Selections for October 2017

What We Know & What We Don’t

2015 JAX CABERNET SAUVIGNON – Napa Valley

As I write these notes a series of wildfires of extraordinary size and destructiveness rages in the Napa and Sonoma wine countries.  We have many concerned questions which must go unanswered for the time being:  With evacuations ordered for safety’s sake and for the improved mobility of firefighting teams, locales and populations dear to us can’t yet report specifically on what’s been destroyed and precisely who has been more than temporarily displaced.  When the smoke finally clears and final damage reports are complete we’ll have the whole grim picture, but in the meantime the stories of loss arrive in an exasperating, inconsistent trickle.  We know our niece has lost her home, and possibly her cat.  Some of our wine reps have been evacuated, awaiting good or bad news from afar.  But there’s so much we don’t yet know.   

The impact of the fires is hitting home in so many ways, especially with respect to the business we’re in.  For instance, has Calistoga’s JAX survived unsinged?  The winery sits beside Highway 128 just up the road from Bennett Lane, an area often described on the news over the past few days as seriously threatened.  I find no updates as I flip back and forth from notes to Internet, and the just-uncorked bottle on my desk reminds:  We’re talking about a real place where real people work and reside.  As I smell and taste this wine a bit of pensiveness accompanies this experience that’s normally entirely pleasant.

This blend of 94% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Cabernet Franc was crafted by well-known winemaker Kirk Venge, who administered a pre-fermentation cold soak and a 21-month nap in 70% new French Oak.  Real winemaking begins in the vineyard however, and in 2015 the circumstances there were unique.  After over three years of drought Napa’s vines had had enough, saying so with significantly lower yields.   Applying all their resources to a smaller crop appears to have heightened flavor intensity in many of the ‘15’s I’ve tasted; a silver lining of very good quality from the tiny-production vintage.

JAX Cabernet exudes unabashed friendliness from the get-go.  The inviting ruby-maroon hue invites a deep sniff, where espresso, ultra-ripe cherries, and loamy earth in turn encourage a sip:  Broad, soft textures are the platform for rich, ripe fruit.  There is just a tad of tannic restraint providing a framework for refreshment.  Here is an unapologeticallycocktail-style Cabernet, intended to gratify right away.  Don’t hesitate to savor it sooner than later . . . perhaps with a tinge of wistfulness.

Robert Parker weighs in with a preliminary rating of 92-94points, declaring:

The 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate displays gorgeous fruit, plenty of sucrosity and ripeness, but no heaviness or cloyness. Beautiful blueberry and blackberry fruit, oodles of glycerin and richness announce another great vintage in Napa – 2015. This lush, heady wine will drink well young and age easily for 15 or more years.         

 

And what of our friends at William Harrison?

2013 WILLIAM HARRISON CABERNET SAUVIGNON – Napa Valley

The timing of this provision seems especially appropriate; William Harrison has often occurred in your club based on quality for price - and honesty.  Nearly all of their wines hail from their modestly-sized estate alongside the Silverado Trail in Rutherford.  None are overly expensive per the pricey Napa Valley context and - more importantly - each faithfully declares its source.  A clever marketer once identified this area’s ability to confer ‘Rutherford Dust’ on its bottlings.  William Harrison consistently captures that effect.

How does Bill Harrison get by with his smaller production, less-than-grandiose tasting room, and modest prices?  Leverage, via his other wine industry activity:  Bill was the Napa Valley’s first mobile bottler, initiating a tradition of small and medium-sized wineries foregoing their own bottling lines in favor of the more affordable option he devised. 

The greatness of Vintage 2013 and William Harrison’s consistency of quality and value make this estate-grown Cabernet (containing a dab of Merlot and a pinch of Petit Verdot) a slam-dunk.  A dark scent of dry earth joined by black cherries and boysenberries has you thinking you’re smelling something more expensive.  Force meets elegance in the mouth.  Tannins happen with rich yet evenly meted-out fruit.  A prevalent acidity tells those in possession of a wine cellar:  “Age me, I can take it!”

No ratings.  No fuss, no muss.  Just the rare Napa Valley provision of solid value:  That’s William Harrison!

Selections for September 2017

The Classic

2014 ROBERT CRAIG CABERNET SAUVIGNON – Napa Valley

It is our pleasure to offer you the ultimate wine experience:  Difference.

While some of our clubs roam the world and its vast array of wine types with a bit more freedom, even your more delineatedly-defined wine club allows for Difference.  Last month we showed you a young and modern whopper of a Merlot right beside an older, more elegant and suave one:  Two very different wines within one grape.  The variety of our provisions continues this month with a more conservatively-styled Cabernet and a more full-throttle, modern-styled Cabernet-based blend. 

Let’s begin with Robert Craig, no stranger to your club.  This is the classic, the more durable, the cellar wine, the wine remembering how they used to make ‘em using 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 8% Petit Verdot, 4% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Malbec.  Sagebrush, brine-cured black olive, and oregano are just as pronounced as the cherry, coffee, and mocha.  This panoply of savory and fruit nuances continues in the mouth, murmured with a more modest body and cellarworthy acidity.  If this wine seems not so “big” to you that’s the point of it, and all that Robert Craig seeks to produce.  His wines, more discreet at release, LAST.  Drink this now if you’d like, but you’ll better honor it with three to ten years of aging!

Yet another Rock Star Winemaker

2014 TETHER RED – Napa Valley

It seems we spend more writing time on famous or soon-to-be-famous winemakers for you Red Collectors than we do for any other club.  Maybe that’s because the location and quality of the Napa Valley is alreadyso well known to most of you.  Sometimes the difference lies in the maker and his or her personal way of working with those grapes.  Over the years we have told you of Philippe Melka, Michel Rolland, Heidi Barrett, Denis Malbec (r.i.p.) and many others who make their own signature wine, but also apply their talents to the small projects of other owners.  So let’s introduce you to yet another shepherd of the fruit.

Benoit Touquette was born in Lyon, France and received his Masters in Oenology at the University of Bordeaux.  His early years of winemaking happened there, and an alliance with winemaker Andy Erickson was established here, too.  These two then worked together in Napa at Hartwell, and when Erickson relinquished his winemaker role there Touquette took over.  Since then, Benoit has amassed several other winemaking gigs, with cult wine “Realm” being the most notable and highly-rated. 

“Tether” is Benoit’s own baby (broker of all things GREAT and NAPA Kimberly Jones is a partner), a blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Cabernet Franc, 14% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot, and 2% Malbec sourced mainly from Yountville and Calistoga vineyards.  Like Touquette’s Realm and Familiar Air wines, this Cabernet-based beauty sports a full-throttle muscle car mentality with its nearly-opaque darkness of color, intense scent, and graphite-framed black fruit and espresso flavors.  When the wine leaves your mouth the memory is prolonged with a delicious debate between chewy grip and fudgy sweetness (though the wine is not actually “sweet”).

How long such a wine will age is a puzzle for me.  Cellaring this for five or so years means sacrificing some of the fresh fruit in favor of a softer mouthfeel.  I imagine this particular kind of “fruit” will achieve a caramely quality, desirable to many of you who curl up on the couch with naught but a healthy pour of this, barely clad in a slinky robe and bunny slippers.  Others drink this kind of thing sooner, forgiving or even preferring the grippy tannins.  The ribeye steak awaiting you from beneath the glass counter at Gene’s Fine Foods will certainly accommodate the latter!  168 Cases Made

Selections for August 2017

THE Blending Grape

2014 THORN MERLOT – Napa Valley

A mere yet memorably malignant mentioning of Merlot in one movie thirteen years ago virtually decimated its market (how’s my alliteration?).  This month’s offering of not one, but two examples is The Wine Steward’s defiant reply:  This varietal is as good as any.

