The 2016 Dancing Bear Ranch, a 100-point wine I opened without really meaning to. Sort of. (photo by Jenny Gorman for Wine and Whiskey Globe)

I swear it was an accident. Mostly. Probably, I mean.

Scrolling through emails, I had come across an appealing recipe for a quickie Boeuf Bourguignon, a shortcut technique that acknowledged its own minor shortcomings.  (The dish usually takes the better part of a day). I had most of a bottle of unfinished Cabernet at hand, plus bacon, and onions and carrots I’d hoarded, so I took the challenge. With the weather changing, I figured it would probably be the last braise of the year. 

Later, when the aromas began wafting through the apartment, my fiancée wandered into the kitchen and saw the empty bottle. “Are we drinking wine?” she asked.

Maybe it was a little dark in the kitchen, what with the sun going down. Maybe I was in a bit of a hurry. Maybe my subconscious was speaking to me.  Whatever the case, I pulled down a bottle of 2016 Cakebread Cellars Dancing Bear Ranch. It had been resting safely in the Save-for-a-Special-Occasion area of my wine rack, but in recent weeks I haven’t paid much attention to such designations. To be alive and safe today is well worth celebrating, I have more than once reasoned, and my fiancée is as special as they come. And, as Virginia Madsen’s character quite rightly notes in Sideways, sometimes the bottle itself makes the occasion.  

Anyway. Without putting too fine a point on it, last week we had one heck of a Wednesday night.

This single vineyard Napa Cab is a blend of 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Cabernet Franc and 3% Merlot, and is the sort of wine that almost instantly explains, in your mouth, what the big damn deal is. About really good wine, I mean. Just nosing the dark blue-black glass, taking a deep breath in, made me smile involuntarily. I took a sip and felt my entire palate coated in rich fruit flavors. This is part of what people mean, I thought, when they say a wine is “big.” Still, there was elegance, not heaviness. A nip of acidity. Notes of boysenberry, the crust from a cherry pie, a liqueur of wild berries. The strong sensation of cassis—yes, sweetened black currants. Just… wow. The finish, I scribbled on my pad, is “long, long, long.”

It then occurred to me to look the thing up. I was a little taken aback. At retail, the bottle would go for $250, if you could ever find it. Which you couldn’t. Bruce Cakebread, one of the family members who run the operation, had gifted it to me himself when he passed through town back in September. 

The winery’s Dancing Bear Ranch “is located high on the slopes of Howell Mountain in northern Napa Valley,” notes the website, “where vines struggle in rocky, shallow soils.” The name has nothing to do with the Grateful Dead but derives from the proprietor’s efforts to keep bears from eating their grapes. 

Which is a thing

We enjoyed our stew over simple mashed potatoes, and as the wine warmed a bit in the glass, we gave it more attention. You can sip it and smile and enjoy (which we did) or you can swirl and sigh and contemplate (which we also did). I began to understand that the wine was very clearly A Constructed Thing, a kind of masterpiece of the maker’s art (look at those finicky blend percentages!), in company with other cult favorites like Colgin, Harlan Estate, Insignia, Opus One, Scarecrow, Screaming Eagle—all very dear and very good. All built for pleasure.

Distant whiff of menthol. Homemade fig jam. Ripe plums. Blueberry. A light toasty note…from the French oak barrels? From the unrelenting sunshine, there above the fog line? Or maybe that’s a stoniness from the difficult soil? I don’t know. Should we have waited for a different night? Too late. We’ll just have to muddle through now. Now. Now, my sweet darling, let me fill your glass.

Back in September 2019, Wine Advocate gave the 2016 Cakebread Cellars Dancing Bear Ranch a coveted 100 point score, noting eloquently that “the palate is super intense and yet wonderfully graceful, featuring a beautiful frame of very fine-grained, very firm tannins and bold freshness supporting layer upon layer of black fruit and earthy flavors, finishing with epic length and depth…. simply a stunning expression of one of Napa’s great, great sites.” 

It also pointed out that the bottle really should be put away for a few years. Which in truth gave me a pang of regret. But only a momentary one.

The stew had been good enough—not the world-class cuisine the bottle deserved, but appropriate and adequate—and the company was lovely. More important, the wine itself showed how a great bottle can wash the rest of the world almost entirely out of mind, for a couple of hours. Which is well worth the price—and, I suspect, just what the winemaker had had in mind. Maybe I had, too.