Try 1 month for 99¢

Winemaking in Napa Valley is not for the faint of wallet. At roughly $6,000 a ton for cabernet sauvignon grapes, it is a game not everyone is prepared to play. The consistent, premium quality of the region’s grapes keeps the demand and costs high, leading to some pretty hefty price tags for the wines. More than $100 a bottle is not a scarcity.

The St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel recently sat down to review the other Napa Valley: cabernet sauvignon wines priced at $50 and less.

Having just tasted cabernets priced at $50 and higher, one might expect panelists to have a fresh preference for the super-premium, higher-priced category. Instead, as John Skupny of Lang & Reed explained, “I was more impressed with the $50 and under for their style and diversity.”

Chris Phelps, winemaker at Swanson Vineyards, agreed. “I was very impressed with the diversity; the wines were a very good value; a step up from earlier in the decade — a game-changer, really. There is great quality for $30-$40 Napa Valley wine.”

Kristin Belair, winemaker at Honig Winery, asked the million-dollar question of the day: “How do you make a $20, $30 cabernet sauvignon for $6,000 a ton?”

Todd Graff, winemaker at Frank Family, said, “Formula plays into the $20 price point.” Master Sommelier Bob Bath agreed, believing that “many seem similar; there is some formula winemaking here: sweetness, oak.”

Panelists tasted 22 wines over three vintages: a flight of 2010, a flight of 2011 and two flights from 2012. In a discussion of the vintages, Bob Bath noted, “Expectations were high for the 2012 vintage.”

Belair called the 2012 vintage “tightly wound; still needing time — teenagers, really.” Graff found the 2012s preferable to the 2011 vintage, saying that the 2012s were very expressive. Phelps was more impressed with the 2011 wines, finding great quality from that year’s wines. Tom Dinkel, owner of Dos Lagos Vineyards, agreed, calling the 2011s “better than expected; all good wines for $50 and under.”

In each vintage, from $28 to $50, there proved to be Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon wines to love. When panelists were asked which of the day’s wines they would most want to take home that night for dinner, Brett deLeuze of ZD Wines was quick to choose the Reynolds Family’s 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon ($48). Landon Donley of Spottswoode Winery was impressed with the Robert Mondavi 2012 and its $28 price tag.

Phelps humored the group with his quip, “I would take the Taken home, but marry the Rombauer.” He further joked that there would be family repercussions for his reply because his son, Josh Phelps, makes the Taken Wine Co. wines with his friend Carlos Trinchero.

The following were the panelists’ favorites of the tasting:

Silenus Winery 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($45)

Visit Silenus Vintners and you will not only taste this opaque, dark-fruited, concentrated and rich-bodied cabernet sauvignon with nicely integrated tobacco and spice flavors, but another dozen or more premium Napa Valley wines. Silenus Vintners is a crush facility that also provides a sales outlet for 18 boutique wineries.

Atalon Winery’s 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($40) is one for team aromatics. There is a bouquet of violets, oak-influenced vanilla, red fruits and a hint of licorice spice on a full, rich body. Winemaker is Brian Kosi, who honed his skills at Freemark Abbey. While the website is shy on winery history, a Vimeo video titled “A Sense of Place” gives you a glimpse into the Atalon philosophy and personalities behind the wine.

Reynolds Family Winery 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($48). A deliciously dark brooder, this intense wine has deep black fruits, black pepper and other dark, heady spices.

Rombauer Vineyards 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($50). If there were a wine welcome wagon in Napa Valley, this would be on it. Nothing says “home” like a freshly baked pie — or a wine that smells like one. The inviting aromas of vanilla and blueberry fruit mingle with a touch of spice and herbs in this deep, dense, and very tasty cabernet sauvignon.

Also recognized as beautifully crafted wines in this category were: Amici Cellars 2010 ($45); Silverado Vineyards Stags Leap Estate 2011 ($48); Franciscan Estate 2012 ($28); and Paoletti Estates Winery 2012 Bella Novello ($36).

At these price points, this is a tasty game that Napa Valley wine lovers can happily play.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

(Catherine Bugue, the Star’s tasting panel columnist, loves writing about — and drinking — wine. You can contact Catherine at Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program, visit and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.)


Load comments