To say Napa Valley and Cabernet Sauvignon are synonymous is an understatement. Though the region only accounts for 4 percent of California’s overall wine production and only 0.4 percent globally, this small region is mighty. Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for more than 52 percent of Napa’s overall plantings. And with more than 500 wineries within Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon represents 40 percent of their production within the region and more than 55 percent of the crop value. In short, Cabernet from Napa takes the top spot above all other varieties.
“You really almost have to consider Napa Cabernet as its own beverage category,” says Patrick Olds, director of wine programs for McGuire Moorman Lambert Hospitality, which owns nearly two dozen restaurants and hotels throughout Austin, Texas, Aspen, Colo., and New Orleans. “I don’t think of comparing it to other wines because it really does stand on its own.”
In a time when many sommeliers, retailers, and media are championing lighter-bodied reds with less obvious influence of oak, industry pros confirm that there’s undeniably still a seat at the table for the big, bold Cabernets that put Napa on the map. As grape growers and winemakers drill deeper into the region’s potential, and wines continue to command premium prices, it’s clear that Napa Cab still matters — perhaps now more than ever.
The Rise of Cab (or How Cab Assumed the Throne)
The brawny, thick-skinned red grape of Left Bank Bordeaux fame didn’t earn its royal moniker, “Cab is King,” in Napa until the 1990s. Before that, the region was known for all manner of varieties — red and white.
“When my parents moved here in the 1960s, everything was Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chenin Blanc, Zinfandel, Merlot. Nothing was king,” says Phillip Corrallo-Titus, a native of St. Helena who has been the winemaker for Chappellet for more than 30 years. “There was some Cabernet, but it was pretty scarce.”
In fact, most of the early vineyard plantings in the valley were the result of settlement following the California Gold Rush. Some of the first prominent producers were of German origin, including Charles Krug and Jacob Schram of Schramsberg Vineyards in the late 1800s, both of whom placed a focus on white grapes including Riesling and Chardonnay. According to Kelli White, director of education for the Wine Center at Meadowood and author of ”Napa Valley, Then & Now,” before Prohibition, Napa was planted with everything. “There was no thought to climate or terroir or anything like that. It was like throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what would stick,” she says.
In 1976, British wine merchant Stephen Spurrier helped organize a formal blind tasting in Paris of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and California wines resulting in a California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay taking top honors over the French entrants. The “Judgement of Paris,” as it came to be known, made waves in the wine industry. But in the consumer world, everything changed in 1991 when the news program “60 Minutes” aired a report called “The French Paradox,” positing that the antioxidants in red wine were beneficial to health and contributed to a lower rate of heart disease among the French.
“This report flipped the switch for the American consumer and served as a subtle ‘thumbs up’ from the medical industry to consume red wine for health reasons,” says White.
At the same time, American wine criticism had steadily gained steam. Consumers began embracing the user-friendly 100-point scale, ushered in by influential critics and publications, to help them navigate an otherwise confusing wine world. The highest scores tended to follow lush wines of opulence with ripe, fruit-forward character and generally high alcohol. It’s a style that began to capture the palates and wallets of up-and-coming wine collectors.
“In the late 90s through early 2000s, you saw winemakers chasing the trend for higher scores,” says Chris Tynan, winemaker for Cliff Lede Vineyards in the Stags Leap District AVA. “If picking at 25 Brix got you a high score, then picking at 26 or 27 must get you really high scores.”
Napa began to follow suit with smaller producers such as Colgin Cellars, Screaming Eagle, and Opus One, making a big splash with limited-release wines garnering very high scores and long, impossible wait lists for wine allocation.
The early 1990s was also a bullish time for the American economy, churning out a new generation of young wine drinkers whose palate preferences differed from their parents’.
“They were making their own way, and they could use resources like [Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate] and the Wine Spectator to help guide them,” says White. “Add to that a competitive aftermarket and auction sales developing young collectors from this generation. That was the blueprint for Napa Cab becoming king.”
Napa Cab Still Reigns
These days, wine media headlines and sommeliers alike tout everything from natural wine and pét-nat to amphora-aged selections from obscure regions. Yet despite the latest trends, Napa Cab continues to hold sway. Strong market demand continues to drive high prices for Cabernet grapes, with 2022 prices averaging $8,947 per ton in the valley, according to the California Grape Crush Report, and it remains the top wine grape planted in the region (red or white), accounting for more than 52 percent of overall plantings with more than 24,094 acres under vine.
