subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

New wine reviews: Six En Garde reds

0 comments

I’ve been reviewing Csaba Szakal’s En Garde wines for many years. For some reason, he continues to be interested in my impressions, even though I’ve been retired for nearly five years. So he has sent me six of his new releases, two Pinots from 2018 and four Bordeaux-style red wines from the 2017 vintage.

Hungarian-born Csaba comes from four generations of winemakers. He emigrated to the U.S. to be a computer engineer, but on meeting his future wife, Sandy, and her winemaker friends in Sonoma County, Csaba changed course and launched En Garde in 2007. That year saw his first vintage, a Reserve Cabernet I rated at 95 points. Csaba’s specialty has been Cabernet Sauvignon and related blends, usually based on grapes from the Von Strasser-owned Sori Bricco Vineyard on Diamond Mountain. The wines have consistently been of high quality. The Pinot Noirs, by contrast, seem like an afterthought.

2018 Pleasant Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $60. The vintage was celebrated as one of Sonoma County’s best in years. The grapes for the Pleasant Hill, always a big wine, hail from the Sebastopol area, one of the cooler parts of the valley. As it always does, it shows exuberant flavors of raspberries, pomegranates and black cherries—what I think of as the fruit-forward flashiness of Dijon clones—with an earthy, tea-like herbaceousness. The color is translucent, suggesting the delicacy of Pinot Noir. The mouthfeel is rich and elegant, the finish thoroughly dry. And such nice acidity. There’s a lot of oak, too—according to the technical notes, 33% new French barrels—and I have to say while all that oak is pretty aggressive, the end result is a fine Pinot Noir that’s good for drinking now and will age for a while. Production was a miniscule 155 cases. Score: 90.

2018 Passion de la Reine Reserve Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $70. First impression: This is a much bigger Pinot Noir than the Pleasant Hill. It’s higher in alcohol, and oakier. Unfortunately, that is not to the wine’s benefit. It’s too big, too hot, and all that oak rides uneasily over the raspberries and pomegranates. The wine lacks delicacy and elegance, which are what you want in a fine Pinot Noir. Three days later, I tried it again. The bottle had been one-third full, the cork shoved in, standing on the sideboard. Now, it’s like a sweet Amador Zinfandel, almost like cognac. Score: 85.

2017 Cabernet Sauvignon (Mount Veeder); $100. This is the poster child for the modern style of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley. It’s a rich, unctuous wine, superbly ripe, with the most succulent tannins. As a mountain wine, its flavors are intensely concentrated: blackberries, cassis liqueur, blueberries and molten, unsweetened dark chocolate, while new French oak brings the usual suspects of wood spice and smoke. The official alcohol is 14.5%, but to me, it’s stronger than that, as evidenced by the heat of the finish. With a little Cabernet Franc blended in, there’s a bit of an herbal note, like sweet green pea. It surprised me, when I poured it, by throwing some sediment. I’m not sure what that means in such a young wine. At any rate, it’s not all that different from a hundred other Napa Cabs, and I’m not seeing much Mount Veeder (which to me suggests something firmer and drier, as Veeder is a cold mountain by Napa standards). But it sure is delicious. Very good to drink now and over the years. Score: 92.

2017 Grand Vin, Sori Bricco Vineyard (Diamond Mountain); $100. What a gorgeous wine. It dazzles with intricate beauty, but far from being merely surface artifice, has deeper fascinations. The vineyard, originally planted in 1968, is at an elevation of 2,100 feet, placing it above the fog line on most days; Sori Bricco means “sunny hillside.” En Garde doesn’t own it, but has access to a few choice acres. The cépage on the 2017 is 80% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot, making it one of the few Bordeaux blends in the valley without Cabernet Sauvignon. Nonetheless the wine has the structure of a fine Bordeaux (although it’s not particularly Right Bank). The tannins, as befits a Napa mountain wine, are powerful, while succulent acidity adds to the architecture. Flavor-wise, the spectrum is complex: blackberries, violets, cocoa, plums, leather, smoke. This is power, pure and simple, but it’s also grace: a paradox of opposites that marks great wine. Csaba has done a fine job assembling it, especially considering he also was putting together his 2017 Touché Reserve and Bijou du Roi. I would drink this wine now, with careful aerating, but it should hold in a good cellar for a decade. Score: 93.

