So You Wanna Buy a Napa Cab?

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photo by Jun Sieta

Though my personal tastes have migrated towards Europe and the funky, oddball flavors of grapes many Americans have never heard of, it’s impossible to completely ignore the allure of a well-made Napa Cab. The best versions are rich, dense, and packed with flavor, yet somehow balanced showcases of deft winemaking. They’re approachable and crowd-pleasing, but can be enjoyed immensely by connoisseurs.

So what’s the catch? That would be the price. Finding a truly good Napa Cab for less than $40 is becoming more and more of a challenge (though obviously not impossible), moving this category out of reach for many drinkers.

That said, if you are going to splurge (and you indeed consider it a splurge), you ought to know what you’re getting into. I, luckily, had the opportunity recently to taste two excellent but different Chairman’s Selection Cabs from the Rutherford AVA in Napa, and here compare them for your benefit.

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Conway Family Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford 2009 ($39.99)
The Young Stud

Based in Santa Barbara County, the Conway family has built a reputation for quality wines through two subsidiary brands, Deep Sea and Rancho Arroyo, which they purchased in 2007. Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer’s praise for the Rancho Arroyo Mourvedre, which noted that the family “has applied a different level of ambition” than the previous owner, and posited “this is a wine and a winery you should know about,” was an added boost. The 2009 vintage marks the debut of Conway’s eponymous label, which also includes a Napa expansion for the first time (which may explain the big price cut in PA).

The Rutherford Cabernet is a big, bold wine blended from several vineyard blocks within the AVA. Its nose attacks the rim of the glass with sweet dark berries, vanilla, tobacco and a hint of that Rutherford dust. On the palate, it is rich, lush, and slightly sweet from the high alcohol (15%), featuring more berries and a touch of anisette. Made for near-term drinking.

Heitz Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon Trailside Vineyard 2001 ($49.99)
The Wily Veteran

In stark contrast to Conway’s nascent position, Heitz Cellars has been a Napa mainstay since 1961. The awards and accolades would take multiple columns to summarize. This is, simply put, Napa royalty.

Unlike the aggressive, fruit-forward style of the Conway, the Heitz Trailside has considerable age on it, so it plays closer to a Bordeaux than what one might traditionally expect from Napa. The nose is funky, earthy, with a big tobacco note and hints of herbs. On the palate, dark cherry fruit is still prevalent, but not aggressive. Warm spices mingle with vanilla, and firm tannins still make their presence felt. It’s a savory, nuanced wine that’s drinking very, very well.

Settling the Dust

Given the choice, I’d drink the Heitz again, but also believe many people may prefer the more forceful, forward flavors of the Conway. Not to mention the 20% price difference.

Lastly, there’s another luxury Cab on Chairman’s Selection this fall that’s not from Napa, but perhaps worth a taste: Goose Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, from Washington State’s Columbia Valley. It’s a supple, fruit-forward wine, with nuances of tobacco, vanilla and earth. At $20, it’s probably not as good as either Napa bottle, but is darn tasty and a decent value.

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