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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…


PinotFest 2019: Reviews and an Appreciation

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You can take the boy out of the wine critic business, but you can’t take wine criticism out of the boy…or something like that. All of which is to say that, although I’ve been happily retired for years, I still love wine tasting. It’s given me pleasure since the 1970s; why stop now?

PinotFest is a big event in San Francisco, especially since In Pursuit of Balance went out of business. It’s the annual Pinot Noir tasting, held at Farallon Restaurant, to benefit The Watershed Project, which seeks to protect the vulnerable, fragile watersheds of the Bay Area. So you not only get to taste some terrific Pinot Noirs, you also help the environment! (And thanks to Peter Palmer for always inviting me.)

One thing that’s so much fun about tasting wine is to experience how different two wines can be even when they’re grown in close physical proximity. For example, the Byron 2014 Julia’s Vineyard (94 points) and the Foxen 2016 Bien Nacido Vineyard Block 8 (92 points) were grown within about 400 yards of each other; both vineyards are on the Santa Maria Bench. And yet the wines are utterly different: the Foxen big, dark, ripe and juicy, loaded with fruit, while the Julia’s is pale in color, delicate and pure, with a tea slant to the fruit. Granted, the Byron is two years older, and the clones and vine age are different. But Bien Nacido Pinots always show this power, while Julia’s tends towards elegance. Incidentally, Foxen’s co-owner, Dick Doré, was doing the pouring honors. Great to see him looking so good.

At the same time, the Foxen 2016 Julia’s (93 points) was very close in style to the Byron ’14: pale-colored and delicate, with tea, spice and raspberry flavors. It gave me great pleasure to see these two Julias drinking so well, as that was a vineyard I was fond of even before I went to work for Jackson Family Wines. During my tenure there, I spent a lot of time in the vineyard, and watched the Jackson team work very hard to refurbish the Julia’s Pinot Noirs (which had been selling for very inexpensive prices) and boost the quality. It was crazy to name an under-$20 Pinot Noir for Jess Jackson’s and Barbara Banke’s daughter, Julia; surely that wine deserved more attention and a higher price, both of which it now has. Julia—a lovely person, who recently lost her home in the Kincade Fire—must be proud to see her namesake wines doing so well.

It also was lovely to have Byron’s winemaker, Jonathan Nagy, pour for me. I got to know Jonathan well while I worked for the Jacksons, and you couldn’t ask for a nicer man, as well as a more accomplished winemaker. He poured me the Byron 2012 Monument Pinot Noir (93 points), from the Nielsen Vineyard, on the Santa Maria Bench hard-by Julia’s. At the age of seven years, it was really beautiful: perfectly aged, a supple, lively mouthful of Pinot Noir goodness.

A few tables down from Byron’s was Calera. Now, one of the first stories I ever was assigned when I wrote for Wine Spectator was on Calera. I remember the long drive down and up into the isolated hills above Hollister, where the owner/winemaker, Josh Jensen, did me the honors of touring and tasting. Josh and I both are older now; the first thing he told me was, “I’ve retired.” Good for you, Josh: join the club! He poured me his 2016 Jensen Vineyard (94 points), from Mount Harlan, a wonderful wine. I wrote “Shows the spice and fruit and balance of this famous vineyard, but very young. Needs time.” While I was with him, Josh had me taste his 2016 Central Coast (90 points), which retails for $29. It reminded me of the old Central Coast bottling of Ken Volk’s Wild Horse Pinot Noir (a tremendously successful restaurant wine in its day), rich, fruity and racy, with some real complexity, and a good value.

Reverting back to my Santa Barbara County theme, I wandered over to Au Bon Climat’s table, hoping to catch Jim Clendenen. Sadly, he wasn’t there, but I tasted his 2016 Bien Nacido “Historic Vineyard Collection” (95 points). I last tasted that wine in the 2010 vintage, when I gave it 96 points.

I’ve always admired ABC’s wines, and this one didn’t let me down. It somehow combined that fruity power of Bien Nacido with Jim’s ability to wring elegance and translucence out of his wines. A superb Pinot Noir that will improve with time.

Etude was there, admittedly not a Santa Barbara County winery but a famous Carneros one. I used to admire their Heirloom Pinots, even as I recognized they can be bruisers when young: thick and a little heavy, loaded with fruit. So I tried the 2016 Heirloom (90 points). Yes, it was still like that. “A bit rude,” I wrote. I’d love to try some of these Heirlooms when they’ve acquired, say, 15 years of age, but I never have and probably never will.

