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Notes on Some Wine-Review Books: Cabernet Sauvignon


California Cabernet Sauvignon—specifically Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon—became “branded” in the public’s mind much more quickly than any other wine in history. How this happened was relatively straightforward, although that does not make the accomplishment any less noteworthy. The grape has been grown in California since the mid- or late 1800s and there are records of its wines winning awards in Europe more than a century ago. But Cabernet really hit the international Big Time after the 1960s.

By then, jet travel, international trade and famous wine critics had become part and parcel of wine’s economic milieu, so that it was far easier for a wine to build up a global reputation than it had been in, say, the 1700s, when Bordeaux ever so slowly became coveted. One factor, seldom-cited, that contributed to Cabernet’s budding reputation was the intervention of another Britisher, the wine merchant and bon vivant, Harry Waugh, whose “Wine Diaries”—a series of memoirs he wrote beginning in the early 1960s—were enormously influential among a small but important group of wine influencers. Harry (everyone called him by his first name) was a delightful man, Edwardian in his fusses and manners. I traveled with him through Washington State in the early 1990s, at a time when, already quite elderly, he was a bit gaga (I mean no disrespect), in a sweetly doddering way. Our hosts, the state’s Wine Commission, asked me to “keep an eye on him,” so as to make sure he did not wander off somewhere and come to harm during our travels throughout Washington’s extensive wine country. By then, I already owned most of his Diaries; his writing style—laconic, deadpan, completely without fluffery, as modest as its author—influenced my own a great deal. But Harry’s contribution to Napa Cabernet Sauvignon was in spreading its glories to his compatriots in Europe: the merchants, nobility, business titans and writers of London, Paris and Bordeaux, who first heard of, and tasted, Heitz, Louis M. Martini, Beaulieu, Robert Mondavi, Freemark Abbey, Charles Krug, Inglenook, and other Napa Valley glories, through Harry’s good graces. Premium wine requires a cult of aficiendos to bring it to acclaim, and Harry was the seed germ of California wine for that international jet set.

My introduction to California Cabernet Sauvignon was not from Napa Valley but from a decidedly less august place, Monterey County. In the cold winter of 1979-1980, while living in an unheated apartment (I was a struggling student) in the foggy southwestern part of San Francisco, I bought a 1977 Almaden Cabernet from that Central Coast region. Monterey did not have a good reputation as a wine region, nor Almaden for a winery. Yet the bottle was cheap, and so I decided to make my very first-ever wine note with it. I remember sitting down at a little writing table with the bottle and the wine glass beside me and writing, my fingers frigid in that chilly apartment, that review (I no longer have it), which was the genetic forebear of so many others to follow. I do not recall what I wrote but that is unimportant. What counted was that I did it—focused on the wine, gathered my thoughts, sniffed, swirled, tasted, retasted, resniffed, reswirled, retasted, all the while struggling to find the words to describe what my senses were experiencing.

From my reading, it had become evident that Cabernet Sauvignon was the important wine in California, and Napa Valley the important place to grow it. Not long after that, I made my first trip to the valley, in the company of my cousin, Maxine, and her husband, Keith. We went—I recall it distinctly, because, more than 30 years later, I was to go to work for its parent company—to Freemark Abbey, where an amusing incident arose that illustrates the truth of the old slogan, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” I knew of Freemark Abbey’s pedigree and was intent on tasting its very finest Cabernet Sauvignon. The lady at the tasting bar offered me a glass of something labeled “Cabernet Bosché.” I turned my nose up. “That is not Cabernet Sauvignon,” I insisted, suspecting trickery. “Yes, it is,” she insisted. “Then why is it called ‘Cabernet Bosché?’” Perry Mason was closing in for the kill. “Because ‘Bosché is the name of the vineyard,” in the commune of Rutherford. “We named it ‘Cabernet Bosché’ to honor the vineyard. It is our very finest Cabernet Sauvignon.”

But stupid me was not to be put off. No, I said, I want to taste Cabernet Sauvignon; so the very nice lady gave me a glass of the winery’s regular Cabernet Sauvignon.Well, that is how one learns, through mistakes. Years later, when I worked for that parent company, Jackson Family Wines, and they asked me to put together a museum for a new visitor’s gallery they were constructing at Freemark Abbey, I came across, in old files that looked like they hadn’t been accessed for decades, the original paperwork for the use of the Bosché vineyard’s grapes. Someone initially decided to drop the accent aigu on the final “e,” fearing it would be too much for Americans. Someone else—one of the winery’s founders, as I recall—argued to the contrary; and the accent aigu was restored, as well it should have been.

My early tasting notebooks nonetheless contain very little fine Napa Valley Cabernet, for the simple reason that I couldn’t at that time afford it (it has always been expensive). The first one I did review that you could call upscale was Clos du Val’s 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon, which I had in the summer of 1986. I recall nothing of the circumstances of my acquisition, nor did I record the price. Perhaps I bought it at the little wine shop on 24th Street in Noe Valley, where I was then living. Clos du Val, founded by a Frenchman, Bernard Portet (whose father, I believe, had worked at Latour or Lafite), was located in the Stags Leap District of the valley, on the Silverado Trail, and had a reputation for being more “Bordeaux-like” than other Napa Valley Cabs, which is to say, lower in alcohol and as a consequence less ripe, less lush, but perhaps more ageable. I liked it well enough, but it didn’t bowl me over, and I wrote “I just wish I had waited another 4-5 years.” The tannins, you see, made the wine hard. I have since tasted plenty of Clos du Val Cabs, including old vintages up to twenty years of age, and I think that tannin problem, and a certain rustic nature, always bothered me. Bernard wanted to make a more linear, elegant wine; so did most of the other Europeans who established wineries in Napa Valley. I remember, with delight, when Jean-Noel de Formeaux (who was Belgian, I think, not French) began his Chateau Potelle project, on Mount Veeder. He told me he found most Napa Valley Cabernet to be “like Tammy Faye Bakker,” the T.V. evangelist’s wife, famous in her own right, who painted her face with scads of rouge, eye shadow, eye liner, fake spidery lashes and goopy, smeared red lipstick; it all made her look rather like a drag queen. Jean-Noel’s (“Jonny Christmas”) point was that in his view Napa Valley Cabernet was freakishly overdone in every respect. He wanted, he explained, his wines to be more like the sleek, pulled-together women of Paris and the Bordeaux quai and less like poor, satirical American Tammy Faye, no longer with us but whose memory lives on in certain breasts.

Another Clos du Val instance comes to mind which suggests an approach to blind tasting, and how sometimes success in guessing comes not necessarily from what you taste but how you deduce. This was around 1995. Somebody put together a tasting of current-release Napa Cabernets at the old Hawthorne Lane restaurant, then one of the trendiest in San Francisco. At the end, our host announced a special contest: we would taste a single wine, wrapped in a brown paper bag; whoever identified it would win dinner for two at the restaurant.

The tasting had been of Napa Valley Cabernets, so I assumed, for better or worse, that the “blind” wine would be of the same genus. I at once knew it was older, from the color—orange around the meniscus, or rim—and the aroma, which had matured into the “bottle bouquet” of an aged wine. Yet it still contained hard tannins, and a fair amount of acidity. I estimated it to be around 18-20 years old. Hmm. Who was making wine like that in Napa Valley in the 1970s? Only one winery came to mind. It was a good, ripe wine; the 1978 vintage was famous for ripeness. I guessed 1978 Clos du Val. I got two out of three points right; the blind wine had been the reserve, not the regular, and so I did not get the dinner for two. Unfair, I thought. Sic transit gloria. But it was satisfaction enough.

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