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Classifying Cabernet? I don’t think so

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

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

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his 5-tier system after the 1855 Classification of the Medoc, Jim admitted that the Bordeaux classification is “outdated,” and he predicted, accurately, that no classification “will ever be undertaken by the California wine industry.”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

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

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

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

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


On massive Cabernet Sauvignons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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