Bold, Iconic Reds Define the American Style

IN CALIFORNIA’S NAPA VALLEY we drove down a road that winds through sunny vineyards toward the pine and eucalyptus forested hills to the west. We were seeking cabernet sauvignon from the fabled Far Niente winery. We came to a set of huge, embellished wrought iron gates and were crushed to discover they were locked. There was nothing to be seen beyond the gates but trees. We were too shy to ring the bell, so we set off for Grgich Hills Estate instead. We fell in love with a lot of Napa cabs that day, they were everything one could want in a big red wine: rich, full-bodied, bursting with ripe fruit and firm tannins.

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In Napa, cabernet sauvignon is king. This bluish-black, thick-skinned grape grows well in the warm, dry climate of the valley floor about an hour north of San Francisco. Up until about 50 years ago, no one had dared question the supremacy of French reds. But Napa producers were starting to nip at their heels. Naturally, such audacity from a wine region barely 150 years old could not go unchallenged. In 1976, a British wine merchant set up a blind tasting judged by a panel of French experts. To everyone’s shock, Napa’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon beat all the best French wines. This event, called The Judgment of Paris, was a seismic moment in wine history. Napa cabs have been flying high ever since.

Recently, I attended a special tasting of Napa cabs. Everyone brought a bottle and a dish to share—a format I highly recommend. The 2005 to 2012 vintages were all from well-regarded producers and cost around $100 to $250 per bottle. One of cabernet sauvignon’s attractions is a wide spectrum of aromas and flavors, from subtle mint, herbs and bright cherry, to masculine notes of tobacco and leather, to fruity bombs of black currant. It all depends on climate, vintage and winemaking techniques. This was a fantastic opportunity to experience cab’s range and complexity.

The iconic big, dry Napa cab style was exemplified in the 2005 Silver Oak. It’s aged in 100 percent American oak barrels for 25 months, which is a statement in itself. American oak has distinctive pine-like flavors, while French oak has softer, more vanilla notes. Clearly, the producers have faith in their fruit. With its notes of soy and smoke, this is a steak and barbecue wine for sure. I particularly liked the 2008 Grgich Hills, as it had plummy fruit and softer tannins. A 2010 Paradigm, done in French oak, was wonderful, with a clean, prismatic quality.

At the other end of the stylistic spectrum was the 2008 Stag’s Leap Artemis. It was restrained, with notes of tarragon, yet an intense core of fruit. If that winning 1973 version tasted like this, it’s easy to see why the judges were impressed. The 2010 Conn Valley Éloge was similarly subtle. “I like balanced and elegant, so for me, this is one of the better wines here,” remarked our winemaker friend John Leo, who does the honors for a number of Long Island wines. While all but one wine had small dashes of cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot to balance the cabernet sauvignon, the Éloge was a full 35 percent other grapes. Perhaps the most fun wine of the evening was the 2013 Caymus Vineyards “40th Anniversary.” It was an experience: very lush blackberry and cedar, almost sweet.

The tasting presented an opportunity for us to buy a Far Niente, so we ordered the 2007 directly from the winery. It was a traditional profile: nicely aged, harmonious, with bright fruit and a lingering finish. And even better, the bottle came with a nice email invitation to visit. Now we have the perfect excuse to go back someday. It will be a little bit magical to see those giant Far Niente gates open up to let us in.