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Stressed-Out Vines Make Better Wines

Like the great French wines, the superb 2003 Oakville Ranch Napa Cabernet Sauvignon comes from a cool climate and elevated, rocky soil

Location, location, location.

And I bet you thought that well-worn phrase referred to the world of real estate.

Well, perhaps it does, but it also applies, with equal veracity, to the world of wine, specifically to the location of the vineyard from which a particular wine comes.

Most of Napa Valley's pioneers planted their vineyards on the valley floor, where the soil was fertile, the land easy to work, and yields high. However, while these are conditions than can produce good wine, they rarely result in the best wine.

By contrast, all over the world, you often find this wine, the very best wine, wine with what I call the WOW! factor, that ability to amaze as well as please, comes not from the flat easy plains but the more challenging hill- or mountainside elevations.

Restrained Power

Poorer, rocky soil, lower temperatures—especially cooler nighttime temperatures—longer growing seasons and lower yields all lead to wines with those elusive, hard-to-define quality that mark great wine. Call it complexity, if you like—wines with that mysterious sense of restrained power, of depth and wonder.

One Napa producer to discover the advantages of mountain fruit is Oakville Ranch whose Oakville Ranch Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($60) recently wowed me to such a degree that I set out to discover exactly why, and the results were illuminating.

The vineyards are at 1,300 feet, 700 feet above those on the valley floor, planted in red volcanic soil. The winery's Web site speaks of the wine as possessing "opulence and regal elegance" and for once this sort of promotional guff is correct, or at least it almost exactly mirrors my tasting notes. There are plenty of those lush red and dark berry fruit flavors one expects in a California red, but there is more going on here. Layers of complex texture, hints of minerality, woody notes, suggestions of leather, spice, and earthiness that change and amaze with every sip.

These result from the deep roots these poor, stressed-out mountainside vines are compelled to develop in order to survive in their difficult location—and I am very glad they do it has produced a wonderful wine.

WOW Rating:

When to Drink: Now, and for the next few years.

Breathing/Decanting: One hour breathing really helps it open up.

Food Pairing: Best red meat, especially rack of lamb.

Grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon.

Appellation: Napa Valley.

Region: California

Country: USA

Price: $60

Availability: Limited

See more wines at

Nick Passmore is an independent wine writer and consultant based in New York. For five years he contributed a widely read monthly wine column to, in addition to which his work has appeared in such publications as Forbes, Discover, Town Country, the Robb Report, the Wine Enthusiast, Saveur, Sky, and Golf Connoisseur. He is currently Artisanal Editor for Four Seasons magazine and contributes the Nick Passmore: Wine of the Week column to He is also a judge at the widely respected annual Critics' Challenge wine competition.

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