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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.


Wine rating systems: time for a change

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I spent the better part of 30 years living and working in 100-point land: the wine-rating system used by my two former employers, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, as well as by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.

The 100-point system surely is the most popular in the world. It has survived decades of often fierce criticism. Critics said it was arbitrary and capricious, that it presented itself as scientific when it was anything but, that it had a deleterious effect on wine style because the most powerfully extracted, oakiest wines got the highest scores. All these things were true, but the 100-point system proved remarkably robust. When I retired from formal wine tasting eight years ago, it dominated the market, and, as far as I can tell, it still does.

The 100-point system looks like it’s here to stay, at least in America. There’s nothing looming on the horizon to replace it. Oh, sure, a new generation of wine drinkers has increasingly turned to peer-reviewing on social media; they no longer care what some (usually white) wine critic says, and that’s fine. But in that sense, the market may be ahead of the industry. Winery P.R. communications continue to tout high scores (anything over 90 points) in their campaigns. As long as that’s the case, wine samples will continue to be mailed to wine critics, who will continue to publish reviews using the 100-point system, which will continue to be touted by winery P.R. people, and on and on…It’s a cycle, and like most cycles, it’s hard to stop.

But a new development in China throws all this into an interesting perspective. Mike Veseth, the respected wine economist, just published an issue of “The Wine Economist” that reports on “China’s 10-Point Scale.” That gigantic country apparently is launching an official, national rating system of 10 points that will “score…each wine on the market taking into consideration…Chinese tastes, cuisine, and culture.” The new system is being rolled out in stages. It was introduced late last year, but The Drinks Business publication reports it “is not yet compulsory for all wines sold inside China [and] may serve as a base for formulating a national [wine] recommendation system.” That article quoted a Chinese expert as predicting that, eventually, “[the] majority of wines sold in China will adopt this system.”

Now that I’m not living and working in 100-point land, I have the benefit of hindsight about the 100-point system that provided such a nice job for me for so long. And the more I think about it, the sillier it seems to be. I used to be quite sincere when people asked how I could determine the difference between, say, 87 points and 88 points.. I would say, “Easy. To me, it’s obvious.” And I could go into great detail, if they wanted. At the same time, I always admitted that, if I tasted the same wine (from different bottles) on separate occasions, chances were good that I’d give it different scores. But, I argued, in general the scores would be close together. In the end, I always said, a wine review ought to be looked at as the taster’s impression of that wine, at a particular moment in time, and consumers were free to accept, reject or ignore the review.

Nowadays, I often cringe when I see how wine scores are used. There are so many critics across this land (and elsewhere) that a P.R. person has her pick of dozens of reviews to use in an advertisement. We, the consumer, often don’t know the qualifications of the reviewer, or the circumstances under which he reviewed the wine (blind? Open?), nor do we always know with precision what the relationship is between reviewer and winery. Has the reviewer been paid? These are important considerations. (Of course, the new Chinese system suffers, I would think, from the same drawbacks.) I turn to critics and scores to inform my own buying decisions, but I always feel a little guilty about it. I wish that all numerical rating systems would go away, and be replaced by something more esthetically satisfying: a short essay, for example, that showed real writerly qualities.

I think there’s a place for more intelligent, nuanced wine reviewing. As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s going to be a different world. After all these months of sheltering in place, people may well be more reflective, and less reflexive. I know that social media tends to work in the opposite direction, making people think less; but here and there I pick up on clues that younger people are getting tired of social media. They’re reading more books and spending less time scrolling through meaningless Twitter feeds. I’m hoping to see new publications emerge that treat wine consumers as intelligent, thinking adults, instead of like cows lining up for silage.


New Wine Reviews: En Garde

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En Garde Winery, which is based in Kenwood (Sonoma Valley), produces solid Pinot Noirs from the Sonoma Coast/Russian River Valley. Venturing into Napa Valley, the winery also makes stellar Cabernets from Diamond Mountain, part of the Mayacamas range on Napa’s western side. The En Garde style is thoroughly modern: soft, complex tannins, plenty of upfront fruit, and elegant.

