Best Wine of the Month Downtown Memphis

Your Monthly Wine Recommendation from Sommelier, Jake Smith

This month’s wine feature is Maitre de Chai Cabernet Sauvignon "Gala Mountain" | 2019 Napa Valley

Well, I suppose it was inevitable – though I’m sure some of you are also excited.  You might be thinking, “It finally happened – this steakhouse somm is finally writing about a Cab in his over-wrought newsletter!”  Time catches up to us all, I guess.

But I don’t want you to think that I’ve avoided writing about Cabernet all this time because I don’t care about it.  Unlike most of the cognoscenti and memelords that currently dominate the wine thought-space, I have a soft spot for Cabernet – even those from Napa.

Is it always my first choice?  No – it’s usually not even my third choice.  I rarely buy it for my personal cellar, and I think there are usually better things to pair with the usual Cab fare (pun intended).  For example, the peppermill spice and ripe tannins of Northern Rhone Syrah typically vibe a little better for me with a fatty ribeye than a Napa Cab.  I could say the same for Brunello di Montalcino, or Mencia from Bierzo.  In short, there’s more to life than “a Slab and a Cab” – and I love writing a list that gives our guests permission to explore those other avenues.

That being said, here’s the thing about Napa Cab – is there any seemingly monolithic category more diverse than this one?  Setting aside price point – which on a retail shelf could be anywhere from $30 to $3000 – there’s an almost infinite variety to consider when it comes to terroir and winemaking in Napa Cab.  Soil type, aspect, elevation, temperature – within Napa Valley alone, these elements permutate into hundreds (maybe thousands) of microclimates.  Add in all the variables of winemaking – vineyard management, when to pick, oak regimen, etc. – and it’s easy to see how you could put 100 different Napa winemakers in a room and get 100 different opinions on what Napa Cab should be.

Which makes it a little annoying when snobs sincerely pooh-pooh the whole idea of drinking Napa Cabs.  To them, I would say the same thing one of my mentors said to me when I came to believe that a whole variety or style was bunk – “You just haven’t met the right one.”

This wine from Maitre de Chai is certainly my type.  If the excesses of the Napa blue chip bottles have got you down – too much oak, too much fruit, too much alcohol, too much manipulation – then I highly recommend you give this one a try.  Made by a couple of friends – Alex Pitts and Marty Winters – who decided to make the switch to winemaking after working in restaurants, this story doesn’t follow the usual formula for most Napa wineries: make a fortune in tech/oil/business, open a vanity project, demand respect, charge high prices.

What’s also really fun about this wine is its character.  It’s unvarnished and honest in its presentation – there’s no new oak to cover up the flaws or diminish the resonant mountainside terroir here.  The nose presents potpourri, stony minerality, dried red and black fruits, and herbs.  It actually smells so good that I placed the first order of this wine right after I took my first sniff in the glass (true story).  The palate also shows the unmistakable character that mountainside vineyards contribute in Napa Valley – something I call the “laserbeam effect.”

Wines that come from the valley floor tend to have plusher tannins, riper fruit, and a flatter, chewier texture.  They seem to almost spread out on your palate.  But Cabernets from mountainsides tend to have higher acidity, firmer tannins, more structure, and a concentrated punchy intensity to their fruit.  Imagine shining a flashlight against a wall, and then imagine shining a laser pointer against a wall.  It’s kind of like that.

All of this is the result of great terroir and near perfect winemaking.  The site for this fruit is to the east of the town of Napa, on the slopes of Mt. George and with direct access to the cooling maritime airflow from the San Pablo Bay.  This is one of my favorite spots in the whole valley – the elevation equates to extra UV exposure for the grapes (more developed flavors) and superior drainage (more concentrated berries) and the cool air ensures proper acidity at harvest time.  (You can’t see me right now, but I’m making a chef’s kiss hand motion.)

In short, this wine absolutely sings.  It’s the kind of Napa Cab that turns your head and makes you reconsider any preconceptions you might have had about the style.  If you’re experiencing a bout of spiritual dryness when it comes to Napa Cabernet, come wet your beak with this wine soon.  You’ll be glad you did.

About Jake

Jake Smith is a Certified Sommelier (Level II) from the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas and a Certified Specialist of Wine from the Society of Wine Educators, and serves as the Director of Operations for 117 Prime. As a hospitality professional, Jake’s highest priority is honing in on the details that help provide memorable experiences for our guests. Jake is a passionate lover of music, reading, travel, trying new techniques and recipes in his kitchen at home, and enjoying the company of his friends – often around a bottle (or two!) of wine.

*A 20% gratuity will be applied for reservations of six (6) or more guests. Offerings subject to change without notice. Printed menus may not always reflect accurate pricing, composition, or availability of all items. Proteins ordered at temperatures above “medium” (145° F) cannot be guaranteed for exact accuracy. No outside food permitted, with the sole exception of dessert items such as wedding or birthday cakes, confections, or pastries. There is a $2.50 fee per guest for cutting, serving, or plating any outside desserts. 117 Prime reserves the right to waive any policies, fees, or gratuities at management’s discretion.
**A $25 corkage fee will be applied per 750 mL of any wine brought in by guests and not purchased from the 117 Prime Wine List. Wines brought in by guests must not be available for purchase on the 117 Prime Wine List, with the exception of any wine that is at least ten (10) years older or younger than any vintage of the same wine currently printed on the 117 Prime Wine List. Any wines that fail to meet this exception are respectfully not permitted to be served on the premises unless their list prices are paid by the guest. 117 Prime reserves the right to waive any policies, fees, or gratuities at management’s discretion.

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