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Napa Valley Cabernet: an endangered species?

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For many years I’ve watched as the price of Napa Valley wine has gone up—and up—and up—until it reached the stratosphere. And then it continued to go up.

Even twenty years ago, I wondered who was buying all that expensive Cabernet Sauvignon. I can’t remember when prices first hit triple digits—I think it was in the 1980s. But once they did, no respectable Napa winery wanted to be the last to retail for at least $100.

At the height of my working career as a critic, when I was paid to keep track of such things, I’d note every new, expensive brand that came on the market. I soon concluded that most were vanity projects: their owners were very rich, and they wanted “in” on the Napa Valley lifestyle that was so highly touted by aspirational magazines. You, too, could have the big mansion, set in a picturesque vineyard, surrounded by blooming gardens, with an azure-blue swimming pool, a grand deck complete with gigantic outdoor grilling station, and Napa’s beautiful mountains soaring in the distance. And all you needed was maybe $10 million to get started.

At one point (I think it was in the early 2000s) I did a count of all the $100-plus wines in Napa Valley, and the total was well into the hundreds. I began to wonder, “Who’s buying all that Cab?” It was easy to understand that the critically-acclaimed cult Cabs (Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Bryant, Colgin, Dalla Valle, and so on) were desired by many wealthy collectors, but what about the hundreds of lesser-known brands? Every week seemed to bring a new family winery with a fill-in-the-blank back story:

Pete, together with his lovely wife Maggie, made a fortune in (computers, engineering, construction, oil, stocks) but there was something missing in their comfortable life. In (date), they bought a small property in (Rutherford, Pritchard Hill, Oakville, Spring Mountain, Atlas Peak) and planted some Cabernet. Now, they produce some of Napa Valley’s most coveted wines, assisted by their consulting winemaker (Michel Rolland, Heidi Barrett, Andy Erickson, Mark Aubert, Phillippe Melka)…

The stories all ran together; so did the wines. They were functionally interchangeable, 95-pointers that all tasted the same. It was impossible to answer the question, “Who’s buying all that wine?” just as it was impossible to answer the question, “Is the winery actually making money?” I suspected, even by 2000, that many, if not most, of these vanity wineries were not profitable, but were kept alive by their owners’ personal fortunes.

The other day, a friend emailed asking my opinion about reports that sales of California wines are weak, with a troubling future. Was it tariffs? Younger consumers wanting something “natural” and eccentric? The greater popularity of craft beer and spirits? I replied, “All the above—plus the fact that California wine, driven by Napa prices, is just too damned expensive!”

And now comes this report, via Wine-Searcher, that “California’s top producers might be pricing themselves out of the market,” with the top culprit being Napa Valley wine.

The article was based on a new report whose startling conclusion was this: “The demand for Napa Valley wines is flat and heading toward a decline. Last year, this report speculated that price increases at Napa wineries may have finally priced out enough buyers to curtail growth. It now seems this is likely the case.”

Will 2020 be the year that Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon experiences a price crash? It’s in the self-interest of the producers to prevent this, so I expect they’ll do everything in their power to hold on. But if this represents a permanent trend, how long can they keep on? Will their heirs be content to underwrite a losing proposition, just so they can sit around the pool watching the sun set over the Mayacamas?

One interesting development was the purchase earlier this week of Flora Springs by the Bordeaux winery, Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte. Flora Springs was, back in the day, a highly respected winery. (One of the first articles I ever wrote for Wine Spectator was a profile of them.) They had exquisite vineyards on the Rutherford Bench, and produced various Cabernets and Bordeaux blends that were very good. But Flora Springs, like so many other wineries, gradually saw competition arising all around them: no longer a darling boutique winery, but one of hundreds to choose from. The ownership was quite wealthy (of course), but Flora Springs was precisely the kind of winery I wondered about. “How are they doing? How long can they hold on?”

Well, now they’ve sold. The question isn’t whether the ownership was or wasn’t making money, it’s “Why does Smith Haut Lafitte think Flora Springs is a good investment?” (Their purchase doesn’t include the brand or “Napa Valley vineyard sources,” according to the article.) One thinks of the Bordelais as very astute businessmen—after all, they’ve managed to stay at the top of the heap for multiple centuries. So there must be something Smith Haut Lafitte sees in Napa Valley.

