Friday, May 25, 2007

California Cabernet Society Tasting

Cab Society glass.JPG

Last May 14th the California Cabernet Society hosted a tasting of their members’ 2006 wines from barrel, plus new releases, at the CIA Greystone in Napa. My overall impression of the quality of 2006 California Cabernet Sauvignon wines? Pretty much more of the same. Very ripe, high alcohol, fully extracted wines that are meant to please the major wine critics. From what were being tasted, there is simply a lack of Cabernets offering good aromatic expression and elegance.

Cab Society tasting.JPG

The 2006 vintage is being billed as a “classic” vintage. I don’t know the definition of “classic” in this context, but if one means the style that prevailed during the 1960s, 1970s, and even 1980s, when Cabernets from stalwarts like Heitz, Beaulieu Vineyards, Mondavi, Mayacamas, and Joseph Phelps were elegant, balanced and had alcohols under 14%, then most of these 2006 Cabernets are completely un-classic.

To be fair, there are promising trends. The good news about 2006 is that the wines show richer tannins and firmer structures that would at least support and provide flavor interest to the opulent fruit, which has been the overarching goal of California Cabernet producers since 1990s. But mind you, these are early barrel samples. Who knows what would happen between now and the time of bottling? Henri Jayer once said that 80 percent of wines start out promising but only 20 percent end up being good.

For me, the standout producers, based on current releases shown (mainly 2003 or 2004) and 2006 barrel samples, include Arns, O’Shaugnessy, Barnett, Hendry, and Clark-Claudon. The best wines in the tasting were from two producers: Whitehall Lane and Diamond Creek. Whitehall Lane’s ’03 and ’06 Reserves showed beautiful aromatic expression and very interesting flavor complexity. Diamond Creek’s Red Rock Terrace and Volcanic Hill, both in ’03 and ’06, were beautifully balanced and showed refined elegance. These are the wines I would love to take to a restaurant with me.

A caveat to score-monkeys, I wouldn’t expect my favorites to be given big scores by major wine critics. Herein what I think lay the dilemma of California wine producers. I don’t doubt that many of them, or more of them, would like to make wines that are more balanced and elegant, but they won’t for fear that wine critics would kill their business. Look at what happened to even the mighty Robert Mondavi several years ago, when his family insisted on making elegant wines during the booming 1990s vintages. They got punished with low scores for making wines that showed restraint and supposedly were “European” in style!

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