2017 Le Bijou du Roi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Sori Bricco Vineyard (Diamond Mountain); $120. Rich, powerful, concentrated, flashy, pedigreed—these are just some of the adjectives I could roll out to describe En Garde’s ’17 Bijou. It’s one of the winery’s most consistent bottlings, varying little from vintage to vintage, always showing the class and finesse of the Sori Bricco Vineyard. As in the past, it brims with ripe blackberries and cassis, spices and the vanilla and toast of 80% new oak barrels, in which it was aged for an astonishing 28 months. Alluring now, it defines the pleasures of mountain Cabernet, offering wave after wave of complexity. There’s a tingly spine of acidity and minerality that reminds me of iodine, or the peat of a fine Scotch. The blend includes a touch of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, which may account for the taste of cherries. Oh, and the texture: silk, velvet, satin. To drink now, or to age? If you have only one bottle, play it down the middle: six years in the cellar. If you have a case, drink a bottle a year from now until 2033. Expensive, yes, but compared to some of the competition in Napa Valley, not really. Score: 94.

2017 Touché Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $180. This is the winery’s big dog, the heavy hitter, its most expensive release—which indicates Csaba’s feeling that this is the greatest wine he can make. It is a very fine Cabernet. Two things strike me: the tannins, which to my palate are stronger than any of the other new releases, and the complex range of flavors. This latter most likely is because the grapes come not only from Diamond Mountain, but also Mount Veeder and Rutherford. I won’t venture to speculate what each of the three appellations contributes. Suffice it to say that the wine isn’t as blackberry-driven as Bijou or the regular 2017. There’s more of a tart, red cherry note, and a pleasant tobacco taste, as well as a more generous or expansive quality that is at once lush and tight. At any rate, the 2017 Touché is a profound wine. At 3-1/2 years, it is, as I said, quite tannic, and rather raw, but very ripe, in keeping with this warm vintage. It’s not unpleasant to drink now—in fact, with aerating, it’s exciting–but undisciplined, precocious. I would cellar it for at least six years. It might still be in development in ten years, or fifteen, or twenty—who knows? Only 50 cases were produced, and compared with the prices of most of the more famous Napa Cabernets, $180 is—dare I say it?—a bargain. Score: 96 points.

Discussion: I have said in past vintages that it’s not clear to me why Csaba makes such a wide range of red Bordeaux-style wines—in this vintage, four—and why he bothers with Pinot Noir. That seems to dilute the meaning or message of En Garde. The Bordeaux First Growths, for example, typically produce only a grand vin and a second wine, with a very strict protocol separating the two. Perhaps a more a propos example is that of the red wines of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. They number six, grown in a near-contiguous vineyard of only 178.37 acres—about the size of Chateau Latour’s vineyard, in Pauillac. But no one disputes the rationale for producing six red wines from the DRC. They really are different: on the three or four occasions I’ve sampled them, the distinctions are profound and clear, although the different climats are separated by (as they say) donkey paths.

The distinctions between En Garde’s Cabernets are not profound; they are subtle. Indeed, I’ve made this argument concerning most Cabernets and blends from Napa Valley: more alike than not. They is perhaps to be expected, for two reasons: Cabernet and its related varietals are far less susceptible to minute influences in soil and other aspects of terroir than is Pinot Noir; and the warm-to-hot weather of Napa Valley shoves the wines toward ripeness and high sugar levels that blur terroir distinctions. This is why I have long concluded that much of the decision-making in Napa Valley concerning differing bottlings is based on marketing, not terroir.

Be that as it may, producing four Cabernets/Bordeaux reds each vintage is Csaba’s decision, and his only, to make. We must accept the wines as they are—and they are certainly as good as, or nearly, as almost anything else produced in Napa Valley. They are distinguished. They are detailed and complex. They are delicious. Were I a “normal” buyer, instead of a writer who is sent these wines to review, I would save myself a few bucks and buy, say, the 2017 regular Cab instead of the Touché.

As for the Pinot Noirs, that great red grape and wine is not En Garde’s specialty. Perhaps it’s asking too much for a Cabernet master like Csaba to also excel at Pinot Noir. Were I in charge, I might eliminate Pinot Noir from En Garde’s lineup and reduce the number of Cabernets to two, or possibly three in a great vintage.


