Friday, November 16, 2007

BNO California Cabernet Sauvignon: the Definitive Collector’s Edition

No wine has to constantly prove its worth more than California Cabernet Sauvignon. Since its production became firmly established in California in the 1960s, Cabernet Sauvignon has been the most collected California wine, yet its quality, value, and place among the world’s greatest wines are repeatedly questioned by wine enthusiasts.

Why there is so much doubt about California Cabernet Sauvignon, despite the hype, seems inexplicable…. or maybe not.

Our BNO (boys’ night out) wine group never gets tired of summoning California Cabernet Sauvignons to the table. We have done so an inordinate number of times, almost at a drop of a hat, and many of the California Cabs we’d drunk are so-called “cults” and “legends”. But in our most recent get-together we were determined to put the age-old question to rest: what is the big deal with California Cabernet Sauvignons?

Before I give you the blow-by-blow I must say that I’m in awe with the generosity of everyone in our group. We depleted our cellars with some of our prized bottles. Many of the wines we opened are scarce, and even the wineries may no longer possess some of the vintages. But, as usual with our BNO, in the true spirit of Bacchus, we never take ourselves too seriously; it’s all about drinking and having fun. We passed the bottles around and sipped the wines in between animated conversation and serious eating. Nothing too studious or clinical. We do try to rate each of the wines, but this is arbitrary as the consensus score could slide up or down depending on how a wine changes over the course of the evening. And to be honest, it’s hard to get everyone to focus on scoring, especially once you get in the conviviality. Heck, who wants to bother with something as boring as scoring a wine anyway?

We did invite a wine journalist to join us, Jon Bonné, who is Wine Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. We thought this BNO was special enough that we won’t embarrass ourselves by inviting a wine media representative with gravitas. I’m sure Jon gets a ton of invites to come to tastings, so we felt elated he chose to come to ours. For Jon the get-together was more work than play, as he was quite stoic the whole night, clearly on a mission to document each of the wines opened as well as all the goings-on. We queried him frequently, curious to get his professional opinion on the wines. If he does report this event someday in the Chron’s wine pages, I hope to God he would leave out Matt’s reference to some of the wines as coming from an “old bitch’s cellar”!

The night we held this wine dinner was perfect—it was one of those rare summer nights in the Bay Area when the air was still and it was warm enough to dine al fresco out in the patio. And for once no one in the group had to do any cooking because we had French Master Chef Patrick Farjas, doing the catering and joining us for the tasting. I mean, how cool is that?

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Patrick prepared a mouthwatering array of appetizers and courses to pair with the Cabernets. Hands down the best food to pair with these California Cabernets was the "Greek 'Dolmales', grape leaves, rice and ground lamb". No less than an authority on this traditional grapeleaf dish, Kevin, commented: "Patrick's food--my God--the grapeleaves were stunning, the exceptionally dark, firm green leaves, the mostly lamb Greek/Armenian style, the white wine/lemon prep I have never had anything quite like it before and frankly, the most enjoyable I have ever had."

Waiting for the other guys to arrive from their carpooling expedition, Steve and I cracked the 1982 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon “Georges de Latour Private Reserve”, Beaulieu Vineyard. The bottle fill was neck-high, the cork was like new, and the color showed no signs of fading. Yet the nose was oxidative and the fruit was, too. We waited for signs of recovery. The wine did get somewhat fresher (or was it just my imagination?), with the cedary, cassis flavors getting brighter, but the oxidation was strong. What a disappointment. Something was puzzling and very wrong with this bottle.

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By this time the rest of the guys finally showed up. We stood all the wines on a dining table to get consensus on the flights. The first flight consisted of the oldies, mainly 1970s, though it started with the supremely elegant, well-preserved 1967 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon “Martha’s Vineyard”, Heitz Cellars. “Surprisingly rich” was the general comment. Still deeply colored, very cassis flavored, and infused with the eucalyptus/mint character that Martha’s is known for. The wine was efficiently pure, without any excess fat or density. Perfectly proportioned and focused. This is a wine of great finesse. I would keep recalling my experience of this wine all night, and even days later it never ceased to haunt me. 3-3 ½ puffs.

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The next two wines did not leave me with the same indelible memory as the ’67 Martha’s yet they towered. The 1974 California Cabernet Sauvignon “Monte Bello”, Ridge is a tour de force, a wine-of-the-night on any scoring card. Dark and very rich, its flavors are well-concentrated, with deep cassis fruit laced with mint, black pepper, and dried spices. Possessing a dense mid-palate with long, smooth tannins that firmed up the opulent flavors, this wine became more powerful and seemingly more youthful as it opened up. On this night, it seemed like this Monte Bello could last forever. Wow! 3 ½ - 4 puffs.

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A truly lovely wine was the 1977 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Mayacamas Vineyards. Mayacamas Cabernets age very slowly, so it’s rare to actually drink one that is fully ready. Velvety tannins accompanied the sweet, ripe blackberry fruit with slight mint and earthy flavors. The wine expanded deliciously on the mid-palate offering excellent depth of flavors without a hint of harshness. Though lacking the class and precision of the ’67 Heitz Martha’s, its charm is its mountain character that offers uncomplicated pleasure. 3 ½ puffs.

