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Steven Kent has 3 new Cabernet Francs

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For a long time, I’ve had nothing but praise for the wines of Steven Kent, the Livermore Valley winemaker. A few years ago, I gave two of his Cabernet Sauvignons perfect scores of 100 points, a major rarity for this stingy reviewer. I’ve always thought of Steven as a Cabernet Sauvignon specialist, and he is; but lo and behold, here he is with three Cabernet Francs, under the L’Autre Cote brand, which is part of his Lineage Collection.

Now, you might think it’s easy for a Cab Sauv winemaker to transition to Cab Franc, since they’re both Bordeaux varieties (Cab Franc is actually a co-parent of Cab Sauvignon, along with Sauvignon Blanc). But they’re very different, they like different soil and climate conditions, and Cabernet Franc has not proven itself entirely comfortable on its own anywhere in California, although there are good examples from the Sierra Foothills, and Lang & Reed, in Napa Valley, does a consistently good job.

To judge from these bottlings, I’d say Steven has really put himself onto the Cab Franc map in California, although admittedly, it’s not a very crowded map. All three wines are delicious, although the two single-vineyard ones are better. My one gripe, if you can call it that, is that the wines seem fairly limited in terms of food compatibility, because they’re so full-bodied and rich. Grilled steak certainly comes to mind. Roast chicken would be good, too, maybe even duck, but Cab Franc wouldn’t be my first choice for either.

NOTE: The two single-vineyard wines, Sachau and Ghielmetti, are sold as a 2-pack for $196.

L’Autre Cote 2018 Cabernet Franc (Livermore Valley): $35. There’s noticeable heat from alcohol in this wine, which officially clocks in at 14.8%. But the flavors are delicious: sour red cherry, with a hint of sweet green pea and the smoky complexities of oak barrel aging. The tannins—Steven Kent is a tannin master—are rich and furry but easy to negotiate, while a fine bite of acidity provides additional structure. This is a lovely wine of real elegance and complexity, and if Steven had brought it in at, say, 14.2%, it would be stunning. As it is, the heat is a distraction; the wine is just a little too light to handle it. Score: 88 points.

L’Autre Cote 2017 Sachau Vineyard Cabernet Franc (Livermore Valley); $98. The aroma on this single-vineyard, 100% Cab Franc grabbed me right away. There are the berry-cherry fruits you expect in a Bordeaux-style California red wine, but also tantalizing suggestions of dried herbs and flowers, a gamy leatheriness, and something I can’t put my finger on. Eucalyptus? These very complex aromas are repeated when you taste the wine, which is where the fruit really explodes in a burst of intensity, leading to a long, spicy finish. The feeling is ethereal, like tasting the wind, sun, soil, warm days and cool nights, and even the flora surrounding the vineyard. That makes it, I suppose, a true vin de terroir. This is a sumptuous, luscious, serious wine experience, utterly different from the Cabernet Sauvignon for which Steven Kent is known. The alcohol, which clocks in at 15.1%, does not dominate the wine, but lends it a pleasing warmth. What a wine to drink with a great steak! Score: 94 points.

L’Autre Cote 2017 Ghielmetti Vineyard Cabernet Franc (Livermore Valley); $98. The 64-acre vineyard ranges between 500 and 1,000 feet in elevation, and should be thought of as one of the grands crus of Livermore Valley. The well-drained soils, and Livermore’s warm days and cool nights, produce wines of great concentration and finesse. Ghielmetti is planted to all five classic Bordeaux varieties; this particular wine comes from a 3-acre block of Cab Franc that the winemaker says is cooler than Sachau Vineyard and hence is harvested a week later. As good as the Sachau is, the Ghielmetti is better. The structure strikes me as especially fine, with a burst of acidity and refined tannins providing the framework for the cherry, boysenberry and cola flavors that are lifted by just the right amount of oak. There’s lushness here, even decadence, yet the finish is thoroughly dry. What impresses me is how the wine maintains a Bordeaux-like fullness, and yet is so ethereal and precocious. Steven Kent believes the wine will develop over the next 10-15 years. Maybe so, but if I had a case in my cellar, I’d drink it over the next six. Score: 95 points.


What are California’s greatest vineyards?

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What are California’s grand cru vineyards? Somebody at work asked me this question, for a project they’re working on, so it got me to thinking.

Some years ago, I wrote an article for Wine Enthusiast (which I no longer have available, alas) on California’s five greatest vineyards. Before I could make that determination, I had to define what I meant by “greatest.” There’s no objective definition; it’s purely subjective. Besides, there are so many fantastic, famous vineyards, you really have to cull the field to make your article manageable. So I decided on the following parameters:

  1. The vineyard must have a long, consistent history of producing great wines. (“Long,” by California standards.)
  2. Following #1, the vineyard probably will be known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (on the one hand) and Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other. (Sorry, other varieties, you lost out on that one.)
  3. The vineyard must not be the exclusive monopole of a single winery. Although it may primarily be associated with a single winery, it must also sell some of its fruit to other wineries. In this way, the vineyard’s name and fame are spread, and a fairer assessment can be made.

This last rule was a little controversial, I must admit. It excluded vineyards including Harlan’s Estate, or Screaming Eagle. But it left enough room for Beckstoffer-Tokalon, Pisoni, Sanford & Benedict, Bien Nacido and Rochioli to make the list. They all sell fruit to other wineries, they’ve all been around long enough to have established track records, and surely nobody would quibble about any of them.

Today, ten years later, I have mixed feelings about this sort of thing. The historian in me reveres the notion of great vineyards, Grands Crus, First Growths and the like. If you’re a wine geek with a penchant for reading about the history of wine, you know that certain vineyards always have been considered the greatest, from time immemorial.

On the other hand, part of me–the democratist–realizes that “grands crus” are not as rare as may once have been thought! In other words, they’re not exactly unicorns. With modern advances in viticulture and enology, vineyard managers are now able to deliver far more distinguished fruit, from far more sources, than ever before. Indeed, if we look to Mother France for a clue, we see a near-constant reshuffling of reputations in Bordeaux, for example: Second- and Third Growths now said to rival Firsts. In Burgundy, in Champagne, in many places, the traditional hierarchies are falling, as tastes change and opportunities arise for garagistes or for long-established wineries that are cleaning up their acts. I also know, as a media maven, that the reputation of the so-called top (or cult) vineyards often is based, not on objective quality, but on the decision of wine writers to include them on their “best” lists! With all due respect, Screaming Eagle is not the best Cabernet in Napa Valley. It’s one of dozens that are “the best.” There is no “best,” nor can there be, unless you are absolutely ideological about it and don’t care about fairness. So I’m somewhat loathe to say “These are California’s great vineyards,” because that implies that the rest of them—the 99 percent—are not great.

Still, I think there’s a useful purpose in trying to identify the top vineyards, although this has to be based on clearly spelling out your parameters, with all the caveats that this imprecise effort involves. It’s also fun: we all like reading about this stuff, don’t we? And so, dear readers, what are your nominations, and why?


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