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Comparing Vintages, Great Wines for Under $65, Chappellet & Norman

by Monty and Sara Preiser

1997 and 1998

So everyone who has been following California wines for the last ten years or so knows that the 1997 vintage of Napa Cabernet Sauvignons was lionized by certain writers as one of the century’s best, while the 1998’s were disparaged so severely that for a long while in the early part of the new millennium they could be purchased for relative peanuts.

About ten years has passed since the release of these wines, and their longevity and long term quality can now be pretty accurately assessed. In order to accomplish this task, we have spoken to sommelier after sommelier for the past few months, and a consensus seems to have taken root (one with which, by the way, we agree).

The 1997’s are still called wonderful, but it seems they are beginning to break down. There is little indication that the wines of this vintage will lay down for much longer, and so the experts are recommending consumption. The 1998’s, on the other hand, are drinking better than ever, and show every sign of retaining their structure for some years to come.

Wine is a living thing, and, like all living things, changes and surprises. Ten years ago, very few people would have predicted this outcome.

Can Anyone Afford the Highest Scoring Wines?
We Know Where to Find Some Excellent Ones with Gentler Pricing

If you are one of the many who put stock in the wine scores awarded by the Wine Spectator, then you may have been as depressed as we were to read the Cabernet Sauvignon report published by that magazine a couple of months ago. Not chagrinned at any lack of quality, mind you, because surely California Cabs have never been better, but dismayed over the cost of these wines. And in a time of economic challenge, our concern seems to be pandemic.

Taking a look at the Spectator’s top 21 scoring Cabs, all with a score of 95 or above, we see that only four can be purchased for under $100, and not far under (05 Schrader T-6 To Kalon @ $95; 05 Realm To Kalon @ $95; 05 Carter To Kalon @ $75, and 05 Schrader CCS To Kalon @ $95).

The seventeen other wines in the top 21 go from stratospheric to the moon (example: 05 Gemstone @ $145; 05 Vineyard 29 Aida @ $175; 05 Bond @ $275; 04 Levy & McClellan @ $350; and 05 Screaming Eagle @ $750).

All in all, 113 wines with scores of over 92 are listed in the Report. Remember, according to the magazine’s own scoring scale, anything above 90 is deemed a “Classic – a great wine.”

Well, we have been in Napa for two months this summer and are here to list for you some excellent Cabernet Sauvignons for prices that might pass these days as reasonable (arbitrarily chosen by us as $65 and under). For those of you who are regular readers, you know that we do not favor awarding scores to wines, but rather putting them into categories of recommendations.

-2005 Corley Reserve ($65): Begins with lovely aromatics and takes you for a ride through many flavor profiles as it moves to an incredibly long finish.
-2005 Frank Family Napa ($45): You are entranced by the deep and dark colors before discovering the density and wildness of this wine.
-2005 Keenan ($45): There are lots of awards and accolades for this huge wine that exhibits red and black fruits, and finishes with some forest floor and wood nuances.
-2006 Monticello Tietjen Vineyard ($65): As we write every year, this is a superb wine from start to finish – enjoy identifying all the characteristics as they meld together.
-2006 Napa Cellars ($26): Yes, $26 for a full and lush wine with layers of black and red fruit.
-2005 Parry ($60): We have been telling Steve and Sue Parry for years they should charge more, but they thankfully keep the price of this superbly crafted wine in the lower regions.
-2006 Provenance ($45): Year in and year out the safe bet for a fine wine at a reasonable price. It always shows good fruit, excellent balance, and a finish belying its price.
-2005 Raymond Oakville ($60): Part of the Raymond “District Series,” we try to choose the one we like better each year. This one has great structure, chocolate up front, and lots of bold fruit.
-2006 Riboli Rutherford ($50-$60): Lots of ripeness in this wine co-exists well with the vanilla overtones on the nose and spicy finish.
-2005 Rombauer Napa Valley ($42): Mint and wood pervade the nose, while black fruit takes over at the mid palate and completes the journey.
-2006 Round Pond Estate ($60): Cloves, pepper, and blueberries are prominent in this Rutherford soil influenced wine that wants a couple of years more in bottle.
-2005 Sawyer Estate ($48): Starts with black fruit and ends with red, all the while showing chocolate notes throughout.
-2004 Schweiger ($48): Aging for 2 ½ years has worked well to round out the wonderfully structured Spring Mountain fruit. This is a satiny, yet bold on the palate, wine.
-2005 Sodaro Felicity ($40): Features a brilliant burst of bright red cherries and black plumbs on the mid palate.
-2006 Wm. Harrison ($50): Lots of secondary characteristics in this dark wine, such as cedar, tobacco, and leather.