We were back to Heitz with the 1970 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvingon “Martha’s Vineyard”, Heitz Cellars. The familiar eucalyptus/mint flavor surfaced once again, but this one was almost dried out. Though it offered some of the attractive, complex flavors of its terroir, it lacked sumptuousness, hence it did not take long for the fruit to “drop fast” after some minutes of being poured in the glass. A “wine of passion” said one. That is a good way to put it. Some of us relished its fleeting beauty. 2 ½ - 3 ½ puffs.

So on we go to the 1980s. Unfortunately, the 1984 Napa Valley Red “Christian Moueix”, Dominus Estate suffered a worse fate. Though attractive berry flavors opened up soon after the wine was poured, these faded fast. Oxidation set in after just several minutes. 2 ½ puffs.

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And this flight goes from bad to worse. The 1985 Napa Valley Red “Insignia”, Joseph Phelps Vineyards was flawed mainly with volatile acidity. There was just no life here. Flabby, grapey, and flat. 2 ¾ puffs (why even bother?)

Finally, the last of the 1980s flight, the 1986 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Chateau Montelena. Smelling of rusty nails, “grandma’s coin purse” said Matt, this was oxidizing fast. 2 ½ puffs.

Ah, a relief to be finally be done with those disappointing 1980s… but wait a minute! The next flight, the decade of the 1990s, led off with another flawed wine, a 1992 California Red “Monte Bello”, Ridge Vineyards. This is one of the supposedly great Monte Bellos and the bottle we had was impeccably cellared, yet it showed signs oxidation on the nose as well as volatile acidity. The oxidation got stronger and we just gave up on it.

California winemaking took a marked change in the 1990s favoring riper, plusher, and bigger wines. As a result, the top Cabernet players had changed. Old guards like Heitz, BV, Mayacamas, and Ridge started to be eclipsed by newer labels such as Araujo, Dalla Valle, Abreu, and Peter Michael. These boutique wineries differ not just in their style of wines but also in their tiny production quantities and audaciously high prices. They shunned traditional distribution channels and went direct to consumers, transforming the “mailing list” into the most powerful marketing tool of the California wine trade.

Spottswoode seems to straddle the old and new styles of California Cabernet. The 1991 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Spottswoode offered rich, concentrated layers of ripe cassis, raspberry, and aromatic herbs. Bright and elegantly structured, with a modest alcohol level of 12.5%, this packs terrific energy. Certainly, an outstanding wine that is sure to provide pleasure for many more years. 3 puffs. We didn’t finish the bottle and Steve drank what’s left two days later and his notes echo what I meant about this wine straddling the old and new styles: “Soft, lush full fruits. Not overripe or raisin, more like the fruits is a dark red fruit tart, without the sugar. Most of the tannins and acid were either gone or integrated, but smooth, medium rich and a very pleasant quaff—many of the qualities of the 97 Peter Michael (which I love) but on mute, rather than full volume.”

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A most remarkable 1990s Cabernet and one that I would be interested in how it evolves further is the 1994 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon “Eisele Vineyard”, Araujo. This wine’s combination of richness and polish is breathtaking, with a depth of flavor that is expressive and individual. The nose showed cassis and gravel. Very ripe, rich fruit flavors with good delineation and elegance. This somewhat reminded me of a young Haut Brion.

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The 1997 Napa Red “Maya”, Dalla Valle was drenched in luxury. It recalled plush leather, spicy Havana cigar, and imperial tea. What sheer opulence in its dense, lush, spicy blackberry flavors! Its richness was like dark chocolate melting in the mouth. The finish is very long with an interesting minerality. Perhaps, the most sensual wine of the evening. How would aging this for another ten years be like?

In contrast, the 1997 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon “Madrona Ranch”, Abreu was over-the-top blockbuster. Port-like, jammy, very dense, and overly concentrated. This was hard to drink. However, two days later Steve finished the remnants and had this to say: “WOW!!!!!!! Deep bouquet of leather (new car porsche or ferrari, as opposed to old bomber jacket) violets, lavender, chocolate (yes chocolate) and dark red pitted fruits. Incredible mouth experience, subtle and elegant on the front palate, when it hits the mid palate, it blossoms (like a peacock tail) into a round rich opulent explosion of fruit, grip, sandalwood, and graphite. Incredibly balanced and layered, with a finish that lingers for 45 seconds or more. Unbelievable!!!!!”

The 1997 California (Knights Valley) “Les Pavots”, Peter Michael Winery (79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc) that Steve referred to above delivered unmitigated, gorgeous, solid, opulent blackberry/spice/chocolate flavors. This is why we love California Cabs! Not complex but polished and, most of all, utterly sexy. This went down “like butter”.