Merlot is the most planted red grape in its homeland of Bordeaux.  Shouldn’t that count for something?  It makes beautiful wine in Northern Italy.  It may be Washington State’s finest varietal.  Napa Valley players such as Duckhorn, Keenan, Truchard, and Pahlmeyer persist in producing terrific examples.  For the open-minded Napa drinker there may be no more fascinating a red than Merlot from Carneros.  So there. 

Besides Hollywood’s jab, Merlot suffers from its own one-time success.  In the early nineties it arose as the darling varietal around these parts.  Tannin-sensitive red wine drinkers – particularly women venturing beyond Chardonnay – found that Merlot approximated Cabernet’s flavors without the astringency.  Long before Pinot Noir became the rage there was mellow Merlot to soften the blow.  The fad induced a big uptick in acreage and much Merlot was mis-planted, i.e.:  Grown where it did not belong, resulting in large production bottlings of very unattractive examples.  So, by the time Miles was proclaiming his distaste Merlot was already an out-of-favor victim of its own popularity.

But back to Bordeaux . . . 

Lesson 1, already delivered:  It’s the most planted red grape there.      

Lesson 2:  In Bordeaux it is nearly always “assisted” by another grape or two.  Merlot, like so many other great wines, benefits from BLENDING.

And so we bring you Thorn which, with full transparency, we identify as a product of Prisoner Wine Company.  Made in much smaller quantities than the producer’s eponymous flagship, this consists of 77% Napa-derived Merlot AND 23% Malbec and Syrah.  Having never tasted these specific components separately I can only surmise that our subject Merlot is providing the plum and herbal effects.  Syrah could be furnishing the cured meat and the polished mouthfeel.  Malbec is probably responsible for the red peppercorn snap providing a sense of freshness to this otherwise sumptuous wine.

Few are the grapes that are more successful alone than by having a little help from their friends.  Should such dependency harm Merlot’s reputation?  We’ll leave job that to Hollywood!  

Guzzle this soon – within five years

 

Merlot at its most graceful

2012 STEPHANIE MERLOT – Napa Valley

Jeff Gaffner may be best known as a part of the team making Wine Spectator Magazine’s “Wine of the Year” 1996 Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cepages.  His own Saxon Brown line of tiny production wines is expertly crafted.  The sought-for Black Kite wines also benefit from his talent.  It’s no wonder that culinary entrepreneur / innovator Stanley Cheng brought Jeff aboard for the “Stephanie” project of Hestan Vineyards wines.  

Like many of its peers from the vintage, this 2012 is ready to go and should go soon.  Merlot’s anticipated herbal-ness is joined by cherry pastry, vanilla, and tobacco.  In the mouth we find a supple texture (Merlot strikes again!), fresh acidity, and then a grippy finish of mineral which should induce a craving for protein as a partner. 

I like Jeff’s description, too:

“With flavors of brown spice and baked blueberry pie, this wine shows round, long tannins with a firm elegant finish."   

This wine exudes the generosity of 2012 and – more to the point of this month’s theme – the potential beauty of Merlot!

Selections for July 2017

Power, unabashed.

2013 KENEFICK RANCH ‘Picket Road Red’ – Calistoga, Napa Valley

Wine Rep to Wine Buyer on How to Sell This Wine:

“Tell ‘em about the owner, a retired neurosurgeon who now applies his attention to detail to his vineyard, and who sells nearly all of its yield, keeping just a small fraction for his own ‘Kenefick Ranch’ label.”

“List the unique cepage – 50% Petit Verdot for intensity of color, violets in the nose, and structural purpleness on the palate . . . 30% Merlot to calm all that down a little with a cushioning effect . . . 20% Cabernet Sauvignon for that classical combo of black olives and cassis.”

“Describe the location, right across the street from Araujo, who would charge you many times this price for their own product.”

“Remind ‘em about 2013, quite possibly Napa’s most important vintage EVER.”

“Mention Calistoga, that top-of-the-valley wine place which until recently (2010) could only be called ‘Napa Valley’ on the label.  This may be our first official ‘Calistoga’ submission to your club.”  

You know what?  Screw all that.  I think you should just pour this and say, “WOW!”  Such saturation of color, flagrance of fragrance, and impact of structured fruit on the palate says it all:  This is a lot of durable Napa juice for the money!! RIBEYE ALERT!!!

 

A kinder, gentler 2013

2013 RAMEY CABERNET SAUVIGNON – Napa Valley

This guy has done it all. 

David Ramey worked at Petrus.  He got the Matanzas Creek and Chalk Hill balls rolling.  He helped convert the original Girard into Rudd.  He made Dominus.  He gave California winemaking a broader list of techniques to consider, with enlightenment on barrel fermentation, sur lie aging, and bottling sans filtration.  He has earned the right to be a stuck up jerk; one of those wine industry know-it-alls who make sure you know they know.

- And he’s anything but.  I’ve sat with David at a lunch or two and can attest to his down-to-earth-ness and generosity with his incredible awareness and experience.  He oversees the making of great Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon under his eponymous label these days, and certainly deserves to be so identified.

. . . And this Cabernet is so like the man.  If the Kenefick Ranch offering is daunting and brash like some roaring, smoke-belching funny car on the race track, this 2013 swerves to pass it with a Jaguar’s elegant deftness.  All of its parts work so cooperatively that you don’t even notice the parts.  The fragrance is the feel is the flavor is the finish.  Vintage 2013 does exert itself with a slightly astringent finish, but these are the good kinds of tannins provoking hunger and providing a backbone for aging. 

I would call this a modern day classic, and point out our very good price.

Selections for June 2017

How They Used to Make ‘Em . . . By folks who should know!

2014 MEYER FAMILY ‘Spitfire’ CABERNET SAUVIGNON – Oakville, Napa Valley

I recently attended an industry event where all the famous and lesser-known producers in Napa’s Oakville district were pouring their Cabernets.  Even Screaming Eagle attended (with but one bottle to share).  I skipped that longer line and tried a myriad of others.  Everything from this region in the heart of Napa was tasting terrific, and the prices for nearly everything there were appalling.  “Why must great wine be accessible to only the most enabled?”  I wondered for the millionth time in my wine career. 

… So it is with some satisfaction AND a sense of irony that we are providing you with a classical example of that place sporting a not-TOO-spectacular price tag.  Irony?  Yes:  The folks who produce this Oakville product could be blamed for making Napa Valley Cabernet too expensively famous!  We elaborate with a timeline:

1964:  Justin Meyer becomes assistant to Brother Timothy at Christian Brothers Winery

1972:  Justin and Bonny partner with Ray Duncan on a project called Silver Oak

1999:  Purchase of Yorkville Winery to produce Meyer Family Wines in the very un-Napa Yorkville Highlands (adjacent to the Anderson Valley).

2001:  The Meyer Family sells Silver Oak to the Duncan Family

2008:  A return to Napa Valley Cabernet-making for the Meyer Family:  “Fluffy Billows” and “Spitfire” Cabernets, made from a newly-purchased block next to the original Bonny’s Vineyard.  The former is aged in French oak.  The “Spitfire” we are providing for yet another vintage remembers Meyer’s Silver Oak roots with an American Oak treatment, a lower alcohol ensuring a longer life, and a classical Oakville panoply of flavors such as black raspberry, cedar, olive tapenade, and cherries.  There is a great linearity of acids and tannins framing this wine, requiring a rich ribeye treatment if the uncorking happens sooner than later.  Otherwise, age this tribute to Oakville for up to 15 years!    

“Ummm, didn’t you already give us this?”

2012 WILLIAM HARRISON CABERNET FRANC – Rutherford, Napa Valley

Yep, we’ve probably shown you William Harrison Cab Franc at least three times before, with the 2011 vintage happening just last September.  You’re seeing the label so often because of its consistent effectiveness per the price, a club feature you faithful members deserve.

