What to drink on Thanksgiving: Napa cabernet.

What to eat, drink, and think.
Nov. 20 2009 6:18 PM

What To Drink on Thanksgiving

Glorious American cabernets.

What kind of wine should chase your turkey? In an article from 2009, Mike Steinberger rescues Napa cabernets from the blanket scorn they often receive. His roundup of fowl-friendly American cabernets is reprinted below.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Cabernet sauvignon—and particularly the cabernet produced in California's Napa Valley—is the signature American wine. When a Napa cab, the 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, beat out some leading French wines in the Judgment of Paris, it heralded the coming-of-age of American viticulture and gave the phrase Napa cabernet international cachet. Nowadays, however, that phrase is more apt to elicit snickers than praise; in the minds of many consumers, it has become synonymous with overwrought, overhyped, and overpriced wines. Indeed, scorning Napa cabernets is almost as fashionable as dumping on California chardonnays. Plenty of Napa cabs deserve the derision, but even as the valley suffers through a richly deserved reversal of fortune, there are still producers turning out honest, delicious wines that demonstrate why people got excited about the valley in the first place. And if you are currently in the market for something homegrown and fowl-friendly to drink on Thanksgiving, these attitude-free Napa cabs will make fine choices.

The mood among Napa vintners is not exactly festive at the moment, and the more expensive their wines, the unhappier they're likely to be. Retailers, sommeliers, and wineries all tell the same story: Napa cabs that cost more than $50 are exceedingly difficult to unload these days. The category has "fallen off a cliff," says Mark Wessels of MacArthur Beverages, one of Washington, D.C.'s top wine shops; he estimates that sales of premium Napa cabs at MacArthur have declined by at least one-third over the last few years. Wessels says that while high-end wines have generally become much harder to move amid the economic slowdown, many Bordeaux, Burgundies, and even Rhône wines continue to fare reasonably well. By contrast, the store has struggled to find takers for Napa cabs even when it has slashed prices by 25 or 30 percent. "It just seems nobody cares about these wines now," says Wessels.

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Napa's woes can be boiled down to two things: taste and perception. There has been a stylistic shift in Napa over the last 15 years or so toward plumper, more alcoholic wines. Various factors have been at play, but surely the biggest reason for the change has been the deliberate pursuit of extremely ripe fruit. Grapes are coming in with dramatically higher sugar levels than in the past, yielding wines that are well above 14 percent or even 15 percent alcohol and that exhibit a thick, jammy texture consistent with over-maturity. They are also invariably tarted up with lots of new oak. It is no mystery why this genre has become so prevalent: Certain influential critics adore it, and tend to lavish huge scores on wines made this way.

But if you are actually drinking these cabs, as opposed to just swilling and spitting them, they can seem overbearing and also distressingly similar to one another. The sense among merchants and sommeliers is that consumers have grown bored. "It is recipe winemaking," says Kyle Meyer of Wine Exchange, a major southern California retailer that has experienced a steep decline in sales of luxury Napa cabs.

Napa also has an image problem: It is seen as another symbol of the sandcastle economy that has now collapsed. In the late 1990s, the so-called "cult cabernets"—wines like Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle—eclipsed Napa's old guard and became, for a time, among the hottest wines on the market, fetching prices that rivaled or exceeded those of even the most acclaimed Bordeaux. This, in turn, encouraged an influx of wealth into the valley, and many of the newcomers set out to produce trophy wines of their own. Suddenly, the world was awash in $100 start-up cabs from Napa, bottlings that emitted an unmistakable whiff of vanity and bling. Amid the Great Recession, demand for these Gatsby wines has evaporated and Napa's reputation has also taken a knock. "There is resistance to this culture of excess—the need to build the biggest, shiniest winery, to hire the fanciest consultants and to charge the fanciest prices," says Wessels.

