My tasting yesterday of eight Carneros Pinot Noirs was enormously instructive to me, even after all these years. Afterwards, we tried to put together four attributes that linked all the wines, and they were:
- a “Burgundian” earthy, mushroomy thing
- nice, ripe California fruit
Of course, identifying regional typicity is possible only in high-end wines, preferably single vineyards but not necessarily. As it turned out, there were two fabulous wines that really captured Carneros: one on the Napa side, the other on the Sonoma side. But these boundaries are political fantasies: true terroir doesn’t follow county lines, which is why Carneros was properly recognized by the Feds as the first AVA that crossed counties, because it was defined by climate and soil.
Here are my notes, somewhat abbreviated.
Donum 2012 West Slope, $90. The first wine in the flight. It blew me away so much that I decided to return to it after the last wine. Sometimes the first wine of a flight (and of the day) can seem better than it inherently is. It showed the most wonderfully ripe, pure raspberries and cherries, with plenty of exotic Asian spices, smoky oak, great acidity and polished tannins. After an hour in the glass the oak emerged as a stronger force. There also was a rich, mulchy mushroominess. This is a fabulous wine with a future. Score: 94 points.
La Rochelle 2011 Donum Estate, $80. A real disappointment. It was bretty but also thin. Well, it’s 2011, after all. Score: 84 points.
Carneros Hills 2013 Estate, $36. I work for Jackson Family Wines, which owns this winery. The wine was okay. Nothing wrong with it, in fact a pretty good wine, but the best I could do was 87 points. I know that Carneros Hills is a work in progress and I expect better things from it in the future.
Hartford Court 2012 Sevens Bench Vineyard, $65. Another Jackson Family Wines wine, and another disappointment. It was too hot in alcohol—officially 15% but I think higher than that. I scored it at 87 points.
Cattleya 2012 Donum Vineyard, $85. This was one of the better wines in the flight: rich, fruity and young, but a little soft. I thought it might improve in 3-4 years and scored it at 90 points.
Paul Hobbs 2013 Hyde Vineyard, $75. A fabulous wine. Savory, rich, complex, complete. Raspberries, plums, cherries, great savoir faire. Right up there with the Donum West Slope. Score: 93 points.
Saintsbury 2012 Lee Vineyard, $54. We all frankly found this wine a little unassertive. Nothing particularly wrong with it, just lacking that extra oomph. Score: 87 points.
Stemmler 2012 Estate, $44. It was better than the Saintsbury but not even close to the Donum or Paul Hobbs. A good, sound, well-made Carneros Pinot Noir. Score: 89 points.
Some critics have claimed to find minerality in Carneros Pinot Noir. I did not—at least, not as much as you find in Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir.
The question arose as to whether we can assume that the Napa side of Carneros is warmer than the Sonoma side. I do think that’s true, overall: Sonoma Carneros is that much more open to the Petaluma Gap. But it differs with individual wineries: when they want to pick, how ripe they want the brix or flavors to get before they pick. And there are differences in climate even within Napa, which is why the question of Haut Carneros—approaching the Mayacamas foothills—and Bas Carneros—the muddy, sandy, silty flats along San Pablo Bay—continues to be a fascinating one. I don’t know about the Frenchisms, but I do think this process of further distinguishing Carneros’s terroirs would be further along if they’d allowed more small, creative wineries to do business there.
Carneros has lost much of its luster over the last twenty years. But the potential is there for Carneros to re-gain the reputation it once had, and again be a contender.
Starting today, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before on my blog: I’ll be reviewing wines.
The first batch follows below. None of these wineries paid me. I don’t intend for steveheimoff.com to become a wine-reviewing site, although I think people are interested in what I have to say. But I do want to do it occasionally. If you want your wines to be reviewed on steveheimoff.com, send me your tasting sample, along with tech notes and the SRP. You’ll notice my reviews are longer than they used to be at Wine Enthusiast. I always felt constrained within the 40-word format and now I can make these reviews as lengthy as I want.