William Harrison is located in Rutherford, easily found on the Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail.  Its tasting room design and vibe are comforting throwbacks to a time when this place was less commercialized – and more affordable.  Many of our members have visited this place and concur.  William Harrison’s reasonably-priced wines are nearly all derived from estate fruit coming from right around the winery itself, and their ongoing effectiveness with Cabernet Franc is rare - long after many got into the Cab Franc game and, realizing its challenges, quickly got right back out.

The 2011 we last gave you was a standout in a difficult vintage, and I believe it will outlast this younger wine in your cellar.  You can hold that ‘11 a little longer if you still have it, but get to this soon.  Generally speaking, Napa Valley 2012’s sport fully ripe fruit and very affable textures.  This lack of structure makes for a more “drink now” wine type.  Perhaps you’re among those who waited too long to open their 1997’s, thinking a “great” vintage is always a durable one.  Don’t re-live the disappointment!

Sultry scents of dusty cherries, red brick (is that “Rutherford Dust” we’re sensing?), sagebrush, and vanilla are best expressed if this is served at cellar temperature.  The palate weight:  Medium-bodied.  The delivery:  Lush.  The overall attitude of this Cabernet Franc:  Cheerful, drinkable charm.  The food to go along:  Veal, if you do that sort of thing.  If not, consider the easy mellowness of the wine and get creative:  A nice mushroom dish, perhaps?   Something involving truffles?  Hmmmm . . .        

Selections for May 2017

“Another vintage already?”

2013 DANCING HARES ‘Mad Hatter’ – Napa Valley

To know more about this wine you must simply refer back to February’s club notes.  Yes, we meant to do this; providing the next vintage of ‘Mad Hatter’ but three months later.  We do not apologize, and you will almost certainly thank us later! 

Our reasoning:

Scarcity and Time Sensitivity.

Nearly all of the 2013 Mad Hatter not sold by Dancing Hares themselves was spoken for by a chain of Texas steak houses.  Our vendor was alerted to this and passed the word on to us just in time:  “If you want the tiny leftovers you’d better speak NOW.”

The 2013 Vintage.

This is one of the few club submissions we didn’t get to taste for you beforehand.  There were no bottles in the vendor’s sample budget based on the lack of cases to promote.  For once, we didn’t care.  If someone’s 2012 is outstanding, their 2013 counterpart is sure to “trump” it.  The first Napa year delivers rich generosity; no 2012 Cabernet is without it.  From 2013, when all went right weather-wise and the drought’s water deprivation began to be sensed by the vineyard, we got smaller and darker berries.  This concentrated fruit provided more darkness of color, more depth of fruit, and more “important” ageworthiness.  Our follow-up purchase of this 69% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, 6% Merlot, and 10% Petit Verdot 2013 Mad Hatter was a smart bet.

The Accolades.

94 Points, Robert Parker who reports:

… a big-time winner. It has a gorgeously deep ruby/purple color, a sweet kiss of licorice, blackcurrants, black cherries, camphor and incense. The wine is fragrant, with supple tannins, an opulent lushness and a total hedonistic and intellectual turn-on. Drink it over the next 10-12 years.

You’re welcome!!!

(By the way, with no re-ordering option our supplies of this limited wine are on “lockdown” until all members receive his or her first bottle.  We’re happy to take reservations for the precious little that will be leftover!)

More wonderfully “curmudgeonly”

2013 RAFAEL et FILS CABERNET SAUVIGNON – Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley

When I smelled this wine with its vendor and saw “Oak Knoll” on the label I had to ask, “WHERE in Oak Knoll?”

“On the west side, on the benchlands of the Mayacamas Mountains,” was Henning’s reply.

And then the scent and structure of this wine made sense, for this wine experience is not too different from that of long-admired and nearby Hendry Vineyards.  I’d like to think the aspect of “place” still appears in Napa Cabs when fewer winemaking buttons are pushed, and I’d like to think that’s happening as much in this new-to-us Cabernet as it has in many a vintage from its Hendry neighbor.

Here is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon (obvious to the happily-aggrieved palate) raised in French oak for 23 months.  A strong sense of cedar, black olive, cherries, and vanilla syrup attacks the nose, declaring, “Pay attention!”  In the mouth you’re tasting and feeling a more classical Napa Cabernet experience; this wine is equipped with age-able, black-earthed structure, to be sure.  If the 2013 Mad Hatter described above can be regarded as a cocktail Cabernet by some palates, dismiss the idea with respect to THIS 2013.  Be sure to have it with a good piece of beef, with the assistance of decanting or cellaring.

We’re lucky to grab this for you and had to be a little deceptive to do so.  Outside of direct sales from the winery it’s meant to appear mostly in restaurants.  Our “by the glass” license came in handy in this case!        

Selections for April 2017

An All-Star Winemaker Affair

2014 PIROUETTE from the LONG SHADOWS VINTNERS COLLECTION – Columbia Valley, Washington State

This is a project packed with great wines.  Behind the wines are a terrific winegrowing region and an impressive list of all-star wine names starting with Allen Shoup.  Allen worked as a marketing director for Gallo in Modesto before heading north to join Chateau St. Michelle in 1980.  This now-powerhouse winery was far more modest in size and objectives back in that day, but Allen’s leadership (including 17 years as CEO) helped it become one of America’s larger producers maintaining an unusually high quality standard.  He was also instrumental in bringing European wine greatness to Washington with the Col Solare project (involving Tuscany’s icon Antinori) and Eroica, which utilizes Germany’s famed Dr. Ernst Loosen. 

In 2002, Shoup embarked on a new adventure, Long Shadows Vintners.  I know of no other winery like it:  Each Long Shadows wine employs a different internationally-renowned specialist.  Mosel Riesling expert Armin Diel shows what Washington State can do with that grape.  Randy Dunn heads north from Howell Mountain, Napa Valley to render “Feather” Cabernet Sauvignon.  Globe-trotting Michel Rolland does “Pedestal” Merlot, one of the best examples I’ve ever tasted.  The former maker of Penfolds Grange John Duval heads up from Down Under to do “Sequel” Syrah . . .   – And these are not one-time-only efforts; each winemaker has a stake in the company and remains committed vintage after vintage.  The wines consistently receive rave accolades but the California appreciator is a rare one, with so many more local distractions.  That’s an opportunity for TWS, we believe; the chance to expose greatness from another place. 

“Pirouette” involves Augtin Hunneus on a “VIP” level while Napa’s sought-for Philippe Melka performs the more “hands-on” wine shepherding.  This is a Bordeaux-style blend of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon,  18% Petit Verdot, 17% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Malbec.  Young (just released).  Unrated (but Long Shadows wines have an incredible track record in the score department).  Dark.  Tight.  Pure.  Cellarable.  We suggest you hang on to this for a while!!    

As mellow as its proprietors . . .

2013 HIGHTOWER MERLOT – Red Mountain, Washington State

To know this wine is to know Tim and Kelly Hightower – or the other way around.  In other words, the easygoing style happening in this Merlot is akin to the affability of its husband and wife winemaking / small business-owning team:  Genuine, welcoming, thoughtful.

This pair is among very few to be accessing Red Mountain fruit while actually living, winemaking, and hosting visitors in that very place.   The small appellation is considered by many producers to be among Washington State’s best, but most of these wineries are more conveniently located in Walla Walla, Yakima, or Woodinville.  Just Hedges, Col Solare, and a few others call the Hightowers neighbors on the “Mountain” (More of a really big, sun-spanked hill) itself.  Their tasting room is small but innovatively designed with all kinds of “green” aspects.  Their fruit hangs right outside its doors.  Their appeal is immediate, as is the style of their reds.

