Much of the criticism aimed at California wines’ big style and bulging price tags is routinely sidestepped in old world wine producing regions. Although the extent of this is up for debate…history, subsidy, tradition, terroir, appellation controls, experience, and older vineyards form layers of insulation that restrain old world vignerons from the temptations of market and style trends. Does Napa Valley Cabernet have a predetermined and different destiny than Cabernet from old world regions?
While big, rich, fruity birthmarks with in-your-face flavor appeal dominate the California wine scene, it does not seem to have always been that way. Back in 1973 when Kathryn Kennedy planted her Cabernet vineyards on the eastern side of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains, maybe these two wine worlds weren’t as polarized. Arguably, those old time California winemakers were guided by the $20-$50 Bordeaux benchmark wines that fueled their aspiration, not $700 Harlan nor $850 Screaming Eagle cult wines.
This week I am attending an industry event in Napa Valley. Last weekend we pulled a bottle of 1992 Kathryn Kennedy Cabernet Sauvignon from the cellar to drink with a couple of friends over dinner. I craved a legitimately iconic bottle of old time California Cabernet to help ease into the Napa land of $50 tasting room pours, buses and limos heading for this year’s Silver Oak release party, $175 bottles of average Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. There is something about old time, non-Napa/Sonoma northern California wines like Ridge, Kalin, Mount Eden, Sean Thackrey, and Kathryn Kennedy that has always felt just right; out of the mainstream, uniquely styled, legitimate, no-nonsense, high quality wines that improve with bottle age. I imagine that if they produced wines for 100 years, their outcomes would be consistent over time, unwavering in commitment to locally rooted terroir and personal style; just like the old world.
The ’92 Kathryn Kennedy, which I purchased for somewhere around $40 in 1995, served as a fitting messenger of old time California Cabernet. Outstanding balance between acidity, tannin and fruit has allowed the wine to persevere and evolve into a beautifully restrained beverage with wafts of tobacco, leather, and raspberry. The wine is silky with enough acidity to still be refreshing and tannins to appear younger than its years. Yet, the silky texture, shrinking fruit, and secondary aromatics tell you that this is new world Cabernet made at a time when Bordeaux reigned supreme in the Cabernet universe, and California winemakers felt pride whenever their wines were likened to traditional claret in taste comparisons.
Kathryn Kennedy’s website includes a note to drink the 1992 now, but I assure you there is plenty of time ahead of it and no need to rush things. When you visit that site, you even find a sensibility about aging that incorporates both California and old world style preferences. Here you see a chart drawn from experience, about the two “peaks” of a new world wine’s life. The “young” and “aged” peak sensibilities reflect a global wine perspective demanding appreciation of young fruit as well as advancing secondary flavor and texture mysteries inherent to bottle age.
It’s comforting to see that the late Kathryn Kennedy who passed on in 2009, and now her son Marty Mathis, acknowledge both the beauty of young, deeply colored, tannic, acidic, fruity product along with the textured, complex, resolved tannin, fading fruit wines so much appreciated by fans of the old world style. Napa wasn’t always the way it is now, so maybe it could become that all over again? Today’s California seems so much like last decade’s rise in popularity for Super Tuscan wines….a fruit over restraint and varietal dedication proposition. On a scale of 1-100, how much did Super Tuscans’ big fruit and higher prices do for lovers of traditionals Tuscan Sangiovese based wine? 5?
Now Antonio Galloni, relegated to California from his previous old world Wine Advocate beats, recently wrote in his 2010 Napa Cabernet report that ”there is no way to ignore it, prices for Napa Vaelley’s top wines are high. Screaming Eagle is $850, a 13% increase, and 2009 Harlan is $750 a bottle, a whopping increase of 50% over 2008…top flight Napa Cabernet is rarely inexpensive.” Could Galloni’s nod, in the same recent report, to Super-Seconds form Araujo, Blankiet, Bryant, Dominus, Harlan, and Screaming Eagle be the holy grail for Napa’s inversion to reasonably priced long lasting wines with 10+ year peak appeal? Or are they simply price point plays to keep the brands on restaurant wine lists? Time will tell. In the mean time, risking subjecting myself to accusations of excessive and tunnel vision nostalgia, I will look to my older, under $50 Mayacamas, Kathryn Kennedys, and Ridge Monte Bellos to connect me with the Napa I once loved.