This change coincides with some additional changes in my professional life. Starting tomorrow, I officially become a consultant. My first client will remain Jackson Family Wines. I’m having conversations with additional wineries. My goal is to assemble a high-end portfolio of wineries I like and respect, and who respect my contributions. If you’re interested in working together, reach out to me and let’s talk.
A word of caution: If you do use one of my reviews for promotional purposes, credit it to steveheimoff.com, not Steve Heimoff. Thanks.
Dominus 2012 Napanook (Yountville): $69. My tasting notes for Napanook have been remarkably consistent for many years, going back to the 1990s. The wine always has struggled in the shadows of its senior sister, Dominus Estate. For instance, I said of the 2006 that it “has been trying to stand on its own,” apart from Dominus. Napanook still is seeking its own identity. Like previous vintages, this 2012 is fairly tough, dry and tannic. Its black currant, blueberry and cassis flavors are framed in oak, 20% of which was new French. There’s an earthy complexity, reminiscent of dried sage and unsweetened cocoa. The overall impression is one of great balance and care, but of course, Napanook must be viewed as the second wine of Dominus. Unresolved now, it will benefit from hours of decanting. Is it an ager? Five or six years will present no problem. Much longer than that, and you’re gambling. Score: 90.
Laurel Glen 2013 Counterpoint (Sonoma Mountain): $40. I must admit to having lost track of Laurel Glen for a number of years, following Patrick Campbell’s sale of the winery. Counterpoint, the “second label”, often could be a worthy alternative to the main attraction, the estate wine, showing the same classy, dry, elegant structure, if less ageable. With this 2013, Counterpoint firmly establishes itself at the top of its price tier in California Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s the anti-Napa Cabernet, bone dry and modest in alcohol. You’ll find plenty of California-style black currants and black raspberry essence, but no overripeness, just a rich, delicious complexity that finishes spicy and long. There’s an oaky sweetness that’s perfectly balanced with the fruit. The addition of 15% Merlot to the blend softens the tannins, bringing a sensual mellowness to the mouthfeel. This 2013 is as good as the 2009 Counterpoint, to which I gave 93 points, and, like that wine, I would recommend drinking it over the next four years. Score: 92.
Tamber Bey 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville); $125. Tamber Bey has flirted with ripe, opulent Cabernet for years, with mixed results. With this 2012, they firmly ensconce themselves in the California style of high alcohol, extracted fruit flavor and generous new oak. You’ll find plenty of blackberry jam, cassis liqueur and dark chocolate, with an overripe hint of prunes, wrapped into soft tannins and just-in-time acidity. The result is heady and delicious, although it could grow tedious if you’re drinking the entire bottle. The official alcohol is 14.9% and 682 cases were made. Drink now-2020. Score: 88.
Krupp Brothers 2013 Stagecoach Vineyard Chardonnay (Napa Valley); $65. Krupp Brothers, and Stagecoach Vineyard, are of course well-known for beautifully crafted Cabernet Sauvignon. But this lovely wine shows that Chardonnay can grow pretty well 1,500 feet up on the mountain, which straddles Atlas Peak. It’s enormously rich in orange, pineapple and mango fruit, with a sweet overlay of toasty, vanilla-accented oak and crème brulée. There’s a firm streak of minerals running throughout, as well as crisp, mouthwatering acidity that balances and grounds the richness. Fancy and memorable, it’s very fine to drink with rich California cuisine: Dungeness crab, shrimp or scallops, grilled Ahi tuna, chicken in cream sauce. Ageworthy, too–reminds me of a young Hanzell Chardonnay. Drink over the next ten years. Score: 93.
Tamber Bey 2013 Deux Chevaux Vineyard Dijon Chardonnay (Yountville): $55. The oak really dominates this single-vineyard Chardonnay, in the form of butterscotch, caramel and buttered cinnamon toast. That oakiness is accentuated by the butteriness of the malolactic fermentation. Underneath that, you’ll find ripe apricot jam, peaches and cream and pineapple crème brulée flavors. The acidity is acceptable. The ultimate result is quite rich and flamboyant. Drink it with lobster, scallops, crab. Score: 88.