At the same time, I remember when the Woltner family, heirs of Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, started a winery back in the late 1980s. Chateau Woltner was in the Vacas, on the east side of the Silverado Trail, on lower Howell Mountain. They put out a Chardonnay that was then the most expensive ever in California. It was pretty impressive: Bordeaux Second Growth invests in Napa Valley! What could go wrong?

Well, everything. The brand didn’t last for very long. It was sold for $20 million in 2000.

I don’t know what eventually happened to the Chardonnay vineyards, nor do I care. The point is, just because a French Bordeaux family buys a Napa Valley winery doesn’t guarantee its success. The eventual outcome of Flora Springs will depend on the continuing popularity of Napa Valley Cabernet and Bordeaux blends; and if this category is pricing itself out of existence, there’s little anyone can do to save it. Of course, as we know from Eddie Penning-Rowsell’s classic The Wines of Bordeaux, prices of Bordeaux have been a roller-coaster ride for centuries: sometimes way up, sometimes way down. But Bordeaux persists. Maybe Napa’s future will be as tumultuous.


A wine review, and an Overview of Napa Cabernet

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Nickel & Nickel 2009 C.C. Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley). The C.C. Ranch is in the eastern Rutherford appellation, just west the Silverado Trail, near the hilly knolls of Quintessa. It’s a younger vineyard, with planting starting in 2000 to Cabernet Sauvignon. The gravelly soils are well-drained. Nickel & Nickel gets a portion of the grapes of the 115-acre vineyard.

When I first reviewed this wine, in 2012, it was disagreeably hard in tannins—a trait that marks all of Nickel & Nickel’s single-vineyard Cabernets. Which suggests aging. So how’s this 100% Cab doing?

Splendidly. The tannins are still there, but they’ve grown softer and melted. The youthful blackberry, cherry, plum and raisin flavors, liberally enriched with oak and tangy spices (anise, Chinese 5 spice), are turning the corner into secondary character: dried fruits, cassis, dark chocolate, enlivened with acidity. With a complex, long finish, it argues the case for aging high-quality Napa Valley Cabernet; a decade is a good guideline. Does it have a future? Yes. Already throwing sediment, it should continue to glide through the next ten years. But right now is a good time to pop the cork. Score: 95.

My review of this Cabernet opens up the wider question of the role of Napa Valley Cabernet in today’s world. The glamor, I think, that haloed Napa Cab from the 1960s until the end of the century has largely faded. Like a famous movie star in her time—Garbo, Bergman, Dietrich—its luster necessarily diminishes. And yet, Napa Cab has achieved what its pioneers always dreamed of: reputational parity, or nearly so, with classic European wines: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, German Riesling. The words “Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon” finally signify something important, coveted and expensive.

Still, Napa Cab suffers from limitations that do not impact classic European wines. For starters, Napa Cab is notoriously difficult to pair with food. It can be done, of course: if you go to a steakhouse, chances are you’ll see a lot of Napa Cabernet on the wine list. But people are eating less beef these days. Between 2000 and 2017, beef consumption in the U.S. declined significantly, by 15.5%.

People are turning away from beef, in favor of lighter meats (chicken, pork, lamb) or plant-based foods. And the fact is that Cabernet is not a particularly deft partner for lighter meats. It swamps poultry, while for pork or lamb, lighter reds, such as Pinot Noir, and even white wines, are far more amenable.

I suspect that my experience with Cabernet Sauvignon is similar to that of many other Americans. I drink it less and less (even though I have a lot in my cellar), simply because it’s too heavy for my eating habits. (I also drink far less Cabernet in the summer, for that very reason.) Napa Cabernet is high in alcohol, relative to other dry red table wines, which is another reason to reduce my consumption of it. I’m not a Millennial, but my hunch, based on anecdotal information including my observation of “hot” wine bars in the San Francisco Bay Area, is that Millennials (Gen Y) and Gen Z (at least, those old enough to legally consume alcohol) are not drinking Cabernet Sauvignon. They’re looking for lighter, more interesting wines from around the world, not something expensive and heavy, which their parents and grandparents drank. Having said this, I’m aware that Cabernet Sauvignon, as an international varietal wine, is the most popular red wine in America, by far. But that’s everyday Cabernet, under $20 or so—the polar opposite of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: the former Toyota, the latter Porsche.

