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the top 100 cabs of napa ????? - -be very careful

by Monty and Sara Preiser

It was a nice wine tasting. As usual I saw many people I knew, and met many others who were interesting, including the host, Nelson Tucker. But, what I attended was not what I thought it would be from my invitation – Napa’s top 100 Cabernet Sauvignons, or, perhaps better written, NAPA’S TOP 100 CABS ?????? REALLY ????

I had the proverbial inkling that something was wrong because no one in the Valley had mentioned such an event, and if one that featured what was even close to the top 100 Cabs had been scheduled, the buzz in Napa would have been non-stop. Still, I was curious; so on a dreary Saturday afternoon I drove to the tasting, which was held in a small tent on the parking lot of a not so well known Napa Restaurant. I recognized a few vintners who really had no clue as to what this was all about, and met some of the competition judges. Things were pretty chaotic, I thought, with no literature available trumpeting the winners, no spit cups, no dump buckets near the wines, and far fewer pouring stations than I had envisioned. I thought this did not bode well.

Those who know me also know I love something new, and it is far from my personality to criticize any person’s attempt to accomplish something novel. Yet when a fledgling endeavor takes as its name an iconic symbol, and the chosen name then becomes misleading to the public in both form and function, then the story becomes more than fair game for journalists – it almost demands comment from responsible writers. This obligation is magnified when the event held under the title in question can also serve to harm a participant’s reputation, and when the event’s promotions advertise incorrect information.

Imagine if I, Monty Preiser:

1. Trademarked the name “The Top 100 Tennis Players in Florida;”
2. Sent an invitation to every player – pro and amateur - listed at schools, clubs, and on tournament rosters, to come to my house or club for a competition;
3. Received responses from only about 10% of those eligible;
4. Received no response from those who would clearly be in the top 100 players (I’m quite sure Florida residents Chris Evert, Andy Roddick, Aaron Krickstein, and the “Sisters Williams” would completely ignore this folly);
5. Held the competition; and
6. Declared the top 100 who participated, no matter who they were, as “The top 100 tennis players in Florida.”

Pretty absurd, yes? Well, this was the premise to the event I described above, where entrepreneur and free lance writer Mr. Tucker’s trademarked “Top 100 Cabs of the Napa Valley” played the real life part to my imaginary tennis tournament. In an interview, Nelson told me the name had been available, and in that no one had tried to put together such a list, he did so.

SO, WHILE THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH HIS PREMISE OR DESIRE TO RANK THE BEST NAPA CABS, there is a problem with Nelson’s adherence to the name of the event after being unsuccessful in acquiring the participation of anywhere near all the best wineries in Napa. He then compounded the problem by still advertising that his tasting included all the Cabs in Napa, and that the public could taste them at a public function. The fact of the matter is that (according to Nelson himself) of the 842 invitations sent to wineries asking them to enter their best Cabs, only 130 wines, not 130 wineries, were judges (and many of them were NOT the winery’s best). Despite this knowledge as early as January 22, and despite not knowing which of the wineries that entered would actually pour at the public tasting, the event’s website on February 13 (the day of the event) and beyond boasted that “the best of the best” were involved and the public could taste them all . . . for $95.00. If the claim had been true, it would have been the wine buy of the century.

By my count, however, less than 60 wineries were actually on hand, and some of those who had entered the competition, but were absent that day, were pretty notable - Boyd family, La Sirena, Cakebread, Corley/Monticello, Groth, Hartwell, Hollywood & Vine, Lieff, Miner, Parallel, Pina, Tor Kenward, Tres Sabores, and Venge. Now that’s a group whose wines I could pay to taste.

Still, there certainly were wines available for tasting that were very good, and even a few that were excellent. In my book, I gave top ratings this day to Truchard, Hall, Vitus, Varozza, Sol Roger (not for the Cab they entered, which I found to be overripe and without complexity, but for their $125 To Kalon, which rivals many of the best), Reynolds, Oakville East Exposure, Howell at the Moon, Rocca, Vin Roc, and Perry Moore. I gave good marks to Regusci, Carrefour, Carter Cellars, Darms Lane, Malk Family, the Tudal 2008 barrel sample, Jarvis, and Yates Family. Most of the rest were OK, though I thought it a stretch to have even accepted a few of the wines into the competition, much less label them in the top 100 (no need to name names here, though if I see these wines advertised as belonging to Napa’s best 100, we may have to then make appropriate comment as their producers well know they do not deserve that sort of bloated recognition).

