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Long Lasting Napa Valley Cabernets
By Robert Whitley
Mar 23, 2011
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From time to time someone will ask me to predict the next big thing in wine, as if I would know. Nostradamus I’m not. I only know what I would like to see on the horizon, and I’m happy to say I’m encouraged by what I see in the here and now.

Let’s start with a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that recently impressed me, the 2005 Smith-Madrone, which retails for about $45. This is the sort of young Cabernet I prize. It has firm structure, is well balanced, and another five to six years in my cellar would be beneficial.

Of course, I expect nothing less from the Smith brothers, Charlie and Stuart, who’ve been making great Cab up on Spring Mountain for the past quarter-century. They are farmers, for one thing, and don’t have their finger to the wind to determine which way the critics – yes, people like me – are leaning. They just do what they do best: get their grapes ripe, don’t overdo it, and sell their wine at a fair price.

I remember when the cost of new French oak barrels spiked a few years ago. Rather than absorb the financial blow and raise prices, Smith-Madrone switched to less costly American oak.

“Hey,” Stu Smith told me at the time, “if it’s good enough for Silver Oak.”
Indeed, the Smith-Madrone wines are as good as ever. The Chardonnay is ripe but restrained, and the Riesling is among the finest made in America. And if Silver Oak is the model for their Cabernet, well, that’s not such a bad thing.

That brings me to Silver Oak, another Napa Valley winery that has been remarkably consistent over the past quarter-century. Silver Oak Cellars was the vision of the late winemaker, Justin Meyer. Meyer was succeeded some years ago by Daniel Baron, a winemaker of similar sensibilities.

Silver Oak is a rarity in this era of immediate gratification, for the Silver Oak wines are built for the long haul. They’ve only recently released the 2006 vintage. Tastes great now, but just you wait! In a review that will be posted on this site sometime in the next week or so, I gave the Silver Oak 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($100) an enthusiastic thumbs-up, and 96 points to boot!

This reminded me of a recent conversation with my friend Otto, an avid collector of classified-growth Bordeaux, who is planning a visit to the Napa Valley sometime this fall. Otto hopes to arrange a tasting using Bordeaux from his cellar and a number of Napa Valley Cabernets from the same vintages. Good luck with that in the middle of harvest, but the idea remains intriguing.

We kicked around the names of a number of Napa Cabs that age well and might be up to the task of facing off against some of Otto’s finest Bordeaux from great years. I was pleased that he tossed out the name Silver Oak, for I had just tasted the 2006 and could confirm Daniel Baron was still on the course plotted by Justin Meyer so many years ago.

Other Napa Valley Cabernets came to mind. I thought back to the inaugural Winemaker Challenge in 2010, when I opened two Beringer Cabernets from the early 1990s for winemaker Ed Sbragia, who was the Beringer winemaker in those days. I believe one was the 1992 Chabot Vineyard Cabernet and the other was the 1993 Private Reserve Cabernet.

The corks fell apart on both wines and they had to be decanted, but each wine was spectacular, with a fair amount of primary fruit and complex secondary aromas that only come after extended cellaring.

I also opened a 1992 Grgich-Hills Cabernet at the same event, with a similar result. I’ve had equally pleasing experiences with older Spottswoode and Corison Cabernets. Same thing with Joseph Phelps Insignia, a red meritage blend that is primarily Cabernet.

I’ve sat with Bob Pepi and tasted his Eponymous, a red meritage, all the way back to the beginning and can attest to the ongoing integrity of the oldest vintages.

It is chic in the Napa Valley these days to produce a limited-production Cabernet that might fetch a small fortune on the booming auction circuit. There is little risk because the quantities are miniscule and the recipe is quite simple: Get your grapes very ripe, your tannins really sweet, your alcohol by volume somewhere in the 17 percent range (though you’ll never find a number that high on the label) and find a wine critic who tends to go gaga over rare and expensive fruit bombs.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and to those who choose that path I say bravo to their success! Generally speaking, however, those are not the wines that create the best memories for me.

I have simple tastes. I like structure, I like balance and I like wines that taste better at ten years of age than they did at five. The future for me is what I have before me now. It is that 2005 Smith-Madrone in 2015 and the 2006 Silver Oak in 2016.

I am grateful every day that there are Napa Valley folk who still make wines I can love later rather than sooner.