An Exploration of Napa Cabernet

A showcase of elite California Cabernets stars Abreu, MacDonald, Bart Araujo’s Accendo and Christian Moueix’s Ulysses

An Exploration of Napa Cabernet
Napa Cabernet all-stars, from left: Ulysses owner Christian Moueix, Abreu winemaker Brad Grimes, Accendo owner Bart Araujo and Graeme MacDonald of MacDonald Vineyards (Rick Wenner)
Oct 26, 2021

The winemaking and grapegrowing styles of California Cabernet Sauvignon were on full display at the Wine Experience on Friday in a seminar featuring four stellar wines from Napa Valley. Moderated by Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth, the seminar was an exploration of the philosophical and historical factors that influence how grapes are grown, how wine is made and how those factors enrich the final product.

Wine Experience regular and 2011 Distinguished Service Award winner Christian Moueix, who oversees several prestigious Bordeaux estates in addition to owning Napa’s Dominus, presented his Ulysses Napa Valley 2015 (93 points, $219). The Ulysses project began in 2008, when Moueix bought 40 acres a mile north of Dominus in Yountville; the wine debuted with the 2012 vintage. In comparison to Dominus, he says of the Ulysses site, “What I have seen, it is a little warmer, and the wines are higher in acidity and tannins.”

Moueix’s overriding objective since joining the Napa Valley grapegrowing industry in 1981 has been to institute dry-farming techniques, meaning that he cultivates the vineyards without any supplemental irrigation. He says the vines grown in this manner are more resilient, better express their terroir and thus deliver more flavorful grapes. “I always try in viticulture to see 20 years ahead,” he said. “We need to rethink viticulture and, for me, dry farming is the first step in that approach.” The suave Ulysses offers a savory richness that gives it a Bordeaux-like elegance and precision.

Bart Araujo, who founded Accendo after selling Napa’s famed Eisele estate in 2013, brought his Accendo Napa Valley 2016 (96, $360), a study in contrast with its basket of rich dark fruit and spice flavors. Araujo explained that the grapes were sourced from six vineyards. “Despite my history of making a single-vineyard [wine at Eisele], I know, I believe, I can make better wines from multiple vineyard sources.”

Araujo equates his focus on blending as winemaking on the razor’s edge because of the diversity of vineyards and terroirs he draws upon. “It’s much more challenging to get it right,” he said. “They all go together and add different layers.” Araujo is also a firm believer in organic and biodynamic techniques, which he said aid not only the health of the vineyard but local residents and workers as well. “I think we have to look beyond the parameters of vineyards and look to [supporting] the community through sustainable practices,” he said to applause.

Winemaker Brad Grimes brought the tasting up into the hills with the Abreu Las Posadas Howell Mountain 2014 (97, $525), an intensely flavored Cabernet, hand-picked and -sorted, powered by minerality indicative of higher elevation. Grimes called the Los Posadas site an example of “precision-framing,” inspired by the exacting standards of owner David Abreu, one of Napa’s most meticulous grapegrowers.

“When we’re picking fruit, we’re looking from vine to vine,” said Grimes, who also manages the vineyards. “I just embrace the differences. There’s an intensity in which we work.”

The final wine came from a small vineyard amid one of Napa Valley’s most storied sites, a 15-acre plot surrounded by To Kalon Vineyard. But the MacDonald Oakville 2018 (98, $185) cannot use the To Kalon name, a trademark owned by Constellation Brands.

MacDonald’s Oakville Cabernet is big, ripe and rich, in line with the style of To Kalon bottlings from Schrader Cellars and Constellation’s To Kalon Vineyard Company, among others. MacDonald Vineyards co-owner Graeme MacDonald is the fourth generation of his family to farm the site, and he shared a To Kalon history lesson going back to the late 19th century, as well as anecdotes of his family’s close relationship with Robert Mondavi, who included MacDonald Vineyards grapes in his To Kalon bottlings. “The trademark has made To Kalon such a litigious hot topic,” said MacDonald, who believes his wine label should be allowed to feature the To Kalon name.

The four Cabernets featured were very different, Molesworth said, but “they’re doing the same terrific work at a high level of precision.”

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