subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

Napa Cabernet better than Sonoma? A cliche

3 comments

 

You all know that I work for Jackson Family Wines. I have so say that upfront, because of what I’m about to write, which is how good and fine a place Sonoma County is for growing Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varieties in general.

If I were still the California wine critic for Wine Enthusiast magazine and I made that statement, I think people would take it at face value. They might or might not agree, but at least they’d believe that it was my own opinion, unbiased and uninfluenced by personal or venal considerations.

When you work for a winery, though, and you make a statement in praise of their wines and vineyards, people tend to be skeptical. And that’s entirely understandable. Having been on the receiving end of press releases and hype from P.R. types for decades, I would be skeptical, too, if I were you, to hear me say how great Sonoma Cab can be. I accept that risk and that criticism. But I’m going to say it anyway.

What brought this thought process to my mind was this article, from the drinks business, that describes how Verité, a Jackson Family Wines winery in Sonoma County, was the favorite wine in a recent tasting of “50 of London’s leading sommeliers.” The tasting included the esteemed Napa properties, Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle and Scarecrow. My friend Julia Jackson, the daughter of Barbara Banke and the late Jess Jackson, told the drinks business, accurately, that it’s not necessarily the right decision to go to Napa for cult Cabernet,” and that Sonoma is in “its infancy” when it comes to Cabernet and Bordeaux blends.

Julia alluded to another point, that Napa Valley has achieved its greater fame for Cabernet, even though the history of winemaking in Sonoma is older, because Sonoma doesn’t “have the same marketing resources as Napa.” That is undeniably true. The campaign waged by Napa Valley wineries over the last 40 years, to promote in particular Cabernet Sauvignon, has been relentless, well-financed and highly successful.

This obviously is not to say that Sonoma makes better Cabernet and Bordeaux blends than Napa Valley, or the other way around. It might actually be more accurate to say that northern California has a superb Cabernet zone that sweeps from the west-facing ridges of the Vaca Mountains, across Napa Valley, up and onto the east-facing slopes of the Mayacamas, then extends to the west-facing slopes of the Mayacamas and its associated foothills, which are largely situated in the A.V.A. of Alexander Valley. The political lines of counties were not designed by nature, and are irrelevant from the point of view of terroir.

Napa’s aptitude for marketing was the topic of an opinion piece in yesterday’s Napa Valley Register newspaper that had to do with what the writer calls “extravagant marketing.”

He defines that as circus acts, jazz concerts, drive-in movies and very expensive wine/food pairing meals on winery grounds…designed to attract tourist dollars.” His point is that this “extravagant marketing” is responsible, to a large degree, for the tourism and associated congestion that many Napa residents (and those in other wine regions) have been complaining about.

Without getting into that thicket, it is reasonable to assert that the investment Napa vintners have made in these “extravagant events” has been responsible, to a large degree, for the worldwide fame Napa has achieved. I’m not putting Napa down for that, or suggesting that it’s in any way improper. Vintners have promoted their wines, and tied them to glamor, since time immemorial; it’s not like the Napans invented marketing!

But we do seem to be living at a time when old stereotypes are being discarded, and one of them, it seems to me—an important one—is that Napa Valley is the go-to place for high-end Bordeaux-style red wines in California. Not true. Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Chalk Hill, sometimes Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Valley—they all have their share of wonderful Cabs, usually at a fraction of the price of Napa. I hope that the Millennial bloggers and critics, who say they are entirely willing to topple old clichés, will recognize this truth, and write about it.

  1. Let’s not forget Sonoma Mountain and Moon Mountain…superb Cabernet. Witness Laurel Glen making the Wine & Spirits Top 100 wines of the year this week (Sonoma Mountain). And the fabulous Cabs of Hamel Family (Sonoma Valley technically, but on a hillside), and Moon Mountain producers Stone Edge Farm, Amapola Creek, and Kamen.

  2. Verite makes a fine wine but it isn’t cheaper than Napa cabs, not since it got all those 100 point scores around 2007 or so.

  3. As a longtime visitor to North Coast wine land (and now part time resident of Healdsburg), for my taste, many Sonoma cabs are similar to Napa cabs from the valley floor (Oakville, St. Helena, Rutherford, etc.). I much prefer the Napa cabs from the hillside AVAs.

    To agree with your point about nature trumping political lines, I find little to distinguish from a quality standpoint the various wineries located on the hillsides on either side of the Sonoma/Napa county line. Of course, there is often one big difference: price.

Leave a Reply

*

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Categories

Archives