What kind of breakfast goes best with Cabernet? Blueberry muffin? Crêpes with lingonberry butter? Fruit compôte in a champagne/agave syrup? Let it be known that I utterly loath eggs, be they scrambled, poached, soft-boiled or mixed as part of an omelet. Granted, this may limit my choices at an All-You-Can-Eat breakfast buffet, but this was not a Quality Inn morning. No, at the seemingly ungodly hour of 9:30 AM, Your West Coast Oenophile was seated in an auditorium at the Culinary Institute of America’s Rudd Center for this fall’s Appellation St. Helena Media Tasting.
Frequent readers of my Sostevinobile blog know that I try never to drink wine before lunch. People who know me as a nocturnal creature or acerbic playwright recognize that, with my literary forays customarily dragging into the wee hours of the morning, I hardly ever to do ANYTHING before lunch. Impressive, therefore, that I actually rose, showered, caffeinated, and drove the 70 miles to the former Christian Brothers Winery before the time I customarily switch on my Macintosh to read my overnight e-mails.
The handful of attendees and I were greeted by Appellation St. Helena President Bob Dye, whose Charnu Winery would be featured among the various wines we would be sampling this morning. Following his salutatory remarks, a trio of St. Helena’s most distinguished growers gave us brief overviews on the course of the harvest for the wines we would be tasting, as well as the one which had just wrapped up literally hours before we had arrived.
First, Cathy Corison launched into an overview of 2007, the vintage whose universal excellence needs no introduction. Journeyman winemaker Philippe Melka painted a surprising picture of 2008, one of those underrated years that tend to blossom with age, not unlike the much-derided 1998 vintage. Finally, Mia Klein offered a mostly optimistic view of the just-completed 2010 harvest, which found one of its pockets of success in St. Helena (in contrast, nearby Diamond Mountain hadn’t even begun picking its 2010 fruit).
After a few questions, attendees set about the “arduous” task of working our way through 51 wines before noon. We started with a short flight of white wines from St. Helena’s 2009 vintage: a subdued 2009 Sauvignon Blanc
and a more grapefruity J. Lohr
’s 2009 Cuvée Blanc
, a traditional Bordeaux-style Sauvignon Blanc rounded with 10% Sémillon, nonetheless retained a semblance of grassiness as it concluded this flight.
A dozen of St. Helena’s top 2007 Cabernets comprised the next flight. Ever the misnomer, Anomaly
kicked off this round with a tantalizing 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon that blended 6% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot. Likewise, the 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
from boutique producer Boeschen Vineyards
featured 18% Petit Verdot, along with 2% each of Merlot and Malbec.
Boeschen was one of several wineries in this flight I had not known of previously. Jaffe Estate
featured their 2007 Metamorphosis
, an artful mélange of Cabernet Sauvignon with 15% Merlot. Midsummer Cellars
, aka Son of Heitz, showcased their 2007 Tomasson Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
, an unblended vintage still tight in the bottle but portending great promise with 3-5 years more aging. Parry Cellars
’ 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon
, a 200-case production from the self-proclaimed “Napa’s smallest single vineyard winery,” stood on the cusp of attaining its true potential, a wine veering on the exquisite. By comparison, Forman Vineyard
’s production of 2,100 case of their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon
makes them seem ginormous, yet this wine struck me as every bit appealing.
This round featured a couple of the morning’s panelists, as well. Bob Dye’s Charnu dazzled with their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon,
while Cathy Corison
poured her age-worthy 2007 Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
. Bob Egelhoff
who would join in for the Q&A session following the tasting, shared two of his wines, the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon
and his tanniny 2007 Walton Cabernet Sauvignon
that intimated future greatness in 3-5 years.
Napa’s Corley Family
produced a 2007 Yewell Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
from St. Helena that struck me as rather pleasant, whereas Crocker & Starr
served up a truly dexterous 2007 Stone Place Cabernet Sauvignon
that combined current drinkability with cellar worthiness.And, indeed, that would have sufficed as a wondrous event.
However, this being St. Helena, we returned after a brief break for cheese and quince jelly that CIA furnished to find our glasses rinsed and another 12 Cabs from the nether regions of the alphabet (R-W) awaiting our discernment.
Heidi Barrett blended in 5% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot in the splendid 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon
she assembled for Revana
, the Cab-only venture from Dr. Madaiah Revana, who also operates a Burgundian-style venture, Alexana
, in Carlton, OR. The wine did nothing to diminish Heidi’s widespread reputation as one of Napa’s foremost winemakers. Similarly, Philippe Melka flexed his considerable chops with his 2007 Aida Cabernet Sauvignon
from Chuck McMinn’s Vineyard 29
, then truly outdid himself with the 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
, a near masterpiece of a vintage. Keeping pace with these legends, my friend Chris Dearden showcased his craftsmanship with the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon (11% Petit Verdot, 8% Cabernet Franc)
he vinted for Shibumi Knoll
One of the early cult Cabernets, Spottswoode, still held its own with their 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from vineyards that have been organically farmed since 1985. Salvestrin also farms organically to produce their own superb 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. And Sabina Vineyards, a new and delightful discovery for me, made a suitable impression with their organically-grown 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, as well.
