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Another discussion of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvginon, by way of Warren Winiarski and Bernard Portet

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If there’s a godfather of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (now that Robert Mondavi  and André Tchelistcheff no longer are with us), it has to be Warren Winiarski.

Although he sold Stags Leap Wine Cellars years ago, it was he who crafted the 1973 Cabernet that won the red wine prize at the Paris Tasting (1976), the signal event that launched Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon onto the world stage (although it would have gotten there sooner or later anyway, and an argument can be made that it already was out of its chair and advancing toward the stage, when it was catapulted there by Steven Spurrier’s timely contest).

And now Winiarski, comparing today’s Napa Cabs to “milkshakes,” has told the Washington Post that he considers them to be “one-dimensional behemoths that lack complexity and elegance.” (I am quoting here the author of the WaPo article, Dave McIntyre, who, since he did not put these words in quotation marks, hopefully was correctly paraphrasing Winiarski.)

This has got to come as a blow to certain quarters in Napa Valley, and also as relief to the [many] critics who have been slamming Napa Valley Cabernet the past several years. They now have, on their side, a true valley insider. And Winiarski is not alone. The article goes on to include Bernard Portet (founder of Clos du Val) among the critics of high-octane Cabs. Portet resurrects the theory that too many Napa winemakers, in an effort to get high scores from certain critics, deliberately forego “modesty” and “elegance” for power.

That there is a backlash against Napa Cabernet, and a serious one at that, can hardly be disputed. The piling on has begun in earnest when senior voices within Napa itself are joining in. So we have to step back and take a closer look.

Consider two wines. First there is the Stag’s Leap 2009 Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon (94 points, $210; all cited reviews are mine in Wine Enthusiast). The alcohol was a reasonably modest 13.5% (according to the label), but then, as I noted in my review, that was undoubtedly because of the cooler vintage: the 2008 Cask 23 had measured 14.5%. (For the record, I gave it 97 points.)

The other wine I want to discuss is the David Arthur 2009 Elevation 1147 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (99 points, $150). The official alcohol was 14.8%. I take it as a given that this is the type of wine the critics of opulence and power have in mind. (Do you have a better candidate? If so, what?) I tremendously enjoyed and respected both the David Arthur and the Stag’s Leap, and it would be a mistake to assume that, just because I gave the former 5 points more than the latter, that I thought it was a better wine. On another day, under blind-tasting circumstances, the scores might have been tighter. (What other critic will tell you that?) So both of them were very, very good Cabernets.

Now, the difference in alcohol between the Stag’s Leap 2008’s 14.5% and the David Arthur’s 2009 14.8% isn’t very much, is it? And I did score them within two points of each other. Admittedly, the Stag’s Leap 2009 was a full 1.3% by volume lower than the David Arthur; but then, I gave the 2008 a higher score, which suggests to me that there is a direct relationship between plushness (as I perceive it) and alcohol level–although you cannot carry this argument so far that you would say a 16.2% Cabernet would be even better. Clearly, we’re talking about a sweet spot for Cabernet, below which the wine is unripe and above which it loses balance.

The question becomes, where is that sweet spot? For me I’d put it somewhere around 13.5% at the lower end and around 15% at the upper end. This doesn’t seem to me to represent an intellectually indefensible spread. The high-octane critics (among whom we now must include Winiarski and Portet) would suggest otherwise, and they have a right to their opinion, but I don’t see vast differences (in pleasure or ageability) between the Stag’s Leap 2008 and 2009 and the David Arthur 2009. Different wines, certainly. This gets us into the “how many glasses can you drink before the wine palls” debate, which is the slickest of the anti-high alcohol arguments. Portet used a form of it in the article: “[M]ake a wine that tastes good, which means when you have a meal with family or friends, it invites you to have a second or third glass. If you only want one glass, get back to work,” i.e., you have not succeeded in making a balanced wine.

These angels-dancing-on-pinhead debates remind me of my Yiddish forebears arguing over the meaning of a phrase or even a letter in the Torah. I personally could drink an entire bottle of a Cabernet like the David Arthur (over many hours, with the right foods), so to me the Portet criticism doesn’t work. But so too could I drink a bottle of the Stag’s Leap 2009. It perhaps is a slightly more elegant wine, so I might prefer it with a simply grilled steak, whereas I might pile on the mushrooms and wine reduction sauce with the David Arthur. In this endless hassling over alcohol level, too often people forget to include food in the equation. No Cabernet Sauvignon is meant to be consumed by itself; the food provides the context that makes the wine perfect, or not.