We advocate cellaring many of your Red Collector reds including the Pirouette described above.  Based on the mellowness of this Merlot you might anticipate this being a rare exception.  Indeed, how can a wine so soft and easy possess the “vertebrae” of age-ability?  - Yet a recent experience with Tim and Kelly showed that their stuff really does endure.  We were drinking wonderfully-evolved ten-year-old Hightower renditions with a feast of their own preparation.  Maybe there’s something sustaining about being so low-key?!  This wine BARELY gets into California, but we (and the Hightowers) made it happen for you.       

Selections for March 2017

Celebrating development

2005 SEMPRE VIVE ‘Eugenia’ CABERNET SAUVIGNON – Napa Valley

No wine topic is more fraught with supposition, misconception, and outright B.S. than that of age-ability.  The questions are legion; the answers frustratingly elusive with frequent qualifiers “sometimes” and “not always.”

Some suppose (based on experience OR the effectiveness of persuasive advertising) the older the bottle, the more improved its contents.  – But what’s your premise; your definition of “improved”?  Take Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon:  In youth it’s bound to be darker in color, with more vibrantly glowing hues of violet or ruby.  Age it for ten years and the color literally drops out; one “tell” is the sediment at the bottom of your bottle and, if recklessly poured, your glass.  The boldness of purple youth has faded to a red/brown/burgundy shade.  Is this a good thing or bad?  Sometimes.  Not always.  

Youthful aromas of fresh cherries and blackcurrant also leave town before long, soon replaced by more dusty, dried cherries, a more salient sense of earthiness, olives, cedar, and herbs.  Good thing or bad?  Sometimes.  Not always.

Textures once bold with macho tannins settle to a more mellow sense of silk.  Good?  Bad?  It depends.

It depends on your appreciation of more developed “Phase II” Cabernet.  A lot of today’s Cab fans are more drawn to the forward, dark fruit of younger wine; tolerating the penalty of the tannic lashing applied to their tongues.  This is what they’re accustomed to since the market most often shows us only un-evolved current releases (it’s hard to sit on money).  Older Cabernet is not readily available without the personal investment of a patient “first in / first out” cellaring program at home.  Maybe our fathers - more apt to emulate Europe’s traditional reverence for aged Bordeaux and Barolo, had more experience with the older smells and flavors.  Have we lost that appreciation?

- And so we put this rare “older” wine before you with the submission that when very good Cabernet is properly aged it can become a very valid different kind of “good”.  This bottle is meant to be a lesson, a treat, and a time saver:  You need age this 2005 no longer.  ‘Eugenia’ from Sempre Vive is single vineyard-sourced, coming from the winery’s oldest vines in northern Napa Valley’s sub-appellation of Calistoga.  The winery offered this opportunity to TWS at a club-workable wholesale price, and we were pleased to pounce.  2005 – a vintage I’ve considered great for aging with its vibrant, higher acid “redness” – is rarely seen in the market these days.  We sell Sempre Vive’s younger “everyday” sibling for about $20.  That “lesser” wine provides the darkness of youthful fruit many casual consumers prefer.  Are YOU the more thoughtful wine lover who can appreciate the difference of age?  We hope your reply, at the very least, is “Sometimes, if not always”!  

And now for Youth . . .

2013 ILARIA CABERNET SAUVIGNON – Napa Valley

Two years ago Ilaria offered us very special pricing on its 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon.  As most will recall, that vintage was the most difficult for Napa Valley growers in at least a decade.  The colder, wetter year imposed its grim will on Cabernets which barked back with stiff tannins, an abundance of savory qualities such as tea and black olives, and a nearly non-existent fruit remark.  On rare occasions we careful tasters actually found something to like in a 2011, relieved to experience a less fruit-forward year for once.  Ilaria’s version, especially at their secret lower price to us, was a club-worthy success.

Our support and your acceptance of Ilaria in more “trying” wine times has been rewarded with yet another attractive wholesale price on their more widely-appreciated 2013 vintage.  Blackcurrants, violets, black raspberries, and espresso are happening happily on a lush, rich-yet-refreshing frame.  The acidity and tannins of youth will certainly support at least eight years of aging, but our older wine advocation (above)  might be carelessly disregarded in favor of celebrating youthful fruit-forwardness.

Anna Monticelli’s winemaking training encompasses both UC Davis and Bordeaux, culminating in a stint at famed Cheval Blanc in 2000.  Back home, her early winemaking work included Seavey and Bryant Family and – more recently – Piña.  Ilaria is Anna’s own project, now familiar to longtime club members via two very different vintages!       

92 Points from Robert Parker himself.

Selections for February 2017

The Redness of Rutherford

2012 ÉLEVE ‘Dust to Dust’ CABERNET SAUVIGNON – Bella Oaks Vineyard, Rutherford, Napa Valley

Not all that is Napa Valley Cabernet is “purple”.  Certain vintages are more “red” based on the weather.  Certain parts of the valley deliver the effect of “redness” based on soil and orientation.  Certain winemakers also invoke “red” with their various decisions such as picking time and fermentation styles.

“Purple?  Red?  What’s with the colorful lingo?!”

The color references are based on appearance, scent, flavor, and texture.  Per my wine grammar, a “purple” wine looks darker, smells and tastes like blackberries and violets, and feels more tannic, opulent,  and – maybe - chocolate-y.  “Red” Cabernet is more vibrant with perfumey raspberries and sage, and can give an energetic, food-accommodating tanginess to the tongue, and perhaps a sense of dustiness or – even – iron.   

Éleve is the “red” kind of Cabernet Sauvignon to my mouth, and I’d attribute this to the source.  The sub-appellation of Rutherford is famous for providing many of the effects described above, especially an overall sense of “dust”.  We have shown you this place and that style before, most often via the wines of William Harrison.  The bottle before you reflects contributions from Rutherford’s famous Bella Oaks Vineyard (reference Heitz Cellars and Staglin Family) and winemakers Fernando Castro and Adam Webb.  Officially, Fernando is the winemaker for Falcor.  This south Napa winery which is too large (by design) for its own production needs and thereby accommodates “custom crush” and storage services to the likes of Adam for his own Odisea, Gardienne des Vignes, and Eleve labels.  Adam in turn accommodates our own Domaine des Plus-de-Vie project.  Yes, Livermore Valley fruit headed north to Napa once again in 2016!

This beautiful expression of redness is happening beside my keyboard right now, from a bottle opened yesterday.  The fact that it “overnighted” so well tells me you could age this for at least five years; something you can’t say about all the 2012’s.  I’d owe this to the aforementioned tangy-ness you find in redder wines; acidity (not tannins) is the greater preserver.

And now for Purple . . .

2012 DANCING HARES ‘Mad Hatter’ RED WINE – Napa Valley

Here is yet another value opportunity from The Wine Steward while it lasts.  Having bought the last available cases of 2012 Mad Hatter we were afforded a better deal and can do the same for you.  Several online wine concerns offer this sumptuous blend of 59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Cabernet Franc, 11% Merlot, and 7% Petit Verdot, but none gets close to our club member price.  I don’t usually commit much note writing to the topic of price but maybe I should; finding you value is a vital part of our “product”!

Howell Mountain is known for more sumptuously “purple” wines, and if that effect rolls downhill it certainly reached Dancing Hares Vineyard.  Contrary to my purple wine definition, however, Howell Mountain’s expression of the color always includes the nerve or energy of the redder style.  As decadent and supple as this blend is, there is a vibrancy hovering above that keeps the palate engaged.

This winery is owned by none other than Tuck and Boo Beckstoffer, whose wisdom and wherewithal brings in Andy Erickson (Staglin, Spottswoode . . .) as full-time winemaker and globe-trotting Michel Rolland for consultation support.

Intriguing scents of cassis verging on grapefruit, along with cherries and blue fruits, excite the nose.  The palate brings us blackberries and espresso on a frame that is – as mentioned before – full yet exciting.  A full-throttle cocktail wine, Mad Hatter is even better with a steak off the grill!            

