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Originally published Saturday, July 9, 2011 at 7:04 PM

Wine Adviser

Washington cabs stand tall against Napa

Ask almost any sentient wine-guzzling being on the planet where the best American cabs are made and they will immediately bellow "Napa!" This despite the irrefutable fact that Washington has older cabernet vines, a higher percentage of high-scoring wines at lower prices, and a climate more suitable for showing the nuances of soil and site.

Special to the Seattle Times

Pick of the week

Magnificent Wine Company 2009 Steak House Cabernet Sauvignon; $10

More fruit forward than most Washington cabs, this brings together a juicy mix of blackberry, black cherry, cassis and coffee flavors. The tannins are tight and polished, with pleasing depth. Think Bordeaux rather than California in style. (Distributed by Odom)

quotes My goodness. You commenters must be beer drinkers. You don't show the proper... Read more
quotes Ever tried to call a cab in Napa? They're pretty rare there. Read more
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JUST BECAUSE I believe, in all sincerity, that Washington state cabernet sauvignon, from a great vineyard in a great vintage, is as good or better than any in the country doesn't mean I get to take my critical batter's eye off the Napa-thrown ball.

Ask almost any sentient wine-guzzling being on the planet where the best American cabs are made and they will immediately bellow "Napa!" This despite the irrefutable fact that Washington has older cabernet vines, a higher percentage of high-scoring wines at lower prices, and a climate more suitable for showing the nuances of soil and site. Forget all that. Napa has the buzz.

On my last swing through the storied valley I did taste some remarkably good cabs. I particularly remember a wonderful lineup at Kapcsandy. Their current (2008) releases, sourced from the replanted and renovated State Line vineyard, just nailed a couple of 95-point scores in Wine Enthusiast magazine, from my colleague Steve Heimoff. Good stuff I'm sure. Suggested retail: $90 and $165 a bottle.

Other high-scoring Napa cabs recently praised by the magazine included Flora Springs ($100), Venge ($125), Araujo ($275), Au Sommet ($250), Staglin ($250), Joseph Phelps ($250), Meander ($120), Tom Eddy ($115) — you get the drift. High scores and three-figure prices seem to go hand-in-hand. When I run a similar search for high-scoring Washington cabs, I find not a single wine over $90, and most fall between $35 and $60.

How do some of the better known, more widely available and similarly priced Napa cabs compare? I tasted some to find out. In the lineup were 2006, 2007 and 2008 wines from Silver Oak, Grgich Hills, St. Clement, Freemark Abbey, Hess Collection and Folie à Deux. Their suggested retail prices ranged from $24 to $60 or so.

Here's what I discovered.

These Napa cabs were a seductive crew. They could all be called silky. There were usually fairly small percentages of other Bordeaux grapes (and occasionally syrah or petite sirah) in the blend. A few included mountain fruit — grapes from steeper, higher-altitude sites on Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain and Atlas Peak. That is a good thing. Mountain fruit tends to show more grip, more structure, more acid than the fat, fleshy flavors from the valley floor.

None of these wines were the top tier. These are midlevel bottles in the Napa scheme of things. They used a percentage of new oak barrels, somewhere between a third and two-thirds. The barrel flavors were easily spotted, and quite delicious — chocolate and caramel, mocha and toast. But when tasted against the ringer I threw in — a 2007 Woodward Canyon Artist Series cab ($49) — they seemed, as Mrs. G so aptly put it, like they had a big sweater on. A nice sweater, but it comes between you and the flavor.

I had the same impression. If these wines were paint chips, they would fall somewhere between the pastels and the darker, earth tones. Broad and approachable, but not deep. In contrast, the Woodward Canyon (and I could have chosen any one of dozens of others in the price range) was dense, deep, packed with layers that had to be noodged out.

Among the Napa bottles I most liked the Grgich ($60), now all biodynamic fruit, with nice details of herb and earth. Also the three from Hess: Allomi ($28), 19 Block ($36) and Mount Veeder ($48). Hess often delivers a bit extra in its price range. But all in all, this palate remains solidly anchored in Washington.

The revised second edition of Paul Gregutt's "Washington Wines & Wineries" is now in print. His blog is www.paulgregutt.com. Email: paulgwine@me.com.

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About Wine Adviser

My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.
paulgwine@me.com

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