The premium side of the business continues to show growth, too, according to the 2023 edition of the annual Silicon Valley Bank Wine Report by Rob McMillan, Despite elevated bottle prices thanks to the skyrocketing cost of glass, oak barrels, and a lagging supply chain industry, consumers still seem willing to pay. The average price of a bottle sold direct-to-consumer from a Napa Valley winery was $73.34 in 2022, up $8 from the 2022 Silicon Valley Bank Direct-to-Consumer Wine Survey Report, which also highlighted that the average tasting room purchase in Napa County was $377.87.
“Cabernet in Napa Valley can offer so much complexity on its own,” says Cliff Lede Vineyards’ Tynan. “Bordeaux doesn’t have that. You have to blend in Merlot, Cab Franc, and Petit Verdot to get a complete wine. But we honestly don’t need to. Cabernet can stand alone as a varietal wine and few places in the world can do that.”
According to experts such as White and the myriad winemakers who have worked countless vintages for the past few decades, the reason Cab has gained its royal status in Napa all boils down to terroir.
“It’s all about the location of the vineyard with microclimate, soil composition, depth, aspect to the sun, and elevation all playing a major role in the quality of the wines,” says Corrallo-Titus. “We can consistently produce high quality from all these locations year after year. Consistency and quality are what makes a region great.”
In Napa Valley, vineyards are planted with north, south, east, and west orientations depending on their locations. At the hottest part of the day, the sun is already beginning to fade behind the Mayacamas Mountain range. West-facing vineyards tend to hold on to more moisture from the morning dew but incur the harshest heat from the afternoon sun. These vineyards generally look drier, with less greenery, while the east-facing vineyards with more shade protection from the afternoon sun are more verdant.
Often, Napa Valley Cabernet is divided into two categories: mountain fruit and valley-floor fruit. Higher- elevation sites tend to have less access to fertile soil and water, which leads to the vine triggering a survival instinct that forces it to focus on developing its fruit. The conditions tend to yield fewer and smaller clusters of grapes with thicker skins, smaller berries, and therefore more tannin and structure in the resulting wines.
Named for the mountain range that divides Napa from Sonoma, Mayacamas Vineyards has been producing wine for more than 130 years. Winemaker Braiden Albrecht praises the unique growing conditions of the 475-acre estate, with elevations ranging from 1,800 to 2,200 feet.
“The rugged topography of the Mayacamas vineyard and intense sun exposure at a high elevation results in a range of microclimates where Cabernet Sauvignon can develop a range of flavor profiles and complexity,” says Albrecht.
The Future Is Now
Compared to historic regions such as Bordeaux or Burgundy, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is still in its infancy. But what it has been able to achieve within a span of a few decades is remarkable.
For all of its successes, however, the propensity for many producers to chase wine scores with riper, oak-driven styles rather than terroir had become problematic over the past decade. The region began to reflect a homogeneous style rather than a sense of place, particularly in the lower- to mid-range category.
“Consumers now know to look for something unique like a single vineyard or a specific terroir within the region. It’s a bit more difficult to find that in the $100 range where many of the wines are less distinctive and you find a lot of sameness across the board,” says wine director Patrick Olds, whose company, MML Hospitality, owns Jeffrey’s of Austin, a steak-centric, fine-dining locale that offers a deep, wide-ranging wine list in which Napa Cab has a solid presence in the red wine selections.
“There is definitely still a market for those super-ripe wines. But it has set a perception that all Napa Cab is that way,” says Tynan. “I think we’re seeing a lot of movement back towards the center where we’re looking to the older styles that were so successful in the past.”
Witnessing the consumer demand firsthand are master sommeliers Chris Gaither and his wife, Rebecca Fineman, who opened San Francisco’s Ungrafted wine bar and retail shop in 2018. Though their wine selections span more than 20 countries, Napa Valley Cabernet is a key player in the lineup.
“We have wines from all over the world, but guests definitely request Napa Cabernet when they come here,” says Gaither. “It holds its weight as one of the iconic wines of the world. Whether you’re looking for intensity, suppleness, longevity, or complexity, you can find it all from this grape in this place.”
Having kept a close eye on Napa Cab’s evolution over the past couple of decades, Meadowood’s Kelli White also sees the potential for this to stabilize over the next decade.
“There was a long time where the wines from Napa sort of zig-zagged trying to follow trends, but there were always wineries that stayed the course, making wines expressive of their place,” says White. “I think things have stabilized across the board. While we still have a wide stylistic range, I think wineries have settled into what they’re comfortable producing.”
To her point, perhaps Napa Valley Cab isn’t in on the way out after all, as some wine professionals might frame the situation. Perhaps it’s just getting started.