Napa Valley may seem more like an abyss at the moment, but a little perspective is in order. The region is home to extraordinary vineyards, and it has turned out many spectacular wines dating back quite a few decades—further than you might imagine. Not long ago, I had the pleasure of drinking a 1947 Louis Martini cabernet, and it was spectacular; in a blind tasting, it would undoubtedly have humiliated more than some big-name Bordeaux. There are a number of Napa cabs from the 1960s, '70s, and '80s that were sensational young and that have aged gloriously. They are big, sun-splashed reds, but the fruit is fresh, not stewed, and they possess a terrific sense of proportion and harmony. For consumers who only know the Rolling Thunder style of Napa cab, these wines would come as a revelation.

However, you don't need to hunt down a '47 Louis Martini to experience this other side of Napa; there are a few producers in the valley who have resisted the bigger-is-better trend and who continue to make wines with the kind of restrained opulence that was once Napa's hallmark. These winemakers have sought to keep alcohol levels in check, to preserve freshness and acidity, and to craft cabernets that emphasize finesse as much as power. Above all, they adhere to the quaint notion that the point of winemaking is not to win points or to earn bragging rights; it is to make a pleasurable beverage that marries well with food. Some of them receive favorable reviews, but the type of cabernet that they specialize in has not been the flavor of the month for many months. As a result, their wines, though by no means cheap, also offer good relative value. And the fact that you can still find Napa cabs made in this more subtle, distinctive manner certainly strikes me as a reason to give thanks.

In an ironic twist on recent wine history, some of the finest cabernets coming out of Napa these days are the work of a Frenchman, Christian Moueix, whose family owns a clutch of venerable properties in Bordeaux, notably Château Pétrus. In the early 1980s, Moueix took in a stake in Napa's acclaimed Napanook vineyard and began producing a wine called Dominus Estate, which has since established itself as one of the valley's best. The 2006 Dominus ($110) is a great cabernet—it is a voluptuous wine bursting with rich, warm flavors but has ample structure to parry the fruit and demonstrates an almost balletic poise. It is a testament both to the quality of the terroir and to Moueix's formidable talent. Dominus also makes a second wine—think of it as the JV offering—and the 2006 Napanook ($43) is a gem in its own right. While it doesn't have the depth of the grand vin, it is an exquisite cabernet that is vastly superior to many Napa wines selling for double, even triple the price. Message to reader: Buy this wine.

The top white wine at the Judgment of Paris was the 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay, but Montelena is better known for its legendary cabernets. The 2005 Chateau Montelena the Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($105) is another winner in a long hit parade, a sumptuous wine that blends black-currant fruit with a silky texture and an appealing mineral edge. A classic Napa cab, it exudes elegance and completeness. Like Dominus, Montelena also makes a second-label cabernet, and while the 2006 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon ($45) is not at the same level as the Napanook, it is a supple, very satisfying red that is also attractively priced as Napa cabs go.

Randy Dunn is an iconic figure in Napa, famed for his muscular, long-lived Cabernets. Lately, he has been an outspoken critic of the trend toward high-alcohol wines. The 2005 Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain CabernetSauvignon ($100) is listed at 13.8 percent alcohol and is an excellent wine. It has a textbook cabernet nose, redolent of black currants, violets, and bell pepper, and while the tannins are big, they are plenty ripe and perfectly integrated; a really impressive effort. Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery, located in Napa's Spring Mountain district, is the best California winery that you've never heard of, turning out exemplary cabernets, chardonnays, and rieslings. With its purity of fruit and impeccable balance, the 2004 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon ($37) is a radical and thoroughly toothsome departure from your garden-variety Napa cab. It is also a bargain, a word not often heard along Highway 29.

There are some other Napa estates whose cabernets are also worth seeking out. In no particular order, they are: Corison Winery, Mayacamas Vineyards, Clark-Claudon Vineyards, Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery, and Frog's Leap Winery.

A few things to note: It would be a good idea to decant all of these wines for an hour or two before serving, and some of them can probably be found for better prices than I have listed here. If you feel like shopping around, Wine-Searcher.com is a good place to do it. And if all of these cabernets are too rich for your wallet, I've got two noncabernet, non-Napa suggestions for Thanksgiving: The 2007 Ridge Vineyards Three Valleys Zinfandel is a delectable wine that can be picked up for under $20, as can the 2007 Marcel Lapierre Morgon, a lovely Beaujolais from a brilliant winemaker.

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