New wine reviews: Nick Goldschmidt

0 comments

Nick Goldschmidt is a fine winemaker, an entrepreneur, a kiwi, a helluva nice guy, and an old friend. He’s been a fixture in the California wine industry (and on other continents) for decades. If I recall correctly, we met around 1990, when I was a newbie wine writer and he was the winemaker at the venerable old winery, Simi, in Healdsburg. I believe that was the start of his association with Sonoma County grapes. Nick also did stints at big corporate wine companies, like Allied Domecq and Beam Estates. But he never lost his fascination for small-lot, ultrapremium wines, and, throughout the 2000s, these have been his forte.

Nick is probably involved in more brands than I know about (he produces from six countries), but his main portfolio consists of bottlings under his Nick Goldschmidt label—the most expensive—Forefathers, Set in Stone, and others named after his daughters: Hillary, Katherine and Chelsea, as well as the least expensive, Singing Tree. He also travels a lot to places like New Zealand and Chile, where he is what I think of as a “flying winemaker.” In other words, a busy guy.

I’ll get to the reviews in a moment, but first a word about Nick’s business model. He’s hardly the first to make a lot of different wines at different price points, with different degrees of association with the grapes and brands. I always think of Robert Mondavi in this respect: he made everything from Opus One and Mondavi Reserve down to Woodbridge and Coastal. It was this proliferation of effort that led to the ultimate demise of the Mondavi company, which simply got too big to be managed properly. Mondavi tried to be all things to all people, and succeeded only in institutionalizing confusion. Nick seems to have understood this lesson; he keeps things under control. Someday, somebody should teach a course at the University of California, Davis, on Nick Goldschmidt’s successful business practices!

And now, the wines. It’s fair to say that Cabernet Sauvignon, usually unblended, is Nick’s passion and strong suit. The style is New World: ripe, oaky, plush. For me, as a Northern California devotée, it’s always interesting to contrast Nick’s Cabs from Alexander Valley, in Sonoma County, with those from Oakville, in Napa Valley. These two places bracket what seems to me to be the range of possibilities for California Cabernet Sauvignon: softer, more mellow and a little more herbaceous in the former, dark, tannic and intense in the latter. Neither is “better” than the other, merely different.

Goldschmidt 2016 Game Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville); $90. The raw, juicy quality of this 100% varietal Cab speaks of its extreme youthfulness. All the parts are there, but they’re nowhere close to melding. First off are the blackberry and currant flavors so indicative of Oakville. Then there are the tannins, vigorous and tough, and mouthwatering acidity. New oak (30 months in 100% new French barrels) is overwhelming, bringing vanilla and sweet wood spice, in addition to even more tannins. The vineyard is on the east side of Oakville, the hotter side of the valley that gets the afternoon sun. As for the vintage, 2016 was the best in years, the last of the drought years that yielded such intense fruit. I looked up my scores from past vintages and compared them to some current critics, and I see that I tended to like Goldschmidt’s Game Ranch more than most. I also compared it with Goldschmidt’s 2016 Yoeman Ranch, from Alexander Valley. It’s equally as good: harder, more astringent due to Napa’s tougher tannins, but just as delicious. This wine is all about the power and glory of Napa Valley, and Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon. It would be a pity to drink it too soon. I may be dreaming, but twenty years of aging doesn’t seem excessive. If you can’t wait that long, at least do the decent thing and set it aside, in a good cellar, until 2024. Score: 95 points.

Goldschmidt 2016 Yoeman Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley); $75. Alc. 14.5%. It was Cabs like this, more than twenty years ago, that showed me that Napa Valley, the inevitable point of comparison, did not have the exclusive franchise on great California Cabernet Sauvignon. Alexander Valley Cab, at its best, was a worthy rival, softer, perhaps, and slightly less fruity and more herbaceous, but no less attractive. The 2016 vintage, as I’ve written, was a good one. The warm, dry growing season resulted in beautifully ripe, intensely flavored grapes. In this case, the single-vineyard wine brims with big, bold black currant and black licorice flavors, liberally oaked (85% new French barrels), with a richness balanced by fine acidity. It’s sinfully easy to drink. The sign of a great, full-bodied red wine like this is that the enjoyment doesn’t pall after the first or second glass, but increases in intellectual and hedonistic interest. There also are significant tannins, dustier than Napa’s, but still tough and tight. I envision a superb steak whose fattiness will jump with joy and yield to this beauty. Ageability? Certainly, the wine will remain lovely through, say, 2025. Score: 94 points.