  1. I applaud your honesty. If you really don’t think a 99-pt wine is better than a 95-pt wine, then why use points? Wouldn’t saying both are “classic” or “extraordinary” or whatever category you want to place them in be a better way to explain your opinion rather than use a point system you admit you don’t believe in?

  2. ForestGump says:

    “it would be a mistake to assume that, just because I gave the former 5 points more than the former”

    Might want to correct that statement.

  3. Kyle, this is old hash. The point system is not at issue here. It has its merits and it has its weakness–just as any system including a system of words.

    What does classic mean anyhow? If one defines classic as having some long-standing stylistic tradition of excellence, neither of the wines cited is classic.

    No value system is perfect, and one based solely on words is fraught with peril because it is hopelessly imprecise and does not convey clear meaning except to the writer.

    But, Steve is making a very different point–even though he pulled punches that he ought not have pulled.

    Messrs. Portet and Winiarski, who are experienced, successful wine artists, are nonetheless, also proponents of a leaner style of Cabernet Sauvignon. There is certainly a market for that kind of wine, and there is also no question that they have made many very great and glorious versions of it.

    But, they are not the only voices out there. Regardless of the growing wave of criticism of ripe Cabs, they are nonetheless delicious and rewarding when they are in balance. And the 14% and over wines are not a priori “one dimensional behemoths”.

    Randy Dunn is another outspoken critic of overstuffed Napa Cabs. His latest Howell Mountain bottling (2009) is a delight. It clocks in, by label statement at 13.9%. There is simply no intellectual justification for calling it balanced and then blasting wines at 14.5%. Yet, that is the kind of silliness that we find in the wine literature today.

    Balance is balance. It is a state of being. Messrs. Portet and Winiarski like a lighter brand of balance. Others may not. Their experience is important, and they are important, but that does not make them right and Phillippe Melka, Celia Welch and Andy Erickson wrong.

  4. Charlie, I realize the point Steve was making. I agree with you and Steve on that point. If a wine is 15.8% abv and balanced, fine with me. I think people that argue the alcohol debate will say that it is much more likely for a wine above 14.5% to be out of balance (with regards to alcohol) than those under. Pretty common sense. That being said, your last paragraph is spot on.

    I was taking issue with something else Steve said in his post. I know it is old hash. Doesn’t make it any less of a salient topic and makes it fair game since Steve brought it up. Steve explicitly admitted that 99 points does not mean better than 95 points (to him). I know any and every system has merits and weaknesses. But as Steve and Richard Jennings (go to his blog or wineberskers to catch up on that) illustrate, a system based on points is fraught with peril because it pretends to be hopelessly precise and does not convey clear meaning except to the writer.

  5. Dear ForestGump, thank. I hate when that happens!

  6. george kaplan says:

    Artemis is always serious juice when one buys 6 at the supermarket for 30% off.

  7. The bottom line is quite simple
    * There are out of balance wines in Napa
    * There are beautifully balanced wines in Napa
    * ABV can give *some* indication, but I’ve been proven wrong too many times to stick with that (even if I still look)
    However, the biggest issue is that people are turning this into some sort of culture war. That bit sickens me.
    With so much in the world to get bent out of shape about, this would be waaaaaaay at the bottom of my list. Slightly higher than my objection to blue glassware

  8. Bill Haydon says:

    Sadly, unbalanced, over-the-top wines exist in far, far too many places from the garagiste St. Emilion producers that Parker raved about to aggressively oaked Brunello to exceedingly new world style Priorat.

    What makes Napa different is that there, this style of wine was not a passing fad and a break with centuries of winemaking tradition. It wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction to appeal to the Parker monolith. There, over-ripening, over-extracting and over-oaking were the bread and butter of the industry–the dominant leitmotif of the valley and woe to anyone who tried to swim against that tide. What remains to be seen is whether the movement away from this style is the combination of a few true believers and few market driven cynics or whether it’s a more organic and fundamental evolution of Napa winemaking. Even a dyed in the wool ABC guy like me hopes to see California improve. Craftsman is a much more applicable term.

    Oh and one more thing: winemakers are NOT artists, and this also goes for chefs . Anything that is first and foremost based upon the quality of the raw (particularly agricultural) inputs is not art or genius in the same was as Picasso or Fermi. Put it this way, I have some very good home cooking skills but am not a professional much less great chef in any way. Yet, under the strict conditions of me having access to the French Laundry’s pantry and larder while Keller only gets to use lowest common denominator supermarket meat, canned vegetables etc, I have no doubt that I could cook a better meal than he. OTOH, give me the best oils, brushes and canvases available and a spectacular setting while putting Lichtenstein into a room with a pencil and a piece of copy paper. I might create a nice painting. Lichtenstein would still create greatness.

