THE VINEYARD SITS on a steep slope, a 32 percent grade, so when you first set foot into Delia Viader's vineyard, at the base of Howell Mountain in Napa Valley, you can easily imagine losing your balance and rolling all the way to the bottom. . . .
Her 18 acres of vines are planted in neat, tidy rows, a mixture of Cabernet Sauvignon (60 percent) and Cabernet Franc. . . .
While Cabernet Sauvignon is famous in Napa Valley for scores of grand wines, Cabernet Franc is something of a newcomer. . . .
Bordeaux lovers know that Franc is part of the Bordeaux recipe. It often finds its way into blends along with Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec and Petite Verdot. . . .
But Franc can be a difficult vine to controlit likes to produce lots of grapes, and as a wine is often marked by a stalky, hay-like flavor. . . .
PERHAPS THE MOST famous Cabernet Franc-based wine in the world is Chateau Cheval Blanc, from St.-Emilion, a thick, plush, potent Bordeaux supported by about 30 percent Merlot. . . .
Another famous estate in St.-Emilion, Chateau Ausone, is also highly reliant on Cabernet Franc, which comprises half of its Franc-Merlot blend. . . .
Viader, 38, knows about Cheval-Blanc's lore and wouldn't mind comparisons, but she insists that wasn't on her mind when she and her parents, who are 50-50 partners, decided to plant a vineyard with lots of Cabernet Franc a decade ago. . . .
"A lot of people condemn Cabernet Franc," says the Argentine native, "but I think it adds finesse. In France you hear people call it a feminine wine and for me I think it gives my wine more elegance". . . .
THOSE FAMILIAR WITH other Howell Mountain reds, such as Dunn Vineyards or La Jota, know how intense the Cabernet and Merlot tannins can be from this area. . . .
Technically Viader, the vineyard, isn't part of the Howell Mountain appellation because the vineyard only reaches the 1,100-foot elevation and the appellation starts at 1,400 feet. . . .
Still, it's more a part of Howell Mountain than the Napa Valley floor, for Viader's wines show an enormous core of rich, juicy, concentrated fruit. . . .
With the land's western exposure, the grapes ripen early and evenly, even in difficult years such as 1989, when rain spoiled the party for many vintners. . . .
AFTER A VERTICAL TASTING of all her wines dating to the first vintage in 1989, I was impressed by their quality, consistency and age-worthiness. . . .
The 1989 (90 points on the 100-point scale) is ripe and supple, with complex cherry, anise and berry flavors, finishing with a long silky texture. . . .
The 1990 (92) has the most Cabernet, 68 percent, and was tight and dense, quite unevolved. Still, the core of earthy currant and thick tannins bodes well for future drinking. . . .
The 1991 (91) is openly ripe and generous, with layers of currant, black cherry, anise and spice, finishing with firm tannins. . . .
The 1992 (92) is sharply focused, more forthcoming than when released two years ago. It offers currant, black cherry and pretty vanilla shadings. . . .
THE 1993 (92) is also beautifully focused and impeccably balanced, with a smooth texture and lots of currant, spice and cherry flavors. . . .
The 1994 (93) is the best yet, marked by a dense core of ripe, rich plum, cherry, sage and mineral flavors. It should be a long-lived wine. . . .
At around $35, the 1994 is a tremendous value for a grand red wine. . . .
Production is around 3,000 cases and Viader plans to plant another 7 acres to vines, possibly to Syrah for a Cabernet-Syrah blend. She hopes to build a winery on her property in the near future. . . .
Tasting her successes with Cabernet and Cabernet Franc, I'd say it's clear she's growing the right grapes in the right location, because the proof is in the bottle. . . .
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