Napa Cabernet will be around for a long time, but I think it has now entered a period of stasis. It will rest on its laurels, enjoying its exalted status, but its best, most exciting days are behind, at least here in the U.S. This has long been foreseen by Napa wineries, at least those capable of forward-looking vision, which is why so many have labored for so long to establish overseas markets. But export markets aren’t a silver bullet: Trump’s tariff wars threaten the foreign importation of U.S. wines.

So if you’re a Napa Cabernet producer, what do you do? For one thing, you’re grateful you have a personal fortune (which is practically a prerequisite for owning a Napa winery). Your money will allow you to continue in business, despite headwinds, for some time to come. But your money can’t compel consumers to buy the product you’re selling, and eventually, for many upscale Napa producers, getting bought out by a large company is the only way out (Cf. the Pahlmeyer-Gallo deal).

Don’t get me wrong: as my review of the Nickel & Nickel ’09 C.C. shows, it is a fabulous wine. I enjoyed reviewing it, and, afterwards, drinking the remainder with a perfect hamburger I made myself, using good ground beef with 20% fat content. But that was the first hamburger I’d made at home in years; it was only the second hamburger I’d eaten in years, and in fact, the reason I chose to make a hamburger was because I wanted something to drink the wine with, and a hamburger seemed a healthier alternative to steak. None of my “normal” dinners (grains, vegetables, chicken, salmon, omelets) would have been suitable for such a rich wine, sweet in fruit and oak, and thick in tannins. And so, all those other older bottles of Napa Cabernet will remain in my cellar until the next time I chose to make a hamburger, much less a steak. All of which makes drinking my Napa Cabs, frankly, problematic…


“Parkerization” is not a myth or a lie

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Lisa Perrotti-Brown surprised no one with her glowing defense of her “greatest mentor,” Robert M. Parker Jr., which she published the other day, on the occasion of Parker’s “immediate” retirement from The Wine Advocate, the periodical he founded in 1978.

That Parker was the most famous and influential wine critic of the last 35 years, as Perrotti-Brown writes, cannot be disputed. In making the following arguments, I cite my own position: as the lead California critic for Wine Enthusiast Magazine for many years, I had a privileged seat at the high table of wine criticism—a seat that enables me to make these observations with some degree of eye-witness veracity.

I would not challenge a single word of Ms. Perrotti-Brown’s encomium. Bob Parker absolutely was “the father of modern wine criticism”; he did indeed “raise the bar” for all of us who followed. But where I part ways with Perrotti-Brown is in her unfettered denial that Parker created an “international style” of ripe, high-alcohol wines. This is not a “big lie,” as she asserts, but the pure, unadulterated truth—and everybody in the wine industry knows it.

Perrotti-Brown has been trying to undo or obfuscate this truth about the “Parkerization of wine” for years. Last June, she wrote her piece de résistance on the topic, a robust rebuttal that does not stand up to scrutiny. Parkerization is “a myth,” she says. It is “a lie.” Its effect on wine is “purported.” Yes, Parker’s reign, she admits, coincided with a time when “wineries…developed styles that fit the trend” of riper, fruitier wines. But “it was not Parker who created the trend, consumers did.” Those who continue to decry Parkerization and the international style, she states, are merely seeking “a villain.” Wine writers who dare to suggest that Parkerization is real are just “looking for something to write about that attracts more viewers.”

These are patronizing, insulting remarks that Perrotti-Brown did not have to make. But she did, and they need to be addressed. I’m certainly not looking to “attract more viewers” by writing these words, and I never thought Parker was a “villain.” I admire the man tremendously. But I was there, in the front row, watching this whole phenomenon unroll, from the early 1980s until I formally retired from wine criticism in 2013 (and even since then I’ve kept my eye on the scene). And I can state with clear conscience that Parkerization was and is real.

