; that style is one of pleasingly plump, ripe fruitiness, which Napa perfected years ago and still follows.

You can have too much of a good thing, though, and if Napa Cabernet has a fault, it’s that some are too fruity, chocolately and soft. Even crowd pleasers need to pay attention to the rules of structure. And structure is what it takes to lay these wines down. Brett deLeuze, another panelist, was quoted as saying, “Ninety percent of these wines would benefit from at least a couple of years of bottle age and some (of the wines) many more years.” Note his “couple of years” hedge. That’s two or three years, maybe four. You can’t stretch “a couple of years” to mean much beyond that, certainly not eight or ten or more. That accords with my experience. Four or five years seems about right for a Napa Cabernet that scores 95 points. I wouldn’t hold any longer than that, because too many of them are liable to fall apart, and there’s no experience (in wine, anyway) more disappointing than holding onto a bottle for a long time and then finding out that it sucks.

Incidentally, the list of eight winners at the tasting is a good one. I haven’t tasted the ‘08s from all those wineries but I have tasted most of them, and they’re all good. However, with top Napa Valley Cabernets, there are no “winners” or “losers.” They’re all winners because they’re among the greatest wines in the world.

  1. If a wine is “liable to fall apart” after four or five years, is it really deserving of a score of 95+ pts?

    Anywho, I agree with your general points and I have found I actually prefer the 2008s and even 2006s to the precocious 2007s that I’ve had up to this point.

  2. Hear hear! Well said Steve!

  3. Dear Sreve, you must have a beef with Napa. I’m not a huge fan of Napa, but I must say, you sound a lot like Mr. P with your sentiment and magic when knowing and for-seeing of futuristic events like how long a wine will be good for. Get a clue sir. WR

  4. Dear Craig Renaud, any resemblance between Mr. P. and me is strictly coincidental.

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