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Dan Berger On Wine: Napa Redux: A Judgment of Paris burnout?

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Oct. 16, 2021 series
  • Updated

After all the news reports, videos, books, movies and press conferences -- and anniversary celebrations -- I’m sure most wine lovers have as much “Judgment of Paris” burnout as do I.

To recast a Hamletian line, dost they promote too much?

Ten days ago, the proverbial “they” staged yet another celebration of the now 45-year-old ascendance of Napa into vinous paradise, commemorating an event that surely no wine lover needs recapped, over and over.

The story has been told so often it challenges Mother Goose for reiteration. And as important as that wine event might have been in 1976, annual retellings tarnish its impact. Self-promotion can seem a bit forced.

The fact that two Napa wines finished a couple of micropoints above some classic French wines was, back then when it occurred, a diverting bit of fluff, validating what Robert Mondavi had said for a decade -- “Our wines belong on the table with the world’s finest.”

Fair enough. But today, decades down the road, how meaningful was that pyrrhic Paris conquest in real-world terms? Isn’t it time to stop thrashing that deceased equine, especially since the game has changed so radically in the intervening years?

Were red Bordeaux and white Burgundy vanquished by the Judgment of Paris? Hardly. If anything, the wines of those two august French districts flourish today as if nothing happened in 1976. Look at the prices they now fetch and the worldwide demand for the best of them.

Not that Napa didn’t gain from that Gallic conquest, which instantly elevated several Napa houses to worldwide acclaim. The most prominent was Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, which had the highest score among the Cabernet-based wines.

Its founder, Warren Winiarski, spoke eloquently at various of the 45th remembrance events, offering a philosophic view. He remains devoted to the style of wine his winery crafted in 1973 and that was his focus.

Despite the pomp, several aspects of all this posturing make me queasy.

For one thing, a result of the victory was that prices for all Napa Valley Cabernets began to rise to the point where no middle-incomer can afford one. (It reminded me of Harris K. Telemacher, the Steve Martin character in “L.A. Story,” who needs a bank loan to get a table at the trendy L.A. restaurant L’Idiot.)

Another thing: a statistical analysis of the Paris result produces a far more complex result in which it’s hard to select a single “winner.”

Moreover, a 2006 re-staging of that event in both London and Napa, created an interesting result for the then-30-year-old reds. The highest scoring Cabernet by both panels was a 1971 Cab made by Paul Draper at Ridge Vineyards – not a Napa wine, but one from the Monte Bello Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains!

Another curiosity: where Bordeaux cherishes and promotes its subregional distinctions, and revels in the differences between St. Julien, St.-Estephe, Margaux and others, Napans have consciously ignored any distinctions between, say, Stag’s Leap, Mt. Veeder, and Coombsville.

Napa’s philosophy is simple: “The brand is Napa. That’s all anyone needs to know.”

But perhaps the worst upshot of all of these festivities is a simple fact no one wants to talk about: that Napa Cabernets today have nothing whatever to do with the style of wine that won Paris – the style of wine that French tasters believed put California Cabs on a par with Bordeaux’s best.

Almost all the California wines tasted 45 years ago had alcohol levels about 12.5% to 13%. Today’s wines, if subjected to rigorous chemical analysis, would probably prove to be 15% or more.

Result: A sweeter mid-palate and less age-worthiness.

And though Bordeaux has changed in the intervening years, nowhere near as radically.

Napa Cabernets back in the 1970s all had acid and pH levels far more designed for aging -- one of the lynchpins of greatness when it comes to this variety. Most of today’s Napa Cabs are softer, higher in pH, and much lower in acidity, so their potential for aging is more akin to the life of a mayfly.

Yes, grape growing and winemaking have improved all such wines, but the demands that some people make on Cabernet, in which it must taste good when young, pretty much dooms it to a drink-now proposition.

Many winemakers, driven by marketing concerns and a quest for high scores (and higher prices?) have made many Cabernets into little more than parodies of themselves.

The modern template for today’s wines has changed so much that it saddens many older winemakers and winery founders, who admit to me privately that they don’t drink today’s Cabernets because most tend to be sweet.

“One of the ‘secrets’ in this valley is that most of the new [winery] owners don’t know a damn thing about Cabernet,” said one older Napa Valley winemaker. (Or as Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck once reportedly said, “I have discovered in 20 years of moving around the ballpark that knowledge of the game is usually in inverse proportion to the price of the seats.”)

It seems to me that alterations of the emperor’s wardrobe have been done not a needle and thread, but with a box cutter. Comparing most of today’s Napa Cabernets to First Growth Bordeaux is like comparing a three-star terrine to Spam.

Not that Napa isn’t still a blessed place to grow Cabernet. There are still a few outliers who attempt, like Sisyphus, to push that rock up that hill, with wine styles that are classic examples of what Napa used to do in almost every sub-appellation and almost every vintage.

And that is to make Cabernets that smell like Cabernet, and which deliver truly dry wines with moderate alcohols, low levels of oak, and with dinner table compatibility, where the wine shows itself to be a commodious companion. And has the physical agility to age.

This, primarily, is what crossed my mind as I listened in on one 45th anniversary Zoom conference. Most speakers tossed accolades right and left about a product that no longer resembles those that were so appreciated by Parisian tasters 45 years ago.

In 2017, I was invited to a tasting by a friend who collects iconic wines. At the event, he poured 17 Napa Valley Cabernets, each of which had scored 100 points from some reviewer.

I liked two of the wines quite a bit, but rated 15 of them as rather ordinary and mostly uninteresting – too soft to work with food, too raisin-y to be table wines.

This wasn’t the first time my friend had staged such a 100-point event, but his reaction this time was lukewarm, sort of like, “What’s the fuss all about?”

He recently told me he no longer purchases Cabernets based solely on scores. In his next private tastings he’ll serve several new cellar acquisitions – Napa Valley Cabernets from 1966 through 1985.

Wine of the Week

2018 Smith Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District ($62): The aroma of this prototypical 1970s-style example of Cabernet is fascinating! So, it probably will be hated by some reviewers! The aroma of this mountain-grown wine is really complex with dark cherry fruit, lots of dried and fresh herbs like bay leaf, olive, and oregano, and traces of cumin and exotic latakia tobacco. The mid-palate offers sour cherry and seamless oak integration, and the finish promises a long future. It’s better after aeration. Drinkable now, it will reward a decade or more in the cellar.

A 1,500-year-old wine factory the size of a modern-day football field has been unearthed in Israel, showing how vintners met demand for high quality white wine popular throughout the ancient world. Bryan Wood reports.

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Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County where he publishes "Vintage Experiences," a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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