We all know that alcohol levels in wine rose drastically during Parker’s era. Bordeaux, Burgundy and California in particular, as well as the Rhône, saw these increases—all regions Parker specialized in. During my heyday (and Parker’s as well), alcohol levels in California Cabernet Sauvignon, especially from Napa Valley, soared. Frequently, levels of more than 15% were seen, and many of us—aware of the fudge factor the Federal government allows in wine labeling—suspected that a Cabernet of official 15.5% strength might in reality be in excess of 16%. This is not a “myth” but a fact.

Why did it happen? Perrotti-Brown says that “consumers created the trend.” That is a misstatement. Consumers do not create such trends in wine; they respond to them. Consumers enjoyed wine before the Parker era when alcohol levels were between 11% and 13%. There is no evidence that a consumer uprising occurred in the 1980s, in which these consumers demanded riper, higher-alcohol wines. Talk about “myths”!! It simply didn’t happen.

What did happen was that wine periodicals, like The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, assumed a far greater importance than ever before, as a maturing and wealthier Baby Boomer generation realized it needed help figuring out what to buy (and cellar) among the thousands of competing brands. Parker’s Wine Advocate wasn’t the first to fill that market niche, but it was the most successful and influential. The 1982 Bordeaux vintage, which Parker lionized, did indeed cement his reputation. After that, he was golden.

I can’t prove the following assertion but I strongly believe it: wine critics who became well known after Parker’s rise, including James Laube, James Suckling and myself, felt they had to praise the same sorts of wine as did Parker. This may not have been a conscious thought on their part; but wine critics don’t work in a vacuum. The handwriting on the wall was very clear by the late 1980s: Parker was giving huge scores to wines like Groth’s 1985 Reserve (the first California wine to get 100 points from him). With each high score, not only the winery’s reputation was boosted, but Parker’s, as well. Wine writers took note! The concept that big, fruity, high-alcohol Cabernets were better than their thinner, less ripe but often more elegant counterparts became entrenched. No wine critic is immune to his environment; like artists, they are affected by their contemporaries. There has got to be a scale or continuum of hedonism in criticism; otherwise, criticism makes no sense; and what Parker bequeathed the rest of us was to define the upper scale of this continuum.

This is what is meant by “Parkerization.” Parker himself never denied his personal preference for big wines; he simply recoiled from what he felt was the smear of calling them “Parkerized.” And now, his successor at Wine Advocate, Perrotti-Brown, has picked up the mantle of outraged indignation. But I really don’t see why. Why is it so irksome to her (and to her “greatest mentor”) that Parker had this impact on wine? The only reason I can surmise—and it’s just my guess—is because Perrotti-Brown shares to some degree the belief common among younger (and some older) critics and sommeliers that some wines have indeed become too ripe, too alcoholic; and to the extent there’s a reason for this, it’s because of Robert Parker and the Wine Advocate.

History will be the final judge of all this. Does anyone doubt that History will record that Parkerization and the international style he inspired were real and not fake news? Meanwhile, Perrotti-Brown should calm down. The more she denies the reality of Parkerization—the lady doth protest too much–the more defensive she appears. As for Bob Parker, I salute you, sir, and–speaking as one whose retirement preceded yours–I welcome you to our ranks, and wish you peace and health!


Benziger Family Winery: five new reviews

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I’ve followed Benziger’s fortunes for decades, and one thing I can say, they’re always striving to boost quality. The Benziger family began with the hugely successful Glen Ellen Winery, which pioneered “fighting varietals,” before launching their boutique Benziger brand, which they sold to The Wine Group in 2015. These five wines are the first I’ve tasted since the sale—although all five of them were made prior to it. We’ll have to see if the winery continues on a quality trajectory under the new ownership. The Cabernets are from the estate vineyard, in Glen Ellen, the heart of Sonoma Valley, on slopes of Sonoma Mountain. The Pinot Noirs hail from the estate de Coelo Vineyard, way out on the coast between Freestone and Bodega Bay. I first visited it years ago when it was being developed. My sneakers sank inches into the deep, seabed-derived Goldridge soil, as fine as moon dust. One of the best soils for Pinot Noir in the world, Goldridge drains readily, and lends the wine an expressive elegance.

Here are the wines, in the order I tasted them.

Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Terra Neuma” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 14.0%, 230 cases produced. This is from a higher-elevation block of de Coelo. The color is pale and translucent, hinting at delicacy. As in previous vintages, the alcohol is lowish, giving the wine a light, silky mouthfeel. Dusty tannins give it plenty of grip. The fruit suggests persimmons, with tarter cranberries, highlighted by mouthwatering acidity. There are more exotic notes of green tea, white pepper, Chinese 5 spice, and wild mushroom. The finish is severely dry, which is a compliment. Yet, toasted oak barrel aging lends it a vanilla sweetness. Complex and elegant, and so easy to love, this beauty will age for at least eight years. Score: 94 points.

Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Quintus” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 13.5%, 625 cases produced. The family resemblance with the other wines from de Coelo is marked in this block-derived wine, which is lower in alcohol than Terra Neuma. It’s slightly tarter and more delicate, but the same persimmon, raspberry, cranberry, tea, orange peel, mushroom and white pepper notes carry through, as do the silky tannins and magnificent acidity. This is exactly what we look for in Goldridge-derived Pinots: enormous complexity, delicacy undergirded with power, extreme drinkability. If there is ever going to be a Freestone appellation—and there ought to be—this wine could stand as its exemplar. I cannot imagine a better companion for lamb or steak. Score: 94 points.

Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Arbore Sacra” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 13.5%, 641 cases produced. Another block bottling from the estate vineyard. Aromatically it’s a little shier than the other two, showing more mineral and earth notes, like tree bark, brittle, dried leaves, cloves and dust. But the fruit is there: raspberry tea, pomegranate, orange peel, tart cranberry. There’s also a crispness that lends vitality to the mouthfeel, but the tannins are as light as air: they give a hint of astringency. The mouthfeel is as silky and delicate as an old tapestry, yet the depth is very great, with complex impressions extending out through a long, spicy finish. Of the three wines, I’d have to say this is my favorite. It is ultra-refined and elegant, a wine that would have been unthinkable in California not that long ago. Score: 95 points.

Benziger 2013 “Signaterra” Obsidian Point Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley): $65. Alc. 14.4%, 486 cases produced. This is a very proper Cabernet, by which I mean it is classic, balanced and delicious. It’s one of those wines that you take a sip of and think, Wow, is this going to be easy to like. Bone dry, with thick but fragile tannins and just-in-time acidity, it’s rich in black currants, anise, unsweetened cocoa powder, sweet toasted oak and just a hint of herbaceousness: sweet green olive especially. The grapes are from Benziger’s estate vineyard, in the heart of Sonoma Valley on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain, and were biodynamically-grown. I have not been an ardent supporter of biodynamique, but there is a purity to this wine that is notable. Interestingly, the wine is already throwing some tannins. Drink now-2020. Score: 93 points.

Benziger 2013 “Signaterra” Sunny Slope Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley): $59. Alc. 14.5%, 562 cases produced. The wine is just a little bit less concentrated than Obsidian Point, but it’s also six bucks less. It’s quite lovely, with classic black currant, cassis, cocoa and green olive flavors, enriched by 20 months of aging in French oak. It has an inherent elegance due mainly to the splendid acid-tannin structure. It’s not clear to me that it would be worth aging this wine for any length of time, but it is an enjoyable, complex sipper. Score: 90 points.

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Tasting mountain wines with a valley appellation

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Gus and I headed up to the Alexander Valley yesterday for a tasting. It was chilly and foggy in Oakland when we left early, and the ride could have been worse: only 1-3/4 hours. We drove up the 101 to Alexander Valley Road, turned east through some awfully pretty wine country, and then—before reaching the winery—stopped by the old Jimtown Store

Jimtown

for a late breakfast and bracing cappuccino. The temperature in the valley already was in the 80s, under a cloudless, azure sky. While I was eating Gus checked out the flowers.

OurPuppy

Our destination was right around the corner:

StonestreetSign

Stonestreet Wines, owned by my employer, Jackson Family Wines. From the winery itself

 

STONESTREET

you can look further east, to the west wall of the great Mayacamas Mountain Range, and see the mountain

 

AME2

Jess bought years ago, for which we’re currently trying to establish an A.V.A., since it makes no sense to say that mountain wines come from a valley appellation. The family long has called it Alexander Mountain Estate, and it was the Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays off this sprawling, beautiful property I had come to taste.

