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New wine reviews: Nick Goldschmidt

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Nick Goldschmidt is a fine winemaker, an entrepreneur, a kiwi, a helluva nice guy, and an old friend. He’s been a fixture in the California wine industry (and on other continents) for decades. If I recall correctly, we met around 1990, when I was a newbie wine writer and he was the winemaker at the venerable old winery, Simi, in Healdsburg. I believe that was the start of his association with Sonoma County grapes. Nick also did stints at big corporate wine companies, like Allied Domecq and Beam Estates. But he never lost his fascination for small-lot, ultrapremium wines, and, throughout the 2000s, these have been his forte.

Nick is probably involved in more brands than I know about (he produces from six countries), but his main portfolio consists of bottlings under his Nick Goldschmidt label—the most expensive—Forefathers, Set in Stone, and others named after his daughters: Hillary, Katherine and Chelsea, as well as the least expensive, Singing Tree. He also travels a lot to places like New Zealand and Chile, where he is what I think of as a “flying winemaker.” In other words, a busy guy.

I’ll get to the reviews in a moment, but first a word about Nick’s business model. He’s hardly the first to make a lot of different wines at different price points, with different degrees of association with the grapes and brands. I always think of Robert Mondavi in this respect: he made everything from Opus One and Mondavi Reserve down to Woodbridge and Coastal. It was this proliferation of effort that led to the ultimate demise of the Mondavi company, which simply got too big to be managed properly. Mondavi tried to be all things to all people, and succeeded only in institutionalizing confusion. Nick seems to have understood this lesson; he keeps things under control. Someday, somebody should teach a course at the University of California, Davis, on Nick Goldschmidt’s successful business practices!

And now, the wines. It’s fair to say that Cabernet Sauvignon, usually unblended, is Nick’s passion and strong suit. The style is New World: ripe, oaky, plush. For me, as a Northern California devotée, it’s always interesting to contrast Nick’s Cabs from Alexander Valley, in Sonoma County, with those from Oakville, in Napa Valley. These two places bracket what seems to me to be the range of possibilities for California Cabernet Sauvignon: softer, more mellow and a little more herbaceous in the former, dark, tannic and intense in the latter. Neither is “better” than the other, merely different.

Goldschmidt 2016 Game Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville); $90. The raw, juicy quality of this 100% varietal Cab speaks of its extreme youthfulness. All the parts are there, but they’re nowhere close to melding. First off are the blackberry and currant flavors so indicative of Oakville. Then there are the tannins, vigorous and tough, and mouthwatering acidity. New oak (30 months in 100% new French barrels) is overwhelming, bringing vanilla and sweet wood spice, in addition to even more tannins. The vineyard is on the east side of Oakville, the hotter side of the valley that gets the afternoon sun. As for the vintage, 2016 was the best in years, the last of the drought years that yielded such intense fruit. I looked up my scores from past vintages and compared them to some current critics, and I see that I tended to like Goldschmidt’s Game Ranch more than most. I also compared it with Goldschmidt’s 2016 Yoeman Ranch, from Alexander Valley. It’s equally as good: harder, more astringent due to Napa’s tougher tannins, but just as delicious. This wine is all about the power and glory of Napa Valley, and Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon. It would be a pity to drink it too soon. I may be dreaming, but twenty years of aging doesn’t seem excessive. If you can’t wait that long, at least do the decent thing and set it aside, in a good cellar, until 2024. Score: 95 points.

Goldschmidt 2016 Yoeman Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley); $75. Alc. 14.5%. It was Cabs like this, more than twenty years ago, that showed me that Napa Valley, the inevitable point of comparison, did not have the exclusive franchise on great California Cabernet Sauvignon. Alexander Valley Cab, at its best, was a worthy rival, softer, perhaps, and slightly less fruity and more herbaceous, but no less attractive. The 2016 vintage, as I’ve written, was a good one. The warm, dry growing season resulted in beautifully ripe, intensely flavored grapes. In this case, the single-vineyard wine brims with big, bold black currant and black licorice flavors, liberally oaked (85% new French barrels), with a richness balanced by fine acidity. It’s sinfully easy to drink. The sign of a great, full-bodied red wine like this is that the enjoyment doesn’t pall after the first or second glass, but increases in intellectual and hedonistic interest. There also are significant tannins, dustier than Napa’s, but still tough and tight. I envision a superb steak whose fattiness will jump with joy and yield to this beauty. Ageability? Certainly, the wine will remain lovely through, say, 2025. Score: 94 points.

