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Six Steven Kent wines

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Many years ago, I wrote a column in Wine Enthusiast (sadly, I no longer have it), in which I lamented the lack of excitement in the wines of the Livermore Valley AVA, which, if you look at a map, is one of the jewels in the bracelet of appellations surrounding San Francisco Bay, including Sonoma County, Napa Valley and the Santa Cruz Mountains.

I got some flack for that but it was true: Livermore was historically under-performing. Now, I have to admit upfront that it has been quite a while since I last paid attention to Livermore Valley, and things may well have improved. I certainly hope so. But even before I left the employ of Wine Enthusiast, there was one Livermore winery that turned me on, Steven Kent. He showed me what Livermore was capable of—why it had achieved its historic reputation for Bordeaux-style red wines in the first place.

Well, Steven has sent me his latest batch, and I must say the wines are as impressive as ever. Here are six reviews.

96 Steven Kent 2011 Lineage Red Wine (Livermore Valley); $165. As far as I know, this is Kent’s most expensive wine ever, and also the most expensive to come out of Livermore Valley. I imagine his motive to go in this direction—the ’11 Lineage is his fifth under that proprietary name–after the many critical plaudits he was receiving for his Cabernets, was to make a low-production reserve-of-reserves (production was about 300 cases). The wine is 62% Cabernet Sauvignon; the rest is Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. The alcohol is 14.1%. I mention that because, as superbly ripe as the wine is, it is in no way hot or heavy. It is an absolute pleasure to drink now, offering waves of blackberry compote, cassis liqueur, dark chocolate shavings, black licorice, violet petals and smoky, toasted oak, leading to a long finish of black pepper, cinnamon and star anise. The texture is as fine as any Cab I’ve ever had. Remarkably smooth, complex tannins, set off by lively acidity. This is really a beautiful wine, all the more impressive for the challenging vintage conditions. Steven Kent says how hard he and his team worked on assembling the final blend after “scores of mock blends” were tried out. They succeeded. I would drink this beauty over the next six years.

94 Steven Kent 2013 Ghielmetti Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $65. The wine is distinctive for an anise note, but otherwise, it’s not radically different from Kent’s Smith and Home Ranch Cabs. Like them, it’s dry, fairly tannic in youth and complex. It is, however, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, and I think that gives it the edge. Shows good acidity framing complex blackberry, cassis, plum, pencil shaving, violet and dark chocolate notes, accented with plenty of new French oak. It is clearly a vin de garde, a wine to age. The stuffing is there, and so is the overall balance. There’s a yummy factor already despite its youth, a mouthwateringly sweet, umami taste, but you really do not want to pop the cork too soon. I’d give it another six years, at a minimum. Steven Kent himself suggests 15-20 years, which sounds good to me. This is another great accounting for Livermore Valley Cabernet from this winery.

93 Steven Kent 2012 Lineage Red Wine (Livermore Valley); $155. The big question in my mind was which Lineage I would prefer, the ’11 or the ’12. I tasted the ’11 first and was blown away. Then the ’12. My first impression was, if I had to pick, I’d easily go with the ’11. The ’12 is thick in primary fruit, oak and tannins. It’s clearly a well-grown, well-made wine, but is currently lacking the elegance and finesse of its older sister, being rather jammy and heavy, with a leathery chewiness. It also tastes oakier. Why would this be? Importantly, the ’12 is a year younger; that extra year can have a dramatic effect. It also has significantly more Cabernet Sauvignon (72% vs. 62%). It’s true that the official alcohol is lower on the ’12 (13.9% vs. 14.1%), although it doesn’t feel lighter in the mouth. The usual approach to these sorts of twin vintages is to say, Drink the ’11 soon, and wait for the ’12 to come around, which could be a long time. I have no doubt there’s a great wine in there, but not now, and maybe not before 2020 (eight years is not old for this kind of wine). In fact, I’d love to follow its evolution over the next twenty years. But for now, it’s just too heavy.

93 Steven Kent 2013 Home Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $65. I don’t know why Kent’s Home Ranch is so much more rewarding than the Smith Ranch. The latter is quite good, but the Home is really good, so packed with flavor and wonderfully structured that it’s irresistible. That makes it sound like a simple pleasure, and it is; but it’s also a very complex wine. Tiers of ripe blackberries, cassis, blueberries and chocolate cascade over the palate, with hints of anise liqueur, toasted French oak barrels and exotic baking spices. The mouthfeel is all velvet and silk, with soft acids providing just enough balance. This is the kind of Cabernet with which Steven Kent established his reputation as lifting Livermore Valley to a whole new level. As good as the wine is, I agree with his advice that the wine should evolve beautifully over the next 10-15 years.

