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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.


Notes on Some Wine-Review Books

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2. We come to Cabernet Sauvignon

Lest the reader fear that she’s in for a hundred and fifty thousand wine reviews, I promise that won’t be the case. I admired Michael Broadbent’s encyclopedic “Great Vintage Wine Book” and used to hope that someday I might compile all my notes into a volume of similar breadth and depth. But I quickly realized that (a) I couldn’t come close to Mr. Broadbent, (b) it would be far more trouble than the result would be worth, and (c) nobody would care anyway. It would be like reading thirty years of somebody’s taxes.

Instead, I propose to do what Professor Saintsbury did: write something first and foremost for myself, which might then be of interest to others, my philosophy of reporting always having been that something of interest to me will interest others. This philosophy guided all my reporting, no matter where I was working; it informed the longer, more literary articles I wrote in Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, and it even impacted my reviews, which I tried to make ever more haiku-like. That approach certainly guided my hand when I wrote A Wine Journey along the Russian River. One of the reasons why Professor Saintsbury is such a rewarding read is that his humanity—the spirit in his flesh, as it were—shines through the pages of Notes On A Cellar-Book. The man is scholarly, sometimes to the point of opacity (for those of us who didn’t go to Oxford or major in classical literature, and can’t read Latin). But he always radiates essential cheerfulness and enthusiasm. He is a man, albeit from another time and place, you think you would have liked to know.

His “concentrating on only the finer wines” constitutes both the book’s strength and its weakness. We (I mean the wine community; if you’re in it, you know what I mean) enjoy reading about the world’s most famous wines, which are also the most expensive. Even if we can’t afford Yquem, Romanée-Conti or Lafite (and most of us can’t), we imagine them in our minds, and that is why a book like The Great Vintage Wine Book is so much fun. How else would any of us have any idea what 1825 Chateau Lafite was like? Broadbent gave it 5 stars (his highest level, the equivalent, you could say, of 100 points), and called it “outstanding, enchanting” when he tasted it in 1979, at the age (the wine’s age, that is, not Broadbent’s) of 154 years. He mentions that he had it “At the Overton tasting,” a reference to a Texas neurosurgeon, Dr. Marvin Overton, who coincidentally died this past Spring (2020). I knew Dr. Overton, not well, and we spoke with some frequency over the phone. He was an informal member of a very small and exclusive group of [primarily male] wine collectors in the U.S. His collection was massive; as I recall, it contained hundreds of thousands of bottles. Dr. Overton used to share his cellar’s wealth with his colleague wine collectors and a small batch of influential people, like Michael Broadbent, although never, alas, with me. I remember the last time I talked with him—this must have been 25 years ago. He told me he had just converted to some form of evangelical Christianity, at the urging of his wife, who had persuaded him into giving up the consumption of alcohol! Dr. Overton as a result sold his massive collection, and presumably made a fortune, wine being a very great appreciator in value if it has the right pedigree and provenance.

But that exclusivity also is Saintsbury’s weakness, as he feared. I always was fascinated with the question of why Lafite, for example, costs so much more than Pontet-Canet or Batailley, which share the same commune in Bordeaux (Pauillac). Before I ever had an opportunity to taste any of these wines, the question thundered in my head. Was it really because (as conventional wisdom had it) that Lafite sat on a little mound with superior drainage than its neighbors? Did that result in something remarkably better? Could anyone discern this “betterness,” or was it something you only knew (or thought you knew) about, a knowledge that then elevated your experience of the wine? Or did mere market forces of supply and demand push Lafite’s price so astronomically? If the latter, then there was something decidedly less romantic, and more vulgar, to explain these price disparities. One could say the same about (venturing to another wine region) Burgundy. Was the Romanée-Conti vineyard and wine really better than Les Suchots, which adjoins it on the Golden Slope in the commune of Vosne-Romanée? Certainly the former is far more expensive. But why? I knew, from reading, that history accounts for a good deal of the explanation for such phenomena. I also knew, or was beginning to know, at that early stage of my wine reviewing career, that the beliefs wine people have had inculcated in them are fungible and often irrational. Word of mouth, and certification by authority, are powerful mental influencers. If Dr. Overton (to use him as an influencer) says that Lafite is worth far more effort and money to buy than Pontet-Canet, should we mere mortals not accept his word? After all, he, not we, has done the tasting and is thus the expert. Then, because a few dozen Overtons (or Desais, or Lawlors) praise Lafite, its price soars. But if this is true, then—again—a large part of the romance and mystery of famous vineyards is drained away, and we are left with the same simple economic facts as drive the price of soybeans and toilet-seat covers.

