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On massive Cabernet Sauvignons


Review: 2018 “The Premier” Cabernet Sauvignon by Steven Kent Mirassou (Livermore Valley): $125.

Right off the bat, this 100% Cabernet tastes important. Flashy. Balanced, elegant. Pinpoint Cabernet character. Very rich, tannic and full-bodied, almost a food group in itself. Masses of blackberries and currants, new French oak, and an inviting olivaceous character.

EVOLUTION IN THE GLASS. The wine maintains interest through the first hour. In fact, it barely changes, in the way of a fine, youthful Cabernet. Chewy, soft, complex, no flaws.

NEXT NIGHT: Quite unchanged. Still rich, sweet, unctuous, balanced, delicious.

DISCUSSION: What is the role of a wine like this in modern life? The price alone makes it difficult for the average person to buy, but that’s true of many great wines, so while it may be sad, it’s reality. Then there is the enormity of the wine itself. I try to come up with metaphors and one that recurs is that this wine is like an expensive vacation to a tropical rain forest where everything is fantastically exotic. You go to, say, the Oso Peninsula in Costa Rica and are mesmerized by the fabulosity of the jungle, with its verdant plants, screeching parrots, psychedelic butterflies and colorful flowers. There is wonderment at every step.

But would you want to live there? Could you? Same with this wine. It’s a destination, an expensive pleasure dome for those looking for vinous adventure who can afford the journey. This is not to put the wine down; I could say the same about Sassacaia or Harlan or Petrus, for that matter. But it is to put things into perspective.

There’s more. The fact is that there are other wines like this Cabernet in California, and some cost quite a bit more. I don’t taste widely anymore, but I do keep up with wine reviews by critics, and I know that a 97-point Cabernet is hardly a rarity.

What this breaks down to, for me, are a couple things. One, which from a historical standpoint is important, is that Steven Kent continues to be the maestro of the Livermore Valley. If anyone else comes close, please tell me. He is presenting Bordeaux-style wines that rival anything from Napa Valley or Sonoma County or Paso Robles—the three great Cabernet regions of California. That, surely, is an accomplishment, given Livermore’s placement in the necklace of jewels ringing San Francisco Bay, and its under-performance of the last several decades relative to those other areas.

Another aspect of interest is the wine’s ageability. Consumers have grown used to the idea that an expensive Bordeaux-style wine must necessarily benefit from, if not require, bottle aging. That may be true of a Medoc First Growth or certain Italian Cabernets, but it was never true for California, and I admit to having peddled that line in my day, not consciously as a lie, but because I believed it. But in recent decades vintners have learned how to make even a 100% Cabernet lush and drinkable on release.

So is the 2018 The Premier ageable? I’m now reluctant to issue authoritative pronouncements, because I’ve tasted so many wines I thought were ageable that sucked. Anyway I suspect most people who buy the wine (and there were only a little more than 2,000 bottles produced) are not going to stick it in the cellar for long. Nor should they; as I’ve said, the sheer richness and opulence make it instantly loveable.

I suppose most bottles will be sold in restaurants, especially steak houses. If you’re willing to drop a lot of money, you’ll find a spectacular Cabernet to pair with that steak. It will not pall during a long meal as it warms and breathes in the (hopefully) big glass. With each sip you’ll discover new nuances. You’ll talk about the wine to your friends afterwards. It will reinvent your conception of Livermore Valley. But you might find yourself afterwards craving something lighter, crisper, more delicate and lower in alcohol. After all, you can’t live in the rain forest for very long.

Steven Kent has 3 new Cabernet Francs

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For a long time, I’ve had nothing but praise for the wines of Steven Kent, the Livermore Valley winemaker. A few years ago, I gave two of his Cabernet Sauvignons perfect scores of 100 points, a major rarity for this stingy reviewer. I’ve always thought of Steven as a Cabernet Sauvignon specialist, and he is; but lo and behold, here he is with three Cabernet Francs, under the L’Autre Cote brand, which is part of his Lineage Collection.

Now, you might think it’s easy for a Cab Sauv winemaker to transition to Cab Franc, since they’re both Bordeaux varieties (Cab Franc is actually a co-parent of Cab Sauvignon, along with Sauvignon Blanc). But they’re very different, they like different soil and climate conditions, and Cabernet Franc has not proven itself entirely comfortable on its own anywhere in California, although there are good examples from the Sierra Foothills, and Lang & Reed, in Napa Valley, does a consistently good job.

