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New Wine Reviews: Steven Kent

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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

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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.


RIP LIZ TAYLOR!


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