So it was that my tasting career began at a non-elevated level, which is a good place to start, I think, because a wine like that long-ago Kenwood 1980 “Vintage Red” provided a fine baseline against which to measure all subsequent wines, including Lafite and Romanée-Conti. Now, many a wine aficienado will be aghast at such a statement. Has Heimoff lost his mind, comparing a cheap Kenwood wine with a Grand Cru Burgundy? But why should we not do so? Nothing can in itself be evaluated; it can only be measured against other, similar things. We compare things all the time: a Tesla with a Prius, season five of The Sopranos with season six, early Beatles with Let It Be. By so doing, we learn to detect subtlety and calibrate quality, and can appreciate what we’re dealing with more fully.

The ninth wine I reviewed, in that little black-bound notebook, was the first pure Cabernet Sauvignon (or Bordeaux blend), other than the Kenwood, which with its Zinfandel was not a Bordeaux blend: Chateau Beauregard 1976. I had it on May 25, 1983 (that is, about three months after the Morgon-Macon Villages-Kenwood trilogy), and it cost me $4. Beauregard was then (I don’t know if it still exists as a chateau) a relatively minor Saint-Julien, but still, it was Saint-Julien, the home commune of Ducru-Beaucaillou, the various Leovilles and Langoas, Beychevelle and Talbot—in other words, famous, extraordinary wines. So I could hardly resist buying it at that price. I liked it a lot, and for the first time in those tasting notes, I used the French term goût de terroir, literally, “taste of the soil.” That term, like “fizzante,” I picked up from some book, and found useful at the time, although in later years I shied away from such borrowed foreign words and phrases. By it, I meant two things: that the wine, or something in it, smacked (or reminded me) of earth, stones and soil—I have been known to put all three into my mouth while wandering through vineyards–and secondly, that it seemed to me representative of its origin, in this case Saint-Julien, which (in my head) I had formed an opinion of: that its red wines were harmonious and elegant. I did not record the details of the cepage, or blend, but in addition to a majority Cabernet Sauvignon it probably contained lesser amounts of Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Certainly, it established a benchmark in my mind for dry red wines made with Bordeaux varieties, especially the California (“cult”) Cabernet Sauvignons that later became so important to my career. And it set up a tension between the Bordeaux style (lower alcohol, less overtly ripe fruit) with California Cabernets, especially from Napa Valley, which over the years became ever more ripe, heady, sweet and, sadly, hot. But I will have a lot more to say about that in coming pages.


Notes on Some Wine-Review Books

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The late Harry Waugh (who died in 2001 at the age of 97) wrote in one of his earliest wine diaries, Pick of the Bunch (which he called “rather a mixed bag”), that he was asking his readers for “forgiveness” for his “concentrating on only the finer wines.” My own mixed bag—a series of wine-review notebooks I wrote covering wines I tasted in the period 1983 through 1996—certainly contains wines that would not be described as “finer.” Although there were many highly-regarded wines among these thousands of bottles, they were mainly everyday wines, from across the world, the sort I could afford to buy then, when I was but a humble worker, and before I became a wine writer and the wine-gates opened up to tsunami proportions and everybody, it seemed, wanted to send me samples, or to invite me to tastings and dinners at which truly “fine” wines were poured.

Why I began these keeping these reviews, in those hard-covered little notebooks with their blank pages that generations of diarists have purchased, I no longer remember. What was happening in 1983 that caused me to start what would become a thirteen-year practice? I look at the book now, with its gold-embossed black cover, and see, on the fly-leaf, an inscription:

For Steve, to hold your thoughts—John

Alas, whoever “John” was is long gone from memory. He evidently knew that I had “thoughts.” Knew, too, that I enjoyed writing. Putting two and two together, he bought me—for my birthday? Christmas? A token of his appreciation?—the little bound volume, thinking, I suppose, I would record a diary of sorts, or maybe poetry, which I was then into. Instead, I began keeping notes of the wines I was drank every day, the very first of which, on Feb. 16, 1983 (a Wednesday), was a Morgon from Georges DuBoeuf, vintage 1981, with an alcohol level of 13.1%.

