RUTHERFORD, Calif. — Here, from the alluvial loam of the Napa Valley floor, the prototypal California red wine is made. It is Cabernet Sauvignon, the state's greatest achievement in wine making to date, and it is best seen in the pioneer of the variety, Beaulieu Vineyard.
Beaulieu, BV to its friends, has made classically structured wine from the Cabernet grape for more than a century, and its strength in the 1980s is that it hews to a house style that rarely varies, except for minor vintage variations. It is a style that emphasizes the warmth, herbal complexity and lean earthiness of this region.
A Richer Style Emerged
In recent years, however, a bigger, richer, more concentrated style of Cabernet has captured the fancy of wine lovers. Usually produced from mountain-grown grapes, wines of this style are tannic and astringent, and, in my view, age erratically. Some improve; many die a painful death while still in youth.
BV could have adopted this brawny style, but has assiduously avoided it, partly for fear of alienating the loyalties. Meanwhile, Cabernets like Dunn Vineyards, William Hill, Diamond Creek, and Mayacamas win applause and are in great demand.
I heard a wine maker recently say, "If they (wine lovers) want big chewy wines, maybe I ought to give it to them." And I shuddered at the thought of more tannic monsters wilting stemware.
Thank goodness the Hess Collection Winery came along to assuage my feelings, and to convince me that Cabernet producers aren't all being led down a dead end street. Tasting the first three vintages of Hess wines, I was drawn to the style that wine maker Randle Johnson has fashioned: very concentrated fruit flavors hinting at berries and cassis, unlike the more delicate, herbal, nuanced BVs.
A key thread linking these two most different wines is finesse. The Hess wines are harder than BVs, but both are far more approachable than so many other new, "hot" Cabernets. And wine makers for both wineries say they both aim to avoid the harsh tannins that can produce a hard edge and teeth-jarring astringency.
That thin link between these wines runs against the dissimilarities, which are obvious.
For one thing, BV grows its best Cabernet in the valley floor, in an area called the Rutherford Bench, which has been compared with the greatest growing regions of France. Hess gets all its grapes from volcanic soil on rocky, steeply sloped Mt. Veeder to the west and south of here. There, the soil yields far more deep, dark, opaque wines.
Also, Hess got started making wine in 1983; BV has been at it since the 1880s, and the 50th Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet, from 1986, now resides in barrels.
And those barrels are all American oak, which impart a noticeably different character from the French oak barrels that Hess uses exclusively.
These differences aside, BV and Hess remind me of quite single-minded properties in terms of one element: style. Both have set out to make a Cabernet that never wavers in terms of approachability.
"We want to make a wine with a style people will recognize from year to year," said Bob Craig, general manager at Hess. "We would hope that 50 years from now, people will be able to pick up a glass of Hess Cabernet and recognize it." And he said the wine would show finesse at an early stage.
That is little more than a paraphrase of what BV chairman Legh Knowles has been saying for years at BV. And in tasting the latest BV Cabernet the other day I reminded myself that BV was maintaining this style so that reliability became a factor in how the winery is seen.
"Call us innovative traditionalists," said BV president Tom Selfridge, who spoke of the research the winery is doing into clonal selection of Cabernet Sauvignon.
BV's use of American oak barrels in which the Cabernet is aged is sometimes questioned, since Americans have long since voted in favor of the flavors found in French oak. Even so, BV along with Ridge, Silver Oak Cellars and a few others remain advocates of American oak aging, and Selfridge staunchly defends the practice.
"We don't use much new oak," which gives strong oak flavors to wine, he said. "The barrels are of various ages, and some of them are 15 years old," and the older ones are used to help make the wine more mature rather than impart oak character.
(Those who criticize the use of American oak for wine often do so because new oak is used and the flavors new oak gives wine are far more obvious than those gained from older barrels.)
Donald Hess gained his appreciation of French wine in Bern, Switzerland, where he is an art collector and entrepreneur. (He heads a company with 13 subsidiaries and is active in agriculture, mineral water and real estate.) Since French wine is aged in French barrels, that's the taste he acquired.