Over the past 50 years, Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon has gone from an attractive wine yet sleepy market segment to the top-selling wine in America and renowned worldwide. Wineries established in that time have been in the forefront of this advancement. Some fine examples follow:
William Hill Estate - 2014 ($50) strong fruit accented with cedar, lush texture - founded by vineyard developer William Hill, first released wines in 1976. It now produces estate wines from the Atlas Peak appellation.
In 1977, Mike Grgich and members of the Hills Bros. Coffee family founded Grgich Hills Estate - 2014 ($72) a fresh core of pure fruit and firm structure. Grgich is the winemaker who fashioned the award-winning Chateau Montelena Chardonnay (see below). But Grgich Hills cabs have garnered widespread acclaim over the years.
Duckhorn Vineyards came along in 1978 and built a reputation for large-scale deeply flavored merlots and cabernets. Four impressive wines (each $98) in my tasting:
2014 Patzimaro - rich and firm, deep fruit with a touch of olive.
2014 Three Palms - intense, complex, powerful and tannic.
2014 Rutherford - intense but velvety, a dusty character.
2013 Howell Mountain - balances power and structure with grace and polish.
The Hess Collection - 2014 Mount Veeder ($65) amazingly deep, complex, vibrant and full; 2015 Allomi ($32) deeply fruited, solidly built - also dates to 1978 and focuses on mountain fruit. Hess has developed one of Napa's most distinctive visitor experiences, particularly its world-class art collection.
Ladera Estate - 2014 ($60) intense fruit, green olive, toasty oak - was established 20 years ago by Midwesterners who traded in ranching for vineyards on Mount Veeder and Howell Mountain. Today the owners continue to focus on fruit from high- elevation vineyards.
Also celebrating 20 years, Mi Sueño - 2013 ($75) complex herb, oak and spice notes meld with deep fruit - is the story of immigrants Rolando Herrera and wife Lorena Robledo. Rolando has made wine at some of Napa's most prestigious wineries, and together they also own a vineyard management company.
Construction executive Cliff Lede - 2015 Stags Leap District ($78) layers ripe fruit, oak and spice in a rich, concentrated wine - established his namesake winery in 2002 in the Stags Leap District. Renowned vineyard manager David Abreu tends the vineyards.
Quilt - 2013 Reserve ($50) over-the-top Napa style with sweet fruit, toasty oak and ample tannin - is the brainchild of Joe Wagner, whose grandparents founded Caymus Vineyards and who created the popular Belle Gloss Pinot Noir and Meomi Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
But many of the valley's legacy wineries also have stepped up to improve quality.
One is Beaulieu Vineyard - 2014 ($33) light but nice balance of dark fruits and woodsy notes - founded in 1900. This historic winery has made critical contributions to the winemaking world, beginning with its famed enologist, André Tchelistcheff.
Chateau Montelena - 2015 ($61) rich red fruit, power balanced with elegance - dates to 1882 but came to prominence when its 1973 chardonnay won the famous 1976 Paris Tasting. Yet it's the cabs that have sealed the winery's reputation.
Louis M. Martini - 2014 ($38) dusty, minty nose, round, full palate - has been crafting fine cabernet sauvignon from Napa and Sonoma since 1933, as one of the area's first wineries founded after Prohibition ended.