When I saw Kathy Joseph presiding over the Fiddlehead table, I beelined over. I have fond memories of Kathy: once, when I visited her vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills, she made me a lunch of homemade tacos (I think beef, but they could have been chicken) and served one of her Pinot Noirs. It was fabulous: a perfect pairing, simple and delicious, and of course the fact that I was sitting with the winemaker, in the middle of the vineyard where the wine was made, added to the charm. Her Fiddlehead 2013 Lollopalloza, Fiddlestix Vineyard (94 points), was drinking very well, turning the age corner a little bit, but dry, crisp, subtle and complex. “Superb!” I wrote. Kathy’s 2014 Seven Twenty Eight bottling (89 points) is a sort of poor man’s Lollapalooza, a perfectly drinkable, fruity wine for drinking now.

There was a winery there I’d never heard of, Lando. They started up in 2012, the year I retired from formal reviewing and went over to Jackson Family Wines. The Lando 2017 Russian River Valley (92 points) was classic, with masses of red berries and fruits, root beer and spices, with good acidity and lots of class. The 2017 Sonoma Coast (93 points), which I believe is Petaluma Gap, appealed to me slightly more, with bright acidity and bright fruit. “Super yummy!” I wrote (that’s winespeak for delicious).

Finally, I just had to stop by Siduri’s table to pay my respects to the great Adam Lee, more white-haired than last I saw him but, hey, at least he has hair! I’d known Adam before I went to work for Jackson Family Wines, which bought Siduri in early 2015. In fact, I’d profiled Adam (and his wife, Dianna) in my 2008 book, New Classic Winemakers of California, so when Adam joined the Jackson team, I was delighted. He was pouring his 2018 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir (89 points), a blend of Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills. A nice, fruity wine with some class, and easy to drink. Far better was Siduri’s 2016 John Sebastiani Vineyard Pinot Noir (92 points), from the Santa Rita Hills. “A huge wine,” I wrote, “tons of fruit. Could be more delicate, but fresh and savory.” (As I write these words, I ask myself if it’s fair to expect a “huge” wine to be “delicate,” as these terms seem oxymoronic. Maybe that’s the essence of a great wine: it combines contradictory qualities.)

Here’s to California Pinot Noir and the wonderful women and men who produce it! Salud!


Reviews: Four wines from Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite)

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Reviewing Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends from around the world requires a certain juggling skill: you have to compare each wine as you judge it according to some standard, but what standard? Is a superripe Napa wine the ne plus ultra? Or a dry, elegant Bordeaux? You see the problem. I’ve given very high scores to ripe Napa Cabs, which was my tour d’horizon; but at the same time, I could always appreciate the comparatively drier, leaner charms of Bordeaux; and I never felt compelled to have to make a Solomonesque choice between them.

If anything, over the years my preferences have veered away from the superripe Napa style to a drier, more streamlined wine. I can’t explain why; it just is; palates change over time. Bordeaux teases, titillates, makes me look further. A superripe Napa Cab reveals everything right away, and can become tedious. Bordeaux keeps you searching.

I was sent the following four wines from the Domaines Barons de Rothschild for review. The DBR is the parent company of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. They make different wines from around the world. These four (three reds, one white) from DBR all would be expected to adhere to the standards of Lafite, which is to say: impeccable balance, dryness, and Old World elegance. Do the wines rise to this standard?

Caro 2016 (Mendoza); $65.This is a partnership between DBR and the Catena family of Argentina. The wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and that Argentinian specialty, Malbec. I think of it an Argentine Opus One, which of course is a Napa Valley partnership between Robert Mondavi and the Mouton Rothschilds. The most salient fact about this wine is the alcohol level: 13.5%. You almost can’t find a Napa Cab that low. This means that the blackberry-currant fruit has a definite herbal character: also that mouthwatering acidity is pronounced. The overall impression is dry, smoothly tannic, complex. I loved sipping this wine. It offers something new every time. Now it seems sweet, now austere. This yin-yang keeps you coming back. Ageworthy? I suppose so, but why bother? Drink it now and over the next six years. Score: 93.

Chateau d’Aussieres 2016 (Corbieres); $38. I drank a lot of Corbieres back in the 80s and 90s.The wines were good and affordable; not many Americans knew about them. DBR, in the person of Eric de Rothschild, invested in the area in 1999, his vision (according to DBR’s marketers) to create wines crafted in the spirit of the South of France.” The wine, true to that spirit, is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Carignan. But it differs significantly from the memory of wines of my younger years in two respects: first, it’s much oakier, and more tannic. What I liked about those Corbieres of yesteryear was their immediate and delicious drinkability. This 2016, by contrast, is inky black and quite tannic. Yet it displays a vast depth of fruit: blackberries and blueberries at the height of summer ripeness, black licorice, a wild, animal flavor of beef teriyaki, and a sprinkling of clove and black pepper. A wine like this presents challenges. Do you drink it now, or cellar it and, if so, for how long? My own guess is to pop the cork now and over the next four years. I do have to say that this impressive wine lifts Corbieres to a new level. Score: 93.

