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Applying the concept of “cru” to Napa Valley


Cabernet Franc’s a terribly hard grape to vinify all by itself in California and make pleasant. The wine can suffer from all sorts of problems: a leafy vegetativeness, high alcohol that makes it hot especially when the underlying wine itself is thin, aggressive tannins, too much residual sweetness, or just a simple candied flavor.

Yet I’ve had some really good Cab Francs over the last 18 months, and surprise, they’ve come mostly from Napa Valley. Of my top 14 Cab Francs tasted since Jan. 2011, fully 13 bore either a Napa Valley appellation or one of its sub-apps: Howell Mountain, Oakville, Diamond Mountain.

Why Napa Valley should produce California’s best Cabernet Francs is no mystery: it produces the best of the state’s Bordeaux varieties, period, including (obviously) Cabernet Sauvignon, but also Merlot and what little Petit Verdot there is.

When you analyze why a region is tops in any given variety or wine type, the answers are complex. Terroir tops the list, and Napa’s terroir is perfect for Bordeaux grapes. One mountain range further inland than Sonoma County, it’s just that much warmer, and Bordeaux varieties love the warmth they need to fully ripen. It gets hotter down on the valley floor than it does up in the mountains, and that can be a double-edged sword: a heat wave can massacre valley grapes, but a chilly year (like 2010 or 2011) can help them achieve ripeness when their mountain brethren struggle. But it all depends, of course, on the vineyard’s exact exposition, orientation and the expertise with which the vines are farmed.

Napa’s soils also are ideal, whether they’re the thin, well-drained dirts of the mountains or the richer clays and loams of the floor. River bottom land isn’t supposed to be good for Cabernet, but there are some fine vineyards bordering the Napa River, including some of Beckstoffer’s. But it’s not just climate and soil that make Napa Valley Cabernet country, it’s the human culture that pervades the valley. Napa’s been making Bordeaux-style wines for something like 150 years. Cabernet is in Napa’s bloodstream, its DNA. We’re now five or six generations into experienced winemakers who understand Cabernet the way a parent understands her child. People like Philippe Melka, Andy Erickson, Austin Peterson, Heidi Barrett, Chris Carpenter, Sara Fowler, Nick Goldschmidt, Elias Fernandez, Mia Klein, Kirk Venge, Steve Leveque, Ted Henry, Tim Mondavi, Allison Tauziet–the ties between these talented individuals are deep, forming a sort of biodiverse ecology in which collective consciousness (of the Jungian variety) is as much a part of the terroir as the weather. Emile Peynaud, the great Bordeaux enologist, captures this concept nicely in his The Taste of Wine when he describes “cru” as combining not merely “the wine-producing property, the chateau” but also “the three activities of production, processing and marketing.” All of these elemental components of cru are “supported by a tradition of quality and the owner’s particular care…”.

Marketing as part of cru? Yes. We often forget what an essential part of great wine marketing (and sales and public relations) are, which is just fine by the marketing, sales and P.R. people I know. They don’t want to be out front; they want the wine to star, along with the winemaker and/or proprietor. The people behind the scenes know the importance of the part they play, and are content to be largely invisible to the public. Just as it should be.

The best Cabernet Francs I’ve had this year include Merryvale’s 2008, Peju’s 2008 Reserve, La Jota’s 2009, Oakville Ranch’s 2007 Robert’s Blend, and a 2007 Jarvis called “Estate Grown Cave” (and if you’re ever been in Jarvis’s cave, you’ll understand why they pay it hommage. It’s the size of Rhode Island.) Try one or several of these wines, and when you’re drinking it–or any superior Napa Valley Bordeaux red–think about the fact that it’s a product, not simply of that particular vineyard or winery, but has emerged from a complex cultural web of ideas, emotions and shared experiences called Napa Valley. As with a child, it takes a village to raise a wine.

  1. raley roger says:

    One of the best Cabernet Franc’s I’ve had recently is Justin Willet’s Lieu Dit.

  2. Steve:

    Interesting post. I think you are right in including the aspect of cultural DNA in the matrix of quality though I tend to think it even more important than you.

    As the notion of quality is a subjective one, one must include the idea of received wisdom/expectation set whenever deeming an area as the best for a particular grape.

    The Napa Valley has done a masterful job in creating its brand over the last 100 years though it was not the first area regarded as the haven for BDX varieties.

    From the work done by early winemakers like John Daniel and early marketers like Robert Mondavi, the brand grew. Early adopting consumers, an influx of talent and capital, and a wine press myopically besotted (present company excluded) with the “glory” of Napa have certainly kept the attention directed on it. With this kind of momentum and a near monopoly of outside focus, it would be nearly impossible not to see Napa in the way you describe.

