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Wine Country: gated communities?

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It comes as no surprise to me that Napa County is the seventh least affordable housing market in the country.

We know that places like San Francisco, Marin and Manhattan are unaffordable to all except the wealthiest of our citizens, but Napa? True, it’s never exactly been Motel 6 country, but in Napa City you didn’t used to need millions of dollars to afford a fixer-upper.

Now you do. The media price of a home in Napa just it $545,000, about one-half that of a house in San Francisco, but 2-1/2 times more than the average price of a U.S. home.

The reasons why are not hard to discern: Napa Valley, like all of California’s valleys, is visually beautiful. The weather is outstanding. San Francisco is only an hour away (depending on traffic). Ski country to the east, the Pacific to the west, lakes, mountains and wilderness all around, what more could you ask for? Throw in the glamor of wine, and the cost of entry suddenly shoots sky-high.

It wasn’t that long ago that Napa City was a dumpy place. The upper classes didn’t live there, or even visit; they went to St. Helena, or Calistoga, or the south valley to dine, or drove into the Bay Area. But in the 1990s and early 2000s the city began all that work along the riverfront. Hotels and posh resorts went in, along with expensive restaurants, and voila, Napa City became chic. And now, the French are invading Napa Valley: S.F. Eater reports that, “From Mount Veeder to Calistoga, Napa estates are selling fast to Bordelais vintners.” In other words, when it comes to real estate prices, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The situation “on the other side of the hill” in Sonoma County is pretty much the same, at least in Healdsburg, which by the year 2005 had become so tony, it started topping the list of wine destinations to visit and spend a lot of money. Today, Healdsburg’s average home price is higher even than Napa’s: $699,600, although Sebastopol’s is even more, at $725,000. (I think that Healdsburg and Sebastpol are not populous enough to be considered “housing markets.”)

Funky $ebastopol! Where is the pot and patchouli crowd going to live? Maybe Guerneville, where the median home price is a comparative bargain, at $366,100.

Now consider Cloverdale. If you know it, it’s as the one-stoplight town, at the crossroads of Highway 101 and Route 128, in the center of the Alexander Valley. Entrepreneurs have tried for years to gussy up Cloverdale, but the farm town firmly resisted their efforts, remaining stubbornly rural and slightly shabby.

Until now.

Sonoma Magazine asks, “Could Cloverdale be the next Healdsburg?” They reference New restaurants and boutiques. A coffeehouse that’s a community gathering place. A burgeoning arts scene. Fresh ownership of tired businesses. Summer concerts on the plaza that draw 2,000 adults and kids. City slickers, drawn by the rustic beauty and calm, are relocating to Cloverdale — some bringing high-end businesses with them.”

It’s not really likely that Cloverdale will be the next Healdsburg. There’s not enough housing stock, and I think that local zoning laws would prohibit development from occurring. Still, Cloverdale might turn into a kind of Los Olivos of the north, a precious, expensive tourist mecca of galleries, cafés and upscale inns. (Cloverdale actually is the most centrally-located town from which to explore Alexander Valley’s many charms.)

As a homeowner myself, I am benefitting from this stupendous rise in coastal California real estate values. My city, Oakland, is “poised to be the Bay Area’s hottest [housing] market in 2016,” says the San Francisco Chronicle.

Still, I worry about the people who can’t afford to live here, or anywhere else along the coast. From San Diego and La Jolla up through Big Sur, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and northward into wine country, California is becoming a Disneyland for the privileged classes. I don’t know the answer, any more than anyone else. This trend may be unstoppable, except for one force stronger even than the market force of supply and demand: the San Andreas Fault.

QuakeMap


Peter Mondavi, Sr.: A vision held steadfast

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I’ve held off commenting on Peter Mondavi, Sr.’s death, because it’s been well covered elsewhere, and also because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to bring to the conversation.

It’s already been noted, for instance here in Wine Spectator, how much Mr. Mondavi contributed to modern winemaking techniques, such as cold fermentation and the use of French oak barrels. Important as those were, on reflection I think his greater contribution was to the sense of continuity he brought to a valley in which well-heeled newcomers enter the arena all the time, often acting as though Napa’s history hadn’t really been complete until they arrived.

