When asked to name my favorite Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, my mind instantly goes to two places: Cathy Corison in the valley and Philip Togni on the mountain. Not to take away from the brilliant wines produced elsewhere in Napa, but these two heroes sit at a different table. If Togni is famous for his rugged and dark fruit-inflected Spring Mountain wines, then Cathy Corison is the standard-bearer for Napa's most restrained and finessed style.
The Corison Cabernets strike me for their ethereal yet still defined, concentrated black cherry, violets, cigar box, and graphite tones. The most surprising feature is how beautifully the wines age despite being lauded for their grace and elegance. Experiences tasting Cathy's bottlings back to the 1990 vintage are great reminders of how well these age and hold their structure and fruit.
Corison's Napa Valley bottling comes from vineyards spanning Rutherford Bench, and Kronos Vineyard is at Kathy's home winery in St. Helena, from old vines planted on phylloxera-resistant St. George rootstock. The Kronos bottling may not be dubbed "Cult California" like some of the behemoth 100-pointers, but it is still among the rarest and, as far as I'm concerned, one of the greatest wines in America.
Terroir-driven Napa Cabernet has become a selling point over the last decade, but Cathy has been on this path since founding her winery in 1987. Of course, the story began many years before. After graduating with a master's degree in enology from UC Davis, Cathy worked at Freemark Abbey in 1978 and was the winemaker at Chappellet throughout the '80s. As styles shifted in Napa, she was resolute in telling her own story, emphasizing a sense of place without artifice. Corison Winery sources grapes from the famed seven-mile-long Rutherford bench, just west of Highway 29.
For decades, St. Helena's Spottswoode has consistently been a source for Napa Cabernet Sauvignon focused on understated elegance. In 2011, I was fortunate enough to live on the eastern edge of the Spottswoode vineyard, spending summer evenings watching the sunset over the towering Mayacamas Mountain range.
The alluvial clay loam soils mark this territory gently stretching down from the Mayacamas, and drainage of this terroir at the foot of the mountains separates exceptional from the ordinary. It's estates along this stretch, like MacDonald further south in Oakville, that produce wines of great structure that age effortlessly.
The property here was founded in 1882 but has changed hands several times, until 100 years later. In 1982, owner Mary Novak produced the first estate-bottled wine with the help of a famed consulting winemaker, Tony Soter. Spottswoode became one of the first vineyards in Napa Valley to apply organic farming in 1985.
Spottswoode, as Parker alludes, is the prime destination in the valley for wines built upon their sense of grace, much like those of Château Margaux. You won't find inky black fruit character or milk chocolate here. And with age, Spottswoode maintains inflections of black cherry fruit and licorice, with tobacco and cedarwood becoming more prominent. Barely registering at 13% alcohol, these wines maintain a close connection to times past.
New California, dubbed by Jon Bonné, has brought back an emphasis on expressing terroir through more minimal intervention and balance. While Napa Valley still has a reputation for producing bombastic wines, Di Costanzo's Cabernet Sauvignons capture everything that's so thrilling about the variety from a sensitive and thoughtful approach.
Di Costanzo's Farella Cabernet Sauvignon is dark and savory with smoke, graphite, and scorched earth notes reminiscent of the volcanic ash scattered throughout the vineyard. The wine is also super elegant and speaks to Massimo's travels throughout the world, having learned how to work with this tannic variety and tame its burly predisposition.
Coombsville is perhaps the coolest AVA within Napa, thanks to moderating influences from nearby San Pablo Bay. Before launching his label, Massimo spent years working with the Farella winery, getting intimately familiar with the nuances of this red gravel-dominant vineyard. Also, the "DI CO" Cabernet Sauvignon comes from a shale and sandstone vineyard at the foothills of Mt. Veeder in Napa Valley.
Massimo earned his degree in enology and viticulture from UC Davis in 2002. After working for wineries in Tuscany, Stellenbosch, and Mendoza, he landed at Napa's Ovid and then Screaming Eagle, working as the winemaker alongside Andy Erickson. Massimo's extensive familiarity with old-school Napa Valley greatly shapes his winemaking approach.
Finding jaw-dropping hillside vineyards beyond each weave and turn of Napa Valley's roads is common. However, finding winemakers that live up to the landscape by pursuing graceful, nuanced, and site-specific wines is more of a challenge. Diana Snowden Seysess typifies this essence like few others in the valley do, and the winery's history explains why the personification of place is her ultimate intent.
Snowden eschews many winemaking practices that have become commonplace today. No cultured yeasts are employed, no enzymes to enhance color, no "bleeding" of the must for concentration, no fining, and no sterile filtration. Diana presses off the skins when they're dry rather than ongoing maceration to pick up more density and extraction. The wines never see more than 50% new French oak.
Diana grew up in Napa Valley and graduated from the UC Davis Viticulture and Enology program. In 2003, she became the oenologist at Domaine Dujac and worked alongside her now-husband, Jeremy Seysses, crafting some of Burgundy's most celebrated wines. Her time between Napa and Burgundy brings extraordinary perspective. These wines re-shape how Napa Valley speaks to sense of place.
The Snowden Ranch began in 1878 after the Homestead Act encouraged the settlement of new agricultural lands in the valley. The Snowden family took control of these vineyards in 1955, planting different parcels of Cabernet Sauvignon. Through the 1980s, the family worked closely with Warren Winiarski of Stags Leap Cellars to improve their vineyards. Finally, Snowden Vineyards produced its first wines from the family estate in 1993.
Ridge Vineyards' Monte Bello vineyard atop the Santa Cruz Mountains needs little introduction, but what's still somewhat under the radar is their Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, comprised of 15 to 20 parcels from Monte Bello. Lovers of old-school California Cabernet from the coolest, Pacific-influenced terrain, take notice!
The black fruit, racy mint, and graphite tones in Monte Bello always impress, but it comes at the expense of long bottle aging. The Estate Cabernet has those inherent Monte Bello vineyard characteristics, only showing them through a softer lens. Ridge also stands out from other California Cabernets because of its deft use of American oak. The limestone soils of Monte Bello have long stood up to the new oak regimen (70%), providing more silken texture and elegance without obscuring terroir.
Monte Bello's history goes as far back as 1885 when the 180 acres were purchased and planted by San Francisco-based doctor Osea Perrone. Surviving prohibition, multiple sales, and re-planting, the Monte Bello estate came into its own when Paul Draper arrived in 1969. Draper's insistence on producing pre-industrial wines has received much attention, and he's challenged other winemakers to list out ingredients on their labels. His end goal is wines that reflect site, relying on native yeast ferments and strictly opposing modern manipulations.