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New wine review: A Lambrusco from Cameron Hughes


Cameron Hughes Non-Vintage “Soft Red Wine” Lot 841 Lambrusco (Reggiano); $15. Few wines illustrate the heterogeneity of the American public’s taste in wine more than this one. Some people will love it; others won’t. Count me among the latter, but that’s not a diss of the wine so much as an expression of my personal taste. To me, sparkling wine should be pale and elegant, not purple and rather heavy, as this one is. I also prefer dryness in sparklers, and this has a sweet, candied edge. So much of what we like about individual wines, though, depends on we’ve been exposed to, and it may be that my lack of experience with sparkling Lambrusco accounts for my reaction.

As for the wine, it is sparkling, but isn’t particularly fizzy. The froth is barely there, a slight prickliness. Underneath is fulsome fruit: cherries, strawberries, raspberries. The wine is very clean, and the alcohol level is very low, a mere 8.5%, making it by definition gulpable. It also has a bit of the carbonic zip of a young Beaujolais, for which it can be substituted at the table. No question but that it’s well made.

This is not a “serious” wine, if you know what I mean. It’s a “fun” wine, also an adjective that can be misunderstood. The price makes it attractive. The winery itself suggests pairing with charcuterie or hard cheeses; I can’t disagree. Make a platter of salumi (prosciutto, mortadella, salami), paté, olives, sharp cheddar or a hard Italian cheese (Bitto, Pecorino), carrots and zucchini, almonds, sourdough bread, roasted red peppers. Munch, relax, enjoy with friends, and don’t compare this wine with Champagne because it isn’t; but it is what it is. Score: 87 points.

New Wine Reviews: Lang and Reed


I was glad that Lang and Reed Napa Valley asked me to review three of their new releases, because I’ve always loved their wines, and because of my admiration for John Skupny. I remember “way back” when Lang & Reed started up by focusing on Cabernet Franc. It was a bold, risky thing for them to do. Most people thought of Cab Franc as a blending grape to go into Bordeaux blends dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. Cab Franc had long been, of course, a staple of Loire red wines, like Chinon, but was very little known on its own in America. I also remember when I used to visit the Sierra Foothills and taste their wines—this is going back to the 1990s and early 2000s–and concluding that Cabernet Franc was the emerging red wine from that region (Zinfandel was obviously the star).

But Cab Francs from Napa Valley were rare to the point of unicorns! Yet John was making fabulous ones. Now, after all these years, I’m glad to report he still is, and not just from Napa Valley. His “California” bottling is pretty darned good, and the Chenin Blanc is luscious.

Here are my reviews.

2018 Cabernet Franc (California); $29. All I could think of tasting this wine was food. Steak, braised ribs, duck, sausages, roasted chicken, or, if you’re not a meat-eater, a veggie meatloaf or omelet or quiche with mushrooms and spinach. Foods, in other words, that call for a red wine that’s medium-bodied, silky, spicy, fruity, softly tannic, slightly earthy and delicious. Which is exactly what this 100% Cab Franc is. More than 60% of the grapes came from the Sierra Foothills; the remaining fruit is from Alexander Valley and Napa Valley. A red wine like this does need some oak to temper it, but not much; in this case, the oak is what they call “seasoned.” This lovely wine will appeal to sommeliers in the best restaurants, not only for its inherent qualities but the price. Highly recommended. Score: 91 points.

2020 Chenin Blanc, Mendocino; $30. This white wine is deeply flavored, with peaches, pears, green melons, apples, tropical fruits and vanilla. But it’s super-balanced and dry, with excellent acidity and a bracing minerality. With just a touch of oak, it combines the richness of a fine Chardonnay with the creamy elegance of, say, a nice French sur lie Muscadet. There’s just a touch of almond-skin bitterness on the finish, but food will resolve it. The vineyard source is inland Mendocino (not coastal Anderson Valley), on the eastern side of the Russian River as it comes tumbling down from the highlands—an area hot during the day, but chilly at night. Complex enough to pair with fancy fare, like foie gras, spring rolls or—yum yum–oysters. But scrambled eggs for weekend brunch would be perfect in lieu of sparkling wine. A great price for a restaurant wine of this quality. Score: 90 points.