Le Dix de Los Vascos 2015 (Colchagua); $65. Le Dix is the “grand cuvée” of Los Vascos, whose wines are widely available, at everyday prices, in American shops. My first impression, sniffing the wine, was, “Wow. Oaky.” And in fact, it was aged for 18 months in new oak, according to the Los Vasco website. The blend is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, with Syrah and Carmenere; the official alcohol reading is 14.5%. At four years old, the wine is a bit too young to drink now. The oak hasn’t yet been integrated into the fruit; all the parts (and they’re very good parts) are a bit scattered. But that fruit is considerable: a rich, ripe mélange of raspberries and cherries, not the usual, darker and heavier Cabernet blackberries and cassis. There also are spicy notes, a zippy orange zest brightness, and a refreshing, grippy minerality. The tannins are what you’d expect from a winery that can afford the highest viticultural and enological practices: thick, but ultra-smooth and sweet. It’s certainly a flashy wine, with a long finish, and quite irresistible. But as good as it is, it would really be a shame to open the bottle now. Better to store it in a good cellar and give it, say, another 4-5 years. That gorgeous fruit isn’t going away anytime soon. Score: 94.

Rieussec 2018 “R” (Bordeaux Blanc); $44. Chateau Rieussec is a 1er Grand Cru in Sauternes, and consistently produces one of the great dessert wines of the world. This is their dry white wine version, although it qualifies only for the Bordeaux Blanc appellation. Made from the same grapes (Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon) as the Sauternes, it’s a very fine wine. I was immediately struck by the dryness. You rarely if ever get this linearity in California (my old territory), where rich fruit is the name of the game. There’s subtle fruit here (tropical, citrus) but the main impression is minerality and white pepper. Streamlined, elegant and complex, it’s a delight to sip. Incidentally, I saw this wine on wine.com for $33. The price I quote, $44, is from DBR. Score: 93.


Wine Reviews: ICAN wines in a can

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I have absolutely nothing in principle against wine in cans, especially white wines and rosés that need to be refrigerated. There’s no reason not to put such wines in cans. Aluminum cans are recyclable; they reduce your carbon footprint; they help, in a small way, to heal our planet. Only snobs would object to a good wine just because it’s in a can, instead of a bottle.

I’ve always been in favor of alternative packaging. I remember when screwtops were introduced. Tangent, a Central Coast producer, was one of the early adapters, and I loved their white wines. I was glad to see an important winery making the argument for alternative closures, and I was glad when ICAN Wines asked me to review two of their wines in 375 ml. aluminum cans.

ICAN is from Mercer Family Vineyards, in the Horse Heaven Hills of Washington State. I’ve never had any of their wines (since California was my bailiwick), but I looked their scores up on Wine Enthusiast’s website, and saw that the Washington reviewer has consistently given Mercer scores in the mid- to high Eighties, which, considering their price, isn’t bad.

ICAN’s wines, according to their website, also are sourced from Horse Heaven Hills vineyards. I’ve traveled through that area: located midway between Portland, on the coast, and Walla Walla, it’s part of the huge Columbia Valley appellation, and received its own AVA status in 2005. It’s home to some very prestigious wineries, including Quilceda Creek.

ICAN sent me two wines, a Chardonnay and a Rosé. Here are my reviews. I wanted to like the wines more than I did, unfortunately. If Mercer can boost the quality of these wines, they’d really have something!

ICAN Non-Vintage Chardonnay (Washington State); $5.95/375 ml. The winery chooses to list the appellation as “Washington State,” despite their assertion that the grapes are from Horse Heaven Hills. That’s cool: few people have heard of Horse Heaven Hills, and everyone’s heard of Washington State, so I get it: but if wineries in these smaller AVAs don’t promote them, the public will continue to be ignorant of them.

Anyhow, as for the wine, it’s pretty bland. Vaguely fruity, it shows candied pineapple and peach flavors that thin out on a watery finish. It’ll do in a pinch, but I can’t really say it’s a good value, since the 750 ml. equivalent is nearly $12. You can do better at that price. Score: 83 points.

ICAN Non-Vintage Rosé (Washington State); $5.95/375 ml. Like the Chardonnay, the can bears a Washington State appellation. It has a very pale, partridge-eye color. There’s not much of an aroma. Taste-wise, there are strawberry and orange Lifesaver flavors, with a nice spiciness, and a refreshing bite of acidity. The finish is dry, but watery. The wine is clean, but simple. As with the Chardonnay, I wish the price was lower. Score: 84 points.