Katherine Goldschmidt 2018 Stonemason Hill Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley); $25. Alc. 14.5%. The extreme youth of this wine is evident from the impenetrable blackness at its heart in the glass, showing just the slightest royal purple at the rim. The aroma is all babyfat, too: masses of ripe, succulent black cherries, cassis liqueur and unsweetened chocolate, accented with smoky, toasty oak, and made just a touch porty with alcohol—good for a cold winter night by the fire. And flavors to match. Stupendously rich, almost delirious in the sumptuousness of the fruit. I did a doubletake when I saw the price. Twenty-five bucks retail? You have got to be kidding. Named after Nick Goldschmidt’s daughter, Katherine, who is co-winemaker, this has got to be one of the greatest Cabernet values out there. Production was 20,000 cases. I’d open it now and over the next six years. Score: 93 points.

Forefathers 2018 Lone Tree Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley); $50. Alc. 14.8%. This single-vineyard wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. I compared it immediately with Nick’s “Katherine Goldschmidt” Stonemason Hill Cab, also from 2018 (see above), and the fundamental difference was the tannins. They’re drier and harder in the Lone Tree, although I’m not sure why. Nick himself says he gets “more power and weight from Lone Tree” than from his other Alexander Valley Cabs, a description entirely consistent with my palate. Underneath the tannins is rich black currant fruit. I looked up the scores I gave Lone Tree when I was at Wine Enthusiast and, no surprise, at least 90 points in every vintage from 2003 until 2012, when I quit the magazine. Some people may find the tannins a bit aggressive, but they’re natural to Cabernet Sauvignon, part of its inherent charm and structural integrity. They may help the wine to age, not to mention assisting it in grappling with a good steak. Drink now-2028. Score: 92 points.

Boulder Bank 2019 Fitzroy Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough): $16. Alc. 13.0%. Nick Goldschmidt turns his talents to his native country and to the father-parent of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc. (The other parent is Cabernet Franc.) The wine is classic Marlborough. Brilliantly structured, racy and dry, its mouthwatering acidity highlights complex flavors of lemon, lime and tangerine, honeysuckle, white peach and grapefruit. A touch of pyrazines gives the green, bell pepper or gooseberry notes so indicative of Marlborough, while lees aging lends a smidgen of yeastiness. The finish is long and distinguished. There’s no oak at all here, just gorgeous fruit. In forty years of winetasting, I’ve never figured out how a wine can taste this rich but still be bone dry—a delightful conundrum! What a beauty, clearly the product of a distinguished terroir. Balanced in every respect, so food-friendly and easy to drink, it’s just about perfect. And the price! Score: 92 points.

Singing Tree 2018 Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $16. Alc. 13.9%. This is a very nice Chardonnay, elegant and delicious. It has plenty of varietal character, including butterscotchy flavors of tropical fruits, Asian pears, apple sauce, cinnamon and honeysuckle flower, but it never crosses the line into vulgar flamboyance. There’s a firm minerality undergirding the fruit that gives it finesse and elegance. The must was fermented in stainless steel; oak does not play a prominent role. But the creaminess tells of lees, while the acidity—6 grams per liter–is racy and mouthwatering. The quality-price ratio is excellent, making the wine a real value. Great house wine or, when restaurants re-open (may it be soon!), by-the-glass. Production was 5,000 cases. Score: 90 points.

Set In Stone Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley); $30. Alcohol: 14.5%. This Cab has the signature of Nick Goldschmidt all over it. But even a great winemaker like Nick can’t overcome the limitations the grapes impose upon him. It’s a pretty good wine, flavorful and lusty, brimming with ripe blackberries infused with oak. Dry and tannic, it fulfills the basic requirements of an Alexander Valley Cab. But in the end, it can’t quite overcome a rustic nature. Score: 86 points.

Set In Stone 2018 Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $30. Alc. 13.9%. This is one of those Chardonnays that isn’t terribly sophisticated, but provides the kind of buttery, tropical fruit, green apple and creamy flavors and textures that Chardophiles like. It’s a wine to pour when you’re having non-fussy friends over for weekend brunch (if we can ever do home entertaining again!). Despite the simplicity, there’s a structural elegance that represents the cooler Western sections of the Russian River Valley. Score: 85 points.

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