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Live from Napa Valley, it’s the Wine Writers Symposium!

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After dinner last night we had a “post-prandial” tasting of older Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons. As this was not a formal tasting, I made only token notes, and confined myself pretty much to a single consideration: How’s it drinking? Is it too old, still young, or just right? My findings didn’t surprise me: in general, Napa Cab is best drunk young — say, below 8 years.

Here are the wines, with quick comments:

Oakville Ranch 1998: too old
Juslyn 1999: hard, dur; may not be ready.
Truchard 1999: overripe, pruny
Corison 2000: lovely. We had this wine last month in NYC and it was really good.
Keenan 1994 Hillside Estate: on the down side
Peju 1999 Reserve: too old, leathery
Dalla Valle 1995: extraordinary. Near perfect. Still plenty of time.
Jones 1997: old-fashioned, dry. A puzzle. Could develop.
Farella-Park 1995: raisiny, tannic
Trefethen 1981: dried out
Duckhorn 1991: dried out, raisiny
Spring Mountain 1987: old, dry, tannic

Also there was the 1WineDude himself, Joe Roberts. We were talking about how so many people think that, just because a Cabernet comes from Napa Valley and is old, it’s got to be good. Not!

A few notes, after the first day of the WWS: Ran into Alder Yarrow at check-in and sat with him at dinner. It was nice to see Eric Asimov looking hale and hearty. The seminar’s director, Jim Gordon, is my editor from the old days, and it’s always a pleasure to see him. Saw a few other familiar faces, but most of the people were newcomers to me.

“What’s the word? That’s the mystery.” Thus spake Frances Mayes (“Under the Tuscan Sun”), the keynote speaker, describing how to describe a 30-year old Barolo. Finding the right word is the wine writer’s challenge, obligation and joy. Ms. Mayes correctly reminded us how hard that can be, and that the writer must not rest until he knows his copy cannot be improved.

Several panel members pointed to the analogy between the “sense of place” the writer tries to create, and the “sense of place” of a wine, i.e. terroir. I’ve never been as convinced as some that a single vineyard is necessary for a great wine. I think a great wine can be blended from different places. That’s just me. I know lots of others disagree.

Today we are off to the Culinary Institute of America for a bunch of workshops, including one led by my old buddy and former Wine Enthusiast colleague, Jeff Morgan, and one by Karen MacNeil, who was kind enough to write a dust jacket recco for my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River. Also speaking will be Michael Bauer, the S.F. Chronicle’s Food and Wine Editor and restaurant reviewer; he will, I trust, be out of disguise. My own panels are on Thursday; I’ll report on them on Friday morning.

  1. For me the point is not so much that only great wines can come from single vineyards, but it’s the fact that a single vineyard wine can and should bare its soul to us and that soul is where it came from. That is especially true when the vineyard is farmed by the person making the wine. That single origin adds a layer of distinction and pleasure, albeit maybe more on an emotional level, that cannot be replicated.

    Why do you think the CA cabs didn’t do so well with age? Is it the producer, the vintage, or the style?

  2. Scott: hard to say, except for an inherent lack of balance. High alcohol? Uneven tannins? Clumsy oak?

  3. Scott,

    You have made the argument quite plain. Those who grow the raw material AND make it into wine are the true carriers of the torch. (Love the olympics) The guys ordering the harvest (winemakers) are quite removed from the base product so they leave the once beautiful nectar on the vine to shrivel and this explains why CA cabs can’t age well, don’t taste well with NIGHTLY dinner and ultimately why the California wine industry on a whole is in dire straights. we’re making (collectively speaking) crapola.

    Yes, Steve is confirming what many of us knew a decade ago. Grapes harvested at 26+brix , macerated till the ex wife comes home, placed in 60% new oak for a brief 10 months and then sterile filtered into fancy heavy bottles don’t age well, don’t pair at all with dinner and weren’t allowed to finish barrel aging due to premature bottling.

    Count the times Steve writes the words, “old, pruny, raisins”.

    “Raisins belong in our oatmeal and NOT in wine”

  4. Hey Steve,

    I absolutely agree about the 2000 Corison and 1995 Dalla Valle. Those were two of my three favorites among these wines. The other one I liked was the 1981 Trefethen. It’s definitely well past it’s peak and is a “drink now, if not yesterday,” but I enjoyed sipping on it.

  5. Scott-
    It is simply style that affects agebility. There are many fabulous Napa Cabs that can go the distance and then some: Mayacamas, Smith-Madrone, and Heitz to name a few. Unfortunately, its the popular styles that have been touted by a few loud voices that don’t have the elegance and longevity that makes a great Cabernet.

  6. Stephen Hare says:

    Many producers are building “race cars”; wines that are designed to get no further than Parker’s 95+ point lips. Most of those producers have forgotten the key element in great wines…balance. I guess if the customers are still willing to pay for those overblown offerings, wineries will continue to make them.

  7. Stephen, we’re fast learning that fewer customers are willing to pay for those expensive bottlings, even when Parker blesses them with 95+ ratings. The wineries here in Napa and elsewhere are looking all over the place trying to figure out what to do. If I knew, I’d be charging $1,000 an hour to advise them.

  8. Erica: True. Also, bottle variation and storage conditions over time can vastly impact ageability. But in general I stand by my belief that many Napa Cabs, even those I give high scores to, will not stand the test of time.

  9. Ha, your palate makes the case for not buying/cellaring 1990s Napa cab.

    I’m surprised at the Farella-Park; I feel their better/best wines need a good 20 years of aging. The 1997 Jones is the only I’ve had; the last bottle was quite good – that was a wine that very awkward in its first few years.

  10. Jack you could be right. I’m going to retaste some of the wines I wrote about and if I arrive at different conclusions I will post here.

  11. Hi Steve! I bought two bottles of Caymus 1999 Zinfandel last night at a local charity auction. I’m not very knowledgable but know Caymus is good. I have tried to find info on the Internet about this specific wine but can find nothing. I bought the wine for my niece and would like tontell her something about it (ie should she drink it right away). Can you tell me anything about this wine? Thanks

  12. Marty, never had that wine. You can probably call the winery and find out all about it.

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