This is not to say that Mr. Mondavi’s importance simply was longevity, although that, in itself, is an achievement. It also was an achievement of the first rank that he, together with his family, was able to keep Charles Krug Winery strong and in their hands; this was one outfit that, no matter how hard things might have been here and there, refused to sell out, although I’m sure they had opportunities aplenty.

But perhaps Mr. Mondavi’s greatest achievement—which he has bequeathed to Napa Valley—was that of a vision held steadfast. It can be difficult to define “vision.” Wealthy newcomers to the valley have visions, too; of Parker 100s, $300 wholesale prices on their wines, and all the glitz and glamor that go with the cult wine lifestyle. That is, to paraphrase Churchill, at least a vision…but it is not a particularly savory one.

The vision Mr. Mondavi possessed, he inherited from his parents, Cesare and Rosa, themselves saturated in the traditions of grapegrowing and winemaking. From their humble beginnings in Lodi, in the darkest depths of Prohibition, they were practically the living incarnation of the modern evolution of California wine. Peter Mondavi, Sr. and his brother, Robert, you might say, were born in barrels.

Why does continuity matter? It may be that I perceive its value more today than I might have twenty years ago. Continuity, in the person of a man or woman, is the residual compilation of all that has occurred up to that moment: the person becomes the living embodiment of it, and thus worthy of respect. If a wine region such as Napa Valley can be said to have a soul, then that soul resides not so much in its terroir, nor in its buildings, and certainly not in its newcomers, but in its enduring legends. And Mr. Mondavi was an enduring legend.

You know, in the last several years of Mr. Mondavi’s life, his family made a great deal of him walking up and down that famous flight of stairs on his way to work, even at his centennial age. They were proud of his health and grit, as well they should have been. But whenever I read that he was still climbing those stairs, I thought, not just about a single individual, but about Napa Valley. That it is still there, ascending, persevering, reporting to work every day, despite the nonsense that sometimes threatens to overwhelm it and, in our lemming-media culture, usually does. In that sense, Mr. Mondavi was a metaphor for Napa Valley itself. Just imagine what his eyes perceived over his long lifetime: the events, personalities, achievements, the drama, the ups and downs and tumult–a sweep of history encompassing, through his parents and his own life, most of the twentieth century and, through his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, born and not yet born, what likely will be a good part of the twenty-first and even the twenty-second. That is what Mr. Mondavi means to me. If I ask myself who else in Napa Valley is like him, or ever will be, the answer is: No one.


A blind tasting of Mt. Veeder

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I gave 100 points in yesterday’s blind tasting of Mt. Veeder Cabernets and Bordeaux blends to the 2012 Freemark Abbey. I was pretty sure it was the 2012 Lokoya, a wine I’ve had on several occasions and have been dazzled by—and one, by the way, Parker gave 100 points to. I was wrong, but not by much: The Freemark Abbey grapes came from the same vineyard, Veeder Creek, as the Lokoya, although it was made by Ted Edwards, not Chris Carpenter. As for my score of the Lokoya, it was 96+. What does that + sign mean? That if I’d thought more about the wine and it had more time to breathe in the glass, I could easily have gone higher; but, as with all tastings, there is a time limit, so at some point you have to cut bait, or whatever the saying is.

At any rate, what a tasting this was! We’ve had a lot of these regional blind tastings where I pit Jackson Family wines against the most highly regarded wines from other wineries, but this Veeder tasting was a sensation. And why not? Mt. Veeder is one of Napa’s greatest appellations. It’s a cooler place, the southernmost of Napa’s western mountains, and benefits from a Carneros influence, although as you go from the cooler southern aspect to the more northerly aspect on the mountain, the climate warms up. I think of Veeder as the opposite of, say, Pritchard Hill, which is quite warm and gives lusher, softer, denser wines, although no less complex and delicious.