To judge from these bottlings, I’d say Steven has really put himself onto the Cab Franc map in California, although admittedly, it’s not a very crowded map. All three wines are delicious, although the two single-vineyard ones are better. My one gripe, if you can call it that, is that the wines seem fairly limited in terms of food compatibility, because they’re so full-bodied and rich. Grilled steak certainly comes to mind. Roast chicken would be good, too, maybe even duck, but Cab Franc wouldn’t be my first choice for either.

NOTE: The two single-vineyard wines, Sachau and Ghielmetti, are sold as a 2-pack for $196.

L’Autre Cote 2018 Cabernet Franc (Livermore Valley): $35. There’s noticeable heat from alcohol in this wine, which officially clocks in at 14.8%. But the flavors are delicious: sour red cherry, with a hint of sweet green pea and the smoky complexities of oak barrel aging. The tannins—Steven Kent is a tannin master—are rich and furry but easy to negotiate, while a fine bite of acidity provides additional structure. This is a lovely wine of real elegance and complexity, and if Steven had brought it in at, say, 14.2%, it would be stunning. As it is, the heat is a distraction; the wine is just a little too light to handle it. Score: 88 points.

L’Autre Cote 2017 Sachau Vineyard Cabernet Franc (Livermore Valley); $98. The aroma on this single-vineyard, 100% Cab Franc grabbed me right away. There are the berry-cherry fruits you expect in a Bordeaux-style California red wine, but also tantalizing suggestions of dried herbs and flowers, a gamy leatheriness, and something I can’t put my finger on. Eucalyptus? These very complex aromas are repeated when you taste the wine, which is where the fruit really explodes in a burst of intensity, leading to a long, spicy finish. The feeling is ethereal, like tasting the wind, sun, soil, warm days and cool nights, and even the flora surrounding the vineyard. That makes it, I suppose, a true vin de terroir. This is a sumptuous, luscious, serious wine experience, utterly different from the Cabernet Sauvignon for which Steven Kent is known. The alcohol, which clocks in at 15.1%, does not dominate the wine, but lends it a pleasing warmth. What a wine to drink with a great steak! Score: 94 points.

L’Autre Cote 2017 Ghielmetti Vineyard Cabernet Franc (Livermore Valley); $98. The 64-acre vineyard ranges between 500 and 1,000 feet in elevation, and should be thought of as one of the grands crus of Livermore Valley. The well-drained soils, and Livermore’s warm days and cool nights, produce wines of great concentration and finesse. Ghielmetti is planted to all five classic Bordeaux varieties; this particular wine comes from a 3-acre block of Cab Franc that the winemaker says is cooler than Sachau Vineyard and hence is harvested a week later. As good as the Sachau is, the Ghielmetti is better. The structure strikes me as especially fine, with a burst of acidity and refined tannins providing the framework for the cherry, boysenberry and cola flavors that are lifted by just the right amount of oak. There’s lushness here, even decadence, yet the finish is thoroughly dry. What impresses me is how the wine maintains a Bordeaux-like fullness, and yet is so ethereal and precocious. Steven Kent believes the wine will develop over the next 10-15 years. Maybe so, but if I had a case in my cellar, I’d drink it over the next six. Score: 95 points.

New Wine Reviews: Steven Kent


It was with enormous pleasure I found Steven Kent’s four new releases sent to me. I hadn’t asked for them. I always had the greatest respect for proprietor Steven Kent Mirassou’s wines. To my way of thinking, he was, not only the greatest winemaker in Livermore Valley, but one of the best in California, which means: the world. He took a growing region that seldom rose to its full potential and crafted exciting, world-class Cabernet Sauvignons and blends. I suppose the buzz about my reviews will be that I have given two of the four wines 100-point scores. Should I second-guess myself because both were perfect?

