Napa Valley vs. Alexander Valley Cabernet, Redux
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.