Wine Consumer


Napa Valley's Understudies

Wine Consumer Magazine, Tom Santos

I like what Anthony Bourdain wrote in Medium Raw about a sort of “reverse snobbery” beginning to permeate food and drink culture. It’s generally a good thing, prompting people to seek out the unquantified and “authentic” over the haute and established. People in Houston will drive an hour (myself included) from whatever part of suburbia to Chinatown, just to know what a real-deal Szechuan dinner tastes like instead of the local takeout.

Still, in a world where Pabst Blue Ribbon and roadside taco stands are doing gangbusters business, sometimes people will flock away from the good stuff in a hipster-ish dismissal of what is generally great. They’ll forsake a truly well-executed French meal for a food truck, not knowing they’re missing out on a lifetime experience that actually does live up to the hype.

As such, we'll be talking Napa Valley, the undisputed king of American wine. But I won't be talking Cab today: instead, it'll be a simple list of wines from the region that not nearly enough people try or pay attention, in an attempt to help people to try out something that normally gets eclipsed by the national attention of Cab, yet deserves just as much prestige.

For a dissertation on the region's Cab, feel free to check out last week's article here.


All together now: “I am NOT drinking any F^&*ing merlot!”

Yeah, but we ought to work on that. Aside from its shaky reputation among snobs as a cheap, inexpensive soft option (what I call “Moscato” syndrome), Merlot can be truly great from somewhere besides France. And in Napa, it can truly be something special to boot. Flora Springs in St. Helena makes an incredibly vibrant and bright version that gives way to an out-of-left-field rich tapestry of tannin, just begging for a good Filet Mignon.

It’s exclusion from this list is solely based on its popularity as whole throughout the nation. A former coworker, Michael Churchill (the Beverage Director of Masraff’s in Houston) posted something really smart recently: “Merlot is the Whitney Houston of wine: when it’s bad, it’s terrible. But when it’s great, it can’t be beat.”


As a start, we won’t be hitting the rich history of Meritage or any other Bordeaux-style Clarets like Dominus or Opus One. I’m talking about the leftovers.

Practically everybody in Napa has to grow Cab. It’ suicide not to unless you’re already established as being great at something else for decades, or even centuries. It’s where vineyards make their money because they know the words “Napa” and “Cab” does half the selling and creates a great return for you in a very expensive enterprise. The real secret is that a lot of grapes also go into Cab, especially considering only 75% in California can qualify as the full varietal. Chances are if it doesn’t say “100% Cab” on the label, it’s got something else in it.

Many people grow many things to cut their Cabs and to add complexity: Merlot, Malbec, Charbono, Petit Verdot, Cinsault, Mourvedre, etc. But, what to do with all the leftovers at Crushing? It’s silly to throw way all that hard work and money, so winemakers will throw a little something together with the hope of a quick sale or just something to drink at home.

Proprietary reds, as such, can be and are pretty much anything and everything. Whatever the winemaker’s got extra, be it Zin or Cab or that Carignane that they grew on a whim but in retrospect wasn’t such a hot idea, is fair play. Think of it as the BiBim Bap of wine: if it’s in your fridge and it still smells OK, it’s going in.

This is more or less the success story of wines like The Prisoner, creating something great out of leftovers. As such, its popularity exploded and rightly so: nothing like it existed before. A combination of dark fruit, layered tannins and a boatload of natural complexity helped vault Orin Swift Winery become the name it is today. Now you can find similar blends all around the Valley, and all are usually relatively cheap: the complexity and richness are a built-in bonus.


A perennial understudy, Cabernet Franc is famous the world over as one of the 5 Red Bordeaux components, all too important in creating those basil and earthy notes for the greats. Making it stand on its own, however, is considerably more difficult and takes high skill to make the stuff stand out. Without that, it’s practically undrinkable.

Luckily, a few have taken up the call in Napa, exploiting the strengths of Cab Franc into a wine that expounds upon what Merlot can often fail to. Its high acid and light tannin makes it one the only red on this list to be best drunkwithoutfood. All the flavors very well can complement food, but you’re really best off simply enjoying this on your porch with your feet up and without a care in the world.

There are a few to choose from, but the best, by far, in my opinion would be the Chappellet Pritchard Hill Cabernet Franc. That’s a bit of a cheat, considering that it’s technically a blend, but the wine honestly needs it to make it truly stand out from the pack. An incredibly robust burst of basil, smoke and oak, it’s easy to mistake this one for a high-end Cab. It’s a great substitute for the same, and improves any other meal just as well.


