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In Defense of Napa Cabernet

Somewhere in the haze of polemic wine punditry, where every old idea can be given a fresh coat of paint and proffered as original thought, Napa got caught up in the overripe wine discussion, lumped in with the hegemony of “Parker’s Palate,” given “poster boy” status.

With my decidedly ‘New World’ palate, it’s a subject I find of interest, if for no other reason than to explore a categorical rebuke that can’t possibly be as tidy as others may make it seem.

Simply, in my worldview, there has to be striations in this “Parker’s Palate” category. 

Surely, we’re not all tasting the same thing and throwing entire categories of wines into this bucket … entire categories like “Napa Cab,” for example.

Here’s my take: in the realm of New World wine styles, where 14% + alcohol and French new oak are de facto standards, most Napa Cabs, flagships for California wine, are unnecessarily painted with the black brush of ill repute, the Scarlet Letter of what’s wrong with the domestic wine scene, reactionary victims to the power of one man, caught up in the collateral wreckage.

Simply, I do not, have not, and will not buy into the notion that Napa Cabs, as a category, are overripe, unctuous, hedonistic fruit bombs.

Dare I say it, but I would go to the extent to say most Napa Cabs have an acid streak that makes them food-friendly, provided that food is a steak, ideally off a grill. 

Now, this whistling in the wind on my part shouldn’t be an indicator that I don’t believe these offending candy-like wines exist – they do, I’ve tasted them.  In fact, I find that many (not all) Australian Shiraz, Central Coast Rhone reds, Lodi Zins, and Argentinean Malbec’s fall into that grapey, oaked, viscous, vanillin, “what the hell do you eat with this” category.

Just not Napa Cab.

No, these are steakhouse wines.  Foils for a porterhouse, or bone-in ribeye, but not foils for the quasi-Old World, draping themselves in food-friendliness; the anti-Parker contingent.

If anything, brush them with the acceptable “New World” brush, just not the “Parker’s Palate” brush that immediately polarizes …

Call them expense account, wood-paneled, ego-driven powerful wines, just don’t lump them into the Parker bucket of offensive wines.

Here are three good ones, all would be dandy with a grilled hunk of red meat … all have enough backbone and nuance to complement a memorable meal.

2004 Cornerstone Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon
2002 Trefethen Oak Knoll District Cabernet Sauvignon
2006 Merryvale Starmont Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon





Posted in, Good Grape Wine Reviews. Permalink | Comments (16) |


On 06/08, Craig Camp wrote:

Jeff - I think your comments on our 04 Howell Mountain are right on the mark. We are crafting a Howell Mountain that will age and, we believe, evolve into something very special. However, those young tannins are a perfect conterpoint, and almost disappear, when paired with a great steak. That graphite note is really there and I believe it comes from the red, iron rich soils on which the grapes are grown.


On 06/08, David Honig wrote:

Napa Cabs can be terrific, and I think you’re right that the “Parker” label is not really fair.  That said, too many of them collapse into wood and vanilla on the mid-palate.  Try something.  Go out and buy a box of Maple and Brown Sugar Life Cereal.  Crunch a few pieces and try not to think of Napa Cab.  The good ones don’t go there, but too many of the mediocre ones, and far too many of the “good” ones, do.

On 06/08, Arthur wrote:

Cabernet can, on rarer occasions be impressive, but I think it really shines in blends.
The rather narrow character that comes about from the uber-ripeness (and the attendant loss of the interesting herbal edges) - and which needs gobs of oak for dimension - is a turn off for me. This is why I prefer a broader cepage than a straight varietal bottling.

As far as oak goes, there are several theories about why California wines show such oak dominance, and none of them have to do with a Parkerized or plebeian palate.

Foremost among these are the suspicion that French coopers hold back the more elegant and delicate wood for their domestic producers while sending the more “potent” wood overseas.
The second reason has to do with barrel prep regimens. I have heard that French winemakers wash new barrels with boiling water, steam or salt water. This is said to take the rougher edges off the oak influence in the finished wines.
Some have also suggested that the chemical parameters of California wine (higher ABV, higher pH, different polyphenol profile) may increase the extraction of oak characteristics.

As with so many “multi-factorial” phenomena, the truth may take a very long time to be teased out.

On 06/08, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

I do want to point out that Trefethen’s chardonnay did not win the Paris Tasting of 1976. The Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay, made by Mike Grgich, won the tasting. Check out the Judgemnt of Paris by George Taber for the whole story.

