Sometimes the judges get the scoring just right.
That's what happened last month in Sacramento when the California Supreme Court unanimously upheld a state law that says you can't label a wine with the word Napa unless the grapes actually come from the Napa Valley.
It's doubtful that the eminent jurists sat down and tasted through the 2001 vintage of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon before they reached their conclusion. But if they had, they would have found plenty of evidence to support their decision to buck the Bronco Wine Co. and to tell it to stop messing with Napa.
Bronco, a large producer from California's Central Valley, for years has been marketing wines under such labels as Napa Ridge and Napa Creek even though the grapes are grown in less-acclaimed regions of the state.
In 2000, the California legislature passed a law that requires any wine that carries the name Napa to have 75 percent of the grapes used in its production come from Napa County. Bronco appealed, saying federal law pre-empted California from protecting the name Napa. A lower court agreed before the higher court overruled it and upheld the law.
It would come as no surprise if Bronco appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. We can leave the questions of federalism to the constitutional lawyers, but there's no question the California decision makes good wine sense.
There are vintages that could make someone question whether Napa is all that special. I wouldn't ship the justices a case of 1998s to support California's case.
But recent tastings of newly released 2001 cabernets show that Napa is a name whose integrity is well worth preserving. With the arguable exception of two tiny villages in Bordeaux, France - St. Julien and Pauillac - no place on Earth grows better cabernet than Napa in a good year.
So may it please the court, I am submitting the following tasting notes as a very friendly kind of amicus brief. All are from the Napa Valley and are cabernets or cabernet blends. They are listed in rough order of preference.
The prices may seem high, but when the famous reserve-quality wines come out next year, these will look downright reasonable.
2001 Karl Lawrence Cabernet Sauvignon ($60). This majestic wine from a little-known winery is so close to perfection it hurts to think there's so little of it. It's a bit reserved now, but the aging potential is exceptional. The fruit is reminiscent of a Taylor Fladgate port, with notes of chocolate and black pepper. The flavors just come in layers, and the finish goes on and on.
2001 Suhr Luchtel Cabernet Sauvignon, Sacrashe Vineyard ($65). Winemaker Gary Luchtel has crafted a real fruit bomb here. It explodes on the palate with flavors of blackberry, smoked meat, black pepper, chocolate and coffee. Like the Lawrence, it competes with wines twice its price.
2001 Lewis Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ($70). The combination of excellent structure and approachable fruit is a characteristic of the vintage, and the Lewis exemplifies that with complex but immediately appealing wine with flavors of blackberry, spices, chocolate and coffee.
2001 Madrigal Cabernet Sauvignon ($45). From one of the few Napa wineries owned by a Mexican-American family, this intense and complex wine with flavors of black cherry and blackberry is one of the great values from the valley. It's not a blockbuster but a truly elegant cabernet.
2001 Longfellow Cabernet Sauvignon ($60). Named after the Columbia neighborhood by two co-owners who attended Centennial High School, this wine from the cool region east of the city of Napa offers intense black-cherry fruit with hints of chocolate and sweet roasted red pepper.
2001 Amizetta Estate Reserve "Vigneto del Tacchino Selvatico" ($75). A soft, silky texture covers a steely structure in this gripping, long-finishing wine with appealing flavors of black cherry, chocolate and earth.
2001 Zahtila Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($27). Here's a rare bargain in Napa cabernet. It shows classic cedary and floral aromas, lush black-cherry fruit and hints of chocolate, coffee, blackberry and smoked meat.
2001 Spring Mountain Vineyard "Elivette" ($90). This proprietary blend with 89 percent cabernet is an elegant wine with plenty of black-cherry fruit and appealing vanilla flavors from oak barrels. With time, it should become more complex and appealing on a different level.
2001 ZD Cabernet Sauvignon ($50). This lush, ripe, plump cabernet offers smooth textures and generous flavors of black currant, black cherry, vanilla, spices and blackberry. It virtually begs to be drunk now but it can be cellared.
2001 Terra Valentine Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District, Wurtele Vineyard ($50). This wine is a bit tight now, but has excellent potential to develop into quite an elegant cabernet. For now its chief appeal is the aromatic vanilla flavor from oak.
2001 Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon ($28). Black cherry and herbs are the distinguishing flavors in this bold, structured wine that could clearly use five to 10 years of cellaring.
The 2001s appear to be coming onto the market rather slowly. Many appear to be jammed up behind 2000s that are not selling because that vintage has gotten an undeserved bad rap. Retailers should discount the 2000s, and consumers should respond by buying them. They're not as good as the 2001s, but there are a fair number of gems.
To read the California Supreme Courtruling,gotohttp://www.napavintners. com/legal/Supreme_court_ruling_S113136.pdf.