Where was I when I reviewed that wine? In San Francisco, getting my graduate degree at San Francisco State University and working to put myself through school on-campus, where I was secretary to the director of the Career Planning and Placement Center. I was living with my boyfriend Eugene—long dead—in an apartment in Bernal Heights, on the fashionable (or so we thought) West End, overlooking the vast Mission District, with Twin Peaks walling off the horizon. Over those peaks, Eugene (I never called him “Gene”) and I would watch, while sipping wine, the fog pour into the city, giant white tufts of fluffy whipped cream that seemed like living, creeping spiritous amoeba. Eugene liked wine well enough, but he was mainly a Coors guy; he certainly never developed the insane passion for it that I did, although he enjoyed hearing my thoughts. As for why my first recorded wine was a Beaujolais, who knows? My review shows that it cost $6 retail, which wasn’t exactly cheap for me at the time (the third wine I reviewed, Kenwood 1980 “Vintage Red,” which was 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and 35% Zinfandel, with a California appellation, was only $3.50). Perhaps I’d read something about Beaujolais and wanted to find out. By then, I was a member of Les Amis du Vin, the consumer wine group, and I was (I think, if memory serves me) already subscribing to The Wine Spectator, when it was a tabloid still headquartered on Van Ness Avenue, in the heart of San Francisco. At any rate, I liked that Morgon a great deal. “Deep scarlet, purple highlights” I described its color. As for the taste, “Slighly fizzante” (where did I pick up that term? But it’s a good word) “fruity, soft and balanced—delightful!” No point scores yet—that came later—but the exclamation point was a sign of my esteem, a sort of puff or star. I even recorded the food I ate it with:

Cheeseburgers (!). Note: onions hurt taste

Another exclamation point, parenthetical this time! Probably I meant to express my surprise that I drank such a “delightful” wine with such an ordinary food. What did I think I ought to have had Beaujolais with? But the fact that I noticed how the onions clashed with the wine shows an early appreciation of wine-and-food pairing, a topic that interests me to this day, nearly forty years later.

I wish I remember where I bought the Morgon. San Francisco at that time had perhaps a dozen interesting wine shops, ranging from snooty Draper & Esquin, in the Financial District, out to The Avenues near the ocean, where there was a shop whose name I don’t recall. Inbetween were temples of vinophilia I visited and worshipped at as regularly as I could. I use the term “worship” not sacriligiously, but in the sense that I would browse the aisles, armed with my pocket guides to wine (Hugh Johnson, Bob Thompson, Charlie Olken), cross-referencing bottles with written entries, picking the brains of clerks, learning, learning, learning, caught up in a world of intellectual beauty so extraordinary that it became esthetic in its own right. But I would not have gotten the Beaujolais at Draper & Esquin; not upscale enough for them. Maybe it was at the Wine House, South of Market, or at Hennessey’s, on Upper Market, or the Jug Shop, on Polk, or Ashbury Market, above Haight-Ashbury. It could have been at the old Liquor Barn, in a questionable neighborhood on Bayshore Boulevard, where a friendly wine clerk would open any bottle I wanted (including Yquem) and let me taste, at no cost. It was my habit to visit all of these places at least once every weekend. No doubt I could have been doing other things, as most other people did on the weekend, but visiting wine shops was quite literally the thing I wanted to do most; and so I did.

The very next day (Feb. 17) I reviewed my second wine, a Macon-Villages, varietally labeled “Chardonnay” (for the American market?), from the 1981 vintage (it cost $4). Did I finish the Morgon the previous night? Did Eugene and I drain the bottle over those cheeseburgers? Certainly a half-bottle of red isn’t too much for me to drink even now; and, as I said, the Morgon’s alcohol was only 13.1%, which made it far less alcoholic than, say, a 15.5% Napa Valley Cabernet. And that third wine I mentioned, the Kenwood Vintage Red? I also reviewed that on Feb. 17. Was I actually finishing three bottles of wine in two nights? Eugene and I had neighbors. Maybe we had some over for drinks. But the fact that, of the first three wines I ever reviewed, two were French is interesting. Once I started as a California wine critic, the number of French wines I got to drink dwindled severely, which was, as they say, quel dommage.

At any rate, I hope, through these Notes on Some Wine-Review Books, to do a little writing that may be of interest and entertainment to readers. I have six of these notebooks covering, as I said, the period 1983-1996, but in addition I have notes on probably twenty thousand other wines I tasted at fairs, dinners, seminars and walk-arounds (as opposed to those I bought); and then there are probably 150,000 formal wine reviews I wrote for Wine Enthusiast during the period I worked there (1993-2012). That’s a lot of wine reviews. The title I’ve chosen, Notes on Some Wine-Review Books, is obviously an hommage to George Saintsbury’s Notes On A Cellar-Book (1920), of which I have a third edition (1933, The MacMillan Company). Notes On A Cellar-Book is considered one of the most important wine books ever written; although Professor Saintsbury himself called it “a little book,” it has gained in stature as a work of literary merit. As he explains, in his wine explorations he considered himself “Ulysses, steering ever from the known to the unknown.” As have I. The wines he drank made him a better man. “[T]hey pleased my senses, cheered my spirits, [and] improved my moral and intellectual powers.” One could not summarize more aptly a life dedicated to the study and enjoyment of wine, and the benefits thereby obtained.


