Before "Sideways" slapped us into worshipping California's Central Coast wine-producing region, the Napa and Sonoma valleys wooed us with its beauty, charms and world-class wines. So before we start shouting Lodi-this and Paso Robles-that, remember that the originals are originals for a reason.
Napa cabs rocked the world during the famed Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, when a group of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay from California beat out the established French "kings" during a blind tasting. Reds from Napa's Stag's Leap, Ridge, Heitz, Clos du Val, Mayacamas and Freemark Abbey crushed those of Mouton-Rothschild, Montrose, Haut-Brion and Leoville Las Cases. Beautiful Napa chards from Montelena, Chole and others topped famed French nameplates like Drouhin and Ramonet-Prudhon.
And Napa and Sonoma continue to dazzle. The Napa Valley Vintners Association recently reported on its 2008 harvest, which is a good barometer for wine coming down the pike. "Because it was such a dry growing season, yields are down and that seems fairly common throughout the valley," says Newton winemaker Chris Millard. "Low yields typically mean high quality, and this year's fruit is excellent with very concentrated flavors."
Of the $41.9 billion domestic wine industry, more than 25 percent of it comes from Napa, spread among approximately 300 wineries. Sonoma is a close second.
But the 2008 harvest and subsequent vintage is just that - 2008. What's drinking well now are the wines of 2004, 2005 and 2006. Cabernet sauvignon is the top red wine produced in Napa and Sonoma, and chardonnay is the leading white. Here are a few recommended bottles to crack open as you toast the California originals.
Napa Cellars 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. When I think of Napa cab, this is it. Loads of dark fruit aromas and flavors (think blackberry and black plums) integrates nicely with oak aging, which softens and smooths out the edges of young cab. Where's the beef? Find it, grill it and pair with this wine. $26.
Luna Vineyards 2005 Merlot. Yes, we are drinking merlot, if it shows as well as this one. A fine tapestry of grapes sourced from three different locations in Napa combine for singular tasty, dark red fruit experience. Lots of earthy black raspberry impressions make this wine suitable to drink on its own, or perhaps it will find a place on your Thanksgiving table. $34.
Picket Fence 2006 Russian River Valley Chardonnay. This richly textured chard shows crisp citrus-apple notes with toasted oak nuance and softness. The wine is rich and sensuous with a long, silky finish. Slightly chill and serve on its own or perhaps with a soft cheese course. $20.
Sbragia Family Vineyards 2005 Andolsen Vineyard Dry Creek Cabernet Sauvignon. Napa legend Ed Sbragia passed the winemaking reigns at Beringer after 30-plus years and launched his own label a few years ago to great fanfare. I'm definitely one of the fans. This burly cab drips with black cherry fruit and cedar-leather spice. It's ripe, rich and elegant and a great mate to beef or game. $35.
Sebastiani Vineyards 2006 Carneros Chardonnay. This bottle was nine years in the making as the culmination of a replanting project at the company's Wilson Ranch vineyard at the heart of Carneros. The grapes here receive distinct marine impressions from the ample moisture that streams in from San Pablo Bay. A medley of nectarine, citrus and apple notes are punctuated by vanilla-toast impressions from oak aging. Seafood is the move here. $25.
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