The thing to understand is that this very large estate is broken into a series of smaller vineyards, with extensive wildland corridors inbetween through which wildlife–bears, cougars, deer–can pass on their millennial expeditions. Each smaller vineyard was planted to particular varieties depending on soil analysis, elevation and exposure. (They have this wonderful schematic model in the tasting room that explains everything, but if you can ever arrange a tour of the mountain, I highly recommend it.)

AMEschematic

The first flight was white; the second, red. All the wines are Stonestreet. Here are my abbreviated notes. There was no need to taste blind.

CHARDONNAYS

ChardFlight

2013 Broken Road. Rich golden color. Complex aromas of wet stone, tropical fruit, white peach, crème brulée, baking spices. Rich and delicious, with bracing acidity and a creamy texture. Score: 95.

2013 Upper Barn Vineyard. Rich golden color. Similar to Broken Road, but more saline and minerals. Ripe white peaches, tropical fruits, buttered toast, crème brulée, vanilla bean. Insanely rich, with bracing acidity. Notable for its superior structure. Score: 96. This is the white wine I brought home with me.

2013 Gravel Bench Vineyard. Rich golden color. The oak is more apparent (it’s the only Chard aged in 100% new French oak). A big, exuberant wine, with tropical fruit, nectarine and white peach fruit. On airing the oak got more integrated. Score: 92.

2013 Gold Run Vineyard. Rich golden color. Nice, firm flintiness, but the fruit and oak star. Tiers of golden mango, crème brulée, lemon meringue, vanilla bean, honey custard. Excellent acidity. A real star. Score: 95.

2013 Bear Point Vineyard. Good golden color. Nose a bit shy, suggesting lemon verbena, honey, golden mango, white peach, vanilla bean, buttered toast. Really rich and wonderful, in a way my favorite for its exquisite tension of parts. Score: 97.

2013 Cougar Ridge Vineyard. Good golden color. A tangy green apple note brings a bite to the mango, grilled pineapple and crème brulée richness. Lots of oak in the mouth: vanilla bean, buttered toast, smoke. Soft, creamy and opulent. Score: 94.

CABERNET SAUVIGNONS

CabFlight

2012 Bear Point Vineyard. Pitch black color at the center, garnet at the rim. Very young and closed now. Jammy plums, tar, coffee and smoke. Thick tannins, bracing acidity. Dense and concentrated. Needs plenty of time. After 2020. Score: 94.

2010 Rockfall. Similar color to Bear Point. At six years, still closed, mute, resistant at first. On airing, hints of dark chocolate, olive tapenade, plums, black currants. Very tannic. Great structure, lots going on down underneath the astringency: creosote, blackberry jam, black licorice, cedar, toast, mushu plum sauce. Reminds me of Lynch-Bages. Needs time. After 2020. Score: 95.

2012 Rockfall. Midnight black without a moon, turning purple at the rim: young, young, young. Hints of blackberry jam, sweet oak, cocoa, rum, plums. Great primary fruit sweetness, plump, fat, rich, but very tannic. Good acidity, elegant structure, great weight and balance, with a very long, spicy finish. Superior if possible to the 2010. Needs time. After 2020. Score: 96.

2011 Christopher’s. The highest point on the mountain, at over 2,400 feet. The blackest color of all, impenetrable. Tight, closed; airing shows blackberry jam, clove, mint (eucalyptus), dust, smoke. Extremely complex but very tannic. Massive core of ripe summer blackberries and cassis; creosote, minerals. Needs lots of time. Drink after 2020. Score: 96. This is the bottle I brought home with me.

2012 Legacy. Another dark black wine with glints of ruby and garnet at the rim. The 30% Merlot in the blend is immediately apparent, giving a floral-violet scent to Cabernet’s blackberries and plums. In the mouth, complex, smooth, more forward than the other Cabs, but still very tannic, with blackberry, cherry, shaved chocolate, anise and baking spice flavors. You could drink it now but it will age for decades. Score: 94.


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