Thursday, August 13, 2009

Giving Napa a Chance

Cornelia was dutiful; that was the trouble with her. Dutiful and good: 'So good and dutiful,' said Granny, 'that I'd like to spank her.' She saw herself spanking Cornelia and making a fine job of it.
— "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" by Katherine Anne Porter

I rarely give Napa wines half a chance. I am — shall I admit it? — prejudiced. As in, I presume, prejudge. They're apt to be hot, overoaked, overripe, blah blah blah. This has too often been my experience, but my experience is limited.

I felt it was time to confront my prejudice. To experience more.

So I shelled out the clams on a 2004 White Rock Claret, a sustainably-grown blend of 60% cabernet sauvignon, 20% merlot, 15% cabernet franc, and 5% petit verdot from north- and west-facing vineyards in the Napa foothills in the Stag's Leap Range. "We have never used pesticides," say the Vandendriessche family on their web site, and "avoid the use of herbicides." I'm also pleased that the wine bottle is not overly heavy.

Craig Camp recently noted that "cabernet franc is packed with umami," and that "its 'umami' effect on cabernet sauvignon cannot be overstated. A dollop of cabernet franc 'lifts' the nose and expands the finish on many a cabernet." That's certainly the case here, as this is a very well balanced wine that delivers a wide range of aromas and flavors with, yes, umami characteristics. I find licorice, cocoa, soy sauce, mint, tobacco, blackberry, and even a subtle high note of cranberry. The nose is both sweet and brothy, and it's quite velvety and rich on the palate but not at all heavy, thanks to its low yet still fresh acidity, and this shows an admirable streak of brothy minerality on the finish.

This White Rock Claret is darn tasty, and as it's not at all hot, overoaked, or overripe, I'm pleased that it overruns these prejudices. In fact, I think there are many lovely things about this wine.

So why am I not excited? One problem is that it lacks depth; all the action is on the front of the palate. Another is that the lovely fruit and umami characteristics are nicely integrated but they do not become more than the sum of their parts. Flavor and texture is emphasized at the expense of structure. And then there's the fact that the mouth turned swampy on night two — there goes what structure was there.

Most importantly, even at its peak the wine feels tame. Imagine if James had never crawled into that giant peach: his life would have been circumscribed by Sponger and Spiker. The White Rock Claret hits its marks but is not unbound. It's so dutiful that I'd like to spank it.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm just Granny Weatherall here, unappreciative, "tying up in hard knots." And she was, in the end, wrong about everything. I'm calling 'em like I see 'em, in any case.


Cabfrancophile said...

I had a similar experience with a Napa Cab. Now, I paid $15 at Trader Joe's, but its retail price before the distributor needed cash flow and sold to the lowest common denominator was a legit $60. It was good, very good, but flavor was front-loaded and indeed the focus was on texture. Aside from an off-putting medicinal quality on the finish, the typical bell pepper and herbal notes were absent. And the tannin levels were surprisingly low. Interestingly, micro-oxygenation is described as doing the following: smoothing the texture, rounding the mid-palate, softening tannins and mitigating herbacious flavors. This leads me to wonder how many Napa wines undergo this technique given how common experiences like yours and mine seem to be.

Wicker Parker said...

@CabFrancoPhile, thanks for the comment. Given the presence of mint and tobacco here, I'm not sure that the White Rock underwent micro-ox, or any other such intervention, but maybe so. In any case Clark Smith claims that half the wineries in California have used his reverse osmosis services (see

It's funny, I was thinking my next post should be about a wild rather than a tame wine, and what do I see is your most recent blog post? An entry on the Gorrondona Bizkaiko Txakolina Tinto. Now that is a half-feral wine, and wonderfully so, although I agree the price is just a touch high.