Tamber Bey 2014 Trio Vineyard Unoaked Chardonnay (Yountville): $34. This is what superbly grown Chardonnay tastes like when it’s never seen a molecule of oak. How good it is. You’ll find an enormously deep, ripe array of flavors, ranging from golden apricots and oranges to succulent peaches, pears and exotic guavas and passionfruits, with hints of honeysuckle and clarified butter. The alcohol is hefty, yet balanced. Only 720 cases were produced. I would love to drink this wine with ahi tuna tartare topped with chopped, toasted macadamia nuts and mango salsa. Score: 91.
Tenshen 2014 White Wine (California): $20. The Central Coast long has been a hotbed of Rhône-style white blends, and now Tenshen, which is owned by Guarachi Wine Partners (Montes, Guarachi, Bodega Norton and others) hops on the bandwagon. The blend is Viognier, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc, with a decidedly un-Rhônelike addition of Chardonnay. Each variety brings something to the table, giving the wine real complexity. It’s a pleasurable sipper, dry, crisp in acidity and interestingly flavored in oranges, green melons, succulent peaches, spices and white flowers, with a creamy mouthfeel and bracing minerality. It’s a little hot and heavy—the alcohol is a sturdy 14.7%–suggesting pairing with rich fare, like seared scallops in beurre blanc or baked salmon. The wine is a new partner to Tenshen’s 2013 Red, which was successfully launched earlier this year. Score: 87.
Guarachi 2013 Sun Chase Vineyard Pinot Noir (Petaluma Gap); $75. The vineyard, on the southern side of Sonoma Mountain, is one of the highest (1,400 feet) in the Petaluma Gap, an area currently contained within the greater Sonoma Coast appellation but one that is hopefully awaiting approval of its own AVA status by the federal government. Alex Guarachi owns the young (2007) vineyard, whose grapes have been purchased by others, including Patz & Hall and Fogline. Now Guarachi, who has perhaps been better known for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, has this bottling, which comes down firmly in favor of a riper, more alcoholic (officially 14.5%) and frankly gulpable style. It’s a big wine, dense, somewhat heavy and flamboyant, not your typical In Pursuit of Balance Pinot Noir, but certainly one that scores high on the deliciousness scale. With soft tannins and decent acidity, it’s forward in black cherry pie filling and cola flavors, with a smoky, cedary coating (55% new French oak) and tons of Chinese 5 spice in the finish. I would give it a several hours of decanting and drink it now, with rich, fatty foods, like lamb or steak, although it will overshadow something more delicate, like salmon. Score: 92.
Tamber Bey 2013 Sun Chase Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); $65. A stylish, classy Pinot, whose silky structure frames intense flavors. Floods the mouth with ripe raspberry preserves, cola, Christmas persimmons, red currants and sweet pomegranates, leading to a long, spicy finish. It’s ripe and soft and satisfying, solidly made in the California style, elegant and ageable for a few years. The new oak flavors of toast and vanilla are enriching. The vineyard is in a mountainous part of the emerging Petaluma Gap region. Only 484 cases were produced. Drink now-2021. Score: 91.
Kenefick Ranch 2014 Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc (Calistoga); $24. Sauvignon Blanc in Calistoga? Well, yes, and it’s as ripe as you’d expect it to be. No subtle grass and minerals here, but rather an explosion of Meyer lemon, apricot and orange preserves, with little bites of stewed fruit. Lots of spice, good balancing acidity, and a touch of smoky oak from barrel fermentation. A big wine, slightly heavy. but sound. Call it a white wine for red wine fans. Score: 85.
