January 18, 2022
February 25, 2022
While Napa Valley grows more than three dozen grape varieties, none is more prized than cabernet sauvignon. Not only is it the region’s most-planted wine grape at 40 percent of total production, the noble variety is the basis for Napa Valley’s most renowned red wines.
In the latest episode of the St. Supéry Sips podcast hosted by St. Supéry Estate Vineyards and Winery CEO Emma Swain, guests including Peggy Perry, president of Willow Park Wines & Spirits in Calgary; Mike Lee, wine director at La Toque restaurant in Napa; and sommelier/wine personality Amanda McCrossin of SommVivant discussed the reasons behind the wine’s iconic status.
Must Have Cab
At Willow Park Wines & Spirits, Canada’s largest privately owned liquor store, Napa and Sonoma selections account for the highest-grossing sales year after year, dominated by cabernet sauvignon at the over-$20 price-point. “Without a doubt,” Perry said, “this is such an important category and one the consumer is always watching.”
Napa cabernet is also a major draw at Press restaurant in St. Helena, where McCrossin spent five years as a sommelier and later as wine director. The majority of the wine list is devoted to cabernet sauvignon, with vintages dating back to the 1950s.
“People come to Napa Valley and obviously want to drink the wine that’s made here,” McCrossin said. “It lends itself to the idea that what grows together goes together—we’re eating California beef and we’re drinking California wine. There is just something really special about that that makes people feel like they’re one with the region.”
Likewise, the 300-bottle wine list At La Toque features a large selection of Napa Valley wines. “If you don’t have that that representation,” said Lee, “then you’ve kind of set yourself up for failure.”
The Many Sides of Napa Cab
One of the most fascinating aspects of Napa cabernet, McCrossin noted, is its diverse range of styles. This came as a surprise to her after moving to Napa from New York, where many sommeliers view all Napa cabernets as high-alcohol “beasts.”
“I was humbled pretty quickly and realized that there are so many different styles,” from bright and ethereal to lush and rich. “It’s great to introduce people to this idea that Napa Valley cabernet doesn’t have to be this one thing. You could do a full tasting menu with just Napa Valley cabernet.”
To showcase different expressions of Napa Valley cabernet, Lee lists wines from a variety of Napa Valley appellations such as Spring Mountain, Oak Knoll and Mount Veeder.
“I know people will come in [to the restaurant] and they want that big, burly, lush style,” he said, “and I know people who want something with more of a lighter, high toned, high-acid sort of flavor profile—red berries instead of blackberries.”
Like McCrossin, it took Lee some time to appreciate the many sides of Napa cabernet. “For the longest time I was kind of an anti-cab person because I thought of it as a monolithic thing—massive, overly produced, too much oak,” he said. “But I’ve come around in the last 15 years. There are many different styles and amazing producers in this valley, and I think people are really waking up to that.”
Another distinguishing characteristic of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon is its incredible aging ability.
Perry began collecting library wines for her shop in 1994, and noted that the Napa cabernets—even those from lower price tiers—have aged beautifully. “When we stop drinking them within two to three years of the vintage and start drinking them when they’re seven, 10 or 12 years old,” she said, “then you really see what Napa can do and the wide range of styles it has.”
Lee is also a strong believer in giving Napa cabernets time to develop, and typically does not feature current vintages on his wine list.
“I’m of the mindset that when these wines are first released, they’re not showing their true potential,” he said. “A lot of them are great upon release, but you really should have some patience to lay these wines down for a while and let them express themselves down the line. There is no reason whatsoever that Napa cabernet can’t be, on average, lasting 50 years or even more.”
When he purchases older wines for La Toque, Lee picks up a few bottles at a time rather than full cases, so he can offer a variety and avoid storage issues. “It’s important for certain wineries to have [library wines] available for us,” he said. “It shows that Napa Valley can produce wines that are long-lived.”
Older Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons are typically more affordable than those from famous French wine regions, McCrossin added, and because Napa’s vintage quality is consistently high, there are plenty of great years to choose from.
“That’s a highly underrated thing that we don’t talk about a lot,” she said. “We’re not Bordeaux that has a slew of terrible vintages or Burgundy that gets hit with hailstorms.”
Another way that retailers and restaurants can showcase the diversity of Napa Valley wines is by purchasing wine at the annual Premiere Napa Valley auction. Wines are produced exclusively for the event, and often feature unconventional blends and producer collaborations.
“Bringing those special lots home, we definitely have developed many followers who are convinced that these are the best wines they have ever drunk,” said Perry. “It definitely has helped establish us as a destination store for Napa wines.”
Getting out to Napa Valley also provides a chance for trade members to meet and build relationships with vintners, Lee noted.
“It’s one thing to sit in your office and have a rep come in and try to explain what these wines are,” he said. “It’s another to go to the winery, meet the winemaker and see what’s happening in real time. If you want that special wine from that special vintage that isn’t available, you have to come and make those connections.”
February 25, 2022