For many wine lovers, Napa is a four-letter word for the good life. It’s such a mecca for food and wine tourism that you could call it Disneyland for oenophiles.
The small area with a massive reputation is likely the first name to be come to mind when thoughts turn to California wine regions, despite the fact it produces a mere 4 per cent of California’s annual output. This year, however, the region’s winemakers are wondering how much of the harvest they’ll be able to salvage following the devastating impact of the flames and smoke from the Glass Fire, which destroyed or damaged as many as 20 wineries and may have rendered large volumes of cabernet sauvignon and other grapes useless for winemaking due to smoke taint.
The Glass Fire ignited Sept. 27 east of Calistoga at the northern end of Napa County and spread into nearby Sonoma and Lake counties. It gained strength as two additional fires started and merged with it, forcing 70,000 people to evacuate, including everyone living in Calistoga, and quickly became the most destructive fire that Napa has experienced. The five-star Calistoga Ranch resort was extensively damaged, and the building that housed the three-Michelin-starred Restaurant at Meadowood was destroyed. Full containment is expected next week.
Early reports on social media sound bleak. While vineyards were largely spared, as they serve as effective firebreaks due to their green and moist conditions, many wineries have lost inventories of finished, bottled wine, as well as this year’s and last year’s crop, which were works in progress in cellars. Some winemakers are estimating that less than 25 per cent of the crop will be bottled, but it’s too soon to make an accurate assessment.
Even before the tragedy of the Glass Fire, Napa was struggling. Tourism numbers were way down due to the pandemic. Heat spikes during the growing season and hazardous air quality from earlier wildfires seriously affected the winemaking and business prospects for the year. Just as winery traffic was starting to rebound, with hotel numbers improving to nearly 50 per cent occupancy for the first time since March, the Glass Fire erupted.
While it’s impossible to predict when Canadian wine lovers will be able return to taste and explore in Napa, they can show the region and its wineries some support with a purchase. In Ontario, the LCBO has launched a special premium Napa Valley release online through vintagesshoponline.com, which includes some seriously collectible and splurge-worthy selections should you be looking for gift ideas or planning a big night in. This week’s recommendations also include two more affordably-priced reds to consider.
Clos du Val Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (United States)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $80
Established in 1972, this venerable winery can be counted on for classically made cabernet that offers layers of nicely integrated fruit and oak-derived flavours in a generous and refreshing style. The mix of floral, fruit and spice notes on the nose is really alluring. Drink now to 2030. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in British Columbia and Alberta, $65 in Nova Scotia.
Cakebread Cellars Benchland Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (United States)
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $223
Made in a concentrated and age-worthy style, this rich and rewarding red wine is produced with fruit from two of Cakebread’s prime vineyard locations in Rutherford and Oakville. Made with 100-per-cent cabernet sauvignon, this offers terrific complexity with a core of ripe fruit nicely accented by floral, herbal and chocolate notes. It’s a smooth and incredibly structured wine that represents one of the best wines from Cakebread’s consistently strong portfolio. Drink now to 2032. Available in Ontario.
Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (United States)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $79.95
Freemark Abbey traces its history back to 1886, when it was one of the original 13 wineries operating in Napa Valley. The 2015 vintage was produced by winemaker Ted Edwards, who recently retired after working at Freemark Abbey for 40 years. Full-bodied and richly structured, this is a serious expression of cabernet, with a core of dark fruit, firm tannins and a persistent finish. It’s built to last. Drink now to 2035. Available in Ontario at the above price, $59.99 in British Columbia (2016 vintage), various prices in Alberta
Stags' Leap Napa Valley Petite Sirah 2016 (United States)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $59.95
While it produces serious cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and other grape varieties more closely associated with the Napa Valley, Stags' Leap has a storied reputation for petite sirah. This is the introductory range, which reveals the aromatic earthy and tea-like character of the variety along with distinctive blackberry and cherry fruit notes. Old-vine petite sirah comprises the bulk of the blend, with grenache, syrah and other varieties added for complexity and balance. Drink now to 2030. Available at the above price in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, various prices in Alberta, $57.95 in New Brunswick.
Pahlmeyer Jayson Red 2017 (United States)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $68
Jayson is a secondary label for Pahlmeyer, whose iconic Proprietary Red was created in a bid to become California’s equivalent of a Bordeaux first growth. The exciting 2017 blend is mostly cabernet sauvignon and merlot with a surprising measure of petite sirah (15 per cent) and a dash of cabernet franc (4 per cent). The finished wine is smooth, ripe and rewarding, with really appealing texture and length. Drink now to 2024. Available in Ontario.
Gérard Bertrand Terroir Languedoc 2017 (France)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $16.95
Here’s an accessible and satisfying red from the south of France that makes the most of its spicy and earthy complexity and enjoyable core of berry and plummy fruit. A blend of syrah and grenache, this is nicely structured and smooth. Drink now to 2023. Available in Ontario at the above price, $21.49 in New Brunswick.
Three Finger Jack Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (United States)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $24.99
A new label from Delicato Family Wines, Three Finger Jack stands out on the shelves thanks to its squat and sturdy jug bottle shape. It’s made in a crowd-pleasing sweet and concentrated style, with assertive cedary and vanilla notes mingling with jammy blackberry flavours. Some perceptible sweetness contributed to the velvety texture, full body and decent finish. Available in British Columbia at the above price ($19.99 until Oct. 31).
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