Tamber Bey 2014 Mello Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Yountville); $28. Tamber Bey is best known for its reds, but this is quite a good Sauvignon Blanc, and shows how well the southerly part of Napa Valley, with its Carneros influence, can succeed with this variety. The wine, which is highish in alcohol, has just a touch of wood influence, and treads a careful line between tart gooseberries and riper tropical fruit notes, braced with a clean, tangy minerality. The acidity is just fine, and the finish is dry and peppery. I’m giving it extra points for sheer deliciousness and complexity. Score: 92.
This was our objective at yesterday’s tasting. The answer:
- high alcohol
- tremendous fruity extract
- thick tannins
- soft acidity
- a sense of sweetness
Think about each of those. Each element is at the utmost of the limits of a table wine to remain balanced. In this high-wire act, if you make the slightest error, you’re screwed.
The high alcohol means that, while it’s there (and we’re talking 15%-16% or more), if the wine is in the slightest degree hot, it loses points.
The tremendous fruity extract means that, if you get it wrong, you end up with a fruit bomb.
The thick tannins mean that you don’t want to end up with something that’s harsh in the mouth.
The soft acidity presents the danger of an insipid, boring wine, flashy, perhaps, with the first sip, but one that quickly palls.
So we’re talking about that elusive but vital element, balance. It’s funny that people always talk about a more delicate wine, like Burgundian Pinot Noir, as being so transparent that balance, or any hint of imbalance, is apparent. But that’s also true of these gigantic Paso Robles GSMs. Mere size isn’t enough to hide flaws. Nothing can hide a flaw to the discerning taste. And yet, a good winemaker can turn size to his advantage.
These winemakers—Matt Trevaison, Justin Smith, Stephen Asseso and the like–chose to make these sorts of wines, and by the standard of the market, they’ve been wildly successful. These westside GSMs have become Paso Robles’ most expensive wines. Produced in tiny amounts, they sell for far more on the aftermarket than their initial release prices. So, when my friends at Jackson Family Wines asked me to put together a Paso Robles tasting (and the family currently owns nothing in Paso Robles), I happily acceded.
I could have done a tasting of Paso Bordeaux blends. I’ve been a big fan; that was part of the reason why I successfully argued for Paso Robles to be Wine Enthusiast’s “Wine Region of the Year” a couple of years ago.
I could have done a tasting of what I call Paso’s “wacko blends,” those innovative blends of everything from Tempranillo and Zinfandel to Merlot, Sangiovese and Petite Sirah. I wrote extensively about them for Wine Enthusiast. These young winemakers, who invaded Paso Robles over the last 5-10 years, had nothing to lose by being creative. They knew they couldn’t compete against Napa Valley with Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Noir was out of the question. Why not create a blend that had never existed before in the history of the world, if it made a delicious wine? It was a niche to be explored and exploited.
But GSMs are the signature wines of Paso Robles, especially at the high-priced end. So here were the seven wines we tasted yesterday, in a blind tasting. (Sadly, although I ordered the L’Aventure 2013 Cote de Cote directly from the winery, and paid $120.68, including shipping, for it, it never arrived.)
The wines, with SRP and alcohol:
Saxum 2012 Heart Stone, $149, 15.1%
Tablas Creek 2013 Cote de Cote, $55, 14.5%
Law Estate 2011 Sagacious, $67, 16%
Linne Calodo 2013 Sticks & Stones, $79, 15.8%
Jada 2012 Hell’s Kitchen, $54, 15.5%
ONX 2012 Crux, $45, 15.2%
Booker 2013 Full Draw, $75, 15.3%
My favorite, and the group’s, too, was the ONX. It was closely followed by the Jada, Tablas Creek, Saxum, Linne Calodo, and Booker. The trick with wines of this sort, which are very popular with critics, is to keep them balanced. All the individual parts—tannins, fruity extract, alcohol—are so strong, in and of themselves, that if any one of them sticks out, it perturbs the entire wine. (One of my co-tasters called several of the wines “distracting,” for that very reason). In this modern In Pursuit of Balance world, we make much of the structure and finesse of lightly-structured wines, which are so transparent that inherent imbalances quickly reveal themselves. As we focus—properly—on these wines, we tend to forget that these big, rich wines have similar balancing challenges; like Bob Dylan’s “mattress balanced on a bottle of wine,” the equilibrium must be just-so, the poise exquisitely tense, or otherwise the wine just collapses under its own weight into a heap.
