Last month, I bemoaned the trend in California wineries toward making high-alcohol, thick fruit bombs out of Cabernet Sauvignon, with an accompanying loss of varietal character and sense of place. The wines secure high scores from certain critics and high prices from their cult followers, but many of whom may never live long enough to have their wines come around with enough style to be enjoyed with food (except perhaps ribs, game, and buffalo burgers on the BBQ).

In contrast, it is possible to find fine California wines with style and a sense of place in different parts of the Napa Valley. I cited the late Maynard Amerine, the legendary scholar from UC Davis, who noted some 40 years ago that the best Napa Valley wines showed a similar style in the nose and on the palate. Some of the characteristics of the “Napa nose” are the classic herbaceousness of Cabernet fruit, cassis, berries, mint, light oak and hints of spice. The wines with lower alcohol do evolve nicely and can be matched with a wide range of cuisine, to complement but not overpower other flavors.

As possible proof of principle on the Napa nose and styles, I went through wine notes from the past year and searched for key words from the list above (e.g. cassis, mint). Here are 20 samples, vintages from 1981 to 2013, with a big block from 2012, a decade ago. Look for similarities related to place and varietal characteristics, with nuances from the winemaker. You may find a few differences from wines off the valley floor. Cheers!

  • Great find from a friend’s estate. Kenwood, 1981, Sonoma Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon, Artist Series. 13% alcohol. Light-mid ruby; medium herbaceous, cassis, red fruit nose; hints of leather; mid-body; mid-acids/tannins; mid-alcohol; medium intensity; good Cabernet fruit for the age; long Cabernet and wood finish; nice style; very good quality. 17 UC Davis scale; 92 other scales.
  • 1986 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Cask 23. Light-mid ruby, brick/amber edges: some viscosity (13.1 alc.); red fruit, herbaceous, light mint, cassis and leather nose; low-acids; low-mid tannins; a little past its prime; decent fruit still; wonderful Cabernet flavor; a little short. 17/92.

    Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1986 Cask 23

  • Classic Napa Cabernet 1994 Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Georges de Latour Private Reserve. Love the style, versus the high-alcohol fruit bombs. This goes with food and has some sense of place. Mid-ruby, brick edges; sweet red fruit Napa nose, light herbaceous primary; berries, cassis, wood secondary and tertiary; softening; mid-body (13.0 alc.); mid-tannins; balanced; long multi-layered Cabernet finish. w/tri-tip. 17/92.
  • Napa 1994 Beringer Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve. Mid-garnet, brick edges; Cabernet, mint, red currant, cedar, Napa nose; mid-body; balanced; fine Cabernet fruit; light oak; long rich Napa Cab finish. New Year’s Eve with filet. 17-17.5/92-93
  • Classic Napa 2002 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Spottswoode Estate Vineyard. Mid-garnet, brick edges; viscous (14.1 alc.); red fruit, cassis, herbaceous, light mint, oak nose; medium acids; medium tannins; rounding out; good depth of Cabernet fruit; long, balanced, elegant finish. w/veal. 18/94.
  • Evolving Napa Cabernet 2002 Larkmead ($40 in 2006). Mid-brick, amber edges, viscous (14.7 alc.); big berry nose, ripe grapes, tobacco, cedar; mid-big body; softening tannins; emerging Cabernet fruit; long layered finish. w/flat iron steak. 17/92.
  • Complex Napa, Calif., 2004 David Arthur Cabernet Sauvignon (gift from friend’s estate). Mid-dark garnet, brick edges, rim variation; straightforward Cabernet nose, cassis, berries, ripe grapes (14.6 alc.); mid-plus body; balanced; mid-plus tannins, starting to soften; good Cab fruit on the palate; long, deep, slightly hot Cabernet and wood finish. w/prime rib. 17.5/93.
  • Bordeaux blend continues to improve 2004 Tournesol Napa Valley Proprietor’s Blend ($40 in 2014). 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec, 3% Petit Verdot. Mid-garnet, brick/brown edges; viscous (14.7 alc.); ripe grape, herbaceous, berry, mint, Napa nose; mid-body; balanced; softening tannins; long rich finish. 17/92.
  • Another fine sense of place, 2006 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon Estate ($125 in 2009). 25th anniversary, continues to evolve with style. Light-mid brick, amber edges, some viscosity (14.1 alc.); complex herbaceous, mint, cassis, black fruit, leather and smoke nose; mid-body; softening tannins; balanced; long, refined, complex finish. 18/94.
  • Napa, fine Bordeaux blend (58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17 Merlot, 11 Cab Franc, 8 Malbec, 6 Petit Verdot), 2010 Girard Artistry (tasted 12/24/21 and another 3/8/22 as it rounds out). Mid-dark garnet, brick edges, viscous (15.1 alc.); black fruit, cassis, berry, mint, herbaceous, woody nose; mid acids; medium tannins softening; long deep fruity finish, hint of wood. w/beef Bourgignon. 17/92.
  • 2011 Vineyard 29 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate St. Helena. Mid-garnet, brick edges; berry, black fruit, cassis, mint and vanilla nose (18 months in French oak); balanced; mid-big body; semi-tight; long semi-chewy fruity finish; nice depth. 17-17.5/92-93.
  • Napa, Diamond Mountain District, 2011 Coho Cabernet Sauvignon Summit Vine Ranch ($31 in 2015). Dark purple, viscous; ripe grape, cedar, black fruit, leather nose; mid-big body; tight tannins still; bigger mountain style; deep fruit; long, semi-hard, hot (14.5 alc.) finish. w/flank steak. 16.5/91.
  • Napa 2012 Veedercrest Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder ($33 in 2018). Mid-dark garnet, amber edges, viscous; herbaceous, red fruit, cocoa, cassis nose; mid-big body; good structure; mid-plus tannins; a little hot (14.8 alc.); long chewy finish. w/meat loaf. 16.5/91.

    BV Private Reserve 1994

  • Napa red blend 2012 Tuck Beckstoffer Mad Hatter, Dancing Hares Vineyard ($35 in 2016), improves with age. Mid-dark garnet; berries, mint, sweet wood, cocoa, herbaceous nose; mid-body; mid-plus depth, intensity; good Cabernet fruit; long fruity semi-hot finish. w/stew. 16.5-17/91-92.
  • 2012 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon Lyndenhurst ($75 in 2015). Sharp, mid-dark garnet; Napa nose; mint, cassis, herbaceous, hint of  smoke; mid-body, mid-acids and tannins; softening; long rich finish. w/filet, mushroom sauce. 17/92.
  • 2012 Ramey Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($47 in 2016). Dark garnet, ruby edges, viscous (14.5 alc.); herbaceous, cassis, red and black fruit, mint, wood, Napa nose; mid acids; medium full tannins; long deep Cabernet finish, good flavors. w/beef. 17/92.
  • 2012 Robert Mondavi Winery BDX (Bordeaux blend; $40 in 2017). Mid-brick, amber edges; cassis, berry, red fruit, wood and Napa Cabernet nose; mid-body; balanced; good depth of fruit; long rich semi-chewy finish. 17-17.5/92-93.
  • Fun to see how California Cabernet can evolve, at prices well below the cult and blockbuster categories. Mount Veeder, Calif., 2013 The Hess Collection 19 Block Mountain Cuvée ($24 on sale in 2016). Fine mountain fruit. Dark purple; berry, mint, ripe grape, vanilla nose; mid-body; balanced; softening tannins; long fruity finish, hints of mint, wood. w/beef. 16.5-17/91-92.