I was keen about spotlighting Stag's Leap Wine Cellars in our dinner. This historic winery’s distinctive terroir in Stags Leap of Napa Valley achieves its best expression in the winery’s Cask 23 bottling. The last two bottles we opened were two of the most famous vintages of Cask 23. Despite being impressed by the famous cult wines of the 1990s, the awesome 1978 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon “Stags Leap Vineyard Cask 23”, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was in a league of its own. A monumental wine that is well evolved, yet showed no signs of fading; offering minty cassis in the nose, with hints of gravel and underbrush. The palate exploded with layers of sweet blackberries and unfolded with game and roasted meat. Still wrapped in youthful tannins, this muscular Cabernet powered on without showing any weakness even after several minutes in the glass—relaxed and fluid in the gentle style of Stags Leap Cabernets. What a profound Cabernet experience! 4 puffs.

The 1985 Napa Valley Red “Cask 23”, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (by this time the wine has become so famous, even iconic, that the varietal name was fashionably dropped and Warren Winiarski’s signature now appeared on the label) was a far different wine from the 1978 as it didn’t have the grandeur of the latter and was a more demanding wine to appreciate. After an initial explosion of black fruits, the freshness was gone and the flavors were dominated by a “funky” and “botanical” character. A controversial wine and I wished we had more time to ponder it.

So was this the definitive Cabernet night? I think all these wines just deepened our thirst and curiosity for California Cabernets. I feel that the late 1960s and the decade of the 1970s represented a time of important discovery and evolution in California Cabernet Sauvignon winemaking. The fathers of modern California winemaking had their most significant contribution during this era. Influenced by Frank Schoonmaker and André Tchelistcheff, Robert Mondavi, Warren Winiarski, Joseph Heitz, Mike Grgich, and Paul Draper set out to find the best terroir in California for planting the most noble European grape varietals, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon. Their efforts paid off as they discovered some of the greatest vineyard sites for California Cabernet Sauvignon, including: To-Kalon, Monte Bello, Martha’s Vineyard, and Stag’s Leap Vineyard (S.L.V.).

But in 1976 the celebrated “Judgment of Paris” changed everything. This event is both a blessing and a curse. It accelerated consumer acceptance and eventually led to the huge market success of California Cabernets, but it also established a dependency on hype and marketing by California wine producers during the critically formative time in California wine development. Producers shifted their attention more towards selling and marketing and they were rewarded by increased demand and escalating prices. Consequently, the wine media, led by wine critics, began to play the most important role in promoting California wines.

As the market power of the wine media grew, the critics became more influential in determining the style and quality of the wines and their tastes started to replace the expertise of the producers themselves as the basis for consumer wine education. One can say this is akin to replacing the actual quarterback with the armchair quarterback!

To a developing and immature consumer wine market the impact of this trend was deadly. A newbie passionate about wine would rather peruse reviews and scores than listen to what a Joe Heitz or a Paul Draper had to say, literally and figuratively, through the wines they made. Thus, the discoveries and development instigated by pioneering California winemakers during the 1960s and 1970s were cut short as they now have to please the marketplace first and foremost. Imagine if Bordeaux or Burgundy were subjected to the same trend centuries ago during their regions’ early years in the 18th and 19th centuries. Would they have had a chance to develop the greatness in their wines as we know it today?

The proof as they say is in the glass, the wine glass that is. Clearly in this tasting the wines made during the 1980s, post-“Judgment of Paris”, underwent a marked change in quality. They were darkly colored and looked more concentrated, but after decades of aging faded fast and were oxidizing quickly. Bottom line, the 1980s Cabernets were easily beaten up by the Cabernets from the 1960s and 1970s, which are still going strong.

What about the 1990s? The 1990s Cabernets show more commonalities with the 1980s Cabernets than with the 1960s/1970s. But the volume is turned up even more, meaning these wines are bigger, riper, and sweeter in their youth. The main difference, I think, is that whereas the 1980s Cabernets are big and concentrated, they also exhibited harder tannins when they were young compared to these 1990s Cabernets. How do I know that? Fortunately, I still kept some notes of 1980s Cabernets I tasted soon after their release and again a few years later.

California winemaking changed further in the 1990s. The biggest change was hang time. Cabernet grapes were harvested much later and much riper than before to concentrate the flavor, raise the sugar, reduce acidity, and soften the tannins. In the winery or cellar, efforts were made to even heighten the effects of these changes. The end result is that winemaking had the effect of almost replacing the aging or cellaring period of a wine!

Since the 1990s California Cabernet winemakers hand it to you on a platter, that’s why they get the big bucks. Instead of aging your Cabernet 15-20 years or more, you can now enjoy them on release or wait just a few years. And boy, these 1990s Cabernets are much more pleasant to drink young than those of the 1980s.

Yet, the jury is still out on how these 1990s Cabernets would fare over the long term, say after 20 years. But why wait? I remember a rare interview of Helen Turley, the high priestess of 1990s California winemaking, wherein she refers to aged wine as “mummified”. Joe Heitz must be turning in his grave.

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