    Steven Mirassou

  3. “River bottom land isn’t supposed to be good for Cabernet”

    You do realize that the Left Bank of Bordeaux is made of alluvial deposits, used to be underwater until it was drained in the 17th century and the best Chateaux are a few hundred meters from the Gironde?

    Otherwise, nice post today. I agree with most of what you state. Marketing is probably one of the biggest contributors to cru and brand of a winery/region. You should definitely try some Colorado cab franc if you get a chance. You might be surprised.

    You’ve noted many of the winemakers on Pritchard Hill and that is definitely where cab franc is finding a good home. Why did you switch Continuum reviews/scores in your WE article? Just curious…

  4. Kyle: It’s conventional wisdom as old as time that bottom land isn’t the best. As has been pointed out for centuries, the top growths of Bordeaux are on higher mounds that are better drained.

  5. Yes, Steve, I realize that swales are not the best locations and that the best chateaux of Bordeaux are on higher mounds. Your original statement didn’t say swales, you broadly stated river bottom. I read “river bottom land” as being alluvial deposits. Both Bordeaux and the Napa Valley floor are filled will alluvium. I guess your definition of “river bottom land” is a lot broader than mine. No big deal.

  6. A Napa Cab Franc post, yet no mention of Lang & Reed??!!??

  7. Do you differentiate “cru” from “terroir“? IMO each is part and parcel of the other.

  8. I had an 07 Franc from Lambert Bridge recently which was outstanding

  9. John Kelly, I’ve tried here and on numerous other occasions to differentiate cru from terroir. To my way of thinking, terroir is the raw physical facts. Cru brings in the human element.

  10. Christian Miller, my post was not meant to be comprehensive. I have great respect for Lang & Reed for John Skupny.

  11. I consistently like the Viader Cab Francs, Pride, Jarvis, and Paradigm. They’re killer wines!

  12. Steve, I’ll be saving this great post to review for some time, though I’ll skip the metaphysical faith-based “collective consciousness” and the Maoist/Hillary doctrine of “it takes a village”. Corn anyone?

    I wonder, these California wineries, the individuals responsible for all that labor: “didn’t build that”?
    And my wife and I didn’t raise our two sons!

  13. Steve, do you have any comment on my second question about your WE article? That change struck me as unusual…

  14. Kyle: What change?

  15. Why Continuum’s review/score was not from the PH blind tasting, but a previous tasting?

  16. Kyle: I thought we explained that in the article. I had previously tasted it last Spring and my review was published in the magazine. Therefore I had to stick with the original review.

  17. Yes, you said that, but that doesn’t explain why you HAD to stick with the original review. Readers can infer some possible reasons, but I’d rather you explain. It just seems odd to have a blind tasting but only include some scores from the event and exclude others. If you can only review a wine once, why did you include Continuum again when you knew it wouldn’t be included?

  18. Kyle: There’s no investigative Gotcha! here. Once I’ve reviewed a wine and it’s been published, that’s it. No re-reviews. Strict magazine policy. I included the Continuum in my tasting so I could see how it performed relative to my prior tasting.

  19. Not trying to get you, Steve. It just stood out to me and I was curious as to why that was done. It was not clear in the article, at least to me. I assume the wine performed similar relative to your previous tasting?

  20. Kyle: I think the Continuum would have scored higher in the Pritchard Hill tasting, by perhaps 2 points. I have already explained this to Continuum.

  21. Steve, thanks for the clarification.

  22. Very interesting food for thought. I’ve never considered marketing a part of the concept of cru, nor have I considered cru to bring in the human element. This will make for some interesting discussion with Rob at work tomorrow. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  23. Lisa, you’re welcome. Let me know how that discussion went!

  24. Steve wrote: “[T]erroir is the raw physical facts. Cru brings in the human element”.
    IMHO, and I believe it is Dr. Peynaud’s opinion too, the “cru” (i.e., a meso-region/vineyard) can only be differentiated from the “terroir” (i.e., a region) in the sense that its agricultural/cultural (winegrowing) practices/traits are more homogeneous and contained; while the “terroir”, due to the more dispersed nature, is more diversified and heterogeneous. But both concepts (indisputably) encompass the human element.

  25. I know Sara Fowler and she should get a lot of credit for turning out a great wine. Terroir is always the black magic in wine. BTW, Sara’s 50/50 is a killer.
    Hardwork does pay off.

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