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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.


New wine reviews: Six En Garde reds

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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

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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.


New Wine Review: a Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir, at 10 years

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Longoria 2011 La Encantada Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sta. Rita Hills); $50 on release.

With these mature Pinot Noirs, you never know. I opened this one, which is a few months older than ten years, because the weather is turning colder and for the first time in many months, I’m in the mood for a red wine. The first thing I look for, in a wine of this age, is whether it smells clean and proper, or is showing signs of decrepitude. This is perhaps not the highest standard, but it tells the experienced taster what to expect, for better or worse. The initial sniff told me that the wine was just fine. No off-odors, no senescence, no “naked alcohol,” no raisins, no mold, just clean fruit—which is what you expect of a California Pinot Noir.

I sipped then, and the fruitiness reprised. Masses of raspberry essence. And something spear-minty and green, by no means unpleasant, a welcome taste of herbs that thrive in the cool, foggy Santa Rita Hills. Is there any sign of age? Yes. The fruits are rounding the corner from fresh to dried. But they’re delicious.

La Encantada Vineyard is located in the southern part of the appellation, along the Santa Rosa Road corridor, in the same vicinity as such famous vineyards as Fiddlestix and Sanford & Benedict. This latter was one I chose for an article I wrote years ago on California’s greatest vineyards. It was co-founded by Richard Sanford, who also planted La Encantada; this is the true historic heart of Pinot Noir in the Santa Rita Hills (although Highway 246, a little to the north, is probably more famous, post-Sideways). The master winemaker, Rick Longoria, who has longstanding ties of friendship in the region, has access to the grapes, as he does to pretty much any vineyard he wants (and he has his own Fe Ciega Vineyard, not too far away).

OK, so raspberries and mint is good stuff, but it would be boring if that’s all there was. Fortunately, there’s more. Baking spices—cinnamon, star anise, Chinese five spice—show up, giving the wine additional bursts of flavor. But flavor isn’t everything! The texture is just what Pinot should be: silky and smooth. Everything glides over the tongue, with none of the stubborn tannins of, say, Cabernet Sauvignon. Then there’s the acidity that always accompanies Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noirs. So stimulating! Gets the mouth juices flowing. You want food with it. I can imagine a well-charred steak, but, since I hardly ever eat steak, I have to mentally search for something else; seared ahi tuna is a serious candidate, and so is cream of mushroom soup.

Does the 2011 Longoria La Encantada have a future? Here, we get into the realm of personal preference. Yes, it has a future in the sense that it’s still alive and vital—“middle-aged,” as it were. It should hold in its present condition (given good storage) for several more years, gradually becoming more delicate and tea-like, but at the same time, the aroma, or, more properly, the bouquet will become sweeter and more captivating. A final word: the 2011 vintage was much defamed by almost everybody. A wine like this proves that generalizations are misleading. Score: 92 points.


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.


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