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My visits to Screaming Eagle and Harlan

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I was at Screaming Eagle yesterday, tasting with estate manager Armand de Maigret and winemaker Nick Gislason. We tasted through the 2009, the 2010 and various components, and were talking about what makes a wine great, when Armand said that Michael Rolland, who consults for Screaming Eagle, said his aim is to blend a wine that “has texture and pleasure.” And I thought, well, after all is said and done, that’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it?

I’ve long held that it’s easy, in California, to get fruity flavor. You can do it anyplace warm enough to ripen grapes, from Paso Robles and Amador County to Napa Valley. What’s hard, in California, to judge from the evidence of the wines I taste, is achieving structural complexity. It’s hard to define structural complexity, but in the past I’ve likened it to the architecture of a house. It’s the walls, floors, ceiling, roof, foundation and all the beams and girders that hold them in place. Fruity flavor is like the contents of a home: the oriental carpet, sofa, big screen TV, paintings, flowerpots, silverware, curtains, oven, trinkets and tschotchkies and baubles. Those things can be very precious and beautiful and expensive, but without the structure of the walls, roof, etc., they’re just a pile of beautiful, expensive junk on the front lawn. Conversely, the structure of walls, etc. is just an empty and unlivable shell without its beautiful contents. So you need both.

I give a lot of scores in the 87-90 range to wines that are beautiful but lack structure (and dryness; let’s not forget dryness as an essential component of table wines). This absence of structure can be perceived immediately: I often use the word “melted” to describe such wines. What was so superb about the Screaming Eagles (the 2010 firmer, the 2009 plumper) was structure, and specifically the quality of the tannins. Yes, there was good acidity, but the tannins were hard, almost brutal–but the kind of brutality that feels so good:

Cruel to be kind in the right measure
Cruel to be kind it’s a very good sign
Cruel to be kind means that I love you
Baby, got to be cruel, you got to be cruel to be kind

Armand and Nick seemed almost to be apologizing for the tannins, which were unusual for Screaming Eagle, but then, so were the 2009 and 2010 vintages. I told them that tannins like that don’t bother me a bit and shouldn’t bother anyone who knows what he’s talking about. You can age those wines a long time, and even if you don’t (and it’s likely a lot of people who get their hands on Screaming Eagle open it too soon), you can just decant the wine and “drink it with the oiliest, greasiest meat you can find,” is how I think I put it.

Afterward, I drove back across the Oakville Cross Road to the western side of Napa Valley and on up into the Oakville bench and lower Mayacamas slopes where perhaps the most beautiful vineyard in all of California is situated. Harlan Estate is an old friend and it was good to be greeted by Paul Roberts, who plays Armand’s role there, and the winemaker, Cory Empting (when and how did these winemakers get so young? I don’t think either Cory or Nick is thirty). Bill Harlan himself, who was on the road, was kind enough to call to say hi. We went through all the 2008 BONDs, The Maiden, The Matriarch (with Paul reminding me that a particularly glowing review I once gave Matriarch, the least expensive of the batch, sits framed on their office wall). I was blown away by the BOND Vecina (the vineyard is close to the estate itself), so when we came to the 2008 Harlan Estate, I sampled it against the Vecina. The former was twice the wine, three times the wine, which caused me to remark how important it is to taste these kinds of wines in flights, so you can compare and contrast. The Vecina on its own easily merited a huge score: but if you gave it, say, 95, then what would you have to give Harlan Estate? 190 points, if it’s twice the wine? Fortunately, I wasn’t there to formally review, so I didn’t have to cross that Rubicon.

Cory was talking about his attention to detail (and indeed that of everyone connected with Harlan) and he jokingly said it was probably due to his O.C.D. I smiled. A person who hopes to be good at anything needs a little O.C.D.

  1. I will skip the wine just to walk the property at Harlan, beautiful place and architecture. Glad you had fun. It’s good to hear of more young winemakers performing at the highest levels, like Matt Dees in Santa Barbara.

  2. Love the house analogy, but you killed me quoting Nick Lowe…

    All the best,

    Nannette Eaton

  3. I think that this is a good example of why a critic should reserve the highest possible scores for those quite rare moments when something truly spectacular comes across the tasting table. Any critic who hands out 98, 99 and 100-point scores as if they were unlimited candy runs the risk of devaluing them to the point where they become irrelevant.

    The feeling I get from your writeup here is that the Vecina would garner a score in the upper-90s and the other wines (while no slouches) wouldn’t rate quite as highly. It does seem that the last 2-3% percentage points are rarified air, where mere mortal wines seldom fly.

  4. +1 on the Nick Lowe reference- nice!

  5. Steve, this post is not only a beautiful pastoral of your visit, the vineyards, even your writing, but of some substantial history; I liked this very much.

  6. Hey Steve, I appreciated this. Love the picture you paint of furniture on the lawn! Conversely then, we could also conclude that as well thought out as the structure may be, without the furniture and the personal touches of artwork and comfort, and without the presence of warm human beings in it, it is not a home, right? Which is why I always stress to consumers the importance of Balance. The fruit, the acidity, the alcohol, & the structure of the wine must be in balance with each other, with no one aspect overshadowing the others. Like a dance performance, where one movement moves seamlessly into the next, as opposed to a series of individual steps. I also liked the aknowledgement that these wines in particular often cry out for “the oiliest, greasiest meat you can find”…(or a hunk of good cheese). I love a good Cab, but only if I have a big fat steak in front of me, or a good cheese. But in this world, or in any world, there is nothing finer than Great Cabernet with the appropriate dish! Kudos to both these wineries and their fine young representatives for achieving what is right about Cabernet. And kudos for writing about it!

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