10 Top Napa Cabernets Under $50

Discover the exciting and versatile side of Napa Valley Cabs


I recently visited the Napa Valley for the first time in about three years. Like many wine geeks, I’m jaded when it comes to Napa Valley wines, almost programed to dismiss them based on their success. You see, to be a true wine geek has somehow morphed into cultivating an exclusive appreciation of obscure wines. Orange wines? Bring them on. Oxidized? Even better. Wines with umlauts and cyrillic letters? Yummo!
The root of this visceral dislike for all things Napa of course has a kernel of truth tucked away in its forgotten core. Many of the wines produced there too are pricey, favored by the monied set, and to a certain extent off limits to mere mortals like me. Add in the fact that something deeply disturbing has happened at many Napa addresses: the transmogrification of once noble Cabernet into some sort of processed product produced from horribly over-ripe grapes subjected to all sort of tricks of the trade. Inevitably, the results speak for themselves—popular to be sure, but a popularity that seems to be driven by critical acclaim, and that critical acclaim is based on tasting these fruit rich, heavy, explosively detailless wines. If you sit down and try to drink these wines, particularly with food, or god forbid age them for more than a very few years, you quickly see that the emperor has no clothes, and these wines have nothing behind their opulent, sweet, toasty oak flavors and the sheer richness of fruit.
Another Chance, and a Surprise
OK, I may have overplayed my hand a bit there, but only to make a point. While there are plenty of offensive wines produced in the Napa Valley, the only thing truly unusual about them is their success and the accompanying prices charged, and paid for these wines. You have to be particularly dimwitted to paint with such a broad brush that you color all Napa Valley Cabernets with these criticisms, something I admit I’ve come close to doing. (That, of course, is the easy way to go and maintain your wine geek street cred.)
The tougher route to take is to travel and taste the wines. I did. And while not all the wines appealed to me, I was surprised by how many did, and even the ones that didn’t ring my bell got me thinking. Now there is a category of wines produced in the Napa Valley which will likely never change, but they make up a small if important part of the portfolio here. The rest of the wine has to find a home and much of it needs to be sold at a price that may not require a perennial 96+ point score, allowing producers a bit of flexibility.
That flexibility came in handy over the past several vintages, say 2008-2010, a period that saw less than “ideal” ripeness, in contrast with 2007. I say “ideal” because while tasting these more recent vintages I have been struck by the unusual freshness and lightness many of the wines exhibited. To a large degree, this was due to less than “ideal” growing conditions of the respective vintages, but also due to the fact that the winemakers don’t have to produce “knock out” wines at these price points every year in order to sell them through. 
Now here’s the interesting part: I preferred some of these wines to their riper 2007 counterparts. In fact I prefered almost all of these wines: they are more complex, better balanced, and easier to drink. Now comes the exciting part. What if most of you out there agree with me?

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Top Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Smith Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon (2009)
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Smith-Madrone Cabernet (2007)
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Turnbull Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville Weitz Vineyard (2009)
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Robert Keenan Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain District (2009)
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Chappellet Signature Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (2010)
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White Cottage Estate Risa Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (2009)
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Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (2009)
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Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville (2008)
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Peju Province Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (2009)
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Markham the Philanthropist Yountville Cabernet Sauvignon (2009)
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Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: Richard Foxall
    Hand of Snooth
    262583 4,006

    One observation I want to support is that the vintages are often overplayed. But that represents an opportunity. Most of the top wineries are not going to release a dog in an off-vintage. Instead, they'll cut back on volume if need be. But when the next "successful" vintage hits, they will still have product. That's the time to go out and buy that 2008 Chappellet, or Hall, or... well, name it. You'll get a good price and probably a more age-worthy wine than the overdone, overripe wine that opened to big reviews. I concur that the '07s aren't really playing out to be special, while the less-vaunted '06s have rocked me as they have developed. And what deals there were, between the hype for '07 and the tough economy they were released into and tough times at some of the smaller producers.

    Feb 28, 2013 at 3:21 PM

  • Snooth User: PrpleTeeth
    480990 24

    What? No Caymus Napa? Really?

    Feb 28, 2013 at 4:45 PM

  • Snooth User: dryhopped2
    544495 25

    Purple, maybe you missed the "Under $50" title. Ive tasted several of this list and it is refreshing that GDP has selected many that are not in the Caymus "big, sweet fruit bomb" neighborhood that the Wagners seem to like. Wanna good Syrah? Check out the Belle Glos Clark and Telephone Pinot Noir!

    Feb 28, 2013 at 5:33 PM

  • While its not technically "under $50" Hall's Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is typically a standout in any vintage at $50 a bottle.

    Feb 28, 2013 at 7:11 PM

  • Snooth User: EMark
    Hand of Snooth
    847804 8,287

    Crap. I'm seeing several of my favorite Napa Valley producers on this list. That will do nothing to keep the prices of these wines reasonable. ;-)

    Interesting that several of these wines could have qualified for the "Under $25" list.

    Feb 28, 2013 at 7:58 PM

  • Snooth User: pt1240
    568862 6

    I drank the shit out of Napa and Sonoma cabs in the late 80s and 90s....Schafer Hillside Select, Caymus Special Select, Silver Oak, Frogs Leap, Grgich, Opus One, Silverado Reserve....loved Stag's leap the best. Ex father in law was a huge distributor so I was fortunate....never experienced the cults....i.e., Bryants, Screaming Eagle etc....however truly believe that Calis are worth the money as this article evidences. Bordeaux blows away every wine on this list - I can find a handful of grand crus for 25 bucks that destroy all this over-oaked high alcohol tannin.

    Feb 28, 2013 at 10:35 PM

  • Snooth User: pt1240
    568862 6

    ...correction - meaning Stag's Leap district the best, not the vineyard, and that California wines are way overpriced and inferior to French wines. IMHO they have lost their way - Stag's leap has the terroir but I refuse to pay 250 bucks for a Shafer Hillside Select.

    Feb 28, 2013 at 10:41 PM

  • Snooth User: JonDerry
    Hand of Snooth
    680446 3,144

    Nice Greg, I haven't seen a report of yours with scores this high in a long time. With fair to bargain price points, these look like must try's.

    Mar 01, 2013 at 12:12 AM

  • I was hoping Red Mare Wines would make this list. Perfect for this category!!!

    Mar 01, 2013 at 1:20 PM

  • Snooth User: teddz
    880703 39

    pt1240, Am all ears for any recent Bordeaux Grand Cru for $25. Tough to find cru bourgeois for that price these days.

    Mar 01, 2013 at 5:00 PM

  • Snooth User: MarkRogers
    1454508 26

    Um. Chappellet is listed with a Chardonnay? Caymus should be here.

    Jan 17, 2014 at 11:01 AM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    Thanks for pointing out the error. Seems like the Chardonnay and Cabernet pages were merged since this was originally published. I've corrected the listing. Caymus certainly has its fans!

    Jan 17, 2014 at 12:29 PM

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