Selections for January 2017

The Endless Pursuit of Alignment

2014 DAVID ARTHUR ‘Meritaggio’ – Napa Valley

This is at least the fourth vintage of this lovely Napa Valley concoction to be “clubbed” over the years.  From the most primary yet vital perspective - how it tastes - Meritaggio ALWAYS nails it for the price.  It has broad appeal with its delivery of red and purple fruits and velvety tannins which amplify their effect, rather than distracting.  For the THINKING wine drinker there is the added intrigue of the unusual cepage (ingredient list).  Not just another Napa Valley Bordeaux-style blend, Meritaggio always surprises with the extra contribution of Italy’s Sangiovese grape.  This 2014’s make-up:  70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Sangiovese, 8% Petit Verdot, and 2% Cabernet Franc.  The Cab and Petit Verdot furnish darkness, while Sangiovese and Cab Franc add cheery, fragrant “redness” of fruit.  Finally, there’s the subject of site.  While the label declares “Napa Valley,” David Arthur wines come from his estate high above it - 1150 feet up at times - on what’s unofficially known as “Pritchard Hill.”  This lofty perch is also the home of wine giants Continuum, Bryant Family, and Chappellet.  The latter has a lock on the “Pritchard Hill” name, using that on its benchmark wine, so we’ll probably never see the region correctly appellated as such.    

So, between price, friendliness of style, intriguing composition, and rareness of region I’d say we have a bargain here – but it’s got to work for you.  When I first tried this new 2014 release of Meritaggio I was surprised to find myself wanting more.  The wine was endearingly fruited but seemed to lack the substance of weight (richness) and complexity (more to say about it than just “fruit”).  At that particular moment my palate and this wine were not aligned, and this is a critical place of judgment for all wine observers:  Do we taste a wine just once, and immediately reject it if it doesn’t deliver the goods at that moment? 

Too many of us do.  Whether it’s an American preference for instant gratification or a modern world’s expectation that all things must happen quickly or not at all, wine does not always play along and some of the best ones thereby miss recognition.  The perfect alignment of palate (yours / mine) and the wine itself can be elusive, fraught with a vast list of qualifiers:  Is it too young or too old to drink?  Is it too cold or too warm?  Does it need a little air?  Could this particular bottle be harmed by TCA?  - And more simply:  Is this wine just not very good?  . . . And some introspection is also in order:  Am I in the mood for this kind of wine?  Is this the right time of day, month, and year to be uncorking it?  Am I eating the right thing with it?  Am I giving it a chance with the right treatment of temperature, air, and good stemware?  I’m I being influenced by the promoter (or naysayer) sitting across the table?  (Am I obsessing about this??).

As you can see, a little healthy paranoia can accompany your approach to a bottle of wine, especially when you’ve forked out more than twenty dollars or so for the ride.  With MY first not-amazing taste of this particular wine I decided to apply patience, encouraged by its pedigree and my former experiences of Meritaggio.  Lo and behold, the wine was singing just one hour later, just as it is at 6:30 a.m. two months later as I write these notes.  As your finder of good wine I am obsessed with the concern, “Will my customers taste the goodness in this wine I’m enjoying myself?”  “Will they ask the right questions?”

I admonish you:  With all wines purported to be great, have a care.  Don’t immediately dismiss.  Patiently consider - and re-consider - and alignment between your palate and that stuff in your glass may well happen because of your investment of time and thoughtfulness.  THAT, my friends, is real wine appreciation.         

Vintage 2014 – Another Inquiry . . .

2014 RAMA CABERNET SAUVIGNON – Napa Valley

950 cases of this 95% Cabernet Sauvignon / 5% Petite Sirah were made by Mario Bazán with consulting help from David DeSante.  Like Rolando Herrera of Mi Sueño, Mario is yet another story of a Mexican (Oaxaca-based, this time) laborer ascending to vineyard and winery ownership via hard work and vision.  His flagship wines sport the “Mario Bazán” label.  “Rama” (Spanish for “bough” or “extension”) is the name for his easy-drinking, more easily-afforded second Cabernet.

While no wine completely represents its vintage, I’d say this 2014 captures the spirit of Napa 2014.  As I’ve been tasting so far, the ‘14 Napa Valley Cabernets are less densely purple and more red-fruited than their 2013 counterparts.  They show less tannic depth and more cheery “drink now” deliciousness.  I believe I’ll be saying it a lot for the next year or so:  “Drink your 2014’s while you hold onto your 2013’s!”

Beneath a beautiful label design lies a fragrant Cabernet smiling with easygoing endearment.  A high-toned, dusty and vivacious raspberry / cassis perfume echoes the lifted fruit message of the aforementioned David Arthur wine.  The palate feel is juicy, presuming to be no more than middleweight in size.  Your tongue will salivate with the experience, and the treatment should be food.  In this case I believe pork roast is the ticket! 

Selections for December 2016

Recovery?  Resurrection?  Restoration?

2014 TURNBULL CABERNET SAUVIGNON - Napa Valley

Two days ago a customer visiting our Cabernet racks remarked, “Wow, you get Turnbull!  I didn’t think it got out all that much.”

That’s when I knew this winery was finally achieving the harder of two things. 

No stranger to the Highway 29 traverser, Turnbull opened its doors back in 1979.  High visibility has certainly made it known to many but its presence on Napa’s main corridor wasn’t the only way so many knew it.  For quite a while the brand also maintained a significant situation on grocery store shelves.  Turnbull became accepted as a reliable, if not outstanding, selection two aisles over from the paper towels.

The family’s younger generation assumed the reins some years back, seeking to dramatically reduce production and improve Turnbull’s wine quality.  They have achieved that first “thing,” epitomized by Robert Parker awarding a 2010 single-vineyard offering the “perfect” 100 point score and proclaiming,

“It is another brilliant effort from a winery that has dramatically improved its quality from good to world-class. “ 

The second “thing” takes longer, and is sometimes never fully realized:  Changing the consumer’s perspective of your now-better, smaller-production brand.  It’s easier to go in the opposite direction.  Consider a former Orin Swift brand called “The Prisoner,” once much smaller in output and the exclusive, allocated product of shops like The Wine Steward.  The brand has since been purchased not once, but twice; exploding in volume and stacked in Safeway and Costco, and – because all but the most casual consumer knows its new accessibility – all but banned from wine shops who are no longer special by carrying it.  If the wine itself ever had any sense of soul, the need to access bigger and more mediocre fruit sources has now made The Prisoner a simple, serviceable drink and nothing more.  

But taking a bigger brand down in size and up in consumer perspective?  Like that rich man achieving the Kingdom of God, you could more easily urge a camel through the eye of a needle!  So perhaps you understand a wine shop’s trepidation with advocating a great product that might be tainted in the view of some.  If we re-build it, will they come to the brand? 

Wine club members, we know you have it in you:  You taste carefully and trust us to bring you quality, regardless of label.  You’ll appreciate the NEW Turnbull for what it is.  For such thoughtful wine consumers, Turnbull is achieving the harder thing the right way; with damn good juice! 

Freshly turned loam, ultra-ripe plums, and tobacco endearingly greet the nose.  A plump, mouth-filling and fruit-forward palate happens with the necessary “resistance” of silky, cocoa-like tannins.  This wine is built for early drinking and would especially honor a prime rib roast.  Enjoy now or cellar for up to five years.

Another test of your perception . . .

2013 ROBERT MONDAVI ‘Oakville’ CABERNET SAUVIGNON – Napa Valley

There’s a theme to this month’s pair of wine, methinks!  If Turnbull seemed an unlikely provision to a club anticipating rarer wines (and as we explained, Turnbull is exactly that these days), what must THIS mean to you?

