MILDLY COMATOSE AFTER a 12-hour plane ride and a numbing seven-hour airport delay, I’m blissfully sipping and swirling one of California’s most iconic wines with a member of the very family responsible for it. “This 2009 Insignia is very young and tightly-wound at this point,” Will Phelps assures us at Joseph Phelps Vineyards, the estate his grandfather built. “It’s the darkest and most concentrated of the bunch here. We’ve decanted it for a couple of hours and it’s opening up, starting to show its stuff and becoming a rich, lush, sexy red wine.”
The “bunch” comprises 10 different wines, including Joseph Phelps Insignia, which debuted with the 1974 vintage as the first-ever proprietary Californian blend, one accorded a unique name rather than recognised by its varietals. “This 2009 Insignia is 83 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 13 percent Petit Verdot and four percent Malbec, and while it hasn’t received quite the same attention as the 1997 and 2002 vintages,” he adds, since the latter was deemed in 2005 Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator, “I believe it will go down as a great vintage, one that will get better and better for years to come.”
This is my second trip through the region and, unlike my previous solo visit in 2006, I’m traversing the valley with a crew of sommeliers, buyers and fellow wine writers under the guided auspices of Napa Valley Vintners, a wine producers’ organisation. Napa Valley vineyards might only make four percent of all Californian wine from a total vineyard acreage one-eighth the size of Bordeaux, yet they account for one-third of all wine sold in the US (currently the fourth-biggest wine producing nation after France, Italy and Spain) and generate some US$13 billion annually.
Geologists attribute Napa’s success to its perfect suite of conditions for growing premium grapes: the dry Mediterranean climate found only on two percent of the Earth’s surface; and the no less than 33 varieties of soil series found on the steep mountains and sloping foothills flanking the alluvial valley floor.
What this achieves, more prosaically, is a reputation built on a plethora of red wines. “Napa is really about the reds, and what I’ve been enjoying on this trip is their aromatic freshness,” summarises one of my companions, the affable English wine writer Andrew Jefford, author of 12 wine books and best known for his work in Decanter and the Financial Times (and the haiku found only on his Twitter feed). He checks his handwritten notes and nods agreeably when I disclose my most exciting new wine of this trip. Blind-tasting at a massive “multi-vintage perspective” event with 36 Napa Cabernets, I find this serendipitous needle in the oenophilic haystack, a wine so mystifyingly good that I pour myself a second glass just to ensure it wasn’t my imagination. And it wasn’t.
I learn later that it’s the 2008 vintage of a wine called Promise, which I’ve never, ever heard of. So on the morning of the weekend’s big Premiere Napa Valley auction (featuring 214 estates selling their en primeur cases, all fresh from the barrel and some not released till 2016), I seek out its producers, a handsome couple named Steve and Jennifer McPherson. Five cases of their 2010 vintage, a 100-percent Cabernet Sauvignon made by their winemaker Todd Graff in the Rutherford sub-appellation, sell for US$18,000 that afternoon to a collector in southern California. The 2008 that slays me is 97 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, two percent Cabernet Franc and one percent Petit Verdot – the fifth vintage, only 220 cases made, and already sold out.
“Steve had been 20 years in the Hollywood entertainment industry and I made him promise me on our wedding day to pursue his real passion, which was wine,” Jennifer McPherson explains, “and that’s why it’s named Promise. He kept his promise and we’re still married, nine years this summer. We wanted to take our time and be meticulous. And when you make 220 cases a year, you can do that.” Typical of many Napa “cult Cabernets”, Promise goes to certain restaurants and private customers only, and its sole overseas market is London – because Jamie Oliver loves it and procures Promise for his establishments. (Good enough for Jamie, I gloat, and good enough for me.)
At another Cabernet tasting event, I discover an equally rare and even newer wine called Gallica, made by winemaker Rosemary Cakebread. Her first vintage was 2007 and her current release is 2009, only 407 cases made, mostly from Cabernet grapes grown in the Oakville area. It drew me instantly with its gorgeous aroma and elegant tannins. “I am indeed thought of as making wines that are balanced and restrained,” she tells me. “2009 was a cool year so it’s typical of what I strive to make. It’s layered with cardamom, dried cranberry and black tea, and a pleasure to drink early because of its fruit intensity but also designed to age gracefully.”
