BY Davies Wakefield
I will always remember my first taste of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. I was a Viet Nam veteran looking forward to college on the GI Bill. I had been mustered out of the service early from the Mare Island Naval Base in San Francisco Bay. Me and a couple of ex- navy buddies rented a car and drove up to Napa Valley the weekend before our flight back to Chicago. We heard that Napa Valley vintners were making really good, cheap wine. We stopped at the Oakville Grocery and picked up a couple of their signature muffaletta sandwiches and proceeded to the Louis Martini Winery where we bought some bottles of the 1968 “Special Selection” Cabernet Sauvignon and sat down at a shaded patio where we ate lunch and drank our wine. The taste of the olive relish in the sandwich matched perfectly with the olive taste in the wine. Sitting at that outdoor table with the warm California sun beaming down through the lifting morning fog, enjoying the food and wine was an epiphany, which connected me to a lifelong love of the two. Prior to that alcohol, in general, had been for celebrating and partying; I knew at that moment that wine and food were perfect companions.
Napa Cabernet in those days and up until about 1985 was produced by and large in the style of that day in 1968 by a small close knit group of vintners (in 1968 there were only 28 wineries in Napa Valley) including the Martini’s Mondavi’s, Sebastiani’s, Parducci’s, Gallo’s and Brother Timothy with the Christian Brothers and Andre Tchelistcheff of Beauileu Vineyards. Mr. Tchelistcheff was a genius. He introduced the idea of labeling the best wines from a producer as “Private Reserve”. He introduced the idea of cold fermentation, malolactic fermentation, using American oak barrels, and he first recognized the potential for wine making in Oregon and Washington. One of the characteristics of those types of wines that I enjoyed was the relatively low alcohol content that gave the wines freshness and affinity to various foods from roast chicken to hamburgers on the grill.
This style of wine has always been something I valued but by 1985 the style had changed. Robert Parker came into the picture with his eponymous Parker 100 point scale for rating wines; but what really changed the style was not the scale itself, but Parker’s love of full throttle, highly extracted, high alcohol, soft tannin red wines and in particular Cabernet Sauvignon. I loved the Caymus wines when they were 13.1% alcohol but stopped buying them when the alcohol levels rose to 14.5% because they had no affinity to the food I liked and they made me sleepy. The vintners in Napa were quite aware of the marketing effect a 95 point score had on the sales of their wines and soon most of the Napa wineries were following the same path of over extraction, long oak aging, and long hang times like lemmings, in order to please Mr. Parker’s palette. Unfortunately the buying public was also focused on this trend as well and the trend to jammy syrupy, cough medicine type red wines has flourished, leaving a small minority of vintners and buyers (myself included) to search out the “old style” Napa wines.
In the last 5 years or so a group of wine professionals including sommeliers, restaurant owners, wine reviewers and vintners has started a revolt against these types of wines. Vintners like Frogs Leap John Williams, Corison Cathy Corison, Kenwood, Dry Creek, Clos Du Val, Laurel Glen, and the Niebaum-Coppola Estate Francis Coppola have been making supple age-worthy Cabernets in this retro-style (some never succumbed to the temptation to begin with. The 2011 season in Napa Valley reinforced this principle by not providing the reliable heat to ripen the grapes to astronomical levels. It was a cool year in Napa but the winemakers who knew how to handle these conditions thrived and made memorable wines. The wines I have selected for these articles are all available locally, as well as others from this vintage, please give them a try with a steak or the recipe featured in this column.
Slow-Roasted Cave-Man Beef Ribs
This recipe is attributed to Martha Stewart who, despite her reputation, is an innovative chef. The recipe can be found on her website www. marthastewart.com. I have left off the horseradish from the recipe because it kills the taste of wine.
2 tablespoons peanut or safflower oil
4 full length beef ribs (about 12”)
Coarsely ground black pepper
¼ cup pitted green olives such as Castelvetrano, chopped for garnish
Fresh lemon wedges for serving
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Heat oil in a roasting pan or large skillet over medium-high heat. Season the ribs generously with salt and pepper.
Sear ribs until well browned, about 15 minutes and transfer to a clean roasting pan. Cover the pans with aluminum foil to tightly seal and roast for about 4 hours until the meat is falling off the bone.
When the meat is cool enough to handle, cut it off the bone, remove any cartilage, and cut into 2’ slices crosswise. Put the slices back on the bones for presentation purposes and garnish with the olives. Lightly spritz the lemon over the meat and serve.
The first wine is the Kenwood Jack London Vineyard 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, $19, 13.5% Alcohol. The Jack London Series wines have been produced by Kenwood for over 30 years. As the name suggests the grapes were grown in the vineyards of Jack London’s ranch on the slopes of the Sonoma Mountain. The wine is 91% cabernet Sauvignon and 9% Merlot. This is the wine I remember with aromas of thyme, mint dried cherries and black raspberries. It has a rich mouthfeel with strong fruit flavors that linger with a long finish.
This was my favorite of the tasting in terms of value. This is a wine to buy by the case and taste it over the next 5-6 years as it evolves. Great stuff!
The second wine is the Charles Krug Yountville-Napa Valley 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, $21, 13.9% Alcohol. This winery is run by the other Mondavi that you may not have heard of. Peter Mondavi and family have managed one of the iconic wineries in Napa Valley that was founded by Charles Krug in 1861. This winery consists of prime land in the Napa bench land area. This bottle is intense and complex with aromas of black cherry, red currants and a hint of tobacco. In the mouth, cocoa and cassis dominate with a smooth elegant finish. This wine would match better with slow roasted leg of lamb with Provençal herbs.
Lastly, the Frogs Leap 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $38, 13.2% Alcohol. If you have never tasted a Frog’s leap wine, you will be blown away by the Cabernet. The alcohol hardly registers on my palate. This wine is like drinking grape juice that has been elevated to the level of “nectar of the gods”. The cost of this bottle is the only thing that prevented my wife and I from starting on a second bottle at dinner. The owner, John Williams, is a quirky individual but his company was conferred with winery of the year honors by Wine and Spirits magazine in 2014. His grapes are dry farmed and organic. John’s philosophy is “We don’t make great wines, we grow them.”