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A Napa Valley Cab that’s shockingly good, relatively affordable and coming to Vintages

By Rick VanSickle

Long ago I gave up chasing trophy Cabernet Sauvignons from the Golden State — price, rarity and patience all playing a role in that decision.

In particular, it’s Napa Valley that has priced itself out of the conversation for regular wine lovers attracted by the highly extracted, bold and complex red wines from America’s most famous wine region. And if you waited for them to mature, you were rewarded with an extraordinary experience that could rival many of the great wines from Bordeaux at a fraction of the price. Such is the case no longer.

Napa wine

I spent a great deal of time in Napa Valley when we lived in Calgary in the late 80s and early 90s, both as a wine writer, consultant and consumer. My wife Maureen and I would stuff our suitcases with some of the best Napa Cabs we could find and were always on the look out for the cool new wines being made in the lush, hot valley. Rarely did we pay anywhere near $100 for a bottle and, to be honest, there weren’t a lot of Napa Cabs commanding those sorts of prices.

We chased Heitz (regular and Martha’s Vineyard), Robert Mondavi (To-Kalon), Beaulieu (Georges de Latour Private Reserve), Opus One, Joseph Phelps, Dominus, Pahlmeyer, Shafer, Mayacamas, Diamond Creek and many others and were happy to pay what we thought were high prices back then, usually in the $50-$75 range. But they weren’t Bordeaux prices. Then it changed quickly as prices rose exponentially in the 1990s and continue to rise to this day. The $1,000 per bottle barrier was shattered years ago when the 2007 Screaming Eagle was released at $1,500 a bottle and the other trophy Napa Cabs got sucked up into a vortex of insane pricing. Even many of the less expensive Napa Cabs today start above $100 and every wine mentioned above, those we would cart back to Calgary in our suitcases, became unattainable, at least for us.

So, as we slowly depleted our cellar of Napa Cabs over the years and turned to Bordeaux and Canadian red blends in good vintages, we left Napa and California in the rear-view mirror.

Here’s what I’m talking about, look at these prices for Napa Valley wines currently for sale at the LCBO: Paul Hobbs Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($690), Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($415), Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($210), Lokoya Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($699), Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($465), Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (a relative bargain at $200), and even the regular bottling of our much beloved Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 at $110 a bottle.

Don’t get me wrong here; Bordeaux prices have climbed significantly as well. But it’s mainly in the higher classified growths where the exponential pricing has occurred. You can still find great Bordeaux in the best vintages at attractive prices well below Napa prices … and there are a lot more of them to choose from.

It was with such joy that I joined a Zoom tasting of a new Napa wine that I had never tasted before. I had heard of Schrader, but not its little sibling called Double Diamond. The highly sought after Schrader wines, with an unprecedented record of 27 100-point scores (if you care about such things) from the world’s most respected critics, sells for $500 plus US and is extremely hard to get. However, the 2017 Double Diamond is coming to Vintages with an online order beginning tomorrow for a first appearance in Ontario at a respectable retail price of $118, considering the quality.

In 2001, Fred Schrader created Double Diamond as part of his continuing desire to make the best Cabernet Sauvignon that Napa Valley can offer. With the help of winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown, this unique expression of the region carries on the tradition of earning critical acclaim and drawing passionate fans that Schrader began in 1998 with Schrader Cellars. After a three-year hiatus, Double Diamond returned by popular demand in 2018.

Rivers Brown and his team craft Double Diamond in the tradition of his benchmark Schrader Cellars Cabernets using the finest techniques and natural resources available. Double Diamond is sourced exclusively from a complement of prime vineyard estates in the warm Napa Valley appellation of Oakville, including the famed To-Kalon Vineyard. Each vineyard contributes its unique character to this Cabernet.

Rivers Brown, above, a native of South Carolina, didn’t grow up in the wine business, but after exploring France and Northern California, he knew where he belonged. In 1996, he moved to Calistoga and began working in a wine shop. There he met a notable winemaker looking for help in his cellar and Thomas’s hands-on winemaking education got its start.

In 2000, Rivers Brown met Schrader at that same Calistoga shop. Although Rivers Brown had yet to make a Cabernet Sauvignon, Schrader recognized his passion, natural talent, and dedication to exceptional quality, and hired him to do just that. Since then, they have developed a portfolio of benchmark Cabernet Sauvignons that is renowned for its “no holds barred” character. Rivers Brown has achieved unprecedented success in record time and has distinguished himself as a true visionary of wine.

In 2002, Rivers Brown worked with Schrader to create Double Diamond and currently leads both the Schrader Cellars and Double Diamond projects.

During the Zoom tasting last year, we sampled the 2017 and 2018 vintages of the Double Diamond Cabernet Sauvignon. They are reminiscent of those Cabernets we tasted and bought in the 1990s in that they are both highly complex, bold and expressive wines that were notably approachable in their youth — you won’t have to wait a decade or more to enjoy these wines.

The personality of both vintages is drawn from up to 80% fruit from Oakville’s To-Kalon Vineyard (just try and find another Cabernet from that iconic vineyard for less than $118, I dare you). “To-Kalon is the pinnacle of Cabernet in California,” said Rivers Brown on the Zoom call.

“These wines are giving pleasure now,” he said. “They are fruit forward with great structure, a more approachable wine with an accessible price.

The Double Diamond Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 is coming to Vintages through an online offer beginning March 11 here with the 2018 vintage to follow at a later date. Both are reviewed below. A selection of Schrader Cabernets are also available in the release (but not reviewed here), including the GIII Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($595), T6 2017 ($595), Old Sparky 2017 ($1,301 for 1.5L), RBS 2017 ($595), Monastery Block 2017 ($595), Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($595), Colesworthy 2017 ($1,301 for 1.5L) and CCS Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($595).

Here are reviews for the Double Diamond wines, brought into Ontario by Arterra Wines Canada through an arrangement with Constellation Brands.

Double Diamond Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($118, 95 points) — The 2017 Double Diamond is a compelling Cab Sauv crafted from Oakville fruit, the bulk of which is from To-Kalon Vineyard. It contains 90% Cab Sauv with Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Merlot making up the rest of the blend. It’s aged in 49% new French oak barrels for 14 months and is finished at 14.7% abv. It is deep and rich on the nose and teeming with ripe blackberries, anise, forest floor, crushed stones, black currant preserves, leather, cedar cigar box and toasted vanilla and allspice. It’s full-bodied and generous on the palate and offers showy and dense black fruits, fine-grained tannins that aren’t too grippy, earthy/loamy notes, enticing spice notes, subtle savoury accents and a bright, lifted finish that echoes for minutes. It is a pleasure to drink now, but will benefit from two or three years in the cellar.

Double Diamond Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($118, 94 points) — The 2018 version of Double Diamond is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon with 80% of the fruit from the To-Kalon Vineyard and aging in 50% French oak barrels for 16 months. This is another gorgeous wine with an enthralling nose of jammy black currants, plums, blackberries, mocha, minty herbs and subtle eucalypt with rich barrel spices, nutmeg and a floral component. It has a voluptuous feel on the palate with silky tannins and a generous, dense array of dark fruits, dried tobacco, leather, lovely integrated spices and a long, long finish. Another dazzling Cab that can stand a bit of cellaring, but is approachable in the near term.

Both wines are a rare opportunity to enjoy the best of Napa without the extravagant prices for the top examples, relatively speaking. Highly recommended.