Katherine Goldschmidt 2018 Stonemason Hill Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley); $25. Alc. 14.5%. The extreme youth of this wine is evident from the impenetrable blackness at its heart in the glass, showing just the slightest royal purple at the rim. The aroma is all babyfat, too: masses of ripe, succulent black cherries, cassis liqueur and unsweetened chocolate, accented with smoky, toasty oak, and made just a touch porty with alcohol—good for a cold winter night by the fire. And flavors to match. Stupendously rich, almost delirious in the sumptuousness of the fruit. I did a doubletake when I saw the price. Twenty-five bucks retail? You have got to be kidding. Named after Nick Goldschmidt’s daughter, Katherine, who is co-winemaker, this has got to be one of the greatest Cabernet values out there. Production was 20,000 cases. I’d open it now and over the next six years. Score: 93 points.

Forefathers 2018 Lone Tree Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley); $50. Alc. 14.8%. This single-vineyard wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. I compared it immediately with Nick’s “Katherine Goldschmidt” Stonemason Hill Cab, also from 2018 (see above), and the fundamental difference was the tannins. They’re drier and harder in the Lone Tree, although I’m not sure why. Nick himself says he gets “more power and weight from Lone Tree” than from his other Alexander Valley Cabs, a description entirely consistent with my palate. Underneath the tannins is rich black currant fruit. I looked up the scores I gave Lone Tree when I was at Wine Enthusiast and, no surprise, at least 90 points in every vintage from 2003 until 2012, when I quit the magazine. Some people may find the tannins a bit aggressive, but they’re natural to Cabernet Sauvignon, part of its inherent charm and structural integrity. They may help the wine to age, not to mention assisting it in grappling with a good steak. Drink now-2028. Score: 92 points.

Boulder Bank 2019 Fitzroy Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough): $16. Alc. 13.0%. Nick Goldschmidt turns his talents to his native country and to the father-parent of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc. (The other parent is Cabernet Franc.) The wine is classic Marlborough. Brilliantly structured, racy and dry, its mouthwatering acidity highlights complex flavors of lemon, lime and tangerine, honeysuckle, white peach and grapefruit. A touch of pyrazines gives the green, bell pepper or gooseberry notes so indicative of Marlborough, while lees aging lends a smidgen of yeastiness. The finish is long and distinguished. There’s no oak at all here, just gorgeous fruit. In forty years of winetasting, I’ve never figured out how a wine can taste this rich but still be bone dry—a delightful conundrum! What a beauty, clearly the product of a distinguished terroir. Balanced in every respect, so food-friendly and easy to drink, it’s just about perfect. And the price! Score: 92 points.

Singing Tree 2018 Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $16. Alc. 13.9%. This is a very nice Chardonnay, elegant and delicious. It has plenty of varietal character, including butterscotchy flavors of tropical fruits, Asian pears, apple sauce, cinnamon and honeysuckle flower, but it never crosses the line into vulgar flamboyance. There’s a firm minerality undergirding the fruit that gives it finesse and elegance. The must was fermented in stainless steel; oak does not play a prominent role. But the creaminess tells of lees, while the acidity—6 grams per liter–is racy and mouthwatering. The quality-price ratio is excellent, making the wine a real value. Great house wine or, when restaurants re-open (may it be soon!), by-the-glass. Production was 5,000 cases. Score: 90 points.

Set In Stone Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley); $30. Alcohol: 14.5%. This Cab has the signature of Nick Goldschmidt all over it. But even a great winemaker like Nick can’t overcome the limitations the grapes impose upon him. It’s a pretty good wine, flavorful and lusty, brimming with ripe blackberries infused with oak. Dry and tannic, it fulfills the basic requirements of an Alexander Valley Cab. But in the end, it can’t quite overcome a rustic nature. Score: 86 points.

Set In Stone 2018 Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $30. Alc. 13.9%. This is one of those Chardonnays that isn’t terribly sophisticated, but provides the kind of buttery, tropical fruit, green apple and creamy flavors and textures that Chardophiles like. It’s a wine to pour when you’re having non-fussy friends over for weekend brunch (if we can ever do home entertaining again!). Despite the simplicity, there’s a structural elegance that represents the cooler Western sections of the Russian River Valley. Score: 85 points.


Winter is coming to California

4 comments

When I lived in the Green Mountains of Vermont the summers were long and warm but there was always a day—a particular moment, actually—when unexpectedly the air let you know that winter wasn’t far off.

It could have been in October, a lovely afternoon except that, suddenly, the leaves on the maples rustle and a chill hits the skin. There might be many weeks of Indian Summer to come, but the reminder is timely: Old Man Winter is coming.

