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Napa Valley vs. Alexander Valley Cabernet, Redux

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Ten years ago, while writing my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River,  I visited Jordan Winery, where the staff, at Tom Jordan’s direction, had set up a blind tasting for me and Rob Davis, Jordan’s veteran winemaker.

In my book, I called that tasting “High Noon at Jordan: Alexander Versus Napa.” The point was to line up ten 1999 Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends, six bearing an Alexander Valley appellation and four from Napa Valley, and see if we could tell the difference. I got five correct–as I wrote, abashedly, “fewer…than if I’d simply guessed them all as Alexander Valley.” We both guessed the Jordan as Alexander Valley, although Rob easily identified it as his own. And “We [also] nailed the Cyrus as Alexander Valley because of its softness.” That was Alexander Valley Vineyards’ Cyrus, a Meritage-style Bordeaux blend.

At my daily tasting yesterday, I had a bunch of Cabernets I’d been meaning to get to, including the 2008 Cyrus. So I decided to do another version of “Alexander Versus Napa” and see how things turned out. The wines I reviewed were:

Knights Bridge 2009 Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
Knights Bridge 2009 Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
Hunnicutt 2009 9-3-5 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
Hunnicutt 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
Alexander Valley Vineyards 2008 Cyrus (Alexander Valley)
Rodney Strong 2009 Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley)
Rodney Strong 2009 Symmetry Meritage (Alexander Valley)
In Re 2009 You Be the Judge Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
Faust 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)

What I was looking for was a supposed telltale signature for both valleys. Alexander Valley Cabs traditionally have softer tannins and more herbaceousness than Napa Valley Cabernets, which in turn are harder in tannins and fruitier. (Keep in mind that Alexander Valley is one mountain range closer to the Pacific than Napa Valley, and hence cooler–although this statement should be taken with the greatest latitude.)

How did I do? The Knights Bridge wines were hard for me to nail. The Hunnicutts were easier, because of the house style: flashy and ripe. I suspected the In Re was Napa because of its richness; and it was. The Faust could have been from either side; as it turned out, it was Napa. The Two Rodney Strongs were both very good, evidence of that winery’s steadily improving quality. The Alexander’s Crown had the richness of a fine Napa Valley Cabernet, although its soft, gentle tannins suggested Alexander Valley. The Symmetry Meritage similarly had a softness you don’t often find “on the other side of the hill.” But if anyone had guessed both of them to be from Napa Valley, she need not have been embarrassed.

And then there was Cyrus. I knew instantly, beyond all doubt, what it was. (I’m not saying that I’d have known it was Cyrus if I hadn’t known it was in the lineup. But it was, and I did.) It was the soft tannins and the herbal quality, like dried sage. A beautiful wine, and remarkably consistent over the years.

Several points have to be stressed. One is that “comparisons are odious” (a phrase tracing back at least to 1440). Comparing Napa Valley Cabs to Alexander Valley Cabs, while it’s a game every wine critic eventually plays, is really not fair to either region. It may once have been true that Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon could not hold a candle to Napa Valley Cabernet; if so, those days are long gone. Alexander Valley Cabernet, at its peak, is simply different. (It’s important also to remember that the Alexander Valley AVA line goes way up in altitude, so that wines from Verité, at 2,400 feet in altitude, are included in the appellation.)

It’s also a fact that viticulture in Alexander Valley was slower to evolve than in Napa Valley, where there was more money and more forward thinking. However, modern planting methods–close spacing, vertical shoot positioning–and more modern clones are rapidly producing Cabernets of high quality. It is simply wrong, in our Napa-centric society, to ignore Alexander Valley. This is not a slight to Napa Valley; it’s an inclusive statement that says Alexander Valley has equal rights.

If anything, Alexander Valley Cabernet is more food-friendly (to coin a phrase). You don’t usually get the sheer flash and power that, say, an Ovid, Screaming Eagle or Colgin offers. Instead, Alexander Valley Cabs are (dare I say it?) more Bordeaux-like. That dryness and touch of earthiness grounds the wines and makes them more balanced.

  1. Steve, another probative post, but the two most interesting comments to me were these:
    “The Hunnicutts were easier, because of the house style: flashy and ripe.” Is this another case where the winery decides, and if Hunnicutts were in Alexander Valley they would have fooled you?

    “Instead, Alexander Valley Cabs are (dare I say it?) more Bordeaux-like. That dryness and touch of earthiness grounds the wines and makes them more balanced.” Sounds like you’ve “Thrown down the gauntlet”!
    I think there will many interesting comments today.

  2. Dennis: but if the Hunniciutts were in Alexander Valley the house style would be different.

  3. “I’m not saying that I’d have known it was Cyrus if I hadn’t known it was in the lineup. But it was, and I did.”