On 06/08, Mark wrote:

You gave shout outs to three Napa Cabs that most wine lovers will either not be able to find or afford.  What ever happened to the great everyday stuff that once poured out of Napa?  Does any great inexpensive CA Cabs still exist that have not succumbed to the powerful and almighty Parker?  Is there any “New World” ones not loaded with additives that make you wonder what it is that you’re truly drinking?  Where’s the terroir I ask?  Where’s the individuality?  Too many anymore, taste like bad “lab rat concoctions”.  Is it asking too much for a decent Cab with some interesting flavors for under 15 bucks? By the looks of things, maybe it is.
The guys in Napa and the rest of the wine making world need to remember one thing:
-Mom’s advice- Just be yourself.  You can’t always make Parker and the rest of the wine critics happy all of the time, but if you’ve done your best that’s all that matters.

On 06/09, Jeff wrote:

Thanks for all of the comments, guys!

And, thanks especially to Ken and Mark, who I believe, are new commenters to Good Grape.

Correcting the record, Ken is right about Trefethen and the 1976 Judgment of Paris -  they did not win, but received the collateral benefit of having participated.  They won in 1979 at the World Wine Olympics where they were noted as ‘The Top Chardonnay in the World.’

Mark notes that the 3 Cabs I mention won’t be tasted by the average consumer—perhaps right, though I would argue that the Starmont, at 30K cases, should be present in most markets, or at least it better with production of that volume.

But, Mark does have a point in that a lot of Cabs—in Napa and elsewhere, do taste like they have been zoinked through machine after machine, and mostly these are not anywhere close to $15 wines. You’re right.  I still maintain, though, that the best value in Napa Cab I have tasted, that is consistently above average is the Robert Mondavi Winery Napa Cab which is a steal at $20.

Thanks for all of the comments and for reading Good Grape, I really appreciate it!


On 06/09, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

You could argue that the degree of sugar ripeness that produces alcohol above 14% is, in fact, THE number one parameter that producers have sought in order to makes their wines appeal to Parker.  All of your picks have nailed this most important parameter. Show me a Napa Cab at 13.5% alcohol, with rich extraction, dark color, etc (don’t say they can’t do this - they’ve done it all along up till about 1999) and then you’ve got something. 

If I want to drink Port, I’ll drink Port.

On 06/09, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

The recommendations that you made could possible argue against your point. I feel that the derision in some circles towards Napa Cab is due mainly to the sweet/flabby stuff coming from the valley floor, north of Oak Knoll, and generally lying between HWY 29 and the Silverado Trail. Mountain grown Napa fruit, like Cornerstone, can be quite balanced, as can Cab grown in a cooler region like Trefethen’s Oak Knoll. Merryvale Starmont sources most fruit from Pope Valley, and those in the know don’t even consider that true “Napa.”

You also imply that Napa Cabs only work best with a steak right off the grill. I agree, and if that’s all they work with, other than cock-tailing, that’s the reason I only drink new world Cabernet for work, and rarely in my off-hours. Now please me a Kremstal Riesling. Nigl if you have some.

On 06/10, Becky wrote:

Always love your prose Jeff. I find your writing has a certain P.G. Wodehouse flair—particularly when read in the voice of Hugh Laurie. smile

On 06/11, Jeff wrote:

Becky - ha!  P.G. Wodehouse in the voice of Hugh Laurie.

I missed P.G. Wodehouse in lit. class (read too much Illiad and Dante’s Inferno), but your reference made me laugh.

Thanks for the comment!


On 03/24, Health wrote:

You could argue that the degree of sugar ripeness that produces alcohol above 14% is, in fact, THE number one parameter that producers have sought in order to makes their wines appeal to Parker.

On 11/26, Colour printing wrote:

According to French historian Max Gallo, “for over two hundred years, posters have been displayed in public places all over the world. Visually striking, they have been designed to attract the attention of passers-by, making us aware of a political viewpoint, enticing us to attend specific events, or encouraging us to purchase a particular product or service.

On 02/23, RMN Jobs wrote:

At first I thought I’ll never spot the difference between the three…

On 02/23, care assistant jobs wrote:

I’m relatively new to all of this and searching for info throughout the web. You guys seem to really know your stuff but I found it to be fine for a glass, but sharp after that.  Maybe one for a meat dish as discussed above and move on something smoother.

On 02/23, Graphic Design wrote:

I wonder if I’ll ever know enough to talk at this level but I got my hands on the 2006 Merryvale and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Found it quite rich and heavy, which I love!

On 09/09, Care Home Jobs wrote:

I have to say that I’m not a fan.  The acidity doesn’t work for me and I find that it doesn’t gel well with foods.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t drink it and enjoy it, but a glass would do over a bottle!


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