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Rethinking the 2006 Napa Valley Cabernets


Around this time every year I go a little vintage crazy. My vintage diary, which I’ve kept annually for a long time, reaches a crescendo as the harvest draws to its inevitably dramatic close. (I strongly recommend budding wine writers to keep a vintage diary.) Then there’s my annual update on past vintages, due to my esteemed editor, Tim Moriarty, in mid-November. Once you assign a score to a vintage, you can’t just let it stand forever; rejiggering of vintage assessments is part of the wine critic’s job. Finally, I have to write my detailed analysis on the current, just-completed vintage, in this case the bizarre, memorable 2010. So I am thinking, obsessing, fixating on and about vintages.

In looking back, I see I haven’t been particularly kind to 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which I rated a respectable but not exciting 90 points. It kind of got lost between  the 2005 and 2007 vintages, both 95 points, and both of them so flashy right out of the gate. So I decided to re-review 2006 Napa Cabs, now that I’ve tasted about 750 of them. (By re-review, I mean re-review my notes, not retaste the wines.)

In my 2006 vintage diary I wrote “cool, dry and late,” the second such year in what has now become six consecutive years of cool, late harvests (although you wouldn’t describe 2010 as “dry”).

But “cool, dry and late” was a general assessment. Closer up, there was more detail. Spring had been rainy, so even though most of the growing season was dry, there was a lot of moisture in the soil that did not evaporate due to the cool temperatures. A potent July heat spell broke the pattern, the heat shutting the vines down and further pushing off the ripening process for Cabernet, in most cases well into October. But, except for light sprinkles around Oct. 1, the month finished dry; on Nov. 2 I wrote, “First real rain statewide of the season…the latest rain I can remember…”. By then, of course, the Cabernet had been picked.

As I look at my individual reviews now, four years later, they’re actually pretty good. I scored about 250 Cabernets 90 points or higher, roughly one-third of all I tasted, a high average for a vintage. By contrast, that was less than the 50% of all 2007 Pinot Noirs I scored at 90 points or higher, which is why I called 2007 the greatest Pinot Noir vintage ever. There’s no chance I’ll call 2006 the greatest Napa Cabernet vintage ever, but clearly, I underestimated it. I can see, over the course of several revisions, that I penalized the wines for not being flashy and opulent. I now realize that the ‘06s traded those qualities for elegance and, in many cases, ageworthiness — qualities that can be hard to recognize in a young Cabernet.

My highest scoring Napa Cabs came from all over the valley. They included blends (the 100-point Cardinale), single-vineyard wines (Krutz Stagecoach, Piña Buckeye), mountain wines (David Arthur Elevation 1147, Kendall-Jackson Highland Estates Napa Mountain, from Mount Veeder) and Cabs from the flats (Peju H.B. Vineyard, Lail J. Daniel). So it’s hard to generalize where in Napa Valley did best, except to say that all the vineyards were farmed as impeccably as any on earth.

Prices were high. My least expensive 95-point or higher wine was $40 for the Vinifera Cab, but costs rose quickly after that; 13 of 30 were in the triple digits, topping out at $225 for that Peju H.B. One other thing of note is the number of lesser known wineries with very high scores: Napa Angel, Krutz, Hestan, Baldacci, Pina, Parallel, Vinifera, Sabina, De Sante, Hunnicutt, Roy Estate. That’s an interesting development. Many people might not realize it, but Napa Valley is the most intensely fermentive (no pun intended) wine region in California. It has the most new brands turning up, doing exciting things and wowing more often than not.

Bottom line: I’m upgrading my rating for the Napa 2006 Cabs. It was a better vintage than I thought.

  1. Rusty Eddy says:

    This is why I continue to like and respect you, Steve: you’re not above going back and reevaluating your initial impressions, changing your mind, or admitting a lapse…it’s an indication of integrity.

  2. It is good to see some one who can re-evaluate and change an opinion.

    I’m gonna cash my shares of stock in 8 track stereo players and buy CABS. (LOL)

  3. yes, kudos for stepping out and reassessing.

    but i still find it all very unsettling: “Once you assign a score to a vintage, you can’t just let it stand forever; rejiggering of vintage assessments is part of the wine critic’s job.”

    why assign the score in the the first place, if you are going to ‘rejigger’ it later? and if you’re going to rejigger vintage assessments, do you go back and rejigger all the wines you scored from that vintage, too? i mean, wouldn’t you about have to to be fair, since you were tasting all these wines with your “cool, dry and late” vintage hat on?

    a rather esteemed colleague of yours told scott directly that scoring was a crapshoot. and while he may have been speaking of individual wine scores, the more i read about critics changing ANY of their scores, be it for a vintage or wine, i’m starting to see why he might have said this. being in the business, i find it all very unsettling indeed.

  4. Stephanie, allow me to defend out job. We are hired to make assessments, whether it be for vintages or individual wines. We do the best we can. I depend on my reputation for fairness, i.e. I have nothing to gain or lose by a score. When it comes to vintage, why would you not expect a reassassment? The wines are very difficult to judge right out of the box. It would be like predicting the future of your children without possibility of error. So I hope you would welcome vintage reassessment, and in fact if you come across someone who rates a vintage and then says their mind is closed forever, you should immediately dismiss that critic as irrelevant.

  5. steve, you for sure are a fair person with heart and integrity – that is obvious. and i’m sorry if my words made it feel like you had to defend your job. but while you may have nothing to gain or lose by a score, others do. and this rejiggering? blows me away. i guess i just don’t get or believe in the point of these scores in the first place if one can simply rethink/re-evaluate and change them. maybe with so much subjectivity involved, the idea of wine “scores” needs to go. because what other “scores” get to be rejiggered? Baseball score? SATs? Driving tests? lose the word “score,” come up with something that actually represents a moving target that is wine.

    anyway – seinfeld is on and i’m tired. nighty night.

  6. Stephanie, I was referring to vintage score revisions, not wines. I don’t see how you make the leap from one to the other.

  7. yes you were. and i drifted off to the rejiggering (and by extension, unreliability) of “scores” in general–which includes both for vintages and wines. my bad.

  8. The Defender says:

    I guess like you and me wines age over time for better for worse, would it suffice to say that maybe these wines are coming into their own?

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