2017 Two-Fourteen Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley; $85. I really liked Lang & Reed’s 2018 California Cabernet Franc, but this is clearly a better wine, in several senses. It’s more deeply flavored. I find raspberry and black cherry purée, mocha, bacon, candied violets and sweet green peas, accented by a dark smokiness from oak. It’s also better structured, probably the result of its Napa Valley mountain origin. The balance of acidity and alcohol is just about perfect. With soft, pillowy tannins, it’s drinkable now at the age of 4 years, but I suspect it will benefit from a few more years in the cellar. Foodwise, the fanciness suggests high-quality fare. I’m not a big beef eater, but this beautiful wine might convince me to have a char-broiled Porterhouse at a white-tablecloth steakhouse. Score: 93 points.

My wine books and papers are going to U.C. Davis


The U.C. Davis School of Viticulture and Enology has asked me to donate some of my wine books and personal papers to them for permanent archiving or display, a request I’m pleased to comply with.

I have about 300 books of various kinds, assembled from the late 1970s until about 2010, when I pretty much stopped acquiring new ones. The U.C. Davis people asked me to identify which of my wine books have been the most influential on me. Here’s the list I sent them:

World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson

Gorman on California Premium Wines, Robert Gorman

California’s Great Cabernets, James Laube

The Wines of America, Leon Adams

Which Wine? Peter Sichel and Judy Ley Allen

Alexis Lichine’s New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits

Hugh Johnson’s Story of Wine

Gerald Asher on Wine

The Taste of Wine, Emile Peynaud

The Official Guide to Wine Snobbery, Leonard S. Bernstein

The Romance of Wine, H. Warner Allen

Notes on a Cellar-Book, George Saintsbury

California Wine, James Laube

The Great Vintage Wine Book, Michael Broadbent

The Wines of California, Roy Andries de Groot

The University of California-Sotheby Book of California Wine

The Wine Atlas of California and the Pacific Northwest, Bob Thompson [inscribed]

Vintage: The Story of Wine, Hugh Johnson

Secrets of the Sommeliers, Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay

The Complete Wine Book, Frank Schoonmaker and Tom Marvel

The Signet Encyclopedia of Wine, E. Frank Henriques

The Pocket Encyclopedia of California Wines, Bob Thompson

Drink, Andre Simon

Great Winemakers of California, Robert Benson

Wines, Julian Street

ABC of America’s Wines, Mary Frost Mabon

The Father of California Wine: Agoston Haraszthy, Edited by Theodore Schoenman

The Fine Wines of California, Hurst Hannum and Robert Blumberg

The Wines of Bordeaux, Edmund Penning-Rowsell

The Harry Waugh Wine Diaries: Diary of a Winetaster, Winetaster’s Choice, Harry Waugh’s Wine Diary 1982-1986, Pick of the Bunch

I’ve treasured all my wine books, but these have been the ones that most inspired and impacted me, and to which I have returned, again and again, to savor.

Among my papers are tasting notes assembled from roughly the same period, 1979-2010. They number about 10,000, and do not include some 50,000 wine reviews I did for Wine Enthusiast.

I kept every scrap of paper containing every note from the start.

I had no idea why, or what I would do with it all, only the thought that they were somehow worth keeping. (Maybe I had visions of Michael Broadbent’s “Great Vintage Wine Book” dancing in my head!) There were some grand tastings, that’s for sure. Among the more memorable were:

