Napa Valley Champions—and Challengers

Silver Oak, Opus One, The Prisoner, and Caymus: Ever since we started the Wine Access Unfiltered podcast in October, just about every one of our guests has mentioned one of those four all-time classics as a go-to favorite.

This has given us the opportunity not only to chat about some of Napa Valley’s marquee wines, but to introduce these wine lovers (and our listeners) to some new must-haves. These bottles might not have earned icon status yet, but they deliver the same characteristics that have made the classics such classic, from the elegance of Opus to the silkiness of Silver Oak.  

If You Love Caymus, Try Anderson Conn Valley or Bevan

In the Napa Cabernet ballgame, Caymus is a fastball down the middle—an opulent and plush expression of Cabernet purity framed in French oak, that has won over wine lovers from coast to coast. Nearly 50 years after the winery’s founding, Caymus Napa Valley and Caymus Special Selection are steakhouse staples, so it’s no wonder so many wine lovers have—if not a cellar full of Caymus—a million fond memories of their introduction to this exemplar of Napa Cabernet. 

When we (and Wine Access members) want to introduce Cabernet lovers to some unimpeachable and unapologetically rich Napa Cabernet that will delight in the same way Caymus always has, our minds go straight to two swaggering, swashbuckling winemakers. The first is Todd Anderson, whose Anderson Conn Valley winery in St. Helena has been crafting hedonistic wines that remind us of Napa’s nascent days—and fortunately, three decades after the winery’s founding, their prices still remind us of the golden age.  

The other is seven-time Wine Advocate 100-point winemaker Russell Bevan, who makes impeccable Cab under his Bevan Cellars and Adversity Cellars labels. Bevan seeks out some of the best and most challenging (to the vines) sites in Napa Valley. The result, after he applies his golden touch, is as unforgettable in the same way as Napa Cabernet classics.

If You Love Opus One, Try Arietta Quartet 

There are what we’ll call Napa Cabs—the big, bold, rich, inky red wines that contain 100% Cabernet Sauvignon or perhaps a token amount of another grape—and then there are the classic, elegant, and age-worthy Bordeaux-style blends that make us think of the early days of Napa Valley—and make our minds go straight to Opus One. A project between the Mondavi and Rothschild families, it’s one of the most elegant expressions of Napa Valley you can get at any price. 

We adore Opus One, as well as sophisticated Bordeaux-style blends in the same style—and none hits the target more squarely than Fritz and Caren Hatton’s Arietta Quartet. Crafted by former Screaming Eagle winemaker Andy Erickson, it’s a Cabernet-dominant (about 70%) cuvée that brings the softening touch of Merlot, the herbaceousness of Cabernet Franc (one of Erickson’s true loves), and a touch of intensifying Petit Verdot. The Bordeaux inspiration is overt—before the Quartet name came along, it was dubbed “Claret”—and to deliver on that promise, the Erickson and the Hattons tap prime Napa Valley vineyards from Coombsville and Carneros in the south of Napa Valley, all the way to Calistoga in the north. 

One thing Quartet does not share with Opus One: the size of the production. Quartet is made in relatively miniscule amounts compared to iconic Opus One—so if you encounter a bottle, consider yourself lucky. Then drink it!

If You Love Silver Oak, Try A Classic Rioja

After nearly fifty years as one of the marquee red wines of Napa Valley, Silver Oak is one-of-a-kind—a Cabernet that is as recognizable by its aroma and taste as it is by its label. There is no other Napa Valley wine that matches Silver Oak’s combination of rich fruit, silky texture, immediate drinkability… and of course the signature notes of American oak, imparted by barrels crafted at the winery’s dedicated cooperage in Missouri. 

Fortunately for those who have been seduced by Silver Oak, the same charms can be found elsewhere in the wine world. We look to Reservas and Gran Reservas from the Rioja region of Spain, where the Tempranillo grape ripens to rich perfection in the arid heat. Despite the fact that the country shares a border with France, it’s tradition to age Rioja in American oak, and our very favorite styles see extended barrel aging—one year for Rioja and a Silver Oak-like two for Gran Reservas. This gives the wine time to soften in texture, and take on the beautiful flavors and aromas of the oak. By the time the wine is rested in bottle and released a few years later, you’ve got a ripe and rich red wine that’s oozing with American oak charm—one that will cellar beautifully, but is absolutely begging to be opened right away. Sound like a certain iconic Napa Cabernet? 

If You Love The Prisoner, Try Bedrock Wine Co.

It’s good to be the king, but it might be better to be The Prisoner. The California Red Blend pioneered by Dave Phinney has not only won loyal fans away from marquee Napa Cabernets, but also seemed to create millions of red wine devotees out of thin air. There’s just something about the rich, vibrant, inky combination of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon (of course, that darkly fascinating label) that has proven impossible to resist. Unfortunately for most of the wineries that have tried to grab a piece of The Prisoner’s success, it’s also proven impossible to replicate. 

What made the early Prisoner bottlings special, in our opinion, were the exquisite old-vine vineyards from which it came. They’re the kind that imbue the grapes with impossible-to-replicate concentration—and the first place we turn for grapes like that is Bedrock Wine Co.. Their founder and winemaker Morgan Twain-Peterson, Master of Wine, has old-vine Zinfandel running through his veins, and he’s dedicated to making wines (mostly Zin, the key component in early Prisoner blends) from California’s oldest and most characterful vineyards. He’s even founded the Historic Vineyard Society, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving California’s oldest vineyards. Some of these sites have been producing grapes for more than a century. 

Morgan’s Bedrock wines are a journey in old-vine complexity. Vibrating with energy yet imbued with the wisdom of the ages, they show the old vines’ epic concentration—something that’s not to be mistaken for richness, brawn, or bluster. It’s the unmistakable taste of a vine that has channeled all of its energy all or its resources into the flavor of the grape. They are profound wines, they are captivating wines, perfect for those who honor The Prisoner—but might not want to be chained to it forever.