In coastal California, the sign is subtler, but it’s there, and I felt it yesterday. I don’t think I’ve put on long pants for the last 5 or 6 months, nor have I often needed any outerware like a hoodie, except maybe when walking Gus early in the morning; but yesterday, it was long pants and a flannel shirt all day. It wasn’t particularly cold by Eastern standards: the high was around 65 degrees. But we Californians have thinner blood than those hardy New Englanders, and even 65 can feel cold, if you’re in a shadowed place with wind. You can feel the icebergs in the Aleutians. Winter is coming to us, too.

It’s been an incredible spring, weather-wise. The upside for us humans has been six months of dry, mild-to-warm-to-hot weather (at least here in Oakland), with very little fog–clear evidence of a changing climate. There were many, many days when I thought no place on Earth could have better weather than what we were having in Oakland. The downside, of course, has been the Fires and the resultant smoke (I capitalize “Fires” because of their historical import: 4 million acres burned so far—five times the size of Rhode Island, and more than double the previous record). The damage has been appalling. In Napa alone, 31 wineries, restaurants (including Meadowood) and resorts up in smoke.

As an old wine journalist whose stomping ground was Napa Valley, this makes me very sad. Some very famous names are gone. The arrival of cool weather is welcome news to the firefighters. There have been weather forecasts the last few days about possible rain this weekend, but I just checked the latest weather reports and they’re backing off, saying only that it will be partly cloudy. There is a storm up there in the Pacific Northwest, but its southern edge will reach down only to around Eureka, near the Oregon border—a classic weather pattern for this time of year. We’re going to have to wait a bit longer for the first rains in six months to hit Northern California. It will warm up again next week, but fortunately, nowhere near the triple digits that inland areas have experienced this summer and autumn.

For all the grief in Napa Valley—and it’s substantial—there’s also a lot of optimism. Many of those people have money and will rebuild. The vineyards that burned will take longer to restore, of course, but they’ll come back eventually. One should keep in mind that Old Europe’s wine country, from Bordeaux and Burgundy and Champagne to the German regions, have experienced 1,000 years of wars, plagues, plant diseases and economic collapses, but no matter how tough things get, those regions have survived and, most of the time, thrived. This isn’t to underplay the disaster of the Fires, but only to put things into perspective. Napa Valley, and Sonoma too (which was less affected this year) will get by, and rise again.

And from the consumer’s point of view (and that’s what I am, a consumer), the Fires might have the desired effect of lower prices on wine. I’ve never understood how a bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet could be $300 or even higher in many cases. When hundred-dollar Cabs became numerous in the 1990s, I scratched my head and wondered how it had happened. But wine pricing is one of the most irrational economic phenomena in the world. It’s completely based on supply and demand, not inherent quality; and wine’s appeal is as much to the ego and the imagination as it is to the senses. People lust after certain wines, which then become “first growths,” and their prices soar accordingly. People who can no longer afford them settle for the second most expensive, and those are the “second growths,” and so on, down the line. Thus are wine hierarchies, like Bordeaux’s, created. But as a reading of Penning-Rowsell’s “The Wines of Bordeaux,” with its price charts over the centuries, attests, prices go up rapidly and fall equally rapidly, in a cycle as dependable as the West Coast’s weather patterns.

And now—not to mix topics—on to the Election! Vote! And vote Blue. We mus stop this crazed, dangerous president and the religious fanatics who prop him up.


Napa Valley Cabernet: an endangered species?

5 comments

For many years I’ve watched as the price of Napa Valley wine has gone up—and up—and up—until it reached the stratosphere. And then it continued to go up.

Even twenty years ago, I wondered who was buying all that expensive Cabernet Sauvignon. I can’t remember when prices first hit triple digits—I think it was in the 1980s. But once they did, no respectable Napa winery wanted to be the last to retail for at least $100.

At the height of my working career as a critic, when I was paid to keep track of such things, I’d note every new, expensive brand that came on the market. I soon concluded that most were vanity projects: their owners were very rich, and they wanted “in” on the Napa Valley lifestyle that was so highly touted by aspirational magazines. You, too, could have the big mansion, set in a picturesque vineyard, surrounded by blooming gardens, with an azure-blue swimming pool, a grand deck complete with gigantic outdoor grilling station, and Napa’s beautiful mountains soaring in the distance. And all you needed was maybe $10 million to get started.