New Wine Reviews: Cameron Hughes

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I don’t know if Cameron Hughes invented his California business model, which is to buy wine from other wineries who, for one reason or another, need to get rid of it for immediate income. Then Cameron slaps his own label on it, gives it a Lot number, does some publicity, and sells it, at a fraction of the original purported price. (Wineries, including some very famous, expensive ones, get rid of unwanted inventory more frequently than the public is aware of; this is perhaps the industry’s, or at least Napa Valley’s, most closely-guarded secret.) But if Cameron didn’t invent this model, he perfected it and gave it a face; and I have to assume it, and he, are doing well.

I remember, shortly after he launched, Cameron invited me for lunch here in Oakland (at Oliveto), where, over several glasses of wine, he explained his business model. I was impressed. He never reveals which wineries the wines are from, but he hints at top vineyards and famous wineries. Although I never had any reason to doubt this, as a journalist, it bothered me: the real source of the wines was unsubstantiated, so we’re left to take Cameron’s word for it. That left the wines to speak for themselves—and I must say they often spoke eloquently. As I was to find out over the years, Cameron Hughes’ wines could be amazing values.

The winery recently sent me some new releases for review, which I’m happy to share with you.

Cameron Hughes 2017 Lot 683 Zinfandel (Sierra Foothills): $10. The Sierra Foothills, a vast swath of eastern California running down from the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, is one of the great growing regions for Zinfandel. With very hot summer days, the grapes get ripe, but cool nights, from downdrafts off the snow-clad peaks, preserve vital acidity. You’re always going to get fairly high alcohol in a Foothills Zin; this one’s 15%, which not only results in an enormously fruity wine but also gives it some heat. Raspberries, cherries, roasted coffee, raisins, vanilla and a fabulous range of spices—what a delicious Zin. Yet it’s not at all heavy; you can almost read through the ruby translucence. And the tannins are soft and silky. Lots of charm here, and lots of Zinny character. I think of all sorts of foods: barbecue, baked ham, roast lamb, pasta in a creamy tomato sauce, pizza, broiled chicken—the possibilities are endless. This is easily the best of the new Cameron Hughes releases. (Note: The winery paperwork said the price is $10, but on the website it’s $12. Either way, an amazing value!) Score: 93 points.

Cameron Hughes 2018 Lot 673 2018 Russian River Valley ($15). Hits all the right notes for a Russian River Pinot Noir: brilliant, translucent ruby color, bright aromas of strawberries and mushrooms, mouthwatering acidity and a dry, spicy finish. Although the flavors could be more concentrated—the wine is a little on the light side—they’re pleasant enough. It’s not a blockbuster, but elegant and clean. I’d drink this wine with lamb above all other meats, especially if you can sneak some bacon in there. Score: 90 points.

Cameron Hughes 2017 Lot 689 Chardonnay (Sonoma Valley); $13. This Chard plays it right down the middle, appealing to the American palate with tropical fruit and oak flavors, wrapped in a creamy texture. It’s simple, but satisfying in a California Chard way. Will drink nicely with almost anything; if it were up to me, it would be cracked crab and sourdough, with a great EVOO. Score: 88 points.

Cameron Hughes 2016 Lot 686 Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley); $15. This is textbook Alexander Valley Cab, based on everything I’ve studied and known for 40 years. The tannins are soft and sweetly mellow, making for easy drinking now. The acidity is just fine, providing a pleasant lift to the fruit. And the flavors! Oodles of ripe, sweet summer cherries and blackberries, mouth-tingling spices, a touch of herbaceousness, and a kiss of smoky oak. You don’t want to put bottle age on this lovely wine, you want to pop the cork and drink it. Barbecued steak while the hot weather is here is a natural. By winter, it’ll make a fine companion to beef stew or short ribs. Score: 88 points.

Cameron Hughes 2017 Lot 674 Field Blend Syrah-Petite Sirah (Mendocino County); $13. Rugged and simple, this old-style wine has bigtime flavors of raspberries, beef teriyaki, sweet tobacco and baking spices. It’s tannic, but the tannins are smooth and silky, making it easy to drink now. I’d have this fairly rustic wine with just about anything calling for a dry, full-bodied, fruity red where the food, not the wine, is the star. Score: 87 points.

Cameron Hughes 2015 Lot 641 “Paicines” Merlot (Central Coast); $10. The Paicines Hills are in San Benito County, northeast of the Salinas Valley, and warmer due to the inland location. The grapes certainly got ripe; the wine brims with the silky essence of Beaujolais-like black cherries. Deliciousness goes a long way, especially in such an affordable wine, and it really is easy to drink and enjoy with simple fare: a cheeseburger, beef or pork tacos or, for something more offbeat, Chinese restaurant Peking duck. Two other things stand out for me: the overall softness, a result of melted tannins and low acidity, and an aged quality. Even though the wine is only 4 years old, the fruit is maturing, picking up secondary dried fruit features. For ten bucks, this is a good deal. Score: 86 points.


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