Tasting valley's bounty

VINTAGE POINT

Wines: Selected 1997 cabernet sauvignons uphold Napa's peerless and pricey reputation.

January 03, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

Baseball fans have Cooperstown. Civil War buffs have Gettysburg. Elvis fans have Graceland. And devotees of American wine have the Napa Valley.

There are many places in the United States where great wine grapes are grown, but none has achieved the level of international recognition of this narrow, 20-mile-long valley northeast of San Francisco.

Teetotalers in Salt Lake City associate Napa with wine. Vignerons from Bordeaux to Bourgogne recognize le vin de Napa. Tourists flock to the valley, hopping from winery to winery to sample tastes of Napa's bounty. Collectors beg to get on mailing lists that afford them the privilege of paying hundreds of dollars for a bottle of newly released wine from a tiny parcel of Napa's hallowed ground.

The Napa Valley is indeed a special place, carpeted with vineyards from the city of Napa in the south to Calistoga in the north, with little fingers of cultivation clawing up the hillsides on both sides of the valley.

Many types of wine are produced in these vineyards, but ultimately Napa owes its reputation to just one of them -- cabernet sauvignon. Other California regions can claim to grow chardonnay, zinfandel or pinot noir that puts Napa to shame. But for cabernet, the Napa Valley is without peer.

Napa Valley cabernet has become such a luxury item that even middling examples command high prices. It's difficult to find any Napa cabernet that sells for less than $20, and some that sold for $25-$30 around 1980 command $200 upon release today.

One would hope that some of these prices would follow the pattern of Internet stocks, but wine valuations have proved to be quite resilient. Don't hold your breath waiting for any bargains to show up on the shelves of the local wine store. The "mid-priced" range for Napa Valley cabernet runs from about $20 to $50, and if it costs less than $100, it really doesn't qualify as elite.

So if you plunk down that much money, what do you get?

A recent sampling of cabernets and cabernet-dominated blends from the exceptional 1997 vintage found that mediocre winemaking is alive and well in the Napa Valley. Almost every wine showed a core of distinctive, vibrant fruit, but all too often life had been stripped out by excessive filtration and overzealous handling.

But the tasting also uncovered some gems that uphold the Napa Valley's reputation while giving the consumer fair value. These are well worth busting some budget limits for a special occasion.

These are some of the best. Wherever it is not stated, the geographic designation is Napa Valley:

1997 ZD Cabernet Sauvignon ($48). This underestimated winery has produced a cabernet that does a convincing impersonation of a $150 collector's item. This is classic Napa cabernet with lush flavors, supple texture and a firm backbone of tannin. It offers layer upon layer of blackberry, black cherry, chocolate and herbes de Provence flavor. You can drink it now with guilty pleasure or let it mature for 10-20 years into a classic beauty.

1997 Hartwell Cabernet Sauvignon, Stag's Leap District, Sunshine Vineyard ($95). This small, relatively new winery has won considerable praise for its voluptuous, stylish cabernets. This 1997 is a gorgeous wine that deserves kudos, but for me, it still ranked second behind a wine half its price. If you can afford a $100 cabernet, you can expect to wallow in some of the purest, most compelling black cherry flavors ever to come out of Stag's Leap. On the palate, it's as smooth as silk, and it offers enticing notes of cassis, mulling spices and sweet vanilla. But will it ever go beyond sex appeal and appeal to the mind as well as the glands? Time will tell.

1997 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Fay Vineyard ($100). At this moment, the Hartwell is more seductive, but I'd bet on this superbly pedigreed wine to outshine it in the long run. It displays lush black cherry fruit with hints of chocolate and smoked meat. Its texture is extremely supple and sensual, but there's real steel under the velvet here.

1997 Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon ($42). The fruit in this vibrant wine leaps right out at you: raspberry, black cherry, black currant and smoked meat. It might not be the most subtle, concentrated or longest-lasting Napa cabernet, but it exhibits a beguiling stylishness that justifies its price.

1997 Honig Cabernet Sauvignon ($26). Savvy wine enthusiasts have known for more than a decade that Honig is an oasis of value in a desert of high prices. This might not be the most concentrated or flashy Napa cabernet, but it shows admirable complexity and classic structure. It offers excellent upfront black currant fruit, with nuances of pipe tobacco, blueberries, chocolate and smoked meats. Dollar for dollar, it's as good as it gets in Napa.

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