Still, these west side Paso Robles wines (which now come under a guise of AVAs since Paso Robles split up into 11 appellations) are attention-getting, although I’m not sure I’d want to split an entire bottle with someone over dinner.
Today I am speaker, or host, at a buyer’s lunch for Jackson Family Wines. The venue is Farmshop, a restaurant in the tony Marin County town of Larkspur. I’ve never eaten there, but if you’re a wine-and-food geek in the Bay Area, you’ve certainly heard of it. Farmshop earned a coveted spot on the 2015 Top 100 restaurant list compiled annually by the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic, Michael Bauer. Our lunch menu was specially created by Chef Jason Purcell to pair with seven JFW wines. Our guests—22 and counting—are important wine buyers in the Bay Area.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to expand the conversation to the topic of these buyer lunches and dinners. These are important ways for wineries to connect with people who might buy their wines, and not just any people: high-end on- and off-premise accounts that will showcase the winery’s wines the way they hope to be be portrayed.
Being present on the shelf of a good wine shop and, even more, on the wine list of a top restaurant is more vital than ever. The Holy Grail for wineries, of course, is direct-to-consumer, but that’s a long, hard road, and the thinking among the smart set is that being on a wine list represents a shortcut, or perhaps stimulant is a better word, to DTC. I’m not sure exactly if that’s true, the assumption, I suppose, being that if a customer buys your off the wine list and falls in love with you, he’ll seek you out in the future by joining your wine club or ordering your wine from your website. That is hopeful, but not proven. But if your production is small enough—and many of the wines I’ll be showing tomorrow are–you can afford to forgo DTC if enough retail accounts buy you.
Wineries have different personnel they can choose to represent them at such venues, which combine entertainment and serious eating with the educational analyses of the wines. Obviously, there’s the winery owner and/or winemaker, who often but not always is the same person. This is a winery’s best bet for putting forth a personality who can talk about the wines being presented, as well as using herself as a selling point; having a “face of the winery” is very important for branding, although not all winemakers and/or owners like being put in that position, and some refuse to do it. But it’s necessary these days, and not a bad place to be, since your audience arrives excited and expecting to like you. All you have to do is live up to their expectations. And who doesn’t like to be liked?
The winemaker or owner isn’t always available, of course. So who else does the winery send to represent them? Well, it’s often someone from sales, marketing or P.R. who is affiliated with the winery in some way, and can speak credibly about the wines. You need a credible presence, because buyers don’t want to feel jerked around by someone who doesn’t have credibility and is only trying to sell stuff–timeshares or Tupperware or whatever.
The hope on every winery’s part, at every trade or consumer event, is to have someone of unimpeachable credibility represent them. This isn’t exactly a new development—winetasting events at restaurants are as old as the hills. But it’s become more polished in recent years, especially with the advent of the “new sommeliers,” people with advanced knowledge of, not only wine, but culinary affairs. They don’t want to go to a lunch just anywhere, and indeed, if the restaurant doesn’t spark their interest, they’ll pass on by the event. Somms have become more pampered than they were in the past—not passing judgment on that, just saying—and so it takes more than it used to to coax them out and make them happy.
For the past half-year, I’ve been hosting a series of wine tastings up at Jackson Family Wines headquarters, just outside Santa Rosa. So far, they’ve included both JFW and non-JFW wines, but the next one is strictly non-JFW. It’s a tasting of high-end Paso Robles Rhône-style blends (JFW currently owns no Paso Robles wineries), and I’m getting excited even before I pop a single cork.
