Californian Terroir: East Oakville

Cabernet Central

I have written here from time to time about the Napa Valley region of Oakville, which many regard as the epicenter of premium Cabernet Sauvignon in the New World

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A few months ago, I said that the best wines come “from the benches and slopes of the Vaca Mountains, in the east, and up onto the benches and hills west of Highway 29,” which are the Mayacamas Mountains. This is true. But several miles separate the eastern and western hills, and fairly dramatic differences in rainfall patterns (wet in the west, drier in the east) and therefore in ground cover (lush in the west, arid and droughty in the east) also create differences. There is yet another distinction between them, due not to terroir but to human factors: the Cabernets and Bordeaux blends from western Oakville are more famous than their eastern sisters.

This is not to say they are better, only more highly esteemed. This is due to a variety of historical, cultural and even infrastructural issues: western Oakville is bisected by heavily traveled Highway 29, which is dotted with scores of tasting rooms, restaurants and other tourist draws, while eastern Oakville’s main road, on the other hand, is the Silverado Trail, far less traveled, with relatively few amenities. (Indeed, there’s barely any place to get a sandwich between Napa and Calistoga.) Eastern Oakville therefore draws fewer tourists and is less well known.

As it turns out, the eastern Oakville wineries–some of them, anyway–are feeling the need to call attention to themselves, to assert that their terroir is special and unique–to get, in other words, a little love. I arrived at this conclusion after a recent message from the business manager of an eastern Oakville winery, who proposed setting me up with a tasting of some of its most important wineries (Gargiulo, Screaming Eagle, Dalle Valle, Bond St Eden, Rudd, Joseph Phelps “Backus”, Ramey “Pedregal”, Maybach “Materium”, Oakville Ranch, Oakville East, Oakville Terraces, Showket, Tierra Roja, Vine Cliff, Tench), some of which I’d previously reviewed and some not.

The wineries, he pointed out, are anxious to demonstrate that eastern Oakville possesses something worth writing about. At the same time, he warned, he did not want it to seem like the easterners were somehow trying to separate themselves from the westerners. They recognize that they are all Oakvillers, he said; the easterners simply want to right the balance in the eyes of the media and consumers.

I suppose the westerners might raise an eyebrow at the easterners’ efforts, and I could see why the business manager told me not to consider his proposal as the opening shot of a revolt of the easterners. It’s a bit of a stretch, but imagine if the chateaux of inland Pauillac–Batailley, Haut-Batailley, Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pontet-Canet, Duhart-Milon–attempted to publicize themselves vis a vis those closer to the Gironde: Latour, the two Pichon-Longuevilles, Lynch-Bages. Would there be consternation?

At any rate, it all proves that everybody needs publicity these days, when even the cult wineries of Oakville (east and west) are finding that selling wine isn’t as easy it it was before the Recession.

So we (the business manager) and I are arranging to set up a vertical tasting of these wineries. That was my idea; we writers always advise our readers to age these expensive Napa Valley Cabernets, but the sad truth is that few of us have the opportunity (due to lack of resources) to actually taste these wines when they’ve acquired some bottle age. The question now arises of how to choose what vintage or vintages to taste. Some of the wineries are so new that their oldest bottles date only to 2005. Others extend well back into the 1990s. It would be silly to taste (for example) 1997 Screaming Eagle against 2005 Gargiulo. (Not that it wouldn’t be fun, but there’s a bit of apples and oranges there.) I will therefore probably ask for all the wineries to pour their 2005s–not very old for an ageworthy Cabernet, but at least the wines will be comparable.

In general, though, I don’t believe Napa Cabernet Sauvignon lasts much longer than 8 years. It used to; I have tasted very old (by California standards) Chateau Montelena and Beaulieu Georges de Latour Private Reserve, among others, that lasted beautifully. But these were wines that came in with alcohol levels of 11.5%-12.5%. The modern style of Napa Cabernet, with alcohol approaching if not exceeding 15%, seems far less likely to age.

Written by Steve Heimoff

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