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Napa’s Royal Cabernets: The Wines of Oakville

While often considered a single “place” when it comes to wine, Napa is hardly a monolithic growing region. Each of its 16 established AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) lays claim to a separate identity, characterized by geology, microclimate, and different histories of production.

The Oakville AVA has one of the most storied of such histories. It is home to the famed To Kalon Vineyard, purchased by H.W. Crabb in 1868, shortly after the installation of a railroad stop made the tiny village of Oakville spring to life. In 1876 Crabb’s neighbor John Benson bottled his inaugural vintage of Far Niente wine just down the road.

By the year 1880 the Oakville area had 430 acres under production, and these would nearly triple to more than 1000 acres in the next 10 years and continue to grow until Prohibition turned off the spigot in the 1920’s.

In 1965 Heitz Vineyards made the first vintage of Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet, a wine that Robert Mondavi probably tasted around about the time he established his own winery a year later. Over the next thirty years, Oakville would gradually become home to some of the best wines on the planet. Acre for acre, the Oakville appellation may be the heaviest hitting single wine region in the western hemisphere. It is home to many of the highest scoring and highest priced wines in America, including Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle, and Dalla Valle, to name just a few.

Oakville is ground zero for Napa Cabernet, and with good reason. Year over year it produces some of the most tremendous wines in the valley. It’s hard to say that one particular area of Napa truly produces the best Cabernet, but it’s also hard to find someplace that has more claim to that title than the Oakville AVA.

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A few weeks ago the Oakville Winegrowers Association put on its annual Taste of Oakville event, which gives members of the wine trade and the press an opportunity to sample wines from its members. This meant an opportunity to taste through a lot of excellent 2015 and 2016 Cabernets (as well as a few other reds and a few random whites).

There were a few wines at the tasting which I didn’t get a chance to taste, as they had run out of wine by the time I got there, but the list below represents all but about 20 of the wines poured. The tasting took place on the upper level catwalks of the Robert Mondavi Winery surrounding their large oak fermentation tanks.

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Both the 2015 and 2016 vintages continue to show extremely well. I’m a fan of both years, with the 2016 having perhaps a slight brighter edge of acidity and more consistent balance than the 2015s if one had to make broad generalities. 2015 suffered from some pretty hot days during the end of the growing season, and offered more challenges to vintners.

As is often the case with such tastings, I did not make full tasting notes on many of the wines, and offer my notes and scores as recorded in the moment. Take them for what they are.

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 9.5 AND 10

2015 BOND “Vecina” Proprietary Red Wine
Smells of green herbs. Gorgeous cassis and cherry fruit, powdery tannins, great acidity, delicious even at this young age. $700. click to buy.

2016 Dalla Valle Vineyards “Collina” Red Wine
Bright cherry mocha, juicy, plush and utterly delicious. Great acidity. Supposed to be their more early-drinking wine but it’s a knockout. $125. click to buy.

2016 TEXTBOOK “Page-Turner” Proprietary Red
Bright, light, juicy cherry, not massive, just fantastic. 14.1%. A real stunner. $75. click to buy.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9.5

2015 Dalla Valle Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
Tight cherry, tobacco, mocha, hint of bitter earth. Intense and delicious. $240. click to buy.

2015 Dalla Valle Vineyards “Maya” Proprietary Red Wine
Bright cherry, tobacco, green herbs, great acid, tight tannins, dried herbs and oak that is nicely integrated. $499. click to buy.

2015 Favia Wines “Napa Valley Ranch” Cabernet Sauvignon
Juicy, bright cherry, plummy, cola, great acid, super fine structure, long, weightless. $199. click to buy.

2016 Macdonald Cabernet Sauvignon
Nutty, cherry, mocha, cola, tight tannins, long, great acid. $499. click to buy.

2015 Rudd Oakville Estate Proprietary Red
Cola, cherry, tight tannins, muscular, dusty, powdery, nice balance. $250. click to buy.

2016 TEXTBOOK “Mise en Place” Cabernet Sauvignon
Bright juicy cherry, cola, raspberry, bright, fine tannins, great acid. Long. $75. click to buy.

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 9 AND 9.5

2016 Detert Family Vineyards “East Block” Cabernet Franc. Somewhat reduced? Juicy cherry, bright, plummy, floral. Nice fine tannins. $??

2002 Detert Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. Cloudy, plummy, red miso, earth, juicy. Yum. A beauty aging beautifully. $n/a

2016 Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon. Bright juicy cherry, earth, tobacco, leather, long. Great acid, nice integrated wood. $160. click to buy.

2015 Favia Wines “La Magdalena” Red Wine. Tight lack cherry, very floral, long, needs time, muscular. Hint of bitterness on finish. $185. click to buy.

2015 Futo “Oakville Estate” Red Wine. Bright, even sharp, cherry, berry, earth, mocha, great acid. $425. click to buy.

2014 Gamble Family Vineyards “G. Thomas” Cabernet Sauvignon. Juicy bright tasty, earthy tea and cherry and earth. $??

2014 Gamble Family Vineyards “Cairo” Cabernet Sauvignon. Cherry, medium bodied, tight tannins, juicy, nice balance. $100 click to buy.

2016 Gargiulo Vineyards “Money Road Ranch” Cabernet Sauvignon. Cherry, bright hint of herbs. $111 click to buy.

2016 Gargiulo Vineyards “OVX G Major 7 Study” Cabernet. Cherry cola, juicy, hint of vanilla and wood. Fine. $180. click to buy.

2015 Groth Vineyards & Winery “Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon. Tight, minty, cherry, herbs, fine tannins, long, good acid. $150 click to buy.

