A scantily clad Cirque du Soleil trapeze artist poured bubbly from a variety of poses at Frank Family Vineyards. Meanwhile, Jean-Charles Boisset, Napa Valley’s flamboyant Frenchman, presided over a raucous “Napa Gras” party at Raymond Vineyards featuring burlesque dancers and mountains of macarons. More-sedate tastings at salons and resorts up and down the valley offered free-flowing, hard-to-find wines that sell in the triple digits or higher.
This was Premiere Napa Valley, an annual February bacchanal culminating in a lively auction of special wines from the 2013 vintage at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus in St. Helena, Calif. Thirsty bidders ponied up $6 million for exclusive wines to benefit the Napa Valley Vintners Association.
Yet while over-the-top defines Napa Valley, many winemakers are talking restraint. During a week in the valley, including at Premiere, I asked several winemakers to describe the current style of Napa cabernet sauvignon. Many said they are moving toward a more restrained, classical style of wine with moderate alcohol, the style that made Napa famous in the 1970s, and away from the fruit-forward blockbuster cult wines popular in the 1990s and 2000s.
That would be a welcome development, in my opinion. But the winemakers were by no means unanimous, and my tastings included many wines that continue the newer, bigger style.
That new style emerged in the 1990s after many of Napa Valley’s vineyards were replanted during the phylloxera epidemic. With the chance to start over, vintners planted vines closer together, installed drip irrigation and began emphasizing low yields and other vineyard techniques focusing on ripening the grapes as much as possible. Those changes are now considered revolutionary or controversial, depending on whom you talk to. Most important, the definition of “ripe” changed: Grapes were no longer harvested at a certain sugar level but by “phenolic ripeness,” when the seeds turned brown and the tannins in the grape skins were no longer astringent.
The market, too, pushed the new style. The bigger wines won bigger scores from critics. Consumers also welcomed them: The riper, fruitier, powerful wines appealed to the American sweet tooth. Prices soared even higher than alcohol levels.
But now many winemakers (and wine critics) argue that these wines are unbalanced and often unpalatable. And they say they can scale back the alcohol levels while still achieving the ripeness in the grape seeds and skins, thanks to improvements in vineyard techniques.
“We’re better in our vineyards, and we’ve figured out how to get the phenolic ripeness without the high sugar levels” that lead to high alcohol, says Michael Scholz, winemaker at St. Supéry Vineyards. Scholz said Napa is moving away from the “headier” wines of the 1990s, though not necessarily back to the tannic, austere nature of wines made in the 1970s and 1980s.
“The American way is always extreme,” says Philippe Melka, a Frenchman who is Napa’s most sought-after winemaker today. “We’ve done the extremes, from making wine that is austere to making dessert wines. Now we are trying to make wines that make sense.”
I interviewed Melka on an outdoor sofa at Meadowood, a posh resort near Saint Helena, where he was hosting a tasting of the various wines he makes or consults for. We were interrupted frequently by bisous and clanging jewelry as his many admirers rushed to say hello.
“The definition of ripeness is changing,” he said, noting changes in the American palate. “Now we use more vinegar and acidity in our food, and our taste in wine is changing as well.”
As I quickly tasted several of Melka’s wines, snaking my arm through crowds to snag a small sample here and there, I got the impression that he makes wines in both styles, some bigger, others with more finesse. But all have a plushness and texture that ooze luxury.
Not everyone is moving toward a more restrained style of cabernet sauvignon. Donn Chappellet, one of Napa Valley’s cabernet pioneers, is sticking with what he calls a “more approachable” style, instead of the tannic wines he made in the late 1960s and 1970s. He acknowledges, though, that “people are making wines the way we used to.”
“It’s interesting that people are going back to what we did originally,” said Molly Chappellet, Donn’s wife.
And the father-and-son duo of Nils and Kirk Venge, whose family name is synonymous with Napa Valley cabernet, make wines in different styles. Nils, the father, makes a Bordeaux-style cabernet with vibrant acidity under his Saddleback Cellars label. Kirk produces a lush, fruity new-style cabernet at Venge Vineyards. He’s unapologetic about it, as he should be.
“I make wines in a riper, more modern style,” he said. “They may curve out sooner” — meaning they might not age as long as his father’s wines — “but they are great now.”
Can these styles coexist? Will one win out over the other? As Philippe Melka says, “It’s an exciting time to be enjoying Napa cabernet.”