Here’s the lineup so far:
- Saxum 2012 Heart Stone
- L’Aventure 2013 Cote de Cote
- Tablas Creek 2012 Esprit de Tablas
- Law 2011Sagacious
- Linne Calodo 2013 Sticks & Stones
- Jada 2012 Hell’s Kitchen
- ONX 2012 Crux
I’m also trying to get a bottle of PharoahMoans 2012, and maybe one or two others.
These are all expensive wines, among the priciest in California outside Napa Valley. The most expensive is the Saxum. I’ve written before about Justin Smith’s amazing story: how he started this little winery that zoomed straight to the top. (If there are more expensive wines in Paso Robles, I don’t know what they are.) I’m not sure how Justin got there; probably he isn’t either, and has been pleasantly surprised by his success. I think my reviews helped, as did the chapter I gave him in my 2008 book, “New Classic Winemakers of California.”
I liked Justin’s wines from the moment I first tasted them (I gave them lots of 95s and 94s), but I realize these are not wines for the In Pursuit of Balance crowd. The alcohol on them can be very high. But then, the same can be said of many of these Paso Robles blends. The grapes get ripe, sometimes super-mature under that hot Paso sunshine, even in the Templeton Gap where things are supposedly cooler. Well, I drove right through the Templeton Gap yesterday during the hottest part of the afternoon, and yes, the temperature did fall from 92 just north of Paso Robles to 87-88 at Templeton, evidence that there really is a cooling influence that makes it in from the coast. Still, the Templeton Gap area is still pretty warm.
It would be a shame to dismiss these big, hearty Paso Robles red wines simply because of the alcohol level. They’re really world class. I’m excited about this tasting and will report on it here.
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I asked my Facebook friends yesterday what I should blog about today and a lot of them said “Benziger.” I don’t have a super-strong view of the sale to The Wine Group, except for a couple thoughts. Number one, I like the Benziger clan and especially Mike, who was very kind to me when I was coming up as a wine writer. The family worked hard to establish both the Benziger brand and Imagery, and the wines from both were very good. The family did what they felt was in their best interests, at a time competition is fierce and Benziger was doing battle with brands from all over the world. I don’t know what The Wine Group will do with the brands—whether they’ll maintain them, elevate them or crush them into the ground. (By way of contrast, had Jackson Family Wines bought them, I’m confident the Jackson family would have elevated them.) Hopefully, The Wine Group will elevate them, although I do have some concerns that The Wine Group is not necessarily associated with the top quality tier. (Here’s a list of their brands.) Perhaps with this acquisition, The Wine Group is trying to go upscale and improve that image. If so, kudos to them.
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Miss Sherry asked on Facebook for me to blog about Gus because she likes him a lot. So, Miss Sherry, here he is, relaxing on my queen bed at the lovely Santa Maria Radisson. We’re here for a couple days to hang out at Cambria and Byron.
Here’s the second part of my remarks last week, at Stonestreet:
I’ve spoken of varietal flavor and tannin structure, but obviously there’s more to wine than just those two factors. Next, I want to take up the topics of acidity and minerality.
Acidity in Cabernet, as in all table wines, is a key to providing life, zest and a keen mouthfeel. My favorite way of explaining the role of acidity is to revert to a tale from my youth. When I was a kid in the Bronx, we had “soda fountains.” If you wanted cola, the soda “jerk” didn’t open a bottle, he mixed it up right in front of you. First he’d squirt the cola syrup into a soda glass. If you tasted the syrup by itself, it was, well, syrupy. It was sweet and tasted like cola, but somehow had no pizzazz, no zest; it was flat and insipid. Then the soda jerk would squirt a little carbonated water into the glass, and voila. The carbonation added acidity, showing how important it is to balance fruity sweetness with tartness. If we recall that mountain vineyards are cooler during the daytime than valley floor vineyards, we can appreciate that mountain wines also are generally more balanced with acidity.
Then there’s minerality. I dare to venture into these tall weeds only because minerality has been a subject of intense discussion lately. I don’t claim to be able to define minerality, or to pinpoint exactly where it comes from. But since we all talk about it – and we all seem to think that we know what we mean when we use the word – I will assume that you, too, are familiar with minerality.
