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Five Great Sleeper Napa Cabernets

F&W's Ray Isle divulges his favorite findable alternatives to elusive cult bottlings.

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Great Cabernets:

Not long ago Screaming Eagle, probably the most famous and certainly the most sought-after Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in existence, raised its release price to $500 a bottle. This news made wine collectors raise an eyebrow. Yet price still isn't as much an issue as availability, since procuring a bottle of Screaming Eagle requires putting one's name on a wait list to get on the mailing list, then biding one's time for five or six years before a single bottle becomes available.

The good news is that there are Napa Cabernets that offer all the complexity and depth of the so-called "cult" Cabernets but don't require an extensive hunt or endless wait. Call them sleeper Cabernets. These are wines that, for one reason or another—the owners simply don't care about hype, for instance, or the vineyards are in an underrated subappellation—have never been anointed the next must-have reds, even though what's inside the bottles is terrific. Here are five of the best.

2003 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon ($40)

Stuart and Charles Smith farm a small, steep parcel in Napa Valley's Spring Mountain, producing one of Napa's best sleeper Cabernets. (They also make one of the best Rieslings in America.) A touch of Cabernet Franc gives this silky red a floral, spicy scent.

2004 Altamura Cabernet Sauvignon ($75)

Winemaker Frank Altamura established his eponymous winery in Wooden Valley in 1985, and it's still the only winery in this little-known corner of the Napa Valley appellation (cult Cab producers Caymus Vineyards and Pahlmeyer use Wooden Valley fruit, though). His ink-dark Cabernet offers layers of rich cassis fruit framed by ripe tannins.

2002 Truchard Vineyards Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($75)

This powerful, intense Reserve Cabernet benefits from Truchard's ability to source the best fruit from its 270 acres of vineyards in Napa Valley's Carneros subappellation. Plum-scented, with hints of caramel oak, this red is luscious now but has the capacity to age for at least a decade.

2004 Elyse Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($80)

Back in 1987 Ray Coursen, owner and winemaker at Elyse Winery, made his first wine under his own label with fruit from the Morisoli Vineyard. That wine was a Zinfandel (Coursen still makes a superb, spicy Morisoli Zin); since then he's added this bright, complex Cabernet to his portfolio, full of Morisoli’s characteristic wild berry fruit.

2003 Corison Winery Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($98)

Ripe but focused black-cherry and spice notes define this elegant Cabernet Sauvignon from winemaker Cathy Corison's Kronos Vineyard, one of the oldest Cabernet vineyards in Napa Valley. Corison lent her winemaking talents to such star producers as Staglin Family Vineyard and Long Meadow Ranch before devoting her time to making wine at Corison.

Published April 2008
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