The complete lineup of Mt. Veeder wines:

Freemark Abbey 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, 100 points. Alc. 15.0%. The wine is for club members and I don’t know the price. I went back to it over and over during the course of the tasting and conversation. It’s easy to second-guess yourself during the subsequent discussion, when you are exposed to other, respected views. But sometimes you have to stick with what you know, or thought you knew. What made the wine so special was not only the fruit—all these Veeder wines have spectacular fruit—and not only the distinguished tannins, but a blood tang, the ionic intensity of iron, which must come from the soil. Just really a stupendous glass of red wine, beautiful, forceful and delicious. One of my fellow tasters called it “melodic.” Nice word. It is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.

Edge Hall 2010 “Abel 1833”, 97 points. Alc. 14.6%. This is owned by Leslie Rudd and costs $110. I called it “sappy and resinous” but wrote that “it easily needs at least a dozen years.” It is huge, thick and fruity, with a subtle herbaceousness, an almost Shiraz-like Cabernet worthy of respect.

Lampyridae 2012 Communications Block Cabernet Sauvignon. Score: 93 points. Alc. 16.6% !!! Price: $100. The aromatics blew me away: cocoa powder, blackberry jam, blood, toast, spices. But the first thing I wrote was “Heat from alcohol.” I noticed it when I lifted it to take a sip and inhaled through my mouth: It had that vapory, stinging heat of rubbing alcohol. This was very persistent and it made me lower my score: It would easily have been mid- to high 90s otherwise. The winemaker is the celebrated Aaron Pott; proceeds from its sale go to a fine charity, Napa Valley Kids.

Lokoya 2012, 96+ points. Alc. 14.5%. The price is $350. I wrote “feminine charm in a masculine appellation,” which prompted an interesting discussion of the use of gender terms in winetasting—a topic I will not explore right now. Masses of sweet cherry pie, licorice, toasty oak, with such a soft, supple mouthfeel. I would drink it now and over the next dozen years. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon aged in 99% new French oak for 20 months.

Mount Veeder 2012, 92 points. Alc. 14.5%. Price: $90. I called it “interesting” rather than awesome. A good, solid Cabernet, blended with Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Wine Enthusiast’s Virginie Boone gave it the same score as did I.

Beringer 2012 Lampyridae Vineyard. 96 points. Alc. 14.9%. The price is $110. A very great success for the winery. Clearly the Lampyridae Vineyard is one of the best on Mt. Veeder.

Mt. Brave 2012. 93 points. Alc. 14.5%. The price is $75. This wine got a pair of 92s from Parker and Spectator. Incidentally, I wrote “Blend” in my notes because the wine had more red fruit, herb and sweet tea notes than I’d expect from a 100% Cabernet. Indeed, it contains 5% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc and 3% Malbec.

Mayacamas 2010. 90 points. Alc. 13.25%. Price: $90. This is the current release. It was a good wine but the least in the flight. I found it grapey and a little rustic. Of course, Charles Banks has purchased the winery and is replanting. We can hope for greater things from Mayacamas in the future.

Yates 2012 Alden Perry Reserve. Score: 91 points. Alc. 14.8%. Price: $70. I wish I could say more favorable things about it than “proper” and “accessible” but, in this flight, it did not keep up with the competition. Nice cherry pie and kirsch notes.

Paon 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon. Score: 98 points. Alc. 14.7%. Price: $103. I hadn’t heard of this winery before finding the bottle at Dean & DeLuca. In my notes I wrote “100% Cabernet?” and indeed it is. You could tell from the inky black color and the fantastic ooze of black currants. I also wrote “scads of new French oak,” but the website doesn’t give the details. Someone asked if these mountain Cabs can have too much oak. I suppose they can, but given their power, the danger would be too little oak, not too much. The winemaker worked at PlumpJack, CADE and Newton, so I guess he knows something about mountain fruit.

O’Shaugnessy 2012. Score: 93 points. Alc. 14.8%. Price: $135. I might have been a little harsh. The other tasters liked it more. Parker gave it 97 and Galloni gave it 96. For me, it was flashy, decadent and flamboyant, dripping with cocoa and black cherries, but a little lacking in subtlety.