To be frank, we had almost forgotten how many good wines and producers there are in Napa. Certainly we love (and buy) some very expensive bottles, too, but you will not go wrong enjoying any of the wines we have listed above, even with some of the best food you can imagine.

Chappellet Makes Some of the Best

Word of mouth carries lots of products, but they had better be good. In the wine industry, nothing is better than to have people whispering your name in the same breath as other so called “cult wineries.” Yet as with everything else, some wineries that have cult attached to their name as if it was given at birth don’t (and often can’t) live up to expectations.

We like to think, however, that some do provide what they promise, and even provide some of it at a price that brings cheers rather than hushed voices. Chappellet, high on Pritchard Hill, is one of those great wine producers that still welcome your calls and visits, unlike many who seem to be doing YOU a favor to allow you to spend a hundred dollars or two on a bottle of their wine.

Now, Chappellet does have one of those “big guys,” their Pritchard Hill Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (in the neighborhood of $135 to $150). Big ratings that are all earned. High price, which it easily commands. And an incredible flavor profile, which allows for the first two descriptions. The present vintage was released this spring and who knows if you can still find any (we managed to get some this year – but despite knowing some of the family and family friends still had no luck in 08).

But it was not a great problem, as the rest of the portfolio is superb.

-2007 Napa Chardonnay ($32): Made in a style to please those who want their Chards big, or more austere, this one nicely crosses the line with its buttery nose, crisp minerality, and long lemon zest finish.
-2006 Mountain Cuvee ($29): This is the estate’s Bordeaux blend, and with the quality of fruit available to the winemaker here, it is hard to see how this semi complex and flavorful wine can sell for the price offered.
-2005 Syrah ($42): All the wineries have wine clubs, and we think wine lovers should find a particular wine they love that is available only to club members before they join. Of course, the Pritchard Hill Cab would be a reason, but it is difficult to afford for many. This wine, lighter than most of the Syrahs you may have tasted recently, gives off very pleasant blueberries, graphite, and violets. Drink with game.
-2006 Napa Valley Merlot ($38): Hopefully coming back into fashion, which because of universally good prices would be good for the consumer, Merlot can well be big and beefy enough to rival a Cab for a place at your steak dinner. This one is.

Norman, A Long Lost Friend

We have been fans of Norman Vineyards (we are not writing about Greg Norman here) in Paso Robles for many years, but regrettably have not visited since the untimely death of gentleman vintner Art Norman. Now run by Art’s lovely wife Lei and GM/Winemaker Steve Felton, we had the chance to revisit a few of the wines (they produce about 24 from 13 varietals) at a recent tasting in Florida.

In a business where you taste new wines almost every day and often forget or even outgrow old ones you liked, we were happy that our memories of Norman’s wines were re-confirmed. They are all of quality at some of the best prices you will see.

We sampled:

-2007 Reserve Chardonnay ($18), with smooth minerality and creaminess reflecting sur-lees aging and 35% malolactic fermentation.
-2005 Petite Sirah ($15), a pretty intense wine with blueberry and currant overtones. When did you last see a drinkable P.S. at this price?
-2006 “Monster” Zinfandel ($25), probably Norman’s most famous wine and surely one of the better Zins around. Why? Probably the addition of 20% Petit Verdot, which complements the bright fruit by supplying some serious structure.
-2004 “No Nonsense” Red ($20), a medium bodied blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc that will happily accompany pork or roasted fowl.
-2004 “Conquest” Cabernet Sauvignon ($20), a light Cab with some chocolate notes. It is not easy to make Cab in Paso and harder still to create a great one when you charge $20. Drinkable at a bar, but not the winery’s best effort.

We look forward to getting back to Paso and trying the other 19 wines Norman offers.

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.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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