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Home Run Napa Cabernets
By Linda Murphy
May 27, 2008
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"Ladies and gentlemen, taking the field at DotCom Park are your 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons!"

"Racy David Ramey is in left field, Hammering Honig takes center and Silky Snowden is in right.  Around the infield, it's the flashy Coup de Foudre at first base, Hayman & Hill at second and short (no stick but great glove) and at third is Pahlmeyer 'La Grande Rouge' Proprietary Red.  Pitching for the Napkins is Doug Shafer, with his stellar One Point Five earned-run average; his mate behind the plate is Raymond Reserve, who consistently delivers when given a chance to play."

"But before our first pitch, let's observe a moment of silence in honor of our dearly departed manager, Robert G. Mondavi, whose efforts in large part made it possible for all of us to have a place in this great American game today."

A hush comes over the crowd, lasting some 20 seconds, as players doff their caps and dab at their eyes, the lamp black running down their cheeks like mascara in the rain.  Kids stop begging Dad for a 'dog, the peanut vendor, for once, is speechless, and the Napkins' fans, heads bowed, silently ask themselves, "What will we do without our skipper?"

Then the PA announcer flips the switch on the microphone, shouts "Let's play ball!" and the players take their positions.  The crowd settles into the seats.  The mascot, wearing his sterling silver napkin ring costume, resumes rolling about the outfield bleachers, and Shafer readies for his first pitch. 

Silly?  Of course.  Gotta have some fun sometimes, though mine in this case comes in honor of, and not at the expense of, Robert Mondavi, who died on May 16 at age 94, after working tirelessly to convince his Napa neighbors, California winemakers, and the world, that the Golden State was as talented as any region for making world-class wine.  Heartfelt obituaries and paeans to Mondavi have flooded the Internet and print in the past two weeks, and I can't add any more to these wonderful and well-deserved tributes.  (See the appreciations by Gerald Boyd and Robert Whitley here on WRO in the blog archive.)

Yet, after tasting more than 200 current-release Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons from 2005, 2004 and 2003, writing up all the tasting notes last week, and then two days later learning that Mondavi had died, I couldn't help but wonder whether the rookies on the team, the continually increasing numbers of new, well-funded producers for whom wine is as much a luxury lifestyle choice as it is a business, will continue to strive for quality, global respect and food-friendly as did Mondavi.  The game will go on without him, but will the game remain the same?

The 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons are entering the market, though plenty of 2004s are still out there, including the exceptional Spottswoode St. Helena Napa Valley, Dominus Napa Valley and, fittingly, the Robert Mondavi Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons--three of the finest wines I tasted from the vintage.  Anywhere.

The 2005 Cabs typically show more elegance and lower alcohol levels than the very warm 2004 vintage, and more complexity and balance than the 2003s from a difficult vintage.  It was a long, very cool growing season and with a large crop.  Spring was cold and had record rainfall, delaying bloom and set.  July was hot, then August through November was cool, dry, and without heat spikes.  Despite some nervousness over getting the grapes harvested before fall rains, it was fairly easy for winemakers who balanced their crop loads to make outstanding wine.  Some let their fruit hang too long in a quest for super-ripeness--and got it.

There are some fine under-$25 bargains from the initial 2005 releases (relative to Napa Cab prices, which top out at $500 per bottle for Screaming Eagle and $450 for Harlan Estate).  However, those are price extremes; $75 seems to be the sweet spot in retail prices, and several wines tip past the $100 mark.

Here's a cross-section of worthy 2005 Napa Cabernets; look for a flood of others in the coming months, including more 'Reserve' and vineyard-designated wines:

Arnold Palmer, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($15):  Simple yet bright, with juicy cherry/berry fruit flavors and cedar shadings.  The wine is varietally correct, easy to drink and comes at a great price.  Great for a crowd.  86

Artesa, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2005 ($40): This has a cool-climate, mint and herbal nose that I find attractive.  The nose is quite expressive, with sweet red and black fruit and some black spice.  Really racy acidity, with modestly ripe fruit, yet not too lean or tart.  Solidly tannic.  All it lacks is a bit of plumpness.  89

Barnett, Spring Mountain District (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($65):  Vivacious and succulent, with vine-ripened red/black fruit aromas and flavors, this is really nervy in acidity and crackling-fresh fruitiness.  Its complexity comes from the wine's vanilla, cedar and gentle tar notes.  Very young and with gripping tannins, this is destined for a long life in the cellar.  90

Brandlin, Mount Veeder (Napa Valley, California) Brandlin Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($80):  This seductive Cab melts in the mouth like a chocolate-covered cherry, yet isn't thick or sweet.  Despite lots of toast and vanilla on the nose and palate, the wine finishes with juicy blackberry and black cherry fruit and tangy acidity.  89

Cakebread, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($64): There's a fine precision to this wine, which isn't at all showy or overdone.  While it's not all that generous now, give it two to three years of aging and watch the richness develop.  It's full-bodied, with prickly acidity and firm tannins, a core of ripe blackberry and plum fruit, and complexifying hints of cedar, leafy herbs, fig and coffee.  88

Chateau Montelena, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($45): While it's sightly brushy and closed in its aromas, there is lots of bright black cherry and cassis fruit lurking beneath the substantial tannins.  It's an elegant, understated wine, as Chateau Montelenas typically are, with great acidity and an earthy, mineral character.  90