2016 Touché Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $180. To my way of thinking this is the En Garde new Cab for the cellar. The ’16 Le Bijou [see below] has more varietal Cabernet Sauvignon (99% compared to 95%), but the Touché is far more tannic. I don’t know why, but it’s apparent on the palate: tough as nails, with that hard astringency that’s almost old-style in its impenetrable mystery. Bone dry, too, despite the impeccably sweet core of blackcurrants. There’s plenty of new oak, too: you can tell from the vanilla, and that smoky wood char that marries so well with the fruit. Altogether a first-class wine: elegant in structure despite the power, and—if it’s not too much of a stretch—delicate. We need to recognize the official alcohol reading: 15.7%. Yes, that’s high. It’s a heady wine. But there’s no unwarranted heat—the wine’s power balances it out. The alcohol is simply part of the wine’s personality. Vintage Port ages; this Cabernet Sauvignon should too. Stash it for six years and see what happens. Score: 95 points.

2016 Le Bijou du Roi Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $120. I’ve always liked En Garde’s Bijou for its sumptuous flavors. You’d think a mountain wine that’s 99% Cabernet Sauvignon, particularly from Diamond Mountain which is infamous for hard tannins, would be astringent in youth, but no. This one’s so softly delicious, it’s drinkable now. Waves of ripe, sweet blackcurrants and raisin pudding, with notes of licorice, spice and wood smoke, flood together in a complex mélange that lasts through a long finish. There’s a bit of heat from alcohol (15.5%), but that’s the En Garde style; you either like it, or you don’t. I do, especially with a superb steak, or as an after-dinner, Port-style sipper. Score: 94 points.

2017 Reserve Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $70. This is a blend of the Starkey Hill and Pleasant Hill vineyards, and shows the same exuberant fruit: juicy raspberries and cherries, with some riper notes of red currants that mark the finish. It also has a bit more new oak, just enough to give that rich steak of vanilla and toast. The acidity is quite tart (0.65 TA) and stings me; the wine really needs the softening effect of food to tame it. Of all the Pinots, this is the one I’d give cellar time to—say, six years in a good cellar. Yet, if you’re drinking it now, the wine gets much more interesting as you move from “critical” mode into “enjoyment” mode, as there’s real complexity here. Score: 93 points.

2018 Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); $50. At only 1-1/2 years of age, this Pinot is taut and tight, offering little pleasure now. The acidity is fierce, while the tannins are a bit brusque, and the finish is very, very dry. There’s a solid core of cherry-raspberry fruit and savory spice, and oak has been modestly applied; still, the toughness dominates. The alcohol level is lower than I remember from past vintages—under 14%–which lets the delicacy of Pinot Noir show through. The overall impression is one of austerity, almost rustic, although elegant enough. So is this an ager? I’d be lying if I guaranteed it. No problem in keeping it for a couple years, but if you drink it now, decant it first to let it breathe. Score: 89 points.

2018 Starkey Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $60. This single-vineyard bottling is considerably more opulent and generous than En Garde’s regular ’18 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. Made from grapes grown in Sebastopol, it shows a rich array of cherry, raspberry and date fruits, wrapped into silky tannins touched with a bit of new French oak. The acidity is fine and refreshing; the finish is spicy and dry. On the downside is some heat from alcohol of 15.4%. This is the sort of thing that will annoy some people while leaving others untroubled. I, personally, don’t care, if the tradeoff of high alcohol is richness. I doubt if there’s much ageworthiness here, but who cares? It’s delicious to drink now. Score: 91 points.

2017 Pleasant Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $60. Although this Pinot is a year older than En Garde’s 2018 Starkey Hill, it’s pretty much an identical twin. You’ll find the same ripe fruits of cherries and raspberries, and the same vanilla spice from new oak. The tannins are silky and smooth, the acidity fine. All in all, this 2017 Pleasant Hill is a sumptuous wine that will pair nicely with Pinot-friendly food: steak, lamb, wild mushroom risotto. Score: 90 points.