Lest we forget, most wineries only entered one Cab, though it might produce many more. I would venture a guess that there must be 2,000 Cabernet Sauvignons made in Napa or from Napa fruit these days. To claim one has judged and selected the Valley’s top 100 wines when only 130 wines were considered speaks for itself as to the point of this column.

A good example of a problem with the event can be illustrated thorough one of our favorite wineries, Reynolds Family. Owner/winemaker Steve Reynolds entered his estate Cab, which showed very well, but withheld his Reserve. Now, while Steve is like the parent who would not choose one child over the other, he probably wouldn’t correct me when I say that his Reserve is truly outstanding and in most tastings would best the Estate if tasted together. Yet it is the Estate that now carries the ersatz designation as one of the top 100 Cabs in Napa. Is this good for sales of the Reserve? Is it even fair to the winery or the public? If visitors come into the winery because they see the Estate is a top 100 Cab, and the Reynolds staff (accurately and in an attempt to provide the best tasting) recommends the much more expensive Reserve Cab, does it look to the guest as if someone is trying to sell a lesser wine without the same “proven” pedigree for more money than it is worth?

My friend Jeff Morgan of Covenant Wines, a nationally acclaimed writer, has been a valuable advisor to us as we transformed our columns from merely instructive to (hopefully) entertaining. Jeff always tells me not to state the obvious. But sometimes doing so is good effect. So here I go. To contend the wines in this event are really the top 100 Napa Cabs is misleading and does no favors for anyone who seeks, or has already attained, quality wines or reputations. Not to the good wineries that enter and are lumped with some pretty mediocre colleagues. Not to the judges who can be said to have bestowed on a poor winery the title of best 100. And certainly not to the public who will see a shelf talker or ad by an inferior winery claiming to now make one of Napa’s top 100 Cabs, meaning one of the world’s best.

A note: I held this column until I asked Nelson if he might change the name, given its misleading aspect this year, and given his likely future inability to ever have the wineries participate that would allow him to even semi-accurately use the title he had chosen. He told me he would not make a name change, naively, I think, stating and believing that the reason he failed to obtain the best was that he contacted the wrong person in the wineries. To me, that is an admission that for THIS year, at least, he knows what was involved was not close to being representative of what he says they are. So since Nelson will go forward with the charade, I believe good journalism calls for me to go forward with the column.

Funny thing, though. I enjoyed the day of tasting and schmoozing, and liked Nelson. But no matter how pleasant the event, the fact remains that it is a problem - no, let’s just say “wrong” - to call the entered wines “the best 100.” Spontaneously (and it really is), I can easily think of some of those who were not there that would qualify for evaluation under Nelson’s rules. How about Abreau, Anderson’s Conn Valley, Araujo, Cardinale, Blackbird, Bryant Family, Chappellet (they make at least 2), Colgin, Cornerstone, Courison, Crocker & Starr, Dalia Valla (they make at least 2), Darioush, Diamond Creek, Dominus, Far Niente, Frank Family (they make at least 3), Grace Family, Grgich Hills, Harlan, Heitz, Hundred Acre, Jones Family, Joseph Phelps, Krupp Brothers, Lewis, Louis Martini, Marston, Mi Sueno, Nickel & Nickel (they make at least 5), Paul Hobbs, Pride Mountain, Ramey, Rombauer (they make at least 4), Revana, Rubicon, Rudd, Saddleback, Scarecrow, Schrader, Screaming Eagle, Shafer, Spottswoode, Staglin Family, Stag’s Leap, Stags’ Leap, Viader (DARE), Vineyard 29, or von Strasser (they make at least 3), to name a few? Each and every one of these wineries has a long time reputation for making the Valley’s best Cabs, and we have tasted most between this year and last. The reputations are deserved. And I have not included another 2 dozen wineries that don’t yet have such long term reputations, but are nonetheless making super quality Cabs - for example, Andrew Geoffrey, Baldacci, Bremer Family, Castello di Amorosa, Del Dotto, Fleury, Frazier, Ghost Block, Girard, Hall, Honig, hope & grace, Keenan, Palmaz, Parry, Peju, Schweiger, Sonador, and Swanson.

If one is critical, one should offer a solution. Here is one. Call the event “Nelson Tucker’s Top 100 Napa Valley Cabs” (and leave out “Best of the Best”). Be a bit more open as to what wines are actually in the competition, and a bit more circumspect with the advertising – vintners rarely have them all there to taste, and, contrary to the ad, this is not the first time this many Cabs of quality have been judged. There may yet be a place for this competition, but, as it is for writers and vintners, reputations should be earned on accuracy. That won’t happen here under the present set-up.

Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

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