Let me just say that minerality is something that I do find in wines, both red and white. And I find it more in mountain, bench and hillside wines than in valley floor wines. One theory is that mountain grapevines, being parched for water, send their roots more deeply into the ground than do valley floor vines, where the water table is higher. As those roots dig deep into the earth, they encounter more and different minerals than are present near the surface. The supposition is that the roots take up the flavors of these minerals and transmit them to the grapes. As I say, I’ve never seen absolute proof of this, but it sounds right, and certainly, my wine reviews over many years substantiate the theory. Minerality gives wine additional structure. It’s not a taste, exactly, but a sensation, like the feeling of touching steel with your tongue. And I always find this minerality in mountain Cabs from both Napa and Alexander Valley.
For example, I once reviewed the Vineyard 7 & 8 Cabernet, from the 2008 vintage. I gave it a generous 96 points and wrote that “It startles for the intensity of mountain blackberries and raspberries, and then a firm minerality kicks in, along with the tannins, providing grounding structure.” This is to cite but a single example: I could come up with hundreds of others. Vineyard 7&8 is located about 2,000 feet up on Spring Mountain, which is on the Napa side of the Mayacamas range, about the same alltitude as the Stonestreet Cabs grown on the Alexander Valley side of the Mayacamas. This language of “intense,” “firm minerality,” “tannic,” and “grounding structure,” can in fact be applied to any great Mayacamas Cabernet, from either Alexander Valley or Napa Valley. They describe the terroir signature of Mayacamas Cabernet.
However, one of the chief differences – perhaps THE chief distinction – between Alexander Valley and Napa Valley Cabernet is the tannins. In 2003, when I was writing my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, I asked Jordan’s winemaker, Rob Davis, to set up a blind tasting of Cabs from both Alexander Valley and Napa Valley. From Alexander Valley we had Jordan, Simi Reserve, Silver Oak, Alexander Valley Vineyards Cyrus, Stonestreet Christopher’s Vineyard and Robert Young Scion. From Napa Valley we had Phelps Insignia, Chateau Montelena, Quintessa and Far Niente. When the brown bags were taken off the bottles, it was clear to all of us that the chief difference was the quality of the tannins.
How to describe that difference? Alexander Valley tannins are dustier and softer than in Napa. They’re more fine-grained, but they’re also a little more chewy, not as ripe as in Napa Valley. It’s something you can feel in the mouth. I think in the past Alexander Valley tannins used to be clunkier than Napa’s, which is part of the reason why Alexander Valley earned a reputation as more rustic than Napa. But a modern Alexander Valley Cabernet is not a rustic wine.
If I had to describe these Alexander Valley tannins in a single phrase, I’d call them more astringent than in Napa Valley. But this description requires fine-tuning on my part. To begin with, Napa Cabernet is frequently a very tannic wine – more tannic than Bordeaux. But Napa tannins are so lush, finely-ground and smooth that most of the wines, even the mountain Cabs, can be enjoyed in youth. Alexander Valley mountain Cabs by contrast are tougher in youth, and probably more ageable. This is because of the cooler conditions in Alexander Valley, especially in the mountains. A good example is another wine I reviewed, Stonestreet 2007 Monument Ridge Cabernet, which comes from the winery’s Stonestreet Estate Vineyard. I scored it at 96 points and want to read my entire review, because it’s instructive:
“A dramatic wine, authoritative in tannins, bone dry and noble. Withholds its best under a cloak of astringency, but already shows its mountain terroir in the complexity of its structure and deep, intense blackberry, currant, blueberry and dried herb flavors. Should develop bottle complexities for at least a decade and probably longer.”
Let’s break this down. I referred to the “cloak of astringency.” This is, of course, the tannins. Winemakers on the Alexander Valley side of the Mayacamas will tell you that tannin management is their most formidable challenge. Fortunately, they’ve achieved a variety of ways to manage those tannins, but still, tannic intensity is often the first thing you notice about these Cabernets, or maybe the second thing – after the initial fruity intensity, the astringency kicks in.