2015 Harbison Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Juicy, bright, great acid, retrained oak, nice length, touch of heat. $120 click to buy.

2016 Peter Michael Winery “Au Paradis” Cabernet Sauvignon. Oak, cherry, nutty, tight, great acid, a bit volatile. $208. click to buy.

2015 Rudd Oakville Estate “Samantha’s” Cabernet Sauvignon. Tight smooth, balanced, well integrated wood. Slightly drying tannins. Cherry and cocoa powder and oak. $175. click to buy.

2015 Saddleback Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. Juicy, tight, nice cola notes. $65. click to buy.

2016 Tierra Roja Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Cherry cola, bluer fruits, tight tannins, better integrated oak. Good length – muscle. $170 click to buy.

2015 Tierra Roja Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Cherry, more subdued oak, bright, great acid. Touch of heat on finish. $170 click to buy.

2014 Vine Cliff Winery “Private Stock – 16 Rows” Cabernet Sauvignon. Cherry, tobacco, licorice, cola, Good acidity, good length. Tight tannins. $185 click to buy.

2012 Vine Cliff Winery Cabernet Sauvignon. Bright cherry cola, putty-like tannins, fine grained, nice balance. Juicy. $70 click to buy.

2016 Vine Hill Ranch “VHR” Cabernet Sauvignon. Smells of struck match, cherry, tobacco, great acid, nice balance, well integrated wood. $499. click to buy.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9

2016 Detert Family Vineyards Cabernet Franc. Juicy, bright, plummy cherry, hint of earthiness. $110 click to buy.

2012 Far Niente “Estate Bottled” Cabernet Sauvignon. Earth, cherry, tight tannins, somewhat compressed. $180 click to buy.

2011 Favia Wines “La Magdalena” Red Wine. Sweet nose, bright juicy, cherry herbs, great length. Touch of heat on finish. $170 click to buy.

2014 Gamble Family Vineyards “Home” Cabernet Sauvignon. Tight, cherry, plummy. $60 click to buy.

2015 Groth Vineyards & Winery Cabernet Sauvignon. Tight minty, cherry, earth. Good acid. $65 click to buy.

2014 Harbison Estate “The Trail” Cabernet Sauvignon. Bright but a bit bitter, juicy, long. $??

2012 Harlan Estate Proprietary Red Wine. Cherry, tobacco, tight, drying tannins, bitter finish. $925 click to buy.

2014 Hoopes Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. Cherry, herbs, tight, bitter finish. $65 click to buy.

2015 Nemerever Vineyards “Complement” Cabernet Sauvignon. Bright plummy and juicy. Putty-like tannins. $75 click to buy.

2016 Nickel & Nickel “Branding Iron Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon. Bright, herbal, leaner, tight tannins. $99 click to buy.

2014 Oakville East “Exposure” Cabernet. Juicy, cherry, bright, nice acid. $89 click to buy.

2016 PlumpJack Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Putty-like tannins, thick. Cherry. $140 click to buy.

2014 Saddleback Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. Juicy, medium-bodied, bright. $75 click to buy.

2014 Tierra Roja Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Sweet oak, cherry, bright, leather, oak. Too much. Touch of sunscreen. $170 click to buy.

2013 Vine Cliff Winery Cabernet Sauvignon. Cherry, cassis, darker smokier notes, tight tannins. $75 click to buy.

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9

2016 Bevan Cellars “Tench Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon. Primary. Jammy. Sweet. Cassis, black cherry.
2016 Ghost Block “Oakville Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon. Smoky, cherry, medium bodied.
2014 Kelleher Family “Brix Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon
2014 Meyer Cellars “Le Bon Bon” Cabernet Sauvignon. Tight, oak tannins, cherry, good acid.
2015 Nemerever Vineyards “Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon. Creamy, cherry, hint of bitterness.
2016 Oakville East “Harter Family, Double H Ranch” Cabernet. Creamy, cherry, plush.
2010 Oakville East “Exposure” Cabernet Sauvignon. Cherry, great acid. Youthful.
2016 Robert Mondavi Winery “The Reserve To Kalon Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon. Tight, cherry, fine grained, long. Savory notes.
2016 Round Pond Estate “The Secret Garden” Cabernet Sauvignon. Smoky, struck match, bright, juicy, cherry.
2015 Stanton Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. Rich, lush, cherry, somewhat simple.
2016 Turnbull Cellars “Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon. Sweetish, chocolate and prunes, black cherry, not enough acid.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8.5

2016 Flora Springs “Holy Smoke Vineyard” Cabernet. Creamy, jammy, black cherry, cassis, extracted. Thick.
2015 Goldschmidt Vineyards “Hilary Goldschmidt Charming Creek” Cabernet Sauvignon. Jammy.
2010 Kelham Vineyards “Tribute to Rawson” Cabernet Sauvignon
2015 Meyer Cellars “Spitfire” Cabernet Sauvignon. Oaky.
2017 O’Shaughnessy Estate Winery Chardonnay
2016 Oakville Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon. Too much oak.
2015 Paradigm Winery Cabernet Sauvignon. Cherry, plum, tight
2016 Saddleback Cellars “Penny Lane Vineyard” Sangiovese
2013 Teaderman Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. Tight nutty, cherry and tobacco. Drying tannins, parched.

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8 AND 8.5

2015 Tamber Bey Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. Jammy, plush, one dimensional, not enough acid.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8

2007 Kelham Vineyards Merlot
2014 Oakville Cross Cabernet Sauvignon. Jam.

Image of Oakville vineyards in the morning fog courtesy of Oakville Winegrowers.