Its meaning could be based on value:  With your wine club discount we are destroying Wine.com’s price and matching K&L’s; two low-ballers normally “owning” this category.  Most other providers of Mondavi Oakville are asking much more.  And we ask, “From whom else can you get ‘Oakville’ for 44.99?”

Its meaning might be ratings derived:  Wine Spectator gives this a very respectable 91 point nod saying,

“Tightly wound, with a muscular mix of lead pencil and graphite accenting the core of dense berry, earth, gravel and cedary oak notes. Slowly reveals black licorice, anise and savory herb flavors, but needs cellaring time. Best from 2019 through 2030.”

… But I hope the meaning you’re getting comes from the wine itself and faith in our wine-finding.  I probably would not bring you Mondavi “Oakville” from many other vintages, but the great Napa year of 2013 which conferred goodness and seriousness on all its Cabernets provokes this selection. 

Taste this wine and know you’re experiencing durability.  If you open it now, please decant it; provide some “false age.”  The bottle on my desk was uncorked last Saturday.  Now it’s Tuesday and what remains is still working.  While Robert Mondavi himself is gone and his label now belongs to others, this wine’s tradition of providing a classical Cabernet experience is upheld.  Graphite, coy black fruits, cedar, and dark cherries happen on a focused, well-structured frame.  Density meets elegance.

Real Red Collectors will recognize the truth in this very cellar-worthy wine, of which we urge you to buy more for later.  We are proud to show it to you.  

Selections for November 2016

Another delicious trip north

2012 BAER ‘Ursa’ – Columbia Valley, Washington State

This small-production red ranked #28 on last year’s Wine Spectator Top 100 List (94 points) but it’s virtually unknown to the California red lover.  There are so many other more local impressions crowding it out of the reckoning.  However, we’re advocating the wines of Washington State more than ever at TWS, believing they offer very good value and that there’s room in your sphere of wine love for the type.  A recent trip there which included fourteen different winery visits has also revived my own enthusiasm for what the place has to offer.

Since I’ve already related Washington State’s viticultural attributes (high desert, miniscule rainfall, diurnal shift, Missoula Flood-bearing loess, and longer summer days) several times – and as recently as earlier this year – this time I’ll make some travel recommendations instead.  While there’s nothing like seeing the source, Washington State’s wine country is inconveniently located about three or more hours’ drive east of Seattle.  You can fly into the little airports of Walla Walla or Pasco, but many casual wine tourists can’t or won’t make the time.  If you can’t get to it, don’t worry; it gets to you in the form of “Woodinville.”  That is, if you plan on spending leisure time in Seattle just arrange an Uber ride out of that city to this suburb to the northeast; about a half-hour trip.  Woodinville features several clusters of winery tasting room, and you can traverse many of these on foot.  There are no vineyards growing here, ironically, but in all other ways Woodinville is Washington’s more easily accessed “other” wine country.

I’ll leave you to enjoy this delicious blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec with the Wine Spectator description:

“The core glows with ripe blackberry, dark plum, mint and floral flavors, gliding over lightly prickly tannins into the long and compelling finish. Feels almost weightless, but has tremendous depth … Drink now through 2020.”  

A Kinder, Gentler 2013 . . .

2013 GAMBLE FAMILY VINEYARDS CABERNET SAUVIGNON – Napa Valley

The submission of this Cabernet as a Red Collector wine comes with an assertion:  Not all 2013’s are – or need to be – daunting in purpleness and aggressive in fruit and tannin intensity.  Here is an alternative message of mellowness; a pleasantly-plump example of the more sedate “Valley Floor” style.  Soft scents of raspberries, plums, baking spices, dried herbs, and smoke lead to a lush, medium-bodied experience of juiciness.  

This is the result of veteran farmer Tom Gamble’s vineyard work and Languedoc-trained Jim Close’s winemaking prowess.  Most of the fruit hails from Gamble’s main Oakville plot, not far from Groth and Silver Oak.  There is also a Calistoga-derived component.  A 5% Merlot addition and a 20-month nap in French, American, and Hungarian oak barrels are other significant features.

At the heart of Gamble Family Cabernet, though, is an easygoing declaration of the “nice ‘n easy” style requiring less cellaring time than most of the 2013’s we bring you.  For the true wine lover it takes all kinds, and this “drink now” Cab is a very valid, broadly-appealing one of those.   

Selections for October 2016

A Mi Sueño-Style Story

2012 MALDONADO PROPRIETARY RED WINE – Napa Valley

Rolando Herrera of Mi Sueño doesn’t have exclusive rights to the “Michoacan Farmworker Makes Good” tale.  Over four decades ago Lupe Maldonado made the same trip north from Atacheo, Mexico to work vineyards in the Napa Valley.  His first significant stint was for Sterling Vineyards and that’s when (in 1971) Peter Newton asked him for help with the creation of his new winery.  Ultimately Lupe became Newton’s Vineyard manager then passed that baton on to son Hugo in 1999.  Along the way, Lupe acquired land in Jamieson Canyon along Highway 12 (Napa Valley frequenters know this recently-improved southern valley access from Cordelia) for a vineyard of his own.  More recently, the Maldonados have set up a winery facility and tasting room in Napa’s NORTHERN extreme of Calistoga.  That outlet, fine restaurants, and good wine shops like ourselves are now Maldonado’s main conveyers.  We have long carried the winery’s excellent Chardonnay, and this is the first TWS placement of their Proprietary Red Wine.

Lupe’s former employer is remembered in this blend.  The Cabernet Sauvignon component hails from Newton’s Spring Mountain vineyard.  Added to that is Merlot from Vidal Vineyard in Napa, and Syrah from Maldonado’s own Los Olivos Vineyard plot in Jamieson Canyon.  The three varieties combine to provide a lovely fragrance of flowers, black cherries, and chocolate.  The textures are soothingly broad yet refreshingly lithe.  This 2012 is a good demonstration of the vintage’s generosity of fruit and fast-track development.  Unlike 2013, 2012’s often lack the “core” of acid-tannin structure desirable for long-term aging, somewhat like the 1997’s which so impressed us in their fruit-forward youth but dismayed those who thought they’d cellar forever.  We suggest you start drinking your ‘12’s if you aren’t already.  While some are impressively built, many will lose their best feature of forward fruit sooner than later.

As I was saying . . .

2013 LE PICH CABERNET SAUVIGNON – Napa Valley

Two days ago we opened several bottles for a client interested in a multi-case purchase for an upcoming event (we do this).  Among the inspirations was the now half-empty bottle of Le Pich currently residing on my desk.  It is in very good shape 48 hours after its first exposure to air, confirming its durability and bolstering my assertion about the general difference between vintages 2012 and 2013.  If you open this sooner than later we recommend a bit of decanting and a juicy medium-rare ribeye!

Le Pich is the “second label” of Purlieu, whose most expensive single-vineyard Cabernets sell for well over $150.  It is the handiwork of Julien Fayard who began his winemaking training in Provence and Bordeaux.  In the latter region he worked at none other than First Growth Lafite-Rothschild and even lived in the Chateau itself.  In the United States he has since applied that exposure to his work at Gemstone, Dalla Valle, Lail, and Quintessa.  He also served as Philippe Melka’s director of winemaking for five years. 

Of course, it also takes outstanding fruit to make outstanding wine.  This 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, called “A sleeper of the vintage” by Robert Parker, sources grapes from Coombsville, Pritchard Hill, and the famed To Kalon Vineyard of Oakville.  Purlieu’s vineyard manager Steve Matthiasson oversees those plots with talent amassed from working with Araujo, Chappellet, David Arthur, and the like.

