The seduction of a young palate is easy for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons. Like Amy Winehouse clutching a pack of Reds and a Disney smile outside the Highline Ballroom, the wines are dangerously appealing. A young palate doesn't stand a chance. The wines lead you on, promising a long, pleasurable stay. But in the morning you're left with nothing but a headache, a cold bed and an empty pack of smokes. I was no exception.
My family entered the wine business in 1990. I was an impressionable 15. At 22, while my friends settled into "real jobs", I recited California appellations like present value tables, poured through Robert Parker's "The Wine Advocate" as if prepping for the series 7 and honed my sales skills. I was bitten, smitten really, by the sensual fruit and enticing power of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. I was easy. By 2000, I had experienced a string of fantastic vintages - '95 '96' '97, and even the much maligned and often disavowed '98 seduced me. And the price was right. For a Jackson, the wines returned rich, dark fruit, voluptuous body, long finishes and plenty of power. I was a kid in love. The next step was easy. I learned who produced the best wines. I followed their careers. I’ve always preferred to bury by nose in a glass than a textbook. So I listened. I drank. And I travelled.
My first trip to Napa was in 2000, fresh off a weekend in Oregon studying Pinot Noirs from the up and coming Willamette Valley – remember in 2000, no one paid much attention to Oregon wines. I flew into San Francisco, rented a rag top and cruised out to Napa. I had three days to myself - no schedule, no appointments, just a car to cruise in and eagerness to explore everything Napa Valley had to offer. For a young wine lover, Napa Valley can feel like Hollywood. You know the names but have rarely seen the faces. In 2000, the internet was still young, so was the idea of a vineyard owner having a website. Social media didn't exist so winemakers were like politicians, more than willing to snap pictures and shake hands. Each was excited to share their experiences to wine lovers eager hear them. I was a sponge.
On my second night in Napa, spent from a day of touring, I sat at the bar of a small café, enjoyed a bowl of pasta and a bottle of '94 Viader. I figured I’d get scolded for the expense when dad got the expense report. You’re only young once. Sequoia Grove, St. Supery, Signorello, Robert Mondavi and Sterling had taken their toll on my feet, palate, patience and tolerance of mediocrity. Remember I said that Napa can be a lot like Hollywood? Don’t forget the tourist. Yes, I realize the irony in that I, myself, was a tourist. But I knew what I was doing, an insider. Halfway through my bowl of pasta, a man, I remember that he wore linen trousers and a Hawaiian shirt, sat down next me.
"You seem awfully young to know about that wine." He said. He was commenting on my choice of Viader, then a rather small cult producer
"My father taught me well." I replied. "I'm in the business"
"No kidding. What do you do?"
"My family owns a small wine shop in Connecticut. They're showing me the ropes. I take it you know this wine?" I offered him a glass.
"He did teach you well. Yes, I know the wine. I almost always order it when I’m here. It’s the secret value on the list.”
“It certainly is. So how do you know the wine?”
“I know the winemaker. I'm in the business too."
"Small world I guess.” I stared at him. ” What do you do?" I was arrogant and cocky in my youth.
"”Drop by tomorrow and I’ll show you. Just hand them this at reception”
He tucked the corner of his card face down under my bowl of pasta and gave the bartender a Benjamin for my dinner "Welcome to Napa kid. Nice talking with you." He slipped away to greet his dinner companions who had just arrived, leaving me bemused in what just occurred. The bartender smirked with an expression that read "rookie". I overturned his card, it read - Craig Williams, Winemaker, Joseph Phelps Vineyards. I stared into my glass of ‘94 Viader, confounded by the idea I had just shared a glass of wine with a winemaking icon. The only thought in my head, “That dude makes the Insignia. No way that just happen”.
The last 12 years have brought a tremendous amount of change to the California landscape. Yet its wines, winemakers and Hollywood appeal still offer young palates a gateway to the seduction of sophistication. Eventually, our palates grow with us as we mature. Old world regions such as Bordeaux, Barolo and Burgundy begin their seduction process. And yet, even as our palates mature, Napa Cabs are still just as dangerously appealing. From time to time, even a 30 something like me reverts to those younger years when we were easily seduced by the beauty of Cabernet fruit. Napa Cab keeps me grounded, reminds me of where I started, and all that is possible. I can still be seduced by a good Napa Cab. But now? Now I’m sure to take two Advil and a glass of water before slipping into the night. The headaches, cold bed and empty pack of smokes are gone from my life. Though I was at the Highline Ballroom recently to see Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds share a bill with Allen Stone. Anybody got a light?