At one point (I think it was in the early 2000s) I did a count of all the $100-plus wines in Napa Valley, and the total was well into the hundreds. I began to wonder, “Who’s buying all that Cab?” It was easy to understand that the critically-acclaimed cult Cabs (Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Bryant, Colgin, Dalla Valle, and so on) were desired by many wealthy collectors, but what about the hundreds of lesser-known brands? Every week seemed to bring a new family winery with a fill-in-the-blank back story:

Pete, together with his lovely wife Maggie, made a fortune in (computers, engineering, construction, oil, stocks) but there was something missing in their comfortable life. In (date), they bought a small property in (Rutherford, Pritchard Hill, Oakville, Spring Mountain, Atlas Peak) and planted some Cabernet. Now, they produce some of Napa Valley’s most coveted wines, assisted by their consulting winemaker (Michel Rolland, Heidi Barrett, Andy Erickson, Mark Aubert, Phillippe Melka)…

The stories all ran together; so did the wines. They were functionally interchangeable, 95-pointers that all tasted the same. It was impossible to answer the question, “Who’s buying all that wine?” just as it was impossible to answer the question, “Is the winery actually making money?” I suspected, even by 2000, that many, if not most, of these vanity wineries were not profitable, but were kept alive by their owners’ personal fortunes.

The other day, a friend emailed asking my opinion about reports that sales of California wines are weak, with a troubling future. Was it tariffs? Younger consumers wanting something “natural” and eccentric? The greater popularity of craft beer and spirits? I replied, “All the above—plus the fact that California wine, driven by Napa prices, is just too damned expensive!”

And now comes this report, via Wine-Searcher, that “California’s top producers might be pricing themselves out of the market,” with the top culprit being Napa Valley wine.

The article was based on a new report whose startling conclusion was this: “The demand for Napa Valley wines is flat and heading toward a decline. Last year, this report speculated that price increases at Napa wineries may have finally priced out enough buyers to curtail growth. It now seems this is likely the case.”

Will 2020 be the year that Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon experiences a price crash? It’s in the self-interest of the producers to prevent this, so I expect they’ll do everything in their power to hold on. But if this represents a permanent trend, how long can they keep on? Will their heirs be content to underwrite a losing proposition, just so they can sit around the pool watching the sun set over the Mayacamas?

One interesting development was the purchase earlier this week of Flora Springs by the Bordeaux winery, Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte. Flora Springs was, back in the day, a highly respected winery. (One of the first articles I ever wrote for Wine Spectator was a profile of them.) They had exquisite vineyards on the Rutherford Bench, and produced various Cabernets and Bordeaux blends that were very good. But Flora Springs, like so many other wineries, gradually saw competition arising all around them: no longer a darling boutique winery, but one of hundreds to choose from. The ownership was quite wealthy (of course), but Flora Springs was precisely the kind of winery I wondered about. “How are they doing? How long can they hold on?”

Well, now they’ve sold. The question isn’t whether the ownership was or wasn’t making money, it’s “Why does Smith Haut Lafitte think Flora Springs is a good investment?” (Their purchase doesn’t include the brand or “Napa Valley vineyard sources,” according to the article.) One thinks of the Bordelais as very astute businessmen—after all, they’ve managed to stay at the top of the heap for multiple centuries. So there must be something Smith Haut Lafitte sees in Napa Valley.

At the same time, I remember when the Woltner family, heirs of Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, started a winery back in the late 1980s. Chateau Woltner was in the Vacas, on the east side of the Silverado Trail, on lower Howell Mountain. They put out a Chardonnay that was then the most expensive ever in California. It was pretty impressive: Bordeaux Second Growth invests in Napa Valley! What could go wrong?

Well, everything. The brand didn’t last for very long. It was sold for $20 million in 2000.

I don’t know what eventually happened to the Chardonnay vineyards, nor do I care. The point is, just because a French Bordeaux family buys a Napa Valley winery doesn’t guarantee its success. The eventual outcome of Flora Springs will depend on the continuing popularity of Napa Valley Cabernet and Bordeaux blends; and if this category is pricing itself out of existence, there’s little anyone can do to save it. Of course, as we know from Eddie Penning-Rowsell’s classic The Wines of Bordeaux, prices of Bordeaux have been a roller-coaster ride for centuries: sometimes way up, sometimes way down. But Bordeaux persists. Maybe Napa’s future will be as tumultuous.


A wine review, and an Overview of Napa Cabernet

1 comment

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…


« Previous Entries

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Categories

Archives