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.
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.