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Napa Cabernet Now: A State-of-the-Grape Lunch at Beringer

At a roundtable cohosted by Beringer winemaker Laurie Hook, seven top Napa talents discuss the valley’s vaunted Cabernet and have a phenomenal lunch prepared by chef Gerard Craft of St. Louis’s Niche.

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“There used to be more identifiable differences between Napa Valley cabernets; now they all pretty much taste the same,” offered the irascible Randy Dunn of Dunn Vineyards by way of an opening salvo at a recent roundtable discussion at Beringer.

Sean Capiaux of O’Shaughnessy Estate Winery challenged Dunn to name some of these Cabs—a question that prompted Robin Lail of Lail Vineyards to remark, “I’ve got to be going now,” though she leaned forward to hear all the same. Alas, Dunn declined to mention any specifics—at least not at this lunch.

Randy Dunn

Randy Dunn (center). Photo © John Kernick.

Dunn, Capiaux and Lail were three of the extraordinary winemakers and vintners invited to join me and Laurie Hook, the head winemaker at Beringer, for a conversation about Napa Valley wines today. The topic was intriguing enough to lure Dunn down from his winery high on Howell Mountain. A self-described loner who looked like a cowboy-turned-uncomfortable-townsman, Dunn doesn’t leave his mountain too often. Or, as he put it, “You couldn’t pay me to live down here on the valley floor.”

“Napa Valley wines today”—it was an admittedly portentous-sounding topic, but leavened at least by the promise of lunch. And not just any lunch, but one created by Gerard Craft (an F&W Best New Chef 2008), who had come all the way to St. Helena from his restaurant in St. Louis, Niche, to show off some of his favorite dishes paired with the local wines.

Beringer’s 125-year-old Rhine House seemed like the appropriate setting for such a discussion. Formerly the home of Frederick Beringer, one of the two brothers who founded the winery in 1876, today it serves as Beringer’s hospitality center; recently, it underwent a $5 million renovation that included extensive work by a stained-glass specialist who studied at London’s Royal College of Art. Beringer is the oldest continually operating winery in Napa, yet it remains deeply relevant. Hook (who just celebrated her 23rd Beringer harvest) and her immediate predecessor, the esteemed Ed Sbragia (head winemaker at Beringer for 24 years and now its consultant), continue to turn out some of Napa’s top Cabernets.

Beringer makes Cabernets all over Napa, from its hundreds and hundreds of acres of prime vineyard land on top of the mountains (Bancroft Ranch Vineyard, Steinhauer Ranch Vineyard) and down in the valleys (St. Helena Home Vineyard). And it makes them at a wide range of prices, from the prized $115 Private Reserve to the easy-drinking, $30 Knights Valley label. For these reasons, Beringer might be considered a microcosm of Napa winemaking today.

Napa Cabernet

© John Kernick.

Most of the winemakers at the lunch had brought along their best Cabernet Sauvignons—though Beth Novak Milliken toted her famed Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc as well, and consultant Kirk Venge carried a Zinfandel–Charbono–Petite Sirah blend called Scout’s Honor. Hook provided Beringer’s Stanly Ranch Chardonnay, in addition to several Cabernets from the Beringer cache, including the Private Reserve.

I expected to taste a wide range of Napa Cabernets from all the producers at the table—unless Dunn’s assessment was right and the wines all tasted the same. Happily, I found that each Cab possessed its own character, and some dramatically so. The Dunn Vineyards bottling was highly tannic (indeed, it is said that Dunn wines are so tannic that they require two decades of aging just to be drinkable), while the O’Shaughnessy was pure flamboyance, full of fruit and alcohol. The Spottswoode Cab, on the other hand, was reserved and elegant, almost Bordeaux-like.

Despite all these differences, there were clearly two basic styles of Napa Cab: the Howell Mountain style, marked by dark, dense fruit and notes of tobacco; and the valley-floor style, which is more restrained and polished. The Beringer Private Reserve, sourced from various vineyard sites all around Napa, was accordingly a synthesis of both mountain and valley styles: rich mountain fruit presented with valley finesse.

Whether from the mountains or the valley floor, all the Napa Cabernets we tasted did, in fact, share the same note of ripe—in some cases, very ripe—fruit. When I remarked on this, Milliken nodded a bit worriedly: “I’m afraid there is too much ripe fruit in a lot of Napa wines, and there is a perception that all we make in Napa is overripe wines”—the kinds of wines that seem to appeal to critics and the public. Rising-star winemaker Danielle Cyrot of St. Clement added, “You do wonder sometimes, Are you making the wine you want or the wine the consumer wants?” But to Hook, resisting this pressure is simply a matter of holding fast to one’s personal vision: “I think if you make a wine that is true to yourself, you will make a wine that is worthwhile.”

The entire group agreed that there would be less bowing to populist tastes in the future—especially with regard to “cult” Cabernets. Everyone concurred that these ultraripe, ultraconcentrated, tiny-production wines, made in order to garner huge public acclaim (and high critical scores), were now outmoded. “The days of cult wines are already over,” Capiaux declared. Lail predicted what she called “a shakeout” for certain Napa wineries, especially those launched by people with little connection to the local community. On the other hand, she was boosterish about Napa’s future as a place where people would always want to own wineries. “Where else but Napa Valley has such perfect weather for growing grapes?” she asked rhetorically.

On that note, Craft announced that lunch was served. Perhaps the future of Napa had not (yet) been determined, but there were plenty of hors d’oeuvres to be eaten. Craft had prepared two kinds of toasts: one with beautifully fresh ricotta and sautéed asparagus tossed with lemon; the other with avocado and a little mound of sweet crabmeat with mint and lime. Both were wonderful with the minerally 2007 Sauvignon Blanc from Spottswoode Winery, where the Novak family has been producing outstanding reds and whites for several decades.

Next Craft sent out a creamy spring onion soup flavored with leeks, fennel and white wine and topped with a lovely swirl of buttermilk blended with fresh goat cheese; it was delicious with the bright 2005 Beringer Stanly Ranch Chardonnay. The third course was a lamb shoulder slow-roasted with almond-mint pesto—Craft’s crowning achievement. The dish proved why lamb is such a classic pairing with Cabernet. Certainly it was marvelous with these Napa Cabernets, regardless of each wine’s source, either down in the valley or up in the hills. To honor the occasion, Hook poured more of the dark-fruited Beringer Private Reserve.

Whether it was due to a fast-developing sense of camaraderie or the fact that they had shared some very good food and wine together, by the time lunch was over, everyone in the group (even the irascible Dunn) agreed with Milliken when she declared, “We’re still learning in Napa, and we’ve already made huge strides in a short period of time. I think the best days of California wine—and Napa wine, in particular—are still ahead of us.”

Published April 2009
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