Notes from the Wine Cellar

The Problem with Big Napa Cabs


The other night some friends came for dinner, and they brought a big beautiful Napa Cab.  It presented a major problem at dinner.  Why?  Can you guess?  It has to do with being a team player.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the perfect Napa Cab as much as the next unadventurous wine lover.  When I first moved to Northern California’s Bay Area, I was making almost a monthly pilgrimage to the Stags Leap District.  

So hear me out.  Let’s take a piece of simple white bread.  Any bread.  A crust of baguette, say.  Now eat this crust.  Now let’s say I give you something else to eat.  Say, an olive, or a slice of fresh ripe tomato.  A piece of chicken.  Even a piece of cake, or some ice cream.  Really you could eat anything after eating a piece of bread.  Right?  

Bread is a team player in the world of food.

Now let me give you a piece of superfine elegant rare chocolate.  Go ahead.  Take it.  Eat it.  Let it melt in your mouth.  Slowly absorb its flavors.  The bitter is softened by the sweet, is mellowed by the coffee and caramel, and rounded out by overtones of raspberry and vanilla.  Now . . . . what can I offer you?  

A piece of chicken?   

A tomato?

This is the “problem” I had the other night.  What do you do when friends bring a really nice Napa Cabernet over to dinner?  

Basically, you know you need to end with the Cab just like you know you need to end a meal with the lava chocolate cake.  But how exactly do you do that?  

I realize now that my culinary friends in California and I had an understanding. They brought wine over to a meal with the knowledge that I may choose to serve it, or I may not.  It depended on the meal.  I would always serve whatever wine I thought suited the dinner.  

But suppose folks bring a REALLY nice Napa Cab over, or for that matter any really nice wine over.  If you don’t serve that wine, it's very likely that they won’t bring a nice wine the next time.  I totally get that.  So what’s to be done?  If you serve the Napa Cab right away to make sure it gets drunk, what the hell are you going to serve afterward?  But if you wait to serve it, and you serve more of a team player wine—say a European wine—or two, how do you know when you’ll get to the Cab?  And will your friends think you’re putting their wine off?

Such are the dilemmas of the world of wine!  Who knew that getting some old grape juice up into one's mouth and feeling the inevitable after effects could be so complicated?

Or let me rephrase that.  Such are the dilemmas of the world of perfect Napa Cabs.  Because really this is an opportunity for me to talk about the varieties of good wine that are available.   Did you know there are three thousand varietals just in the country of Italy?  

Napa Cabs really have one personality.  It’s like the perfect female image of the Renaissance--or of any age really-- that men pursued.  Whereas, in reality, there are many beautiful females.  (Or males.)  And there are many beautiful wines.  Take the wine I’m drinking tonight: Domaine de la Janasse, a Cotes du Rhone.  Initially, it came across as somewhat cold and bitter before the fruit was offered like the apple in the original garden, and then the bitter was reinterpreted as the herb of laurel, and now a new friend has emerged.  That’s the thing with European wines.  There are so many personalities.  And these wines are as liable to slap you across the face as not before you come around to them.  

But, oh, when you do.  

And then?  Am I allowed here to continue my larger point, or have I got myself in trouble?  I’ll risk it.  Because there is no one perfect type, the next one beckons.

Did Europe once go through their Napa Cab phase?  Back in Roman times?  

Yes . . . I'm implying they grew out of it.

(I have just told a friend about this dilemma, and she says, “serve a cognac after the perfect wine!”  She’s not French.  But she is European.  See. These Europeans really did have things figured out many years ago.  At least in some matters.)

wine, cabernet sauvignon, food