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10 Napa Valley Greats You Can Take to the Bank

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Today you will find a wine in the "Wine Talk" tasting notes that retails to the north of $100 a bottle. A couple of weeks back, I also recommended the new Insignia, from Napa's Joseph Phelps Vineyards, at a cool $200 a pop. Rest assured that when I visit my favorite wine merchant, I don't dwell exclusively in the high-rent district. I do, however, enjoy the occasional visit.

Many readers ask why some of these wines cost so much. There is no simple answer. If I laid it at the feet of supply and demand, an astute observer of the wine scene could point to any number of wines that are both obscure and pricey. I, too, roll my eyes whenever I come across a wine I've barely heard of that's priced in the $100 range.

You are absolutely right if you believe, as I do, that outstanding wines do not have to come with an outlandish price tag. Still, there are expensive wines that deserve our attention. They deserve our attention because of their rich history. They deserve our attention because their track record is impeccable. They deserve our attention because they've established a position of prominence and stature in our wine culture.

I do not drink wines of this ilk every day. Not even every month. But I like the fact that I either have a few such bottles in my cellar or can lay my hands on a bottle or two if an occasion arises that demands a memorable wine. Most of our iconic wines in this country are cabernet sauvignon-based reds from the Napa Valley.

For purposes of this discussion, let's leave out the ridiculously expensive so-called "cult wines," such as Screaming Eagle, Harlan and others of that genre. Those wines can fetch upward of $1,000 per bottle and are hot commodities on the auction circuit. This conversation will be limited to iconic wines people actually drink.

When I began to assemble a list of the exceptional wines that I would be willing to spring for at $100 or more a bottle, I assumed it would be a short list. It is actually quite long, so I've whittled it to my top 10. Bear in mind that these wines are all classics that were once relatively inexpensive, increasing in price only as their reputations grew.

1) Heitz Cellar's Martha's Vineyard cabernet sauvignon was among the Napa Valley's earliest stars. Wine enthusiasts were appalled when the 1974 vintage was introduced at the scandalous price of $15 a bottle. That was in 1976.

2) Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' Cask 23 cabernet sauvignon exemplified owner Warren Winiarski's description of Stag's Leap (the region) cab as an iron fist in a velvet glove.

3) Joseph Phelps Vineyards' Insignia was the Napa Valley's first proprietary Bordeaux-style meritage red blend. And its best.

4) Spottswoode Winery's Estate cabernet sauvignon helped put the legendary winemaker Tony Soter on the map.

5) Robert Mondavi Winery's reserve cabernet sauvignon is the flagship wine of the Napa Valley's flagship winery.

6) Opus One was the collaboration between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton. It was the perfect marriage of Bordeaux and the Napa Valley.

7) Beaulieu Vineyard's Georges de Latour private reserve cabernet sauvignon was for decades the Napa Valley's benchmark cabernet sauvignon.

8) Silver Oak Cellars' cabernet sauvignon emulated Beaulieu's embrace of American oak cooperage and went against all conventional wisdom because it was aged five years before release.

9) The Chateau Montelena Winery has been devoted to uncompromising winemaking since its inception, and to this day, its cabernet sauvignon is among the most cellar-worthy Napa Valley cabs.

10) Caymus Vineyards' Special Selection cabernet sauvignon has long been on everyone's shortlist of cabs that best demonstrate the concentration and complexity that can be achieved by cabernet sauvignon in the Napa Valley.

I've omitted a number of my favorite producers — such as Corison, Far Niente, Nickel & Nickel and Duckhorn — but only because of space constraints. My simple point is that there is a place for these super-premium wines. I would even argue that compared with the "cult wines," these Napa Valley icons are every bit as good while substantially less expensive.

Isn't that the very definition of value?

BEST VALUE

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale.

Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value.

