Should Napa Kiss Cabernet Goodbye?

Napa built a reputation on big, bold Cabernets, but can it retain it?
© iStock | Napa built a reputation on big, bold Cabernets, but can it retain it?
Napa without Cabernet is unthinkable, but is it time for a new start?
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Friday, 13-Nov-2020

UC Davis held an online seminar Tuesday to ask if climate change will make Chardonnay disappear in California, but the conversation soon morphed into a more eventful question: should Napa Valley begin moving on from Cabernet Sauvignon?

"We should be built on red wine," said Dan Petroski, winemaker for Larkmead and Massican in Napa Valley. "We should have been built on Cabernet Sauvignon over the last 25 years. Over the next 25 years, that's not the case. We don't grow the right grapes in Napa Valley, and we're not telling the right story."

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The climate change news isn't new. UC Davis assistant professor Beth Forrestel, who specializes in how grapevines respond to heat stress, said that the rate of temperature change in California is higher now than in the past 1000 years. Heat isn't the only problem: with global warming, grapevines also have to adapt to drought, greater pest and disease pressure, and more intense fires. (Forrestel didn't say this, but something we may have learned in 2020 is that early ripening varieties might have an advantage in a frequent fire environment because they might be able to be harvested before smoke taint becomes a problem.)

Forrestel says she has a list of 120 grape varieties, not including Cabernet Sauvignon, that would make more sense for Napa Valley in the future.

"Maybe we can't get the same prices per bottle for them but maybe we can produce enough wine that it makes sense," Forrestel said.

But Petroski pushed back against the notion of Napa Valley as a mass producer of wine. Just because he's calling for the valley to diversify its grape varieties doesn't mean he wants it to give up its position at the king of North American wine regions.

"I think we have to start thinking of Napa Valley as a luxury place," Petroski said. "We are at the top of the pyramid of wines being grown in this country, and of wines being consumed. We have to define luxury. It doesn't have to be Cabernet or Chardonnay. It means when you buy a bottle of Napa Valley wine, you trust that it's going to be great wine. It's going to be well made. We're making the best wines we've ever made, from the top of Napa Valley to the bottom. The wines are delicious."

Petroski said wineries can move away from Cabernet gradually by including more heat-tolerant varieties like Zinfandel and Petite Sirah in red blends.

"I don't go to buy Burgundy or Bordeaux and ask what varieties are in there," Petroski said. "When I buy a wine from Tuscany I trust in 16 generations of the Antinori family. I trust that 16 generations are going to put a great bottle of wine on my table every time. I don't ask if it's Sangiovese. We just have to create trust, that this region is going to produce quality and excellence year after year. We've been doing this for 25 years and I don't think it's going to stop. I think we just have to get off this Cabernet and Chardonnay train."

One point that Forrestel and Petroski seem to agree on is modifying the Winkler Index, which was interesting considering this was a UC Davis presentation, and the globally influential guide to which grape varieties fit which areas was developed by UC Davis professors AJ Winkler and Maynard Amerine.

Napa Valley vintners have hated the Winkler Index for years. It classifies each region of the world by the cumulative heat during the growing season, using a measure called "degree days". It then divides all the regions into five categories. Region I is chilly places including Champagne and Willamette Valley. Region II sees a lot of good Cabernet in places including Bordeaux, Columbia Valley, WA and Coonawarra, Australia. Region III generally calls for warmth-loving grapes in places including the northern Rh?ne Valley and Rioja.

It's hard to downplay the importance of Cabernet to Napa.
© iStock | It's hard to downplay the importance of Cabernet to Napa.

Napa Valley is classified as Region IV alongside other hot spots including Languedoc and Barossa Valley. Most Region IV areas are not known for Cabernet and Chardonnay.

Napa Valley has a long track record of proving it can make good Cabernet, no matter what the Winkler Scale says. And Forrestel showed on a map that Napa Valley's climate is extremely diverse, from cool spots in the south of the valley including Carneros and Oak Knoll District to very warm Calistoga.

But I have to express bewilderment at how "advancing the Winkler Index", as Forrestel put it, changes anything at all. You can change the number scale to make Napa Valley Region II if you want, but that doesn't actually change the temperatures on the ground – or the warming expected in the future.

Forrestel said the key for Napa in maintaining the dominance of Cabernet will be taking advantage of Napa's climactic diversity. Carneros, in the southern part of Napa, already has a fair amount of Merlot; perhaps it will be Cab territory in the future.

Forrestel also said that wineries should encourage consumers to "accept new styles and flavors". But she didn't mean this as someone encouraging people to drink orange wine; rather, that maybe Robert Parker was on to something with his brawny personal favorites.

But Petroski, whose Massican wines are sommelier favorites (I'm also a big fan), said the answer isn't in returning Napa Valley to the bruisingly high-alcohol wines of the recent past.

"In 2020, our palate is so broad. Our understanding of wine is so broad," Petroski said. "When we talk about grape varieties today, I wonder what Harlan Estate is going to sell for $800 a bottle in the future. Does it have to be Cabernet? When I think of the great wines of the world, I think of Vega Sicilia, and Tempranillo. I think of Penfolds Grange, and Shiraz.

"In the '50s, Hanzell was imitating Burgundy," Petroski said. "In the '60s, Bob Mondavi was imitating Bordeaux. Why can't we imitate Spain? They had two or three regions to emulate. We have the entire world to emulate. I think it's bad marketing to tie yourself to Cabernet Sauvignon if you're the entire Napa Valley."

The seminar was actually called "California's Vanishing Chardonnay", but Chardonnay is certainly not vanishing from California: it was only recently passed by Cabernet in total statewide acreage but it is still the second-most planted variety in California. Pinot Noir has moved into third but there is still twice as much Chardonnay planted in California as Pinot Noir.

Chardonnay is, however, slowly being grafted over to other varieties – often Cabernet – in Napa Valley. Some vintners like David Ramey prefer to get their Cab from Napa and their Chardonnay from cooler areas in Sonoma County, which has something Napa doesn't: the Pacific Ocean coastline and its cooling breezes.

Forrestel suggested that Chardonnay will become less sustainable in Napa as the climate warms because, she says, "Chardonnay is really intensive in terms of what has to be used for pests and disease. If you look at the water you need and some of the inputs you need, when will that tipping point be that it isn't even possible to do some of the things we're doing?"

But Petroski said Chardonnay will be in Napa Valley for years to come, albeit not for the reason you might expect.

"Napa Valley has three international sparkling wine houses, and you have the domestic sparkling winemaker Schramsberg," Petroski said. "I don't think Chardonnay is going to go away if you think about sparkling wine production."

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