Wine Reviews: Lightpost

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I’ve been asked to review several wines from Lightpost Winery, a new brand headquartered on the California Central Coast. The winemaker is Christian Roguenant, whom I knew and respected as the guiding light behind such brands as Baileyana and Tangent—Central Coast wineries that produced excellent cool-climate reds and whites.

Here are my reviews.

Lightpost 2018 Albarino (Edna Valley); $37. Just what you want in an Albariño: bone dry, crisp, and lightly fruity. This is the perfect palate cleanser: it scours everything in its path, like a waterfall of melted snow. Savory, subtle flavors: tropical fruits, Asian pear, white flowers, and a delicate, sea-shelly minerality. And no oak! It’s not needed. The Edna Valley, a cool, Pacific-influenced growing region in San Luis Obispo County, is perfect for these white wine varieties like Albarino. With modest alcohol and searing acidity (a good thing), it’s absolutely lovely, and so food-friendly. Drink now and over the next few years. Score: 92 points.

Lightpost 2018 Pinot Noir (San Luis Obispo County); $49. Here’s a delicious Pinot Noir for drinking now. It’s translucent, with a clear ruby color that you can actually read through, which suggests the lightness on the palate. The tannins are delicately silky, the acidity as fine as a coastal climate can give. But it’s the flavors that impress: the most succulent cherries and raspberries, along with a nice earthy, spicy, mushroomy quality, and a rich vein of smoky, vanilla-tinged oak. Some of the grapes come from the Laetitia Vineyard, in the Santa Maria Valley. The remainder are from Edna Valley. So gulpable, you might want to drain the whole bottle. Score: 91 points.

Lightpost 2018 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $58. A blend of several vineyards in the cooler, western parts of the valley, the 2018 is made from classic Dijon clones: 667, 777 and 115. The wine shows the pure, clean fruitiness associated with these clones: raspberries, pomegranates, cherries and cola. The color is pale, suggesting a certain delicacy, and it does feel light and silky in the mouth. With official alcohol of 14.9%, there’s a trace of heat, but the right food will balance it. There’s also a lot of new oak, 50% new French, but it integrates nicely with the fruit. This is a vigorous, fresh, young wine. The acidity is perfect: stimulating and lively, while the silky tannins are what you expect from a Russian River Pinot. A lovely wine that drinks well now, but should gain a little more bottle complexity in three or four years. Score: 91 points.

Lightpost 2017 Chardonnay (Santa Cruz Mountains); $45. At the age of 2-1/2 years, this complex Chard is a little tired, but it’s fine to drink now. It’s smooth and mellow, with apricot, tropical fruit and citrus flavors. Burgundian technique adds complexities: one-quarter new French oak aging for nearly a year brings the usual butterscotch and smoke notes, complete malolactic fermentation gives a creamy texture, and there’s a lovely touch of yeasty lees. I doubt if this ’17 Chardonnay has a future, but it will provide pleasure over the next year or two. Score: 90 points.

Lightpost 2017 Classic Red Wine (Central Coast); $65. This dark, deeply flavored wine is a throwback to the lusty field blends of the past. With thick tannins and robust flavors, it’s a good complement to pasta with tomato sauce, barbecue, pizza. Savory black pepper spice is the dominant note. Below that, an array of stewed blackberries and plums, a pleasant floweriness, and the chewiness of beef jerky. The finish is thoroughly dry, and while the alcohol level is fairly high (15.65%), the wine is free of excessive heat. A Rhône-style blend based on Grenache, Syrah and Carignan, its grapes were grown throughout the Central Coast, from Contra Costa down to Paso Robles and the Edna Valley. Oak aging, in the form of 50% new wood for 29 months, provides balancing sweet vanilla and toast. This is a solid wine for drinking now, although the price seems high. Score: 88 points.

Lightpost 2018 Spanish Springs Chardonnay (San Luis Obispo County); $42. Oak, oak and more oak is the overwhelming impression here. Buried beneath all that toasted wood, butterscotch and vanilla is a perfectly decent wine: citrusy, tropically and crisp, with a fine streak of minerality and a nice touch of lees. But the oak is so dominant, it’s hard to hear the song the grapes want to sing. Score: 84 points


A wine review, and an Overview of Napa Cabernet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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