The heartbeat of the Rhone region, Syrah has roots in Napa from the beginning. In the interest of full disclosure, most of California’s best Syrahs are grown in Sonoma or the Central Coast. However, Napa never is far behind. Their king effort, Shafer Relentless, actually took top honors as Wine Spectator’s number one wine of the year in the world in 2012. That rich soil that contributes to the ever-famous Cab also generally lends itself to making other great grapes, and Syrah is no exclusion.

It’ll also often do the job as well as its big sister when it comes to food pairing, sometimes even better. Pairing Cab is actually more difficult than people think. Its famous big, bold complexity and powerful tannins can easily overpower a meal that’s not equally rich. The Ribeye does just fine with Cab: the Filet Mignon does not.

But Napa Syrah, lighter and fruiter but with a very structured tannin and body, will often round out a meal more easily. The filet’s lean flavor isn’t overpowered, but rather enhanced by the aforementioned qualities. As such, it’s a phenomenal food wine, since it hits everywhere it needs to. Pasta Pomodoro con Salciccia is my personal favorite, as the spiciness of the sausage is balanced by the fruit as easily as the rich sauce is complemented by the pepper of the tannins, all while the flavor of whatever fresh handmade pasta you choose is washed away and brought back with every lush, grapey sip and delicious bite.

Are you hungry yet? Good, cause now you have a drink to go with it.


What becomes readily apparent when you visit Napa Valley is that the influence there is heavily Italian. Of course, their most famous wines are French and the Spanish brought the winemaking culture, but Italy reigns supreme. Everywhere you look, there's old-world chateaus that look like they came straight from The Godfather, roadside olive oil and fruit stands, true Italian-style coffee made to order, and the food… Ah, the food—I’ll leave it your imagination. Trust me, you can’t over-romanticize it.

Disappointingly, however, there’s not nearly enough Sangiovese grown here. Nevertheless, what’s grown is gold, as the conditions are practically identical to Tuscany. It can’t be called Chianti, but the spirit and flavor are very similar. They’ll even put a few in one of those old corny wicker bottle-baskets, if you’re in the mood (rest assured, I’m guilty as charged).

There’s not many weak links around: if you grow Sangiovese, you tend to be serious about it and put some hard work and love into the same. It’s a solid bet that if you go somewhere where they grow it that it’ll be fantastic. I missed the experience of the tasting on-site, but I absolutely love Antica’s (a California subsidiary of the world-famous Antinori) version, as raspberry and chocolate-y rich as any other wine you would find in the Old World.

It’s hard to pin down specifics of every winery: just like in Tuscany, everybody has a different method and can produce vastly different wines. My advice is to go somewhere and try one for the hell of it. Have an adventure and surprise yourself!


Just like proprietary red, Rosés can be made from damn near anything. And, in Napa, that’s a very good thing, considering what they have to work with.

Cab, Cab Franc, Syrah, etc… they’re all fair game to make a good Rosé. For those unfamiliar to the process, Rosé is made by only partially taking the skins out a normally pure maceration. However, the skin is where all the complexity and flavor lies. Therefore, the better the red is, the better the Rosé.

Like proprietary red, the winemakers will usually just take what's left over to make something great. However, it’s considerably more difficult to market. Also suffering from Moscato syndrome, Rosé often has to contend with being mistaken for White Zinfandel or simply dismissed for not being a Napa Valley Red. Napa Valley’s best efforts are red, true, but you can’t drink them all the time. This goes double, considering that we’re coming up on summertime.

Like Cab Franc, Rosé is best enjoyed by itself. However, it does pair exceptionally well with shellfish, particularly spicy variations. It’s crawfish season here in Houston, and that light fruitiness and cooling flavor may save your tongue from a particular spicy bug.

My favorite at the moment is hands-down a Sangiovese Rosé by Flora Springs called Floreal. They only make it and sell it in small batches at the winery, so get on over there if you can and grab as many as you can carry. It absolutely floored (no pun intended) my girlfriend and I during a tasting, just for being such an incredibly vibrant and smooth ride as a red, but in a completely different way. Pure peaches and cream on a sunny day, it was easily the biggest surprise of our trip and one of our best delights.