Mia NIPOTE 2017 Il Rinnovo (Livermore Valley); $50. Petite Sirah, which comprises half the blend of this youthful wine, is immediately apparent, in the pitch-black color and massive aromas and flavors. Blackberry jam, teriaki, chocolate macaroon, licorice, cherry pie, my goodness, the rich strands intertwine in the mouth and explode into a long, spicy finish. The other half of the blend, Cabernet Sauvignon—which marries beautifully with the “Pet”–contributes black currants and just a hint of dried herbs, as well as the fine tannin structure. There’s oak, too—50% new French—adding sweet vanilla and caramelized toast. That’s a lot of new oak, but the wine easily handles it. What a mouthful of flavor! And yet the wine never loses elegance. It remains supple and balanced, with just enough acidity to balance out the creamy sweetness. Yes, there is some heat from alcohol. But it’s a gently warming heat. I think a lot of people might drink Il Rinnovo (“renewal” in Italian) with summer grill, particularly in Livermore Valley, as restaurants re-open; and that’s fine. But I’d keep it for wintertime, when you’re cold and thirsty for a big, rich, delicious red. And there’s no reason it won’t hold for many years. A great achievement from Steven Kent Winery. Score: 93 points.

Steven Kent 2017 Ghielmetti Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $65. The best Ghielmetti from Steven Kent I ever reviewed was the 2007, and this beauty is even better. Right from the get-go, you know it’s a fine, serious wine. One hundred percent varietal Cabernet, it shows impressively alluring aromas of blackcurrants, savory red licorice and toasty oak, with similar flavors that veer into rich, creamy milk chocolate. There’s an elusively herbal touch—Bay leaf? Sweet thyme? Just enough to ground it. And is that floral note violets? It’s very rich—the winery calls it “gigantic”–but the structure is superb. Such nice tannins, firm and sweet, with a fine bite of acidity to balance everything out, and a noble, dry finish. The vineyard sits at between 500 feet and 1,000 feet in altitude in the Livermore Valley’s eastern foothills, the heart of its wine country. It’s a warm area, but benefits from Pacific air that flows in through gaps in the coastal hills from San Francisco Bay. The 2017 vintage was just about perfect: lots of rain during the winter, but then things dried out during the growing season, and except for the usual Labor Day heat spell, things went well. To be honest, Bordeaux wishes they could get grapes this ripe. Score: 95 points.

Steven Kent 2017 The Premier Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $125. Made from 100% Cabernet, this wine is a blend of three vineyards the winery accesses, including their Home Ranch and the esteemed Ghielmetti. The result is, in a word, stunning. I would stand it next to any Cabernet Sauvignon in the world; it’s that good. Let’s break it down. The flavors are awesome and impeccable, luxuriously showing the ripe blackberries, black currants, milk chocolate and olivaceous sweet savoriness associated with Cabernet. There’s a lot of new French oak (75%) that is perfectly integrated, with its smokiness and vanillins. But what really stands out is the wine’s structure. I think of it as a room where tannins are the walls and acidity is the floor. It’s the kind of wine you take one sip of and think, Wow. Then another sip, and another wow. And a third. The critical mind looks for flaws, but there aren’t any. There’s not even the excessive heat from alcohol that can mar many otherwise remarkable California Cabs. There’s also an element that’s hard to put into words: call it elegance, the kind of designer effect you find in a great sports car or the best clothing. The wine feels “jazzy,” a word my mom used to use to describe things she loved. And the finish! Don’t get me started. I was writing years ago that Steven Kent was lifting Livermore Valley Cabernet to unprecedented levels. He still is. It’s expensive, yes, but it’s not an everyday wine, and compared to Napa Valley, which is just next door over the hills, it’s a bargain. What a treat to experience this wine! If I had a case, I’d try to keep my hands off it for six years, and then open one bottle a year. I could give this wine 98, 99 points and hedge my bets, but why bother? It’s perfect. Score: 100 points.

Steven Kent 2017 Lineage (Livermore Valley); $175. This is the winery’s Bordeaux-style blend, although it’s probably time to stop using that derivative phrase. It’s 75% Cabernet Sauvignon (legally enough to call it Cabernet; proprietor Steven Mirrasou prefers to call it “Red Blend”), 20% Merlot, and 5% Cabernet Franc. Like the winery’s other new reds, it’s quite oaky—60% new French, aged for nearly two years—a bit less than The Premier, but it doesn’t need as much wood. The official alcohol reading is 14.9%. Only about 330 standard cases were produced, in addition to some big bottles. It’s also, obviously, Steven Kent’s most expensive release. I mention these particulars only because some people like to know. Now that the details are out of the way, what of the wine? To begin with, it’s enormously complex in aroma and flavor. The Cabernet Sauvignon contributes its telltale black currants and powerful tannins, but the cherry, raspberry and fig notes derive from the Cab Franc and Merlot, leading to a prettier, more feminine feeling compared to the 2017 The Premier or Ghielmetti Cabernet Sauvignons, both 100% varietal. It also feels, for that reason, more accessible now. The fruit and oak create a sweetness in the mouth, deliciously soft and decadent, heightened by a fabulous backbone of acidity. The winery’s tasting notes suggest 5-10 years before drinkability. I disagree. A wine like this is exciting even at the tender age of less than three years. And it’s not just a winter-sipping wine; I can imagine summer barbecue with grilled steak. The precision, tailoring and esthetic impact of Lineage are remarkable. I don’t taste a huge range of wines anymore since I retired, but I have my memory and my notes of the tens of thousands of California Cabs and blends I tasted in my career. And frankly, none have been better. A huge achievement, both for Steven Kent and for the Livermore Valley to which he has been dedicated for so long. Score: 100 points.

