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