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Searching For The Next Big Thing And Missing An Obvious Point

By Stephen Eliot

It too often seems to me that, when pouring through contemporary wine commentary, be it professional or amateur, a disproportionate amount of the narrative is devoted to what is “new” rather than what is “good.” I accept that “new” has in many ways always been the bread and butter of journalism and that would-be writers and a new generation of experts seeking to make their marks need some sort of a hook that makes them stand out from the crowd, but the race to find the next big thing gets a bit soporific at times, and real revelation is rare.

What is most annoying to me, however, is the seeming requirement that praise for what is new must necessarily include snarky dismissals of a misdirected past and the wines that have for years achieved broad critical acclaim. It is not hard, when reading through much of the “new” wine journalism, to believe that most California winemakers have either sold their creative souls to a handful of self-serving critics or have abandoned their craft to the dictates of big business. Consumers are seen as witless and wandering and adrift in a cultural wasteland with little sense about what is good and what is not, and their love of Napa Valley Cabernet is, in particular, cited as proof.

It is an old and ever so monotonous story now; too ripe, too oaky, too rich and too expensive goes the mantra. We have been hearing it for forty years. And yet, for all the au courant claims that the days of Napa Cabernet are numbered, the wines continue to command attention from serious collectors and their prices have only continued to climb.

I dropped by the Masters of Wine American Cabernet Tasting in San Francisco at the beginning of the week, and out of an impressive spread of nearly one-hundred wines ranging in provenance from coast to coast, it not surprisingly turned out that those from Napa Valley were the stars of the show. Make no mistake, there were very fine examples to be had among the dozen or so Northwest offerings and a handful of nice wines from Sonoma and California’s Central Coast, but fully two-thirds of the bottles arrayed about the room, and arguably the most profound of the bunch, claimed Napa Valley as their homes.

There is no question but that these are exciting times for wine in general and American wines in particular, and there is much to be said for new wines, new regions and new winemakers, but there is real folly in the fashionable notion that what has been great no longer is. Great Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon remains the standard by which all other American versions will be measured for a good many years to come, and, judging from the reactions of those at the tasting, I am far from alone in that simple belief.


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