Trying to rescue a failing appellation


Anyone who’s followed my reviews for a while knows I haven’t been a fan of Livermore Valley wines. In a column I once wrote, I described Livermore as the weak link in the chain of appellations that limns the San Francisco Bay region, from Anderson Valley through Napa Valley and Sonoma County, down to the Santa Cruz Mountains. All are great wine areas, except Livermore.

Why this is so is because of several reasons. For starters, there’s suburbanization. Livermore has been particularly hard hit by it (just like the Santa Clara Valley, which is present day Silicon Valley). Both once had vast acreage of vineyards and produced wine. But Livermore was unable to escape Santa Clara’s fate: tracts of land, including ranches, were sold to housing developers, and the vineyards, in large part, went away. Even Livermore-based wineries like Wente turned to other parts of the state, like Monterey County, to boost their grape supplies.

I think another reason is that the winemaking bar in Livermore has been set lower these days. There are complicated reasons for this, and if you’re curious, I can give you my thoughts later.

There are certainly wineries remaining in Livermore Valley. The Livermore Valley Wine Country website says there are more than 40. I can’t claim to have tasted all of them or even most of them, and there surely are many wineries I’ve never tasted at all. But those I have have tasted over the years have been disappointing, and I have no reason to suspect there are hidden gems in Livermore I don’t know about.

I’m not sure why quality isn’t higher. It can’t be terroir. Livermore Valley was one of California’s earliest grapegrowing regions and one of the best. We all know the story of how Charles Wetmore planted cuttings of (presumably) Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon from Yquem in 1882, turning his Cresta Blanca winery into one of California’s most famous. Livermore Valley wineries were the first to bottle varietally labeled Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Petite Sirah, according to the Livermore website, and their Cabernets once had a high reputation. The soils are well-drained and alluvial, and while the weather is hot, Livermore boosters argue it’s no hotter than the St. Helena-Calistoga area. So the problem must be in the winemaking. There simply aren’t enough qualified, or quality-oriented, vintners working there.

The Livermore wineries are probably grateful that I no longer review Livermore wines. Virginie Boone now does for Wine Enthusiast, and I hope she likes them more than I did. Maybe the Livermore winemakers are getting their act together and making better wines, which would give Virginie the opportunity to score them higher.

There has been one Livermore winery I’ve admired over the years, and that’s Steven Kent. The owner-winemaker is Steven Kent Mirassou, of the old Mirassou Winery, which was bought out by Gallo years ago. I’ve given his wines high scores since the 1999 vintage, with the Cabernet Sauvignons particularly impressive. These are wines that can stand against Napa Valley and I have told Steven so.

I get asked to lunch by a lot of winemakers and 99% of the time I decline, but Steven Kent Mirassou is one of the few I readily consent to. Why? Because I admire what he’s doing. It doesn’t make me happy to write off an entire region, the way I have with Livermore Valley, but it makes me glad to see somebody there who’s attempting to elevate it. Steven is scrappy and visionary. He sees, not the present sorry state of Livermore Valley, but its glorious past and what he hopes will be its glorious future.

At lunch we talked about whether and how much Steven should market Livermore Valley as a region, as opposed to just forgetting about Livermore Valley and plugging the Steven Kent brand. These are very difficult decisions with no easy answers. My advice to Steven was to forget about Livermore Valley and promote the Steven Kent brand. That’s just my two cents.

Wine Enthusiast Toast of the Town San Francisco

is Thursday April 7, in the evening at City Hall. I’ll be there and I hope you are too. If you want to get together, let me know, and we can make an arrangement.


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