Trinchero 2012 Cloud’s Nest Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Score: 94 points. Alc. 14.2%. Price is $85. When I was the California critic at Wine Enthusiast I always loved these Trinchero Cabs. This one is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and was aged in 80% new French oak for 20 months. Wine Advocate gave it a score of 90-93 points.

It goes without saying that most of these wines will age for a very long time. We had a discussion of what that means and the answer is, if you like your Napa mountain Cabs young, then drink them young. If you like them old, drink them old. If you’re not sure, then 6-8 years after release is a good bet. There is no absolute rule and nobody should feel ashamed about liking any particular wine, no matter what everybody else says. (But you should be able to explain why.)

Mt. Veeder’s reputation as a singularly great place to grow Cabernets and blends is well deserved. There are also some great Syrahs on that mountain, although not as much Zinfandel as there used to be, which is too bad, given how good it was; but why would you grow Zinfandel for a $40 bottle when you can grow Cabernet for a $100 bottle?


Happy 50th, Robert Mondavi Winery

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Believe it or not, kids, there was a time when Napa Valley possessed no Robert Mondavi Winery (RMW).

Prior to 1966 Napa was a sleepy little wine valley, dominated by legendary wineries already perceived as old-time, like Beaulieu, Inglenook, Charles Krug and Louis M. Martini. A few newer wineries had sprung up over the decades, including Mayacamas (1941), Stony Hill (1953) and Heitz (1961), so we have to take the claim, oft-repeated, that RMWwas the first new large-scale winery to be established in the valley since before prohibition” with a certain grain of salt. Still, the building of the physical winery itself, designed by the celebrated California architect Cliff May, was an extraordinary event. It brought to the valley a look that combined traditional Mission motifs with a modernity that seemed to express the essence of Napa Valley, and its wines; and, in becoming an almost instant tourist mecca, it opened the gates to Napa Valley as one of the most visited wine regions in the world.

There was, too, at the time a great deal of critical interest in the wines the brash, not-quite-so-young (53) Robert Mondavi was creating; but here, too, we have to hedge this statement with an explanation that there wasn’t much going on at that time in America in the way of critical coverage of the wine industry. That was to come, much later, in large part due to Robert Mondavi, the winery, as well as the man, who was such a relentless engine of exhortation for the wines of Napa Valley.

Early reporters, unsure of how to parse Mondavi’s wines, and understanding that such a new enterprise would take some time to find its sea legs, instead focused on the winery and Robert’s audacity. One of the first important wine books to be published after RMW’s founding was The Fine Wines of California (Hurst Hannum and Robert S. Blumberg, 1970). Mondavi’s wines, they wrote, “show[ed] breed and flavor”; they reserved their highest accolades to the ’68 Fumé Blanc, but were less enthusiastic when it came to the reds: the ’66 Cabernet was “pleasant, rather fruity,” but “not the most complex,” while the ’66 Pinot—a variety Robert’s winemaker son, Tim, would be famously associated with—was “sharp…light…[and] unpleasant.”

Three years later, Leon D. Adams, the former head of the Wine Institute, in his The Wines of America (1973) was astounded that, by that time, RMW was attracting visitors “at the rate of 1500 per week and are selling them a tenth of the winery’s output,” an impressive anticipation of direct-to-consumer sales. But Adams, an amateur historian and a fine one, did not pretend to be a wine critic, and did not venture into that area. That year, 1973, the same caveats issued by Hannum and Blumberg came from the pen of the man who arguably at that time was the dean of American wine writers, Nathan Chroman. In his The Treasury of American Wines, Chroman found Mondavi’s red wines “satisfactory, but [they] do not measure up to the whites…”, although he held out hope for the Cabernet Sauvignon. But he, too, love the Fumé Blanc.

Europeans were perhaps more welcoming to the wines. Three years before Adams wrote, the great British enophile (and Francophile) Harry Waugh was taken by his hosts to RMW, where, as he wrote in Pick of the Bunch (1970), he found “extraordinarily exciting…ideas and projects” bubbling forth: That 1968 Fumé Blanc—the one Hannum, Blumberg and Chroman loved (and Robert is credited with inventing the term)–had “the true smell” of “a blanc fumé from the Loire,” and received the ultimate Waugh plaudit of being a wine “which would go into my collection…”. He thought less well of a ’67 Chardonnay, but a ’66 Zinfandel was his favorite in a flight of five, and so was a ’66 Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, it was through the admiration of Harry Waugh and his London-based Zinfandel Club that the wines of the new “boutiques” such as RMW were introduced to and appreciated by the intelligentsia of Europe (except for the French), which gave them great cachet.