    Steve, you ardently defend your tasting method as being blind yet here you clearly expose the biggest flaw. Did your expectation of what the Cyrus was going to be influence your assessment? I’m not saying that you aren’t capable of objectively analyzing a wine when you know what it is (hell, there are advantages with that). Some people may have a hard time trusting you when you say one thing but do another (or a sort of mix of both…). Either taste blind or don’t, but stop pretending that you do when you don’t.

  4. Not that I disagree with your general conclusions, but can you explain why you chose the particular wines that you did for such a comparison? In two growing regions that within which are so varied in climate and soil how did you determine you were tasting “apples against apples?” Do you know where the grapes were sourced for each wine within the growing region? Did you chose winemakers with restraint allowing terroir to show through? Frankly it seems more of a hodgepodge to me.

  5. Dear Kyle, I taste blind, not double blind. I did have an expectation of what the Cyrus would be like, and it was gratifying that the wine lived up to that expectation.

  6. Morton, I chose these particular wines because I happened to have them around. It seems to me that there are many plausible ways to arrange a lineup of wines in a comparative tasting. Time and space prevent me from listing them all, but one might (for instance) taste all 18 (or whatever the number is) of Bob Cabral’s Williams Selyem Pinot Noirs from a given vintage, or one might taste only his Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs with RRV Pinots from other producers. One might taste coastal Pinot Noirs from Anderson Valley down to Santa Rita Hills. (I’ve been to plenty of those, sponsored by regional winery associations.) All of these are legitimate and educational ways to taste.

  7. Steve, knowing all the info about what you are tasting except which bottle is which is NOT blind tasting. Only knowing that you are tasting a flight of cabernet sauvignon IS blind tasting. Knowing you are drinking wine and nothing else is double blind tasting.

    There is nothing wrong with having expectations about a wine and being pleased with it living up to those. That is how 99.9% of wine consumers drink wine. But to claim that you are tasting blind when you know almost all the information about a few wines that you put in brown bags shows some hubris.

    And as I’ve said before, I don’t care if you don’t taste blind, but because you are an influential critic (and I do respect you for that) a distortion of reality that has the potential to affect a broad range of people from winemakers to consumers is a bit disconcerting).

  8. Steve, I think you are correct to say that this was an educational tasting for your own understanding and does have merit on its own. In fact, this is about how I would do it too. Yet given the influence your scores may have on consumers, I do still think that it was not worthy of a being called a legitimate unbiased blind assessment.

  9. It would seem to me if one wanted to look at broad regional differences the choice of wines would represent a broad region. Choosing boutique producers of a few hundred cases from purchased fruit seems to me irrelevant regarding a regional comparison. This seems like making a judgement on the differences between two automobile producers by comparing a Ford 150 pickup against a Dodge Viper.

  10. Steve,

    I think your right on point here. There is a pronounced difference between Sonoma and Napa sourced Cabs. At least that’s what I thought until I reviewed the Rodney Alexander’s Crown last week along with their Rockaway offering.

    Review here: http://winediscoveries.wordpress.com/2012/07/28/two-fantastic-examples-of-sonoma-terroir/

    This was the first time I’ve had the Rockaway and I must admit it blew my socks off. This wine was quite unlike the finesse of Alexander’s or of other Sonoma Cabs. Much more like a Mt. Veeder wine but not quite as big. Curious if you or any of your readers have tried other wines from the higher Sonoma elevations. The Rockaway seemed to blur the line between Napa and Sonoma far more than I expected. Wondering if that’s true with other offerings..

  11. Cody Rasmussen says:

    When did the wine industry so ridiculously pervert the well-established definition of double-blind? In a double-blind experiment, neither the administrator nor the experimental subject knows which is which. Very confusing that we choose to use that same term.

  12. Bob, the wines of Verite blur that line. It’s only an accident of political geography that they’re in Sonoma County rather than Napa County.

  13. george kaplan says:

    Steve, do the blends of varietals differ between Alexander and Napa? are there more meritage-style wines from Alexander, with less Cab Sauv more Merlot, Cab Franc, etc?

  14. george kaplan: I don’t think there’s any difference.

  15. Roger King says:

    Regional diversity!

  16. Steve, I enjoyed your article and am a lover of both Napa and Sonoma Alexander Valley Cabernets. My wife and I have really been enjoying the Silver Oak 2007 AV Cabernet and also the 2006 Stryker Sonoma Cabernet. I agree with your assessment of Napa Cabernets as compared to AV. They are very different and are both excellent.

    Cheers!

    Mike

  17. Sin City says:

    David Ramey is consulting at Rodney. Do you think he is responsible for some of the improve?

  18. Sin City: Could be!

  19. Steve, could you summarize in a sentence or two what would make you buy a Napa wine over a AV wine and why?

  20. Jerry, I don’t buy much California wine because so much is sent to me for review. When I’m not getting free wine anymore, price will become an issue for me, so I’ll probably limit my NV Cabs.

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