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.
Santa Barbara County is producing some of the most thought-provoking and impressive wines in the U.S. If a sense of place is what we're after, Angela Osborne's Grenache-focused label, A Tribute to Grace, is a great place for our exploration to start.
Working closely with Angela during my time at Failla Wines, in 2011, I remember the first time she poured the Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard Grenache for our crew, and the enthusiasm that followed. With partial whole cluster fermentation and minimal new oak, the wines are light on their feet and showcase all of the delicacy that Grenache is capable of but rarely achieves in California.
Angela grew up in New Zealand, and upon tasting the greatest expression of Grenache in the world, Chateau Rayas, set out to find the perfect terroir to produce a Grenache-focused label. Angela's grandmother, named Grace, was an equally forceful inspiration toward her landing in California. As terrific as these wines are, knowing the kind person crafting them makes the appeal even greater.
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.
Santa Barbara's cool-climate wines have growingly become one of my obsessions. For me, the most integral name in the array of labels is Sashi Moorman. His Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gamay are among my favorites, but his first label, Piedrasassi, offers downright delicious and complex reflections of Syrah.
Piedrasassi harnesses savory, bright, and superior aromatics while never shying away from the innately luscious qualities that define California Syrah. These wines nail the roasted meat, violet, and black pepper trifecta at each price point. Though, the single vineyard-designate bottlings from Bien Nacido and Rim Rock best exemplify how California Syrah can continually develop `in the bottle over many years.
Sashi vinifies and ages as naturally as possible, excluding sulfur at fermentation and only utilizing native yeasts. Whole cluster inclusion and aging in larger 500-liter barrels ensure the lively, crushed rock virtues that make Northern Rhone Syrah so unique aren't lost here in Santa Barbara.