  • a vertical of Joseph Swan Pinot Noirs, 1972 through 1981, at Chez Panisse, for which Alice Waters prepared salmon with Champagne butter and grilled lamb with fava beans and potatoes
  • a Taylor Fladgate vertical going back to 1948 (very great wine)
  • the 1991 vintage in Germany, covering about 400 wines; that tasting severely burned away the enamel on my teeth!
  • An April, 1993 vertical of all seven “great growths” of Bordeaux, including the 1947 Cheval Blanc. This was with Bill Newsom, the late father of our Governor
  • Speaking of Gov. Newsom, I also have the reviews from a half-year of tasting with him to select the wines his new Plump Jack wine shop would offer. Young Gavin drew up the charts in his own hand; the notes themselves are in my handwriting.
  • A Leoville-Las-Cases vertical, 1928-1988, conducted by the renowned collector, Dr. Overton, at the old ANA hotel in San Francisco
  • The 1991 vintage from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
  • A fascinating tasting of the five First Growths of Bordeaux from both the 1990 and 1982 vintages
  • A Gaja tasting, always a treat. This was primarily the 1988, 1989 and 1990 vintages.
  • A “California mountain wines” tasting, by Andy Blue’s old Bon Appetit tasting panel, which held such monumental tastings back in the day. I will always remember this particular one because it taught me an important lesson. I had tasted the 1979 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon (this was in winter, 1990), and wrote, “Inky black, orange at rim. Dead? Raisined note. Massive tannins either hiding it all, or the wine is gone.” Unable to make up my mind concerning such a famous wine, I turned to two of my colleagues. Jim Laube said, “91 points, hold 5 or 6 years,” while Andy Blue entirely agreed with me that the wine was over the hill. The lesson I learned: even professionals can disagree. Trust your own instincts.

Classifying Cabernet? I don’t think so


The University of California at Davis’s Department of Viticulture and Enology asked me to donate my wine books and paraphernalia to them for permanent display, which I’m honored to do. As part of it, they want me to identify the books that were most important to me.

One of them was certainly California’s Great Cabernets, the 1989 tome by Wine Spectator’s Jim Laube, my former colleague. It was, and remains, “a landmark book,” as Marvin Shanken described it in his Foreward. I devoured every word, as I suspect a lot of other Baby Boomer wine fans did, back in the day when California wine, and Cab in particular, was dramatically increasing in importance.

There is, however, one aspect of California’s Great Cabernets that has not aged well. Jim decided to classify the Cabs into five categories: First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Growths. He justified this for two reasons: “I hope to put the top California Cabernets…in historical perspective.” And “I have tried to sort out for consumers the quality of the wines and how they rank.” Jim himself conceded that such an effort is controversial and is “resisted” by “most California vintners.” While modeling his 5-tier system after the 1855 Classification of the Medoc, Jim admitted that the Bordeaux classification is “outdated,” and he predicted, accurately, that no classification “will ever be undertaken by the California wine industry.” Still, despite these provisos, he went ahead and classified anyway.

Jim wasn’t the only writer of the era to attempt a classification. Seven years previously, Roy Andries De Groot wrote The Wines of California, which he subtitled “The first classification of the best vineyards and wineries.” Roy opted for a four-tiered system, using not numbers but adjectives: “FINE, NOBLE, SUPERB and GREAT.”

I loved both books, but even at the time, I had an uneasy feeling. The Bordeaux 1855 Classification had centuries of data upon which to depend, and was moreover fixed by law. California Cabernet, in the 1980s, had barely a few decades of serious production, and was in a state of constant evolution; my old friend Rob Thompson said keeping track of California wineries was like trying to count “rabbits in a hutch.” Many of today’s superstars (Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Bryant Family, Colgin and so on) didn’t even exist at the time, while others that Laube and De Groot praised have faded away completely, or been downgraded by new owners.

Still, as historical curiosities, both books have their place. Speaking of Cabernet Sauvignon, I opened this bottle recently, and here’s my review:

Stags’ Leap 2013 “The Leap” Cabernet Sauvignon (Stags Leap).  Tasting this wine reminded me of those 19th century clarets I’ve read about that remained stubbornly tannic for decades. It was wicked of me to pop the cork when the wine is only eight years old; I should have known better. That’s awfully young for a Cabernet, particularly from Stags Leap, where the tannins tend to be hard in youth. But open it I did, and what I found was a flood of fruit. Massive, gigantic in black currants, blackberry jam, mu shu plum sauce and raspberries, with subtle nuances of espresso, dark chocolate and spices. Dry and smooth, just a splendid wine, but I’m kicking myself for committing vinous infanticide. It’s nowhere near ready. Will the fruit outlive the tannins by, say, 2030? Will it be alive in 2040? Who knows? I won’t be here. Score: 93.

On massive Cabernet Sauvignons


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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