Wine Consumer

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SONOMA AND NAPA CABERNET SAUVIGNON: CAVEAT EMPTOR

Wine Consumer Magazine, Tom Santos
04/24/2014

A quick tip from an industry insider: most times when you see a wine list, it’s a bevy of traps and fools’ gold that you’ll want to avoid. As a server and somm-in-training, the one pitfall I see people fall into more often than not (and a very expensive trap it can be) is Cabernet Sauvignon.


America’s favorite high-end varietal, Cab is a staple of every restaurant, tavern and wine bar that wants to make money. How do we turn that desire in practically pure profit? Simple: we know that most people aren’t familiar with the nuances and differences of the many regions and subregions of California, yet are still willing to cough up that extra $50 (or $500) per bottle to impress, celebrate, etc. long before the point thatthey’re willing to admit that they don’t know what to get. The service industry thrives off it, and it’s paid my rent more than once.

But still, there’s not much I hate more at work than to see someone’s face when I hand them the bill and see the look of horror when realize just how much they overspent.

What they don’t often know is that even just being familiar with the differences between the two sister regions of Sonoma and Napa can help them sidestep that pitfall. Armed with this knowledge, you can learn how to navigate your average wine list without succumbing to some very costly mistakes and get the most bang for your buck.

Sonoma County has long since been an understudy to Napa, but that’s been changing recently for good reason. It boasts soils, climates and talent that rival Napa, and in some years can even surpass it. Similar to something I touched upon last week, by lacking the star power of its big sister, Sonoma has had to work harder for decades now to earn its place and subsequently created a culture of wine that thrives on its boutiques and small-production wineries versus the big staples of Napa.

(There certainly are exceptions to the rule, however. JordanB.R. Cohn and Louis Martini (Monte Rosso Vineyard) are just a few of the extremely popular big “name” wineries that call Sonoma home.)

Aside from all that, the wines can be as delicious as your average Napa Cab without the high price tag. That $125+ you’ll drop for the privilege of Cakebread (which is, in fact, pretty damned delicious) can be far better spent on a small no-name Sonoma winery at $75. Even better, the subregions in Sonoma are even more wildly different in what they produce than Napa’s, and it provides a great opportunity to try a different take on your favorite flavors. A dusty dryness permeates a Cab from Chalk Hill, while Dry Creek produces deep chocolate-covered cherry and cocoa notes as knights Valley fills your palate with a warm mahogany and mint, just to name a few. It’s when I see people happiest, discovering something new and exciting that they didn’t realize even existed. It’s what helps turn that look of buyers’ remorse at check-drop to a nod of “Fair Enough”.

Napa Valley, however, is decidedly not resting on its laurels. For every big-name winery plying its trade as a marketing giant, there’s a new and exciting vineyard or winemaker trying something new, bold and inexpensive. It’s just not always Cab they’re trying out. There’s an equally rich history of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Merlot, even Sangiovese and other Old-World varietals which are every bit as good as Cab, if you have a cost-conscious mind.

But let’s say you’re set on Cab. It’s an anniversary, a birthday, an important sales dinner. I can absolutely make that quality and pedigree happen for you, no problem whatsoever… for a price.

If there’s one idea I wish people would divorce themselves of, it’s the notion of buying a cheap Napa Cab at a restaurant. Without naming names, $20-40 at your average establishment (unless you’re very lucky) isn’t going to buy you much more than plonk wrapped in a pretty label. You’re still overspending, most likely on a bottle you can get your local grocery store for $15 at most. It’s a weird oxymoron, but you almost have to spend extra to not overspend on a Napa Cab.

This isn’t to say there aren’t boutique wineries in Napa.There are several, like White Rock Vineyards or Fotinos Bros,that produce incredibly vibrant, rich and delicious Cabs at half the price of their competitors. But the majority of truly quality juice from Napa is going to be expensive, and even more so at a restaurant. The tradeoff is that quality of what you get can’t be matched by anyone else. Napa Valley is number one for a very simple reason, and the reason is that they produce the very best of the best Cabernet Sauvignon in the world.

There is no equivalent for Scarecrow or Screaming Eagle anywhere else, not even in a region as excellent as Sonoma. The level of quality demanded from the region is incredibly high and you have to match it or watch your business wither and die on the vine. On top of all that, you’re also buying a safe bet. Getting a no-name can be incredibly rewarding, but also a gamble. When you drop $350 on Shafer Hillside Select, you know what you’re buying is going to be some of the best Cab that Planet Earth can produce.

But does this play to your advantage when you’re going out for your 10th anniversary to the nicest steakhouse in town? Absolutely. When you sit down in that lovely velvet banquette and crack open that beautiful leather-bound list for a California Cabernet, you’re going to know that if you don’t have a ton to spend to try out the specialty brand from Sonoma. Conversely, you also know that if you want to impress that client for a multimillion deal to not be stingy and to break out the CaymusSpecial Selection. It’s all about the experience you want to create or remember.

Talk to your server or the somm. Chances are they don’t want you to see you overspend either, particularly if you’re a decent person who talks to them like a human being. They’ll point you towards that super-rich Block 533 from Dry Creek with the supple oak and long tannins, or the Highway 12 Sonoma cherry chameleon on the lower-end. Or, if money’s no object, they may have an extra ’07 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard from St. Helena in Napa that they’ve been waiting to sell to the right guy who knows what they’re talking about.

Ultimately, it’s your money and your choice to make. I just don’t like to see people fall face-forward into a high bill they don’t deserve or, even worse, to get turned off by the whole experience and get soured on the idea of buying wine. It’s a wonderful experience if done right and one that no one, no matter how much money is in their pocket, should miss out on.

Cheers,

Tom

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