Napa Valley, a 45-minute drive north of San Francisco (traffic permitting), was already famous for Cabernet Sauvignon back in the early 1900s, when wineries such as the original Inglenook, Beaulieu Vineyard and Chateau Montelena made the Valley's reputation. Thanks to its warm, dry climate and the care that's lavished on this noble grape by some of the world's best-funded wineries, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is still America's most prized (and priciest) wine.
MAPPING NAPA CABERNET Napa contains different districts renowned for Cabernet (Rutherford, Oakville, Howell Mountain, etc.) that are recognized with sub-appellation names.
NOTABLE VINTAGES 1978 was not only the year Food & Wine debuted, but also a great vintage in Napa. More recently, 1995, 1997 and 2001 were all top vintages.
10 Top Bottles
1999 Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon ($15) This Swiss-founded winery-cum-art gallery produces a Cab that's immediately appealing in its youth: juicy and smooth with ripe plum flavors.
2000 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon ($23) The winery that kicked off Napa's modern era when it opened in 1966 is practically synonymous with Cabernet. This version is mellow, soft and broad.
2000 Merryvale Starmont Cabernet Sauvignon ($26) A blend of predominantly Cabernet and Merlot, this stylish wine tastes like a much pricier bottling. It's layered with flavors of black cherry and cassis but carries its considerable weight with grace.
2000 Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon ($29) This winery is a tourist landmark with its towering stand of redwoods. Its Cabernet is supple and sweetan aromatic, medium-rich red.
2000 Terra Valentine Spring Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon ($35) This Cabernet from the top of Napa's Spring Mountain is very polished, quite forward and easy to like.
1999 Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon ($100) Between 1975 and 1995, Francis Ford Coppola reunited the sold-off parcels of the old Inglenook property, and he now produces this flagship dark, soft, dense Cab from that estate.
1999 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($125) The Barrett family resurrected this classic 19th-century estate in northern Napa in 1971 and built it into a leading American winery. Its densely coiled, concentrated Cab has elegance and a sense of proportion sometimes lacking in big-ticket bottles.
1999 Nickel & Nickel Stelling Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($125) This new winery is dedicated to small-lot bottlings made from single vineyards. Stelling Vineyard, in Oakville, produced this spicy, blossomy wine, one of the most seductive of the vintage.
2000 Joseph Phelps Insignia ($125) Debuting in 1974, this was the first of the Napa Bordeaux-style blends to use a proprietary name. Insignia is prized for its perfect weight, remarkable harmony and profound, filled-in flavors.
1999 Shafer Hillside Select ($150) Shafer has made its reputation with "wow" wines like this astonishingly well-balanced, superrich Cabernet Sauvignon with flavors of cherry, chocolate and blackberry against a silky vanilla background.