These new Napa Cabernets transcend the cliche of those big fruit bombs of yore, no longer exploding in the mouth but offering new-found finesse. They speak more eloquently in slightly older vintages, as with Cliff Lede Vineyards in the Stag’s Leap district and its 2003 flagship Cabernet Sauvignon, aptly named Poetry for its brooding black fruit stanzas and lyrical cadenza finish. “To me, this wine is showing well, but I think it’s still youthful,” explains Jennifer Huether, master sommelier, who works with her fellow Canadian Cliff Lede (pronounced “lay-dee”) at his gravity-flow winery built in 2005.
“Great Cabernets from Napa Valley require bottle age to reach their peak,” she adds, “and my theory is they can age easily for 12 to 20 years.” We’re at a long-table group dinner at neighbouring Silverado Vineyards, and find a nice match for Poetry in spaghettini laced with morels and truffle cream. Then it’s Wagyu beef with celeryroot purée and crispy Brussels sprouts paired with two more excellent Cabernets: 1995 Beringer Private Reserve, a familiar and magnificent classic, and 1997 Signorello Padrone, 100-percent Cabernet and a new one for me. “Our first vintage of Padrone, named in memory of my late father, and our best wine off our estate,” owner and winemaker Ray Signorello enthuses. “Its rich character and tannin structure go perfectly with well-marbled beef such as Wagyu. We’re a single-vineyard estate, and focus on Cabernet Sauvignon because I’m influenced by the wines of the Old World. We produce this on a property similar to a Bordeaux estate.” At 14.4 percent alcohol, Padrone makes a bold statement.
But Bordeaux isn’t only about Cabernet, of course, and neither is Napa. At another tasting held at Robert Mondavi Winery, the very place where Napa Valley’s fame took flight in 1966, another wine new to me mocks its very provenance. Swanson Vineyards in Oakville produces Merlot in the heart of Cabernet country – “The Cab lover’s Merlot”, its sales pitch quips – and winemaker Chris Phelps had, unsurprisingly, apprenticed at Château Pétrus in Bordeaux and later at Dominus Estate in California under the tutelage of French mentor (and Decanter’s Man of the Year for 2008) Christian Moueix.
His 2009 Merlot is my favourite of the evening, enrapturing with its dark garnet hues, black cherry and raspberry mouthfeel, and velvety tannins. Phelps (no relation to the Joseph Phelps family) dines with Andrew Jefford and myself at Tra Vigne, a superb Tuscan restaurant in the northern Napa town of St Helena, where he ceremoniously opens for us his 2008 Merlot. “Reminiscent more of the right bank of Bordeaux than Napa Valley,” he humbly opines. “Two thousand and eight was a low-yielding vintage. We had a spring with 24 days of frost followed by a summer with heat spikes, so the wine eventually came from a small crop but shows great focus and concentration.”
That’s a common viticultural paradox – low fruit yields often result in intense wine flavours – and a few other wines on this trip elicit equal surprise, such as the Mount Brave 2009 Malbec, a Robert Parker 90-pointer hailing from the thin soils and rocky slopes of Mount Veeder in Napa’s craggy southwest. The real curve ball, however, gets thrown the next day at lunch, when I’m seated next to Steven Spurrier, the legendary British wine merchant turned raconteur. Rather than elevate myself to his esteemed level by spewing clumsy Bacchic bons mots, I elect to pose a dangerous question: “I’ve always wanted to know, Steven, what was it like having Alan Rickman play you in Bottle Shock?”
He chuckles, probably not expecting this. Spurrier famously attempted to sue the producers of the 2008 film Bottle Shock, 110 minutes of black comedy (“a true story of love, victory and fermentation”, its slogan reads) re-enacting the saga of 1976 which put Napa Valley’s wines on the map after they’d won hands-down a blind-tasting contest against a slew of French wines in the historic “Judgement of Paris” that Spurrier himself organised, a pro-Gallic publicity stunt that backfired. The screenplay had made his character, in his view, slanderously demonic. “I liked the film, actually,” he replies, as I detect nary a sliver of sarcasm. “What happened was, I got to know Alan Rickman, and we spent some time in Tuscany. And I think that helped. He played me somewhat differently from the script.”
Ah, sympathy for the old devil, once you absorb his essence? Might not the same be said for Napa Valley? “I thought I understood Napa reasonably well before I came out here,” Jane Parkinson, the wine editor at Restaurant magazine from the UK, tells me, “but there’s really no substitute for actually meeting the people, tasting the wines, and standing in the vineyards.” From where we’re standing, the Bordelais terrain fades to black and these resplendent valley vistas, once again, resolutely rule the day.