The sum of great winemaking pedigree, excellent fruit sources professionally farmed, and a rock star vintage:  Intense purple-black color, a perfume redolent of purple flowers and black fruits, and a mouth of intense, compact richness which will wonderfully unwind for years to come.  2013 rocks, my friends.

Selections for September 2016

Tradition Applied to a Fruit-Forward Vintage

2012 (Beaucanon) “Trifecta” Red Wine – Napa Valley

Veteran navigators of the Napa Valley will remember Beaucanon’s original home on Highway 29, in the building now occupied by Provenance.  Louis de Coninck’s headquarters are now less visible, in southeast Napa on Monticello Road.  I had completely lost track of the brand and thought the operation had folded, but just last month the Frenchman himself appeared at TWS to pour his most recent releases.   

This was a unique presentation of wines, with Napa Valley products uncorked alongside some from Bordeaux.  It turns out Louis’ family has owned Chateaux in France for nearly three hundred years and Beaucanon represents them over here. 

As I tasted the Napa-grown wines I immediately recognized a French connection.  Beyond Louis’ own accent, the style of his wines declared an Old World message of “Bordeaux-ness”.  This Trifecta especially says it.  The cepage (list of grape ingredients) follows the tradition of blending:  76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Petit Verdot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 5% Merlot, and 1% Malbec are all invited to play.    – But even more European is the style of this wine.  You’ve certainly come to anticipate a fleshy, fruit-forward style from Napa’s 2012’s.  Those generous, low-tannin Cabs are great cocktail wines; their lack of “edge” means a food pairing is often unnecessary.  Trifecta bucks the ’12 trend, providing surprising-for-the-vintage structure; along with the anticipated dark color and fruit there’s a dark earthiness to the nose and significant “chunk” to the mouth.  It truly represents a French winemaker’s interpretation of Napa Valley fruit.

With that in mind, we recommend decanting Trifecta and serving it alongside hearty dishes such as roasts or braised meats.  This 2012 will also cellar longer than most, considering its “Bordeaux-ness”!     

Cool Year Conquered

2011 WILLIAM HARRISON CABERNET FRANC – Rutherford, Napa Valley

We have paid our dues:  Diligently (often distressfully) tasting through a lot of 2011 Napa Valley Reds in order to find you the good ones.  That, after all, is the mandate for a truly open-minded wine lover and buyer; to identify goodness in all sorts of vintages.   With challengingly cool and wet 2011 this took some real work but we found you several valid versions, and when riper 2012’s and 2013’s arrived we figured our consideration of 2011 had come to an end.  Then we found this.

No stranger to your wine club is William Harrison, a small and humble-looking situation on the Silverado Trail.  Bill Harrison was the first to provide mobile bottling to the Napa Valley, a business which perhaps leverages out the need for the winery to be any bigger, flashier, or more expensive to drink.  I find the place a breath of fresh air with its lack of presumption and less-than-greedy pricing.  . . . And every year I respect their work with tricky Cabernet Franc.

This grape, which along with Sauvignon Blanc is a parent to Cabernet Sauvignon, gets a lot of play in both Bordeaux and France’s Loire Valley.  In the latter, cooler place it is especially prone to declaring an overt green-ness of flavor, encompassing bell pepper, asparagus, and root vegetables.  It is remarkable, then, that in one of Napa’s coolest vintages on record William Harrison avoided this unpleasant (to me) Loire Valley effect.  Certainly, this Cabernet Franc is varietally correct with some sense of “garden shed” but those savory scents have company in the form of rose petals and cherries.  As I tasted through all of William Harrison’s 2011’s I found this to be their most successful red from that tricky year.

This Franc’s expressiveness will be most appreciated on a cold Fall or Winter night with rich proteins such as duck or filet mignon, and wild mushrooms along with mashed parsnips would be worthy accomplices.  We hope you’ll recognize the nice price happening on a deliciously complex wine.

Selections for August 2016

A Rare Trip South

2013 SEXTANT ‘Kamal’ CABERNET SAUVIGNON – El Pomar AVA, Paso Robles

Like all wines this one started with vines, but Sextant is an elaboration on that reality.  Cal Poly graduate and Sextant proprietor Craig Stoller is also the CEO of Sunridge Nurseries, providing quality grapevines to vineyards throughout the state.  Sunridge was founded by Craig’s father Glen long before the idea of starting a winery was hatched.  I think that’s pretty cool:  There’s something enabling and appropriate about first knowing how to handle a wine’s source, the vine, before tackling the final product.

Ten years ago we might not have shown your club a Paso Robles Cabernet.  With rare exceptions (Justin, sometimes) most reds from there showed little restraint or framework.  Blatant, often raisiny fruit betrayed the high alcohols inherent in the wines from this warmer region.  Now, though, Paso has moved beyond its awkward puberty via the arrival of better-trained winemakers plus funding from a new wave of savvy proprietors appreciating the potential of better vineyards and facilities.  Add to these positive trends Sextant’s more unique viticultural know-how and you have a high likelihood of a much-improved Paso Robles product.  Yes, it’s still hot down there.  Yes, this wine sports a place-honest 15.2% alcohol reading.  What’s different and new is a sense of structure justifying the ample fruit, and the prevention of the pruney flavors of Paso’s wine past.  A fitting indication of this place’s improved winegrowing/winemaking perspective is the United States Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s 2014 approval of no fewer than 11 sub-appellations of the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (El Pomar is one).  Paso Robles, it seems, gives a damn these days.  

Here is 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Malbec, 7% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, and 2% Cabernet Franc – all the significant Bordeaux varieties – combining to provide fruitful significance.  A fresh chocolate earthiness greets the nose, joined by plummy fruit.  The mouth is rich and opulent AND (here’s the New Paso Robles Difference) tannins also participate.  That quality of “resistance” keeps your mouth happily restless, and you can soothe this anxiety by incorporating protein.  Aged cheeses such as our excellent Saenkanter Gouda will happily help, when ribeye steak is not on hand!

Simple, at first glance

2013 STUHLMULLER ESTATE CABERNET SAUVIGNON – Alexander Valley

Here is 94.5% Cabernet Sauvignon darkened up with a 5.5% dab of Petit Verdot.  

It’s too easy to be satisfied with that simple description but we should know more, appreciate a grower/producer’s obsession with the details.  For instance, within that generalization of “Cabernet Sauvignon,” three different clones are employed here, each with a different tweak on the varietal voice.  Seven different vineyard blocks contribute:  While the Stuhlmuller estate is one contiguous site, there are significant variations in the dirt and topography.  Soil types ranging from alluvial gravel to hillside rock and clay are at play.  Even the “Alexander Valley” appellation deserves elaboration, as Stuhlmuller is situated at its cooler, southern edge converging on both Chalk Hill and the Russian River Valley.

It’s important to care about all this, because each feature has a hand in the success and complexity of this wine.  It’s also useful to compare this Stuhlmuller with another 2013 Alexander Valley Cabernet recently brought to your club:  Stonestreet.  That wine was tinted a bit darker; grumbling with more brooding scents and growling with a more dense and chewy palate attack.  This wine sports more lift and zest in the nose, where lively black raspberries are joined by an airy camphor-like perfume.  The mouth is more lithe than Stonestreet’s, where cherry vividity and licorice intrigue lead to a snappy grip in the finish.  How can two “Alexander Valley” Cabernets vary so?  One, the Stonestreet, hails from the mountains high above the valley, while Stuhlmuller Vineyard lies mainly on the valley floor.

Attention to detail and the appreciation of DIFFERENCE is the fortunate wine lover’s prerogative! 

Drink now with a rare steak, later (up to eight years?) with more “developed” (braised or roasted) meats.

Selections for July 2016

A Silver Oak “Scion” or “Source”?