91 Steven Kent 2013 Smith Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $65. There’s an olivaceous note that grounds the elaborate blackberry and cassis fruit, giving it an earthy, herbal complexity. The mouthfeel is profoundly smooth. And the alcohol is a refreshingly modest 14.1%. Wonderful finesse, so fine and elegant in the mouth, although it’s just a bit lacking in body. The finish is entirely dry. A real beauty to drink now and for the next several years.

91 Steven Kent 2013 BDX Collection Cabernet Franc (Livermore Valley); $48. The first duty of Cabernet Franc is to not be Cabernet Sauvignon, to be different enough to justify a separate varietal bottling. This one succeeds. It’s about tart red fruits—cranberries, just-ripe cherries, pomegranates. Might almost be a Pinot Noir, except for the body and the tannins. There’s also a complexing white tobacco note, and something I’d describe as edamame, which may be because I recently went to a Japanese restaurant, but there it is, an earthy, funky, green herbaceousness. Aged for 20 months in 20% new French oak, it has a smoky edge. Feeling fine and smooth in the mouth, this is quite a distinctive wine to drink over the next few years.

  1. Steven Mirassou and his Steven Kent Winery have earned the attention and kudos of serious wine enthusiasts everywhere. A growing trust of farmers and producers in the Livermore Valley continue to gain these well-deserved reviews because their community continues to collaborate with the dial turned up to 11.

  2. 2011 was actually a pretty good vintage in Livermore. In cool years the Livermore heat really comes as an advantage. The rain stayed up north in Sonoma and Napa that year. Great job Steve. You are doing a great job not just for yourself but to the region too. Well deserved.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Is this blog similar to the Wine Enthusiast article you allude to?:

    “Trying to rescue a failing appellation”

    http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2011/03/23/trying-to-rescue-a-failing-appellation/

  4. Steve:

    I greatly appreciate the fact that you were the first major wine critic to understand the potential of the Livermore Valley, and appreciate, also, your shining a spotlight on our wines!

    Steven Kent Mirassou

  5. Bob Henry says:

    Steve’s successor at Wine Enthusiast likewise endorses the raise of Livermore wines.

    “Livermore’s Quality Revolution”

    http://www.winemag.com/2015/11/24/livermores-quality-revolution/

    Seconded by Mike Dunne in the Sacramento Bee.

    “Steven Kent Mirassou and his Lineage;
    Sixth-generation family member is committed to showing that Livermore valley isn’t a punch line.”

    http://www.sacbee.com/food-drink/wine/dunne-on-wine/article2584030.html

  6. John Smugeresky says:

    Steve Heimoff!

    Perhaps this suggests that you sample and review the fine wines made by the other winemakers of the Livermore AVA, who commented on your original assessment of it!

    You will find that they, too subscribe to the Steven Mirassou vision to demonstrate that the Livermore AVA winemakers are in fact making that vision a reality much more so than you realize!

    You might also check out how the Las Positas College Viticulture and Winemaking Technology Program of David Everett is contributing to that vision as well!

  7. Dear John Smugeresky! Thanks for your comment. I review the occasional wines that people care to send to me. I don’t solicit anyone.

  8. The cool thing about Steven Kent Winery is that their single vineyard series allows us consumers to understand the different characteristics of Livermore’s top vineyards. Now that they’re adding 2 more to home ranch, smith ranch, and ghielmetti, it’ll provide a great picture of Livermore’s potential as the 5 vineyards are spread out over the valley with varying elevation and soils. Steven Kent has the consistency, art, and skill that’s necessary for the vineyards to truly show their distinctive traits. Nottingham is also producing some great single vineyard cabs as well as a Lineage-like bordeaux blend in its Supremacy.

  9. First, congratulations to Steven Mirassou for making great Livermore Valley wines. And thank you Steve Heimoff for tasting and re-evaluating Livermore Valley wines. We have come a long way over the last 10-15 years and there are truly a set of wineries producing wines to be noticed.

  10. John Smugeresky says:

    Note to Larry Dino: Based on Steve’s response to my comments, I guess you and the other fine winemakers in Livermore Valley will have to send him some wine before he will say anything about them. I’ve tasted your wines and I believe they are an example of how far Livermore Valley has come!

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