  9. When a discussion ensues about Napa Cabernet, I love to break out this quote, ““You know, a grower would like to have all his grapes in the barn by Labor Day, and I think they should hang on the vines until Christmas, so we’re always squabbling. But this is normal, nothing wrong with that.” It seems so indicative of the current state of Napa Cabernet that people pick riper and riper now.

    Oh, wait, that quote was from Joe Heitz in 1976 (and comes from Robert Benson’s “Great Winemakers of California” book….one that Steve wrote a great follow-up edition of).

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  10. My winemaking philosophy is to make the wine you’ve got, not the wine you want.
    At Illahe, our 2011 pinot was around 12.5% abv. Our 2012 was 14%. In my opinion, both of these wines are “balanced”. One vintage was just warmer than the other.
    Realistically, alcohol levels are just a number. I learned very early that when you try to make your wines fit into the numbers, you’ll end up with a wine that is unbalanced. So trying to make a wine that is low in alcohol (or high in ripeness) is the surest way to make a wine that is unbalanced. Picking right in the middle is how you get balanced wines.
    The only thing I’m not sure about is what people really mean when they say “balance”. To me, a balanced wine walks a tightrope of sugar, alcohol, pH, fruit, tannin, oak, and whatever else is going on in that wine. I think that right now, when people say “balance”, it is really some sort of coded language for wines that are not big or flashy. Perhaps that is a conversation for another day…

  11. Adam: Many a slip between cup and lip!

  12. Bill Haydon, well, I can’t wait for you to cook me dinner!

  13. Bill Haydon says:

    Steve, well, it’s the least that I could do for you allowing me to be the constant East German judge on your comment section.

    Cheers.

  14. Why are we still concerned with this illusion of a number defining quality. California excels because of the amount of sunshine the grapes receive and any producer in the medoc only dreams of getting our level of ripeness, which becomes there vintage of the decade. You simply cannot achieve awesome balanced flavors without pushing the alcohol towards 15. Come on Steve when your having dinner with Jayson you are not going to say his wines are delicious!

  15. Bernard Portet says:

    Steve,
    Thanks. Vive la difference!
    Kind regards,
    Bernard

  16. Et vive Napa Valley!

  17. Rory I think you have no idea what I have say to Jayson!

  18. The consumer is the one who fuels the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon market. And the tank is full.

    The region’s wine production has an annual economic impact on Napa County of $13.3 billion.

    The wine industry, directly and indirectly provides 46,000 full-time equivalent jobs in Napa County.

    Wine-related tourism generates more than $1 billion annually.

    The wine industry generates nearly $1.3 billion annually in local, state and federal taxes.

    The high value of the product speaks clearly to Napa’s reputation for quality wine.

    Napa’s vintners generate $84 million annually in charitable contributions.

    Those figures are the latest from the Napa Valley Vintners Association: http://www.napavintners.com/trade/tm_3_release_detail.asp?ID_News=3621116

    I am no economist, but I would have to say that the current state of Napa’s wine, and therefore its wine industry, is doing quite alright.

    I understand that Mr. Winarski misses the days of old and the wines of yester-year, and maybe he is dissheartened by the transformation of his valley from Purist driven to Tourist driven.

    If you demand wines under 14% you can still find them in Napa. They still exist. They are not extinct. If you want wine that you can actually drink this year, well you can find more of that here now.

    I’m glad to hear that you could drink an entire bottle of David Arthur Cabernet Sauvignon or a Cask 23. Most people in today’s market would join you in your proclamation.

    The fine wine purist, who detests “milkshake” Cabernet Sauvignon, his voice has been muddled in a overwhelming boom of dollar signs.

    The shift in stylistic approach to Napa Cab does not have to be embraced by all wine consumers, but the public’s response to that shift must be acknowledged and respected to a certain degree.

  19. Boomshakalakka JG… Nailed it, IMO. The current herd of Napa Cab collectors is quite a force… There is an irony in the fact that many of the “milkshakes” can’t really be viewed as “collectable” since they probably won’t age like the dignified wines Winiarski et al produced…

  20. Donn Rutkoff says:

    Can your central nervous system tell the diff. between 13% and 15% abv? How about your taste buds after 30 minutes soaking in one vs. the other?
    Why do we use water & crackers to cleanse our palate after certain doses?

  21. Far too often we choose to discuss a wine as a style instead of a product or a business.

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