2013 MEYER FAMILY CELLARS ‘Spitfire’ CABERNET SAUVIGNON – Oakville, Napa Valley

You could say Meyer Family Vineyards is the offspring of much better-known Napa wine institution Silver Oak, which historically precedes it.  Alternatively, with respect to the people behind the two wineries, you could call “Meyer” the origin. 

In 1972 Justin Meyer and wife Bonny co-founded Silver Oak Cellars with partner Ray Duncan.  The brand “Meyer Family” came along much later – in 1987 – to foster Justin’s love of port.  The brand evolved to an actual location in 1998 when Justin and son Matt purchased a property in the Yorkville Highlands (adjacent to the Anderson Valley AVA) with cool weather Syrah production in mind.

What goes around has come around.  The Meyer Family sold Silver Oak to Ray Duncan in 2001.  Meyer Family Vineyards remains in the remote Yorkville Highlands but has widened its fruit sourcing sphere to once again include the original Napa Valley source.  Longtime fans of Silver Oak will recall their special “Bonny’s Vineyard” bottling.  That plot is now honored in Meyer Family “Bonny’s Vineyard” Cabernet costing more than twice as much as the wine before you.

Here is a dark and sensuous red which speaks more subtly than the more oak-induced Silver Oak Cabernets.  Like the latter, Meyer Family employs American Oak here, but only 50% of the barrels are new with the remaining neutral-flavored half keeping wood qualities from ravaging the dark fruit, black olive, and bouquet garni qualities of this elegant 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.   “Spitfire” shows calm restraint at this point in its life.  With a modest-for-Napa alcohol level of 13.8%, plus a good balance of tannins and acids, I feel it will age very gracefully for at least ten years rather than burning out sooner as more bombastic Napa Cabs are wont to do.  Let’s hear it for suaveness!

Bordeaux Meets New World

2012 DeLILLE CELLARS ‘D2’ – Columbia Valley, Washington State

At least 20 years ago, well before I was savvy enough to question a wine promoter’s spiel, I attended a tasting of higher end Washington State reds.  Alongside were reputable examples from Napa and Bordeaux.  The intent was to give validity to the lesser-known northwest wine region and by the taste of things- the advertisement was successful.  Looking back on it now, just one idea put forth that day makes this better-informed wine lover snicker just a little.   The presenter tried to reinforce Washington’s reputation with the trivial tidbit, “Our wine country lies roughly at the same latitude as Bordeaux.”

Oh, that’s supposed mean your place is like that place?  Michelangelo and Picasso were both world class painters, but how else do they compare?  All a common latitude guarantees is a comparable length of days and nights.  Granted, that’s interesting for Washington, as their longer summer days during which a grape cluster develops may render a certain effect compared with Napa to the south.  But Bordeaux and Washington are completely different in all other ways.  Bordeaux is adjacent to the Atlantic and very susceptible to seaborne weather systems.  Washington’s Columbia Valley occurs on the eastern side of the state; high desert, where only six inches of rain might fall each year and a very different diurnal shift (temperature swing between night and day).  Bordeaux’s dirt is different.  Bordeaux’s culture of wine style preference is different.  In short, there’s more that’s DIFFERENT than Bordeaux than similar when it comes to Washington State. 

Having finished my tirade and turning to this wine, I must make now reverse myself a little because DeLille actually aspires to a more “Bordeaux” wine style of restraint, indicating that with this wine’s name.  “D2” alludes to the road traversing the great Chateaux of Bordeaux.  The theme continues in the style:  This blend of 50% Merlot (Washington’s best grape, by my read), 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 8% Cabernet Franc doesn’t pack a fruit wallop but speaks with more savory restraint.  Right now I’m smelling red peppercorns, graphite (a very Bordeaux descriptor), and reluctant cherries.  The palate feel follows with a Euro-classic tannic structure, yet soothing chocolate syrup loiters beneath.  This is what we call “well-framed” red wine.  This is also what Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate calls 93-point wine, with the additional remarks:

“It's one hell of a second wine and offers up awesome notes of blackcurrants, wood smoke, graphite, chocolate, truffle and damp earth to go with a full-bodied, ripe, layered and still focused and lively profile on the palate. This is a serious wine on all accounts and it has beautifully integrated acidity, moderate, sweet tannin and a great finish. It's easy to appreciate now, but will also have 20 years of overall longevity.”        

Selections for June 2016

Swanky Stuffe, more attainably priced

2013 CRU CABERNET SAUVIGNON from Vineyard 29 – Napa Valley

Let’s talk about the odds. 

With a vintage as excellent as Napa’s 2013 the odds are very good that just about any Cab from there and then will be solid.  Remember how delicious those 2012’s were?  2013 trumps its predecessor.  The fruit is even darker, depth of flavor more profound, and a more significant tannin structure makes these Cabernets the more durable.

With a winemaker who has demonstrated his abilities with Napa reds as impressively as Philippe Melka, the odds are very good that you have a winner here; this is a Melka-guided 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet.

With a winery whose 2013 Estate Cabernet (costing $250, if you can get any) received a 100 point rating from Robert Parker, the odds are very good that Vineyard 29’s entry-level 2013 ‘Cru’ version doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Indeed, a 93 point rating for a 2013 Napa Cabernet you members can access for less than $50 indicates very good value these days.  Here are Mr. Parker’s thoughts:

“ . . . the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Cru is meant to be drunk by eager consumers unable to defer gratification, as well as any restaurant looking for a realistically priced and delicious, dense Napa Cabernet. The 2013, which is no surprise, is basically two-thirds from St. Helena-area vineyards, and is a blend of 83% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Petit Verdot, Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. It has terrific aromatics of spring flowers, licorice, tobacco leaf, charcoal and a touch of graphite. The superb aromatics lead to a seductive, juicy, soft, round opulent style of wine, with medium to full body, an opaque purple color, and gorgeous ripeness and richness. A major sleeper of the vintage, you can get this for the full retail price of about $60 per bottle, probably double that in any restaurants.”  

With The Wine Steward having brought your club at least two previous vintages of Cru, the odds are very good you’ll be loving it again.  To Parker’s abundant description I’d augment:

“Violets, camphor, licorice, black and blue fruits, and sweet charcoal fly from the glass.  Your sip delivers the smooth, barely-ready pleasure of black cherries and fresh dark chocolate.  Drink now or hold for five to seven years.”

How ‘bout them odds?!

My Favorite Recent Cabernet Vintage

2010 TRIONE ‘Block 21’ CABERNET SAUVIGNON – Alexander Valley

When the 2010’s were first released and poured for us, whether from Napa or other Cabernet Places to our north, I was immediately impressed.  This was the first year since 1999 that was delivering such focused impact to my palate.  Yes, many good vintages had come between these two.  Critics had been especially noisy about the 2007’s, but I found that year to show more classical balance and a little less weight than many Cab lovers want for their money.  2010’s long, cool growing season which finished with a crescendo of fruit-ripening heat caused a smaller grape on the cluster which in turn made for a larger skin-to-juice ratio in the fermentations.  The skins deliver color and flavor and tannins of course, so 2010’s got a lot of all three.  When tasting the 2010’s in their youth we were wowed by the density of purpleness and power of flavor - and respectfully frightened by the tannins.  However, we knew that latter aspect would subside over time to reveal a beautifully-developed full-bodied wine.

Here it is:  Not from Napa this time but from the land of Stonestreet, Jordan, Stuhlmuller and other worthy Alexander Valley neighbors.  You can SMELL the concentration of this wine.  Framboise and cassis vie with dried herbs and bittersweet chocolate for your attention.  The palate is long and broad, yet lithe with juicy acidity.  Like the Korbin Kameron provided last month, this is less of a “cocktail Cab” than – say - the Vineyard 29 Cru presented above.  Match the acids and intrinsic Alexander Valley earthiness of Trione with roasted or braised meat (short ribs, anybody?) to fully honor it.  Revel in the 2010 vintage – it’s high time!