We can say, and be on sound historical footing, that the launch of RMW heralded in that boutique winery era—which saw, over the next 15 years, as stellar a flight of winery startups as ever has been recorded in history, on any continent. There was nothing like it: with the advent of that generation of young, determined, bold and visionary vintners, California experienced a land rush of new wineries that set the stage for its future success and made it the international capitol for wine excitement. Things are quite different today, when none but the über-rich have the means to establish a new winery, and the sparkle, steam and creativity that marked the 1960s and 1970s have faded away. But Cliff May’s arch and campanile still mark that glorious stretch of Highway 29 through Oakville, and the footprint of Robert Mondavi remains as large and indelible as ever.

 


French wine month names, the California drought, and growing weed in Napa Valley

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Here’s how a wine-crazed country thinks: On Sept. 22, 1792, the First French Republic was born, amidst the fiery pangs of the French Revolution.

It was a good day for the middle class of Paris, not so good for Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie-Antoinette, both of whom who already had been deposed and imprisoned (and would shortly be killed). The people were in such a radical mood that when deputies to the Convention gathered to draw up a new constitution for France, they even changed the names of the months. Instead of Roman-derived names usually dedicated to gods (i.e. January/Janus, the god of sunset and sunrise), the Convention created a calendar that began with the current revolutionary Year I and, starting with that dramatic Autumn month of “September,” redubbed the months this way:

Vendemiaire (Vintage)

Brumaire (Mist)

Frimaire (Frost)

Nivose (Snow)

Pluviose (Rain)

Ventose (Wind)

Germinal (Budding)

Floreal (Flowering)

Prairial (Meadows)

Messidor (Harvest)

Thermidor (Warmth)

Fructidor (Fruit)

The new month-naming scheme, as it turned out, didn’t last; Napoleon abolished it in 1805 (although it was briefly resurrected in 1871, when for two months a radical-socialist government took over Paris). But see how much the month-names of the Revolutionary Calendar reflected the annual cycle of the vineyard. How wonderful it was for France to consecrate their calendar to wine and other treasures of the harvest! Vintage-budding-flowering-fruit—these remain the annual stages of the grapevine around the world, but alas, no government any longer names months after them.

* * *

The Press-Democrat reports that, thanks to El Nino, January was “the wettest since the drought began” in 2012, with more than 10 inches of rain falling in Santa Rosa. That has brought North Coast reservoirs up quite a bit, and the Sierra snowpack hit a five-year high last month, but “California is Still in Drought,” Scientific American says, adding, “It will take many more storms and almost assuredly more than a single winter—even one with a strong El Niño—to erase” the historic dry spell. Bring on the storms!

* * *

It looks like Napa city may be poised to allow medical marijuana dispensaries, including the possibility of “cultivation,” although both practices currently are outlawed. It’s likely that California will soon legalize even recreational use, not just medical use, giving a new state agency, the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation, authority over growing it. No doubt the best pot farms will be located in precisely the kind of climate central and northern Napa Valley possesses: hot, sunny and dry in the summertime. Given the vast amounts of money that can be made in the pot business in California alone–$31 billion a year—why would a vineyard owner, given the legal ability to do so, waste his time on Cabernet Sauvignon when he could grow weed instead? Maybe not on those prime hillside and benchland vineyards, but in terroirs less suited to Cab, like the fertile flatlands along the Napa River? Hmm. Would you? I would. I’d find a consulting farmer who specialized in weed—kind of like the David Abreu of marijuana (and you know there are folks setting themselves up for it) and grow, baby, grow.


