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Cabernet Sauvignon and “the dip”

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Michael Mondavi hosted a small event last night at Epic Roasthouse, on the Embarcadero, and during it he poured me three of his M by Michael Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignons, the 2005, 2007 and 2009.

The ’05, which I hadn’t previously reviewed, was fabulous, and I couldn’t restrain my enthusiasm, which Michael shared. At 7-plus years, it’s mellowed into a rich, soft wine that’s just beginning to turn the corner from primary fruit to secondary notes and bottle bouquet

I did review the ’07, back in August, 2011, and gave it 92 points, as well as a Cellar Selection special designation, which I’m glad I did: that wine needs time. Two thousand and seven was, as most of you know, a ripe, forward vintage that resulted in a plethora of wines instantly lovely for their approachability. Yet on this occasion, the first thing I thought about the ’07 M–even just smelling it–was, “It’s in a slumber.” The mouth experience confirmed this. Everything was there: the fruit, the tannins, the acidity, the oak, the overall sleekness, but it was as if the actual experience of the wine were hidden behind a gauzy veil. I told Michael this, and he instantly agreed. I told him of something Bo Barrett, from Chateau Montelena, said to me, many years ago, concerning his Cabernets: they seem to drink well for 4 or 5 years after release, and then go into what he called “the dip” for another 6 or 7 years, during which they’re mute, and then re-emerge into cellared glory. Michael told me that, when he was younger and growing up with his father, he always thought that the aging curve of a wine was a simple sine curve. But now he knows it’s more like a roller coaster.

Why this “dip” should occur in so many ageable Cabernets is a mystery to me, but it does seem to be a general rule, especially for Napa Valley. If you cellar wine, it’s something to keep in mind.

The 2009, which I also have not yet formally reviewed, was very good, but far away from being drinkable because it’s simply too young. But, as my mentor Harry Waugh used to say, “It should make a good bottle.”

Incidentally, last night also was the inaugural display of the San Francisco Bay Bridge’s big light show, which the media have been touting for weeks. Now, Epic Roadhouse sits practically right under the bridge, so when I went earlier in the afternoon, I saw all the T.V. trucks lining up to shoot the event. I knew there was going to be a party, but what a party it turned out to be!

After the Michael Mondavi thing, Allison and I tried to find a restaurant or bar to sit down, have some munchies and a badly needed cocktail. The neighborhood of the Embarcadero and the adjacent South of Market extension of the Financial District is jammed with restaurants and hotel bars, probably hundreds of them, but we walked for block after block, and I can tell you there wasn’t a seat to be had, probably within a half-mile radius. There were lines stretching out the doors; at Ozumo, the hostess said she had a two-hour wait. We didn’t even bother going into Chaya, it was so mobbed. From the looks of it, it was a youngish crowd, stylish and thirsty. And this was on a Tuesday night! There may still be lingering effects of the Great Recession in many parts of the country, but not in San Francisco. The Chronicle recently had a front page story on rents; they’re so high that many people are now renting a single bed in a crowded bedroom, or a laundry room, or, in the case of one guy, a closet. I couldn’t help but wonder, looking at all the happy, drinking people, where they would end up sleeping that night.

  1. Steve, this is a thought provoking piece for me since, except for those wines with an established reputation for ageability (which are typically un-modern in style), I tend to assume that Napa Cabs are just done when they taste this way after a few years and write this off to the winemaking style that emphasizes flash in youth. Of course, the idea of a “dip” and recovery is an article of faith in places like Bordeaux, though more commonly referred to as the “dumb” or “closed down” period. The idea that most or even many Napa Cabs might recover and shine after a dip is something I haven’t much considered. I’d be interested in your thoughts or others’ as to whether this is likely true for a significant number of modern-style Napa Cabs.

  2. Mike, this obviously is a very complicated topic. Most of us writers rarely get to taste a wide range of older Napa Cabs, particularly the “cult” ones, because they’re so expensive that even the producers are reluctant to pop the corks. I’ve been trying for many years to convince Bill Harlan to set up a vertical for a group of writers but so far he hasn’t done it. Having said that, there’s certainly a difference between a wine that’s obviously too old and will not age, and one that’s in the “dip”. The Mondavi 2007 was clearly not showing well but equally clearly it has a brilliant future. There are other older Cabs from 2003, 04, 05 that are simply too old. Whatever imbalances they had originally become more pronounced with time in the bottle.

  3. As much as I like free publicity, and I hope that people will say Epic “Roadhouse” abut our wines all the time, I think you are referring to “Epic Roasthouse” .

  4. Eric Hall, Doh! I corrected it.

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