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Cabernet Cult

Napa Valley's forgotten classics still make outstanding acquisitions
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 01

(continued from page 2)

Throughout the 1970s, California's Cabernets had been tannic monsters, produced as a reaction to earlier criticism that the New World could provide nothing more than immediate gratification. There seemed to be a certain status in making wines that weren't drinkable upon release, just like Bordeaux. Whether the wines ever came around to give pleasure seemed almost immaterial.

The emergence of drinkable but age-worthy wines like Stag's Leap and Silver Oak ushered in a new era. "What I try to do is have the palate actually perceive the relationship between the tannin and the fruit, the balance between hard and soft elements," Winiarski says. "In that sense, a little bit of work is required from the taster." He expresses it as the difference between a rectangle, in which unequal sides are perceived as harmonious, and a square, in which there can be no balanced relationship, and therefore no real beauty, because all sides are equal.

The analogy may be esoteric, but Stag's Leap brings it to life with Cabernets of unmistakable California lineage that even the staunchest Bordeaux advocate can appreciate. Shouldn't such successful wines sell for what the market will bear? The question has swept through Napa Valley and beyond, as the Fay and Stag's Leap vineyard releases have crept up to $50, and the Cask 23, of which about 2,000 cases are annually made, to $100.

Up Howell Mountain and past the town of Angwin, which feels like a piece of Middle America plunked down in the midst of the country's finest grape-growing land, the unpretentious Randy Dunn finds to his chagrin that he's selling his wines at nearly $50 on release, which means they might nudge $100 on a restaurant wine list. But the $10 increase from previous years has so far made only a handful of customers cut back on their annual allotment of his purple-black bottlings.

"There are something like 50 California wines out there for over 100 bucks, and certainly there are 100 wines for 50 bucks," he says. "So you get to thinking, maybe I should creep mine up a little bit and raise the money to buy the next piece of land."

As a response to the cult wines, Dunn is releasing mixed cases of his older wines. For years, he has been holding back close to 100 cases of his annual production, a significant number for a winery that only produces 4,000. Now, two bottles each of the 1987, 1988 and 1989 Howell and Napa releases -- each under $30 on release -- will cost $1,800 in a gift 12-pack. That's $150 a bottle, or about what Colgin fetches off its mailing list.

What a consumer gets for that money is well-aged, evolved Cabernet Sauvignon. If it doesn't have the fruit-filled flash of some of the cult wines, that's just as well to Dunn. "Some of those hard-to-get wines I've tasted, I say to myself, 'My God, how do they get the reviews they get?' They're flabby wines, and I don't think they're going to show very well in a few years."

Sitting in his backyard at a picnic table, with wind chimes making their sweet melody and three dogs asleep beside him, Dunn watches a gray heron alight on a tree limb. He seems eminently attuned to the sweep of time: earth time, and wine time, too. He pours a glass of his 1997 Howell Mountain Cabernet, which won't be released until later this year, a full vintage cycle after most California wineries. His wines spend two and a half years in oak barrels, yet they're anything but over-oaked.

The '97 is big and rich, rough on the mouth because of the young tannins. Despite the huge fruitiness of the 1997 vintage throughout Napa that made many wines instantly accessible, this is a wine that's still wearing pajamas, a wine that hasn't yet dressed for the party. "No different from any of my wines at that stage," Dunn says with a shrug. It requires a decade of cellaring, and that fact alone won't appeal to the seeker of instant gratification. But then, with such a limited amount of wine, Dunn doesn't have to appeal to everyone.

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