Chimney Rock, Stags Leap District (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($70):  This is a very dense, black-fruited wine with very complex scents of fresh herbs, cigar box and oak spice.  The palate delivers crisp, curranty fruit, fresh acidity and a polished texture from judicious use of oak.  Medium-full tannins give it good cellaring potential.  It's an elegant wine that doesn't shout 'Look at me!' in a big tasting, yet shows well at the table.  91

Coup de Foudre, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($95):  Very exotic cassis, wild raspberry, vanilla and spice scents flood the nose, followed by a plush entry and mouth-coating vanillin.  A second wave of flavor emerges on the second taste--pie cherry, black cherry, black raspberry and baking spice--and decent acidity keeps this lushly textured, round wine fresh-tasting.  90

Hayman & Hill, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 'Reserve Selection' 2005 ($15): Hallelujah, an inexpensive Napa Valley Cabernet that tastes like Cabernet.  It's uncomplicated and sides ride down the throat, thanks to round, gentle tannins, but not before its black cherry, cassis, cedar and espresso character shines through.  It's a great steal, pun intended.  87

Honig, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($40): Vivid aromas of ripe black cherry and red berry hint at a luscious, juicy wine, and that's just what it is.  Generous in flavor, mouth-filling and, with supple, medium-full tannins, it also has suggestions of cedar, underbrush and spice, and a beautiful integration of fruit, oak and acidity.  The finish is long and generous.  89

Larkmead, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 'Solari Reserve' 2005 ($75): Somewhat shy on the nose, with roasted grain, tar and black fruit.  Yet on the palate, there is an explosion of succulent black raspberry and black cherry, plus tar, cocoa and cedary oak.  Tangy acidity adds refreshment to the persistent finish.  It's a ripe (but not sweet) style of Cabernet, yet exquisitely balanced.  91

Miner, Napa Valley (California) Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($65):  This is nicely balanced in its juicy red cherry and cassis flavors, with touches of anise and licorice, crisp acidity, and judicious oak use.  Supple and lush, it also has enough backbone for potential improvement.  The label shows a balanced, admirable label alcohol level of just 14.2%.  89
Newton, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($60):  I pruned from these tasting notes the wines that I found to be overtly ripe, with cloying residual sweetness and/or alcoholic heat.  This one teeters on the edge of acceptable (for me) ripeness, yet it doesn't fall, with its plump, ripe black cherry and red raspberry flavors cut by mouthwatering acidity, deft oak use, and very polished tannins.  It's expertly made, with subtle spice and a touch of tar for interest, and is suited for those who enjoy a rich, hedonistic style of red wine.  90

Pahlmeyer, Napa Valley (California) Proprietary Red Wine 2005 ($125):  Here is a truly  seductive wine, with seemingly everything going for it: rich, succulent black fruit, creamy oak, sizeable yet polished tannins, and complex notes of graphite, cedar, spice box and licorice.  Despite its 15.2% alcohol, it's remarkably balanced, focused and irresistible to drink.  It's not labeled as Cabernet, yet 84% of the blend is Cabernet Sauvignon.  95

Ramey, Napa Valley (California) Pedregal Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($140):  Very powerful and tightly wound now, this youngster offers the level of complexity, mature tannins and keen acidity that should send it straight to the cellar for three years.  It's drinkable now, but really do try to wait.  The wine has an intriguing mélange of chocolate, licorice, brush, fresh herb and green olive notes to go with the vine-sweet black cherry and blackberry fruit.  There's a touch of heat, though a fine balance should be achieved once the wine opens and becomes more generous.  94 

Raymond, Reserve Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($35): This is a tremendous price for classic Napa Valley Cabernet.  The wine may not be as famous or fabulously rich as some of its peers, but then it doesn't try to be.  It has a really pretty violet and cedar nose, moderately rich cassis and black cherry on the palate, plus black tea, tobacco and cedar notes.  Wonderfully complex and not as tannic as most, it delivers refreshment and immediate enjoyment, yet should improve until 2013.  91

Shafer, Stags Leap District (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 'One Point Five' 2005 ($70):  One Point Five refers to the generation and a half that John Shafer and his son, Doug, have put into Shafer Vineyards.  With their Hillside Select Cabernet selling for $200, One Point Five gives more folks the opportunity to enjoy the winery's very rich, opulent style of Cab at a far lower price.  Deep plum, cherry and cassis aromas show hints of lavender, black olive and oak spice.  Quite ripe and plump on the palate, there is enough brisk acidity to keep it tasting fresh, and the tannins are round now, yet substantial enough for short-term cellaring.  90

Snowden, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2005 ($65): Combines opulence with admirable structure and super acidity--a merger that too many wines can't pull off.  Aromas of wood, earth and cedar add interest to the optimally ripe red and black fruit.  There is some flashy, creamy oak, yet the wine remains fresh and energetic.  Succulent is the best word to describe it.  93

Terlato, Stags Leap District (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($60): Medium-full, perfectly ripe, and with just 13.8% alcohol, this wine strikes a fine balance.  Beautifully complex, polished and understated, it offers vibrant cassis and black cherry fruit, sage, earth and subtle herb complexity, and a long, rewarding finish.  91

Turnbull, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($48): This is a harmonious wine with vibrant cassis, blackberry and black plum fruit, supple tannins and smooth texture.  Creamy vanillin and a touch of chocolate add interest.  At less than $50, it tastes more expensive than it is.  89