Warren Winiarski is distressed by the current state of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, a wine he helped make famous. The 1973 cabernet he crafted at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars won the famous Paris Tasting of 1976, besting the best of France and establishing California’s reputation as a world-class wine region.
Today’s celebrated Napa cabs, Winiarski contends, are one-dimensional behemoths that lack complexity and elegance. He says winemakers enamored of point scores and cult status have abandoned the equilibrium and subtlety that characterize the world’s great wines.
Winiarski, now 85, sold his winery in 2007 to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates but still maintains a vineyard in Napa Valley. A former college professor, he speaks of wine in scholarly terms, with frequent references to Euclidian geometry and the principle of the golden rectangle that influenced classic art and architecture. The flavors and dimensions of a wine should be in balance in order to be aesthetically pleasing, he says. Even if we don’t recognize a wine’s geometrical symmetry, we respond instinctively to its inherent quality, just as we might appreciate a da Vinci masterpiece without fully understanding it.
Explaining his argument to me, Winiarski used a more proletarian example that I could instinctively grasp.
“When I was 10, milkshakes had to be the richer, the better: more chocolate, more ice cream,” he said. “But pretty soon I got disgusted with this. There was no balance, no moderation. Scale is important. Larger and louder doesn’t give more pleasure. At a certain level, it destroys one’s ability to perceive the subtleties. But that takes time, and you have to drink a lot of milkshakes.”
Many vintners around the world might agree with Winiarski’s preference for elegance, subtlety and freshness over power. Young Australian vintners are forsaking high-octane shiraz to rediscover the zesty, jammy wines that made Oz famous. Their counterparts in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, along California’s extreme Sonoma Coast and in the Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County are discovering pinot noir’s finesse. France abandoned its brief flirtation with oenological bodybuilding (remember “200 percent new oak Burgundy”?) in favor of a Zenlike less-is-more approach. Wine writers have mostly abandoned the muscular verbiage of “gobs of fruit” and “lashings of new oak” in search of nuance.
Yet Napa Valley remains enamored of hefty wines, in hefty bottles, with hefty alcohol and heftier prices.
To be sure, Winiarski is not alone in calling for a return to a more balanced style, but those who agree with him tend to be his compatriots rather than a new generation searching for its own style.
Among them is Bernard Portet, a ninth-generation member of a French winemaking family, who settled in California and founded Clos du Val winery. (His 1972 cabernet also was in the Paris Tasting.) Portet retired from Clos du Val and now makes wines called Heritance, including what he describes as a “modest” Napa Valley cabernet that is under 14 percent alcohol. He attributes Napa’s blockbuster style to a desire of winemakers to please their wealthy winery owners with high point scores from magazines such as Wine Spectator or Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.
“A winemaker is compensated if he gets 94 or 95 points from Parker or Spectator,” Portet says. “How are you going to do that with a modest wine? People are talking about making more elegant wines, but I don’t think many of them are free to do what they want and go to that lower alcohol.”
Portet says he hopes the cool, tough vintages in 2010 and 2011, when ultra-ripeness was difficult to attain, “will encourage younger winemakers who have never seen anything but ripe years” to work toward a more modest style.
Michael Mondavi, who helped his father, Robert, start the Robert Mondavi Winery in 1966, answers not to the magazines but to a higher critic.
“My grandmother taught me two things I try to live by,” he says. “First, make a wine that tastes good, which means when you have a meal with family or friends, it invites you to have a second or third glass. If you only want one glass, get back to work. The other thing was: Don’t just make wine for the rich.” Mondavi’s delicious Oberon cabernet costs $30 — inexpensive for Napa.
Elegant, modest cabernets are still being made in Napa Valley. But we might have to taste a lot of milkshakes to find them.