A tasting of Sonoma County Cabernets and Bordeaux blends: Call me a Verité kinda guy

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I couldn’t have been more pleased that in yesterday’s tasting I gave the Verite 2012 La Joie * a perfect 100 points. (All wines marked with an asterisk are from Jackson Family Wines.)

It was back in 2009 that I gave the 2006 La Joie a near-perfect 98 points. A year later I gave the 2007 Verite La Muse 100 points. So you could say these wines, produced by Pierre Seillan, delight and amaze me and rise to my highest expectations of what California-Bordeaux can and should be.

Our tasting was entirely blind. The other wines and their scores were Matanzas Creek 2011 Journey * (96 points), Rodney Strong 2012 Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon (88 points), Hall 2012 T Bar T Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (90 points), Hidden Ridge 2012 Impassable Mountain Reserve 55% Slope Cabernet Sauvignon (91 points), Lancaster 2012 Nicole’s Red Wine (91 points), Arrowood 2012 Reserve Speciale Cabernet Sauvignon * (92 points), Stonestreet 2012 Legacy Red Wine * (98 points), Stonestreet 2011 Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon * (88 points), Silver Oak 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon (92 points), Cenyth 2010 Red Wine * (93 points), Anakota 2012 Helena Montana Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon * (93 points) and Kendall-Jackson 2012 Jackson Estate Hawkeye Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon * (93 points).

The vintages all were either current releases or the most current releases I was able to obtain buying direct from the wineries. I should add that I also was pleased that one of my fellow tasters, Chris Jackson, also scored the Verite ’12 La Joie a perfect 100 points. When the paper bags came off, it was high-five time.

As some of my readers know who followed my career, I never gave very many 100 point scores, but one was that ’07 La Muse. These Verités are extraordinary wines. They are of course blends from mountain vineyards throughout Sonoma County; it was those wines, in part, that led me to understand that a California-Bordeaux does not have to be sourced from a single vineyard in order to attain perfection. In fact, quite the opposite can be argued: That having your choice of multiple pedigreed vineyards, rather than having to source from only one, allows the winemaker to fill in the divots in order to produce a more complete, wholesome wine. Of course, this implies a very high level of skill on the part of the blender! Nor would I concede that such a blended wine doesn’t display terroir. (Another blend I gave 100 points to was the 2006 Cardinale, made from grapes grown in Mt. Veeder, Howell Mountain, Stags Leap and Oakville.) I do think a great Pinot Noir should probably come from a single piece of dirt, but even here I could be wrong.

It often is said that the difference between Sonoma-grown Bordeaux wines and Napa Valley Bordeaux wines is that the former are earthier and more “French.” I think that is largely true; the tannins are firmer and there is slightly more herbaceousness in the form of sweet dried herbs and often a floral character reminiscent of violets. Most of the wines in yesterday’s tasting were grown on the western slope of the Mayacamas, not far from places like Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain, in fact just on the other side of the ridge. But Napa Valley is one mountain range further inland and so is that much warmer and drier; the resulting wines tend to be lusher, more opulent, and higher in alcohol. But I would not want to over-emphasize those distinctions. Suffice it to say that some of these Sonoma Cabs, especially from the west side of the Mayacamas, are stunning and ageworthy.

I don’t hesitate to praise the Jackson Family wines just because I work there; in fact it makes me very happy to see them do so well. As I said, the tasting was absolutely blind. Nobody had any idea what the wines were, although that didn’t stop us from guessing. I was troubled by the relatively modest score of the ’11 Stonestreet Christopher’s, a wine I’ve always liked (I gave the ’06 and ’07 both 96 points, for example), but as you know 2011 was “the year summer never came,” and this wine, grown at 2,400 feet on the winery’s Alexander Mountain Estate, is exquisitely sensitive to vintage conditions. I think the fruit, in that brutal environment of 2011, just didn’t get ripe enough (although it’s only fair to add that Wine Advocate gave that wine 94 points. So maybe I just didn’t “get it”).

Anyhow, bravo to Sonoma County for doing so well. I think for our next tasting we’ll do Jackson Family’s Napa Valley Cab/Bordeaux blends against some of the top-rated wines in the valley. That will be interesting, if expensive, and I’ll report on the results right here!


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