I spoke, too, of “dried herbs.” This herbaceousness, in addition to the tannins, is a key differentiator between Cabs from Napa and Alexander Valley. The upper stretches of the Mayacamas on the Alexander Valley side are sparse in plant life, and only the hardiest, most drought-resistant things can grow up there. This is high Chaparrel country: Manzanita, live oak, Bay laurel, pepperwood, madrone, shrubby, scraggly bushes, lichens, anise weed, native grasses. These plants dry out in our summer droughts, scenting the air with spicy fragrance but also lending that herbaecousness to the wines. You don’t get this herbaceousness in Napa Valley side of the Mayacamas, the slopes above the Oakville and Rutherford benches. Those slopes are densely forested in redwood and pine because whatever water remains in storm clouds as they enter Napa from the west are wrung out by the Mayacamas peaks. They drop considerable amounts of rain on these Napa slopes before drying out as they pass eastward across the Napa Valley floor. This is why the Vaca Mountains are so barren and austere. In this, they’re similar to the west-facing slopes of the Mayacamas in Alexander Valley. Both sides are dry, and both get the full heat of the afternoon sun. Yet the Vacas, around Dalla Valle and Tierra Roja, are hotter, the soils are redder, and the wines are riper than anything in Alexander Valley.
So, overall, Alexander Valley Cabs tend to be drier, more elegantly structured and more ageable than Napa Valley Cabs, which are more dramatic and flashy. I think, also, that Alexander Valley Cabs are lower in alcohol, on average. I went over a great many of my reviews of both over the years, and this seems to be the case—although we know that the alcohol number on the label can be misleading.
Now, I want to move away from the inherent, objective qualities of the wines to considerations of perception and optics. We read much in the media that California Cabernet (as well as Pinot Noir) is undergoing a stylistic change, perhaps under pressure from the In Pursuit of Balance people. This new style is towards wines of lower alcohol and greater elegance. I don’t think there’s strong evidence of this stylistic shift in Napa Valley Cabernet, except with certain well-known examples such as Corison; nor is there any particular reason why Napa winemakers should change their style. Napa Cabernet isn’t broken: Why should they fix it? Parker established the template of ripe, rich, decadence, and Napans have no motive to switch horses.
Alexander Valley Cabernet, by contrast, is not well understood by the public, or by tastemakers, such as sommeliers and merchants. It’s so easy for people to understand Napa Cabernet. Everybody knows what it means: lush, New World deliciousness. With Sonoma, people have to do more work to understand it. Sonoma is complicated – it has all these little nooks and crannies, and the various sub-appellations can seem like a hodge-podge. Here’s a quote from a famous east coast wine critic; he wrote this in his column:
So who cares about Sonoma cabernet? Why, our wine panel! Contrarians by nature, we seek out the scorned and the ignored among regions and wines in hopes of finding surprising pleasures and fine values. This critic was being facetious, or so he thought; but in fact his words reveal a certain attitude towards Sonoma Cabernet that is widespread among tastemakers, if somewhat unconscious. This is at the root, I think, of why some gatekeepers who taste Sonoma Cabernet (which is usually Alexander Valley Cabernet) contrast it unfavorably with Napa Cabernet. They bring that attitude to the winetasting experience, and, behold, they experience what they thought they would. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the end, I think that Alexander Valley Cabernet does offer an alternative to Napa Valley Cabernet—but only if its winemakers understand that their terroir is distinctive, and they don’t try to replicate Napa Valley. And I say these things not because I work for Jackson Family Wines and we’re at Stonestreet. After all, Jackson Family Wines also owns such Napa wineries as La Jota, Lokoya, Mt. Brave, Freemark Abbey and Cardinale. I am hopeful that the new direction in California wine that is being suggested in so many quarters is real, and that we can end decades of marching towards a sameness of style to enter into a new period of authentic, terroir-based wine.