2. Zinfandel

The hometown hero. Zin is the best appreciated by the understudies due to its rich history and even richer flavor. Vibrant, dark, spicy and full of personality, it’s hard to go wrong with it at pretty much any vineyard you go to.

I’ve yet to taste a bad Zinfandel from Napa, and it’s looking increasingly unlikely. The only advice I can give is to watch out for one small trap: the term “Old Vine”. You might have heard the term thrown around, denoting wines made from vines preceding Prohibition. As such, they produce much smaller but far better yields: jammier, more tannic, spicier. Everything good becomes great. In premium Zins, this is the earmark of the best of the best.

So what’s the problem? There’s no legal definition for “Old Vine”. In reality, it could be as old as 150 years, or only 10. It’s not often that this trap happens, and those who are found out are called out by the community with swiftness. If you’re out tasting, just go look at the vines themselves. If they’re old and gnarled looking, you’re in solid shape. If not, it’s probably still good, but don’t put down the extra $20 for the “Old Vine Reserve”. If you want a truly great one, Chase Cellars makes an incredibly deep, dark and sexy version that’ll make your jaw drop. It was absolutely stunning.

But for me, my loyalty is always going to be to Ca’Momi. After a very long delay with our rental car at SFO and a subsequently lost reservation at the French Laundry, my girlfriend and I were not off to a good start on our long-awaited trip to the Valley. The proprietor at our B&B pointed us to Oxbow Public Market and told us to go to Ca’Momi: we were assured great pizza and wine to help us unwind from an increasingly unpleasant day.

And by God, did they deliver. Hands down the best Neapolitan-style pizza and arancini I’ve had since Italy, the only thing that could’ve complemented it better was the amazing wine they served. Their Zinfandel by itself was rich and jammy without being overwhelming, but even better is when they blend it into their Rossi di Napa on tap (a blend of all their reds, but primarily Zin). Best of all? It’s readily available in Houston, with the Rossi only costing 9 bucks.

And with that, our trip was saved and they got 2 loyal customers forever.


The biggest of California’s big reds, Petite Sirah is easily the most underestimated California red on the planet. Bold, dark and incredibly rich, Petite Sirah can easily place on the scale of California’s best efforts, period, even at times eclipsing Cabernet Sauvignon. However, not many seem to truly appreciate or even know it's history

A fairly new grape produced in the Rhone, Petite Sirah is a hybrid of Syrah and Peloursin. It’s known as Durif in other countries, named after the eponymous Dr. Francois Durif who discovered the crossbreed in his nursery. Almost all wines share the same deep blue and black fruits, dark oaky tannins and a near-black color that stains the glass. In addition, California is one of the few areas even able to grow it, due to its susceptibility to wet weather.

So why does it eclipse Cab at times? Simple: when done right, it does everything Cab does, but better.

Deep, dark complexity? Check. Tones of supple oakiness? Check. Lots of fruit on the palate? Check. Tannins that allow it to age for 20+ years? Check. Same price tag? Negative, friend. Once again, it’s something you can get much more affordably than a big Cab.

The food pairing is more difficult. Only your biggest, heartiest dishes can match this bad boy. Prime Ribeye, Barbecue Pork, Beef Bourguignon, Lasagna… all the best things in life. Or, as I like to recommend to my guests, the perfect alternative to dessert.

I can appreciate Porto, Cognac and Sauternes, and I even really enjoy them on occasion. But, the truth is I usually don’t like sweetness in my wine, even from a finely aged VSOP or tawny port. Yet all the jammy, vanilla oaky juiciness of a Petite Sirah provides an indelibly rich and very definitive finality to the meal. It’s a fine substitute, or accompaniment, to a good cigar and puts the button on your night.

The best one I’ve had so far is through the efforts of Jason Elkin (Video Producer of Wine Consumer) at David Fulton Winery. Super rich and tannic an absolute smash to the palate that leaves little room for anything else (in a very good way). The perfect combination of lush fruit and vanilla oak, I couldn’t pick a better example than someone from the home team.

That’s my list, friends. As always, I hope it helps people branch out and try out something discover something new and cool, and helps bring some back in the fold. Just because something is of the Old Guard and has been doing something for a long time isn’t a bad thing: quite the opposite, in fact. There’s a reason that they’ve been around forever, and it’s because they do what they do exceptionally well. They were here before us and they’ll be here after. So don’t miss out on it while we get the chance.


Tom Richard Santos

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