Ranking California wines

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I do a lot of reading in these shelter-in-place days. In fact, I’m cannibalizing my library—reading the same books over and over. One that I started yesterday is an old standby: The Wines of California, The Pacific Northwest & New York, by Roy Andries de Groot (1982). De Groot, a kind of minor James Beard, was a New Yorker with a reputation for being a gourmet and wine lover; he also was blind. In this book he developed what he called “the first classification” of the vineyards and wineries in the three states, a task he modeled after the 1855 Bordeaux Classification.

What is striking about The Wines of California is how dated it is. De Groot used a numerical rating system based on 50 points, and classified the wines into eight tiers; the top ones he called Noble, Superb and, at the pinnacle, Great. A good many of the wineries he included no longer even exist. Others, such as Beaulieu, have undergone corporate changes and are no longer what they used to be. And obviously, there are now hundreds of wineries in California alone that didn’t exist in de Groot’s day. For these reasons, de Groot’s classification is of no value today.

But it does make for interesting reading. I have to give him credit for at least attempting the task. Forty years ago, when de Groot was compiling his research (which meant traveling the country tasting wine), he had no reason to think that the wine industries of California, the Pacific Northwest and New York would not settle down and become as fixed and immutable as in Bordeaux itself. Bordeaux, after all, had remained relatively stable for 400 years of turbulent European history; there had been minor shifts in chateau ownership and vineyard holdings, but for the most part, the wineries and vineyards of Bordeaux in 1980 were much as they had been a hundred and fifty years earlier.

California looked to repeat the pattern. There were a handful of high-quality wineries of longstanding pedigree (Inglenook, Beaulieu, Louis Martini, Charles Krug) and, more interestingly from de Groot’s point of view, there had been a rash of new “boutique” wineries from the 1960s onward: Joseph Heitz, Robert Mondavi, Burgess, Carneros Creek, Fisher, Matanzas Creek, Chateau Montelena. De Groot was well aware of the burgeoning nature of California wineries: how relatively easy it was for a young winemaker, especially one of means, to plant a little vineyard and start a winery. Still, he believed that the California wine industry was settling down, the same as Bordeaux had, and that the U.S. consumer needed a reliable guide to choosing its wines.

De Groot had a good palate and a deep understanding of viticulture, enology, cuisine and history. Despite the book’s datedness, it’s fun to read for the snapshot it gives us of what the wine landscape looked like in the early 1980s. But it also is an object lesson in what not to attempt in a wine book. No wine writer in his right mind would attempt to classify the “wineries and vineyards” of California today; if one were to try, no publisher would be interested, for such a book would be an anachronism before the ink was dry.

De Groot noted, correctly, that the 1855 Bordeaux Classification had been based partly on the prices then obtained for the wines, and partly on the wines’ reputations among people of knowledge: brokers, mainly. Today, we still unofficially “classify” wines based on the same or similar criteria. Ask someone with a fairly good understanding of California wine what the “top” Cabernets are, and he will likely include Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, Bryant, Abreu, Phelps, Diamond Creek, Dalla Valle and perhaps a few dozen others. Has that person tasted all these wines? Probably not. Few have. He will have based his conclusions on what he’s heard of the reputations of those wines as well as what he knows of their prices.

That’s the way human judgment works. Reputation is everything. The Bordelais proprietors of the 19th century knew this as well as the owner of Screaming Eagle knows it today. Their methods are similar, although the details have changed. You have to identify the tastemakers and then get them to authenticate your product. You spread the news via word of mouth or, in these modern times, through print media and social media. You induce the best restaurants to carry and promote your wine. You introduce the notion of scarcity: there’s not much of this, folks, and everybody wants it, so you better get yours while to can.

Back to Bob Thompson’s “rabbit hutch.” Just as it’s nearly impossible to take a census of, say, 1,000 bunnies in a pen, because they’re reproducing so fast, so it’s nearly impossible to count the number of wineries in California. Some are “virtual” wineries, possessing no “bricks and mortar” facilities, merely buying grapes, must or finished wine from someone else and bottling it under their brand. The same wine might appear under a dozen labels. There are probably fewer wine brand startups these days, with the pandemic; but before the era of the virus, the explosion of labels, some tiny to the point of vanishing, was significant, and the explosion likely will begin again once the pandemic is over (may it happen soon).

All these factors mitigate against formulating a new classification, but somehow, we humans end up classifying wineries anyway, in more indirect, subtler ways. There’s something in our brains that longs to create order out of chaos. We’re uncomfortable with thousands of winery brands in California; it’s too messy and incomprehensible. So we classify and rank and compare in any way we can and, as the saying goes, perception is reality. Is Screaming Eagle really the best Cabernet in California because it’s the most expensive? No. But if enough people—people who count, that is—think it is, then it is.



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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