Napa Cabernet, Every Which Way
Do we really need more folks making single-vineyard-designated, clonally-selected-from-a-tiny-parcel-of-La Tâche California Pinot Noir, I wondered silently on a recent visit to Napa. I'm all for exploring new sites, styles and plant materials, and I certainly don't want to see the ardor for California Pinot flame out before some of these jewel-box vineyards reach full maturity and potential. But there are already people doing this, and well. Not a few.
So I maneuvered this question close enough toward tact and asked Mike Reynolds, president of Hall Wines, which only just got into the single-vineyard Pinot game with the 2010 vintage of its Walt label: Why did they?
Hall purchased Walt from a relatively early mover in the vineyard-designate Pinot scene, Roger Roessler, and renamed it. "We've always made Cabernet kind of like Pinot Noir: soft tannins, attention to berries, gentle extraction, all native yeast, unfined, unfiltered," explained Reynolds.
But chiseling down Pinot to its most particular expressions also hews to how Hall bottles its much-applauded Cabernets. In June, I tasted five 2010 Cabernets at the winery, each from a different Napa appellation: St. Helena (Bergfeld, single-vineyard), Stags Leap District (single-vineyard), Diamond Mountain (two growers), Howell Mountain (two growers) and the Exzellenz Sacrashe Vineyard Rutherford. Some of these cuvées are new, but Hall now counts Cabernets from six different subappellations of Napa (all 95 to 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon) and one from Sonoma. Together, they form a map of the valley as traced along the Cabernet in its veins.
Working along the density spectrum, you can taste in these wines first the alluvial polish of St. Helena, the plushness of Stags Leap's pillowy tannins, the bramble from hundreds of feet up Diamond Mountain, bold black fruit from powerful Howell Mountain and the intensity of cherry and tobacco in the Rutherford glass.
There remain drinkers, even wine pros, out there who would argue that, broadly and with a few exceptions, California has little or no terroir: cookie-cutter vintages, promiscuous vineyard sourcing in blends, preoccupation with consistent "house style," a too-warm climate, etc. Many California winemakers have worked hard to shoo that folly out the door, but much of the excitement, when it comes to zeroing in on parcels and subappellations, is still focused on Pinot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Syrah.
Of course, many of the celebrated Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards got on the radar years or decades ago: Martha's, Eisele, the Diamond Creek quartet, Monte Bello, To Kalon. And many hall-of-fame producers follow a Bordeaux estate model, simply bottling what their own Gaia-blessed property gives them and nothing more. These are wines of place, even if "vineyard" doesn't appear on the label.
But at other Napa wineries you can taste a horizontal flight of Cabernet subappellations, all made by the same hand, Hall being one. (Paul Hobbs, Behrens, Beringer, Pine Ridge and Nickel & Nickel are a few others.) That's an intro class many Napa naysayers might benefit from enrolling in, and an avenue to educate a new generation of drinkers who dig finding a sense of singular locale in their wines—a generation Napa can't take for granted.
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