Rodney Strong Vineyards 2009 Estate Chardonnay, Chalk Hill ($20) — For the price, the Chalk Hill Estate from Rodney Strong is likely one of the finest California chardonnays money can buy. When tasted recently, it was showing bright acidity with notes of citrus and pear fruit. Winemaker Rick Sayre described it as "tightly wound" because, I surmised, it seems austere when tasted beside the winery's reserve chardonnay. The trajectory is good, however, and I am certain this wine will soften and its depth and fruit complexity will emerge after another six to nine months in the bottle. For those who clamor for a California chardonnay made for food, this is your ticket, and the price is right. Rating: 90.

Liberty School 2008 Chardonnay, Central Coast ($12) — I often am asked for suggestions for wedding wines. The problem many people have is they want to treat their guests, especially those who appreciate the difference between good wine and swill, to something nice, but the size of the wedding party makes the per-bottle price a daunting issue. No problem. Liberty School has been delivering big flavor for small change for as long as I can remember, and its '08 Central Coast chardonnay will be a crowd pleaser. It offers ripe pear, apple and tropical fruit aromas, a luxurious, oily texture on the palate, and enough firm acidity to keep the flavors fresh. Party on! Rating: 87.

TASTING NOTES

Patz & Hall 2008 Chardonnay, Zio Tony Ranch, Russian River Valley ($60) — Call me crazy (and I know some will), but to my mind, this is one of the greatest vintages of Patz & Hall Zio Tony chardonnay ever made. The kicker — and this is where I may get some disagreement — is that you will have to wait three to five years (and I would wait longer) to taste this wine at its peak. Upon release, it is dominated by minerality and a solid core of acidity, which tends to subdue and mask the ample fruit. Once the acid softens a bit, the fruit will emerge and the wine will blossom, much the way a grand cru or premier cru white Burgundy evolves. The wine will gain palate weight and develop fruit complexity, notably ripe pear, with spice accents and a note of brioche. This is a fabulous effort from one of California's true grand cru chardonnay vineyards. Rating: 97.

Grgich Hills Estate 2006 Yountville Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($135) — This is Grgich's most expensive wine and undoubtedly its most stylized. The nose is pure blackberry liqueur, and the color is deep and dark, almost black. On the palate, the wine is ripe and voluptuous, exhibiting notes of blackberry, cassis and licorice, with hints of vanilla spice, leather and mocha. The tannins are nicely integrated. This wine has the weight, structure and complexity to evolve beautifully over a number of years. I would lay it down in the cellar and not even consider opening it for another five years. Some of the most incredible wines in my cellar today are Grgich Hills cabs from the 1990s! Rating: 96.

Kenwood Vineyards 2006 Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Valley ($60) — I ordinarily wouldn't commend a $60 wine as a bargain, but to every rule there is an exception. Kenwood could and probably should command a higher price for its 2006 Artist Series cabernet sauvignon. This is a rich, well-proportioned red that exhibits layers of black fruit aroma, with a particularly strong note of cassis and spice. The nose is vinous and genuine. On the palate, the wine is supple and smooth, with ripe, sweet flavors that persist through the finish. It is a wine that has heft in all of the right places and should provide pleasurable drinking through the end of this decade, at the very least. Rating: 95.

Patz & Hall 2008 Hudson Vineyard Chardonnay, Carneros ($55) — California chardonnay is often highly stylized, and those wines certainly can be as good and as enjoyable as any chardonnay you might drink. Then there are the vineyard-designate chardonnays from the top producers, such as Patz & Hall. Its 2008 vintage from Hudson Vineyard is a classic chardonnay produced in a natural fashion, right down to the wild yeast fermentation and sur lie aging. It is firmly structured and exhibits subtle layers of pear, pineapple and lemon oil, with an undercurrent of minerality and a long, sensuous finish. Rating: 95.

Patz & Hall 2008 Dutton Ranch Chardonnay, Russian River Valley ($39) — This is a very good vintage for Patz & Hall's Dutton Ranch chardonnay, but I say that because it turned out to fit my preferred profile for chards in general, with a lean frame, firm acid and a thread of minerality. The fruit is ample but subdued at this youthful stage. It truly needs another year or so to come into its own and show all of the tropical fruit, pear and spice nuance that is lurking now just beneath the surface. But because it is one of the least expensive chards in the P&H stable, most of it likely will be consumed well before its time. Rating: 92.

To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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