The 2001 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: Stepping Back in Time


Two thousand-one is one of the most important vintages in Napa Valley of the last 25 years or so. Highly regarded at the time, 2001 continues to impress with dark, potent wines, many of which are in the sweet spot for current drinking.

A Retrospective of Wines and Memories…

Two thousand-one is a vintage that holds some pretty special memories, as it is the first vintage in Napa Valley I tasted comprehensively with Robert Parker. Sometime in late 2010, Bob asked me to take over coverage of California wines for The Wine Advocate. I was, quite frankly, overwhelmed. I knew a little bit about California wines, but to say I was far from an expert would be an understatement. I had no idea how to tackle such an immense assignment. It seemed to me that tasting with Bob was an obvious start. But Bob was very much a lone wolf. I asked multiple times to taste together. Bob never said no; he just never replied. Then, one day, out of the blue in the winter of 2011, the phone rang. It was Bob. “I am going to Napa in May to taste the 2001s…want to come?” I almost dropped the phone. A few months later, there we were, in St. Helena, to taste hundreds of 2001s over three intense days.

We worked through the wines in small flights, alphabetically. Bob clearly had a routine. I just followed and tried to keep up. I remember that on the first day the Abreu and Araujo Estate wines arrived late, so we tasted them at the end of the afternoon. Initially, Bob didn’t say much, but he gradually opened up. It was one of those rare moments in life when I knew something really important was happening. I wanted to freeze time. I had only tasted with Bob once before, outside of dinners and other Wine Advocate gatherings, at a comprehensive tasting of the 2000 Bordeaux sometime around 2006/2007. I was terrified and excited at the same time. At the end of each morning and afternoon, we picked our favorites and talked about them in depth. This was the beginning of my understanding that quality in wine sits above style. The cream always rises to the top. Even though Bob and I came at these wines with totally different backgrounds, there was not much disagreement on the standouts.

At the time, the major takeaway was that the wines were very, very young and still in need of considerable cellaring. Most of the better wines tasted like they were two to three years old, not ten! Needless to say, it was great fun to revisit these wines a decade later.

The 2001 Growing Season

The 2001 growing season began with a very early bud-break in March. April turned considerably cooler, to the point that some vineyards were affected by frost. Heat returned in May, prompting some producers to describe it as the hottest May ever at the time. Flowering in most places was finished by the end of the month. Weather turned considerably cooler during the critical summer months. There were some spikes, but, importantly, temperatures stayed cool at night, one of the features of Napa Valley’s unique climate. Benign conditions in September and October allowed for a long, leisurely harvest that stretched into October without major shock events.

The 2001s From a Present-Day Perspective

The natural tendency when looking at vintage, new or old, is to examine weather during a growing season and extrapolate what that means in terms of the wines. All tasters do this. Data will say that 2001 was a cooler year in critical moments than 2002, so the wines were always more reticent than the flashier, riper 2002s. And that is true. There’s no doubt about it.

But it is also difficult, if not impossible, to ignore that the late 1990s and early 2000s were the peaks of a search for elevated ripeness and extraction, not just in Napa Valley but pretty much everywhere. For Napa, 2001 and 2002 were arguably the first important vintages after 1997. Four Napa Valley Cabernets earned a perfect 100 score from Parker; the most influential being the 1997 Harlan Estate and 1997 Bryant Estate. Those two Cabernets in particular sent many proprietors in search of the elusive 100 points scurrying to their consultants with a directive to make the same exact type of wine. That led to a series of years in which viticulturists and winemakers pushed wines riper and riper. Stressing the vineyard (survival of the fittest), aggressive de-leafing, late picking, pushed extractions and heavy new oak were all in vogue. Pretty much all these concepts have now been either pulled back or repudiated entirely, but that is a subject for another time. Suffice it to say that in today’s Napa Valley, producers are focused on healthy, well-balanced vineyards, sustainability and preserving energy and freshness in the wines, something that is increasingly difficult as seasons trend warmer and drier.

At some point, it became fashionable to trash the wines of the 1990s and 2000s and label them excessive. No doubt some, maybe many, were. Having tasted the 1997 Harlan and Bryant recently, along with many of the so-called cult wines from the early 1990s, I can report that the best have aged spectacularly well. They are an absolute joy to drink today. Moreover, it is very easy to see how a taster at that time – an era in which so many wines were overly technical and processed – would have been totally seduced by the hedonistic thrill the modern style of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon offered.

Of course, not all producers followed the new style; plenty of old-school winemakers did what they had always done. The results of that consistency and more balanced approach are evident today, if they weren’t back then. For his part, Bob never forced people to do anything. Yes, he loved big, opulent wines, but he didn’t only like ripe wines. I saw that time and again. But Bob also never cared what people thought about him, so he didn’t do anything to address the commonly held misperceptions of his views.

In a nutshell, while the 2001s are certainly defined by cooler, moderate weather during the most important part of the year and a long growing season, at many estates, they are just as marked by the prevailing style of the day.

Then and Now…

The astute reader will note a few things about this report. The first is how many of today’s most highly regarded estates and wineries did not exist in 2001. VHR-Vine Hill Ranch, MacDonald, Sinegal, Dana Estates, Gandona, Kapcsándy, The Vineyardist and Scarecrow are just some of the names that come to mind. A second group of wineries, many of them elite, were no more than 10-15 years old. Not even a generation, nothing in the world of wine. These including Abreu, Harlan Estate, Dalla Valle, Colgin, Screaming Eagle and Bryant.

Scores for the 2001s are, generally, not as high as they are for today’s top wines. This can be attributed to several factors, some obvious, others perhaps less so. Much of Napa Valley was replanted in the early and mid-1990s following a widespread outbreak of phylloxera, meaning vines were, on average, very young for the production of world-class wine. I tasted a number of wines with low-level Brett and other imperfections that are much less common today. Sure, some Brett might be acceptable in older-school wines, but it is not a characteristic most people, including me, consider typical of the best wines in Napa Valley.

Many of the 2001s, especially those of the younger wineries were made in custom crush facilities, shared workspaces that offer a certain amount of flexibility but also a set of constraints that can negatively impact the final result. Custom crush remains an important piece of the Napa Valley scene (especially for small wineries that can’t afford to build their own facilities), but hygiene and precision are tended to with far greater care than in the past. Lastly, some of the wines in this report have lived up to (or exceeded) their early praise, while some have not. That is precisely the value of revisiting older vintages.

I tasted all of the wines in this report in late 2021 and early 2022. Given our growing editorial team and incredibly packed publishing schedule, finding a slot for vintage retrospectives like this one is always a challenge. I hope to get us caught up for Napa Valley in 2023.

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