I’d first met Doug and Jane Wolf of Wolf Family Vineyards at Cheers! St. Helena in 2009, but had not realized they had redeveloped the former Inglewood Estate Vineyard. Once again, Karen Culler has crafted an elegant 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon that mirrored the 2006 vintage I had so enjoyed. I’d subsequently tasted Karen’s wines at Wine Entre Femme last spring, where I first encountered Titus Vineyards, who today impressed with their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon and the even more compelling 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Finally, to complete this flight, the reinvented master of White Zinfandel, Trinchero Napa Valley showed their true forte with their deeply impressive 2007 Mario’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.
After another break for cheese and quince, we embarked on what I call the Freestyle Round—12 different Bordelaise blends or varietal bottlings that spanned the 2005-2008 vintages. We started with an exceptionally nuanced Meritage, the 2006 La Reina from Calafia, a winery that has definitely not been under my radar. Ostensibly a Cabernet, with 22% Petit Verdot and 10% Malbec, the wine tasted redolent of all its synergistic components. Wolf Family returned with their 2007 Cabernet Franc, a most striking expression of this varietal rounded with 9% Cabernet Sauvignon, while Trinchero’s unblended 2007 Cabernet Franc seemed more subdued.
Trinchero also contributed their 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Central Park West Vineyard and 2008 Petit Verdot Central Park West Vineyard, two wines fortuitously devoid of any Knickerbocker heritage and yearning to reach their peak. By contrast, Ballentine’s nuanced 2008 Petit Verdot presented quite well now, with overtures of ageability through 2013.
I felt the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from J. Lohr had hinted of beginning to decline, while the 2006 Bisou, an unblended Cabernet Sauvignon from James Johnson Vineyards, portended to reach its apex in another 3-5 years. So too did the tightness of Hall Napa Valley’s 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Bergfeld Vineyard presage a future complexity I hope to revisit.
Tudal’s 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon struck me as a competent wine, given its relative yo
uth, while the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Rennie Reserve
from Flora Springs drank remarkably smoothly. Fittingly last, the 2008 Transformation
from Jaffe Estate, though predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, showed its 40% Merlot to be more pronounced.
It should not have surprised me that this flight had been so orthodox, as Napa rarely varies from the strictures of Bordeaux. The final round, an array of Zinfandels and Petite Sirahs, offered a wider latitude for the wineries, with varying results. Admittedly, I felt rather tepid about the 2007 Zinfandel Hayne Vineyard from Chase Cellars, but the 2007 Reserve Zinfandel Hayne Vineyard seemed more than appealing.
The ever-evolving Charles Krug showcased its own pair of Zins, the highly approachable 2007 Zinfandel alongside a compelling 2008 Limited Release Zinfandel. Its intimations of jamminess was echoed in the 2008 Zinfandel Aida Vineyard, a blend with 10% Petite Sirah, 5% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Petit Verdot, that Vineyard 29 poured. Titus returned with an earthy, pleasant 2008 Zinfandel, while Robert Biale dominated with his food-worthy 2008 Zinfandel Old Kraft Vineyard.
Biale paralleled his Zin with a striking 2008 Petite Sirah Thomann Station. Stanton Vineyards equally excelled with their lone contribution this morning, their 2008 Petite Sirah, as did Varozza Vineyards with their 2007 St. Helena Petite Sirah. Ballentine returned with a pleasant 2008 Petite Sirah that featured 4% Syrah and 1% Petit Verdot, while Salvestrin’s unblended 2008 Estate Petite Sirah clearly stood out amid this flight.
Readers know I go to great length to source potential wines for Sostevinobile, but Appellation St. Helena represented my first tasting that wrapped up before noon. Unaccustomed to enjoying wine before lunch, apart from some of the more decadent morning after breakfasts I have been known to serve, I wondered whether I would hold the same appreciation of these wine under a more familiar evening setting. A few days later, I had the opportunity to find out.
Two days after trekking up to St. Helena, I attended another tasting in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, sponsored by the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant and The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA). The Wine Merchant’s Debbie Zachareas handpicked 30 of her favorite Napa wineries for this catered fundraiser, including four of the featured St. Helena participants. Until I began to compose this section, though, I had not tried to compare my notes between the two tastings.
Once again, Anomaly poured its 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon. This evening, the wine also struck me as excellent, but ever-so-slightly down a score from its breakfast impression. Clearly, however, this vintage surpassed the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Steve Goldfarb poured alongside its successor.
Charlie Crocker was on hand this evening to pour a pair of his Crocker & Starr wines. Was it the personal touch? Was it the atmosphere of the event? Whatever the cause, I found his 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon even more appealing than it had been two days prior. And too bad he hadn’t included his 2009 Sauvignon Blanc at the Rudd Center—it would have made an interesting comparison with this evening’s pour, as well. Todd Newman stood in for Revana, pouring their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that showed as phenomenally as it had two days earlier. Surprisingly, their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon proved equally enticing, a remarkable consistency from two very disparate vintages.
Cathy Corison was on hand here, as ebullient as she had been on Wednesday. Comparison between her wines proved a bit elusive, as here she poured the 2006 Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which I found preferable to its 2007 version. Her 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, which she did not pour in St. Helena, also exceeded the 2007 Kronos, while even she conceded that the 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon she brought along as a special pouring seemed a bit past its prime.
The rest of the t
asting melded a lot of old friends with a lot of new friends, not to mention folks I ought to have met long ago. I’ve been trying to speak face-to-face with Michael Polenske about Sostevinobile
for quite some time, so it was fortuitous to find him pouring his remarkable Blackbird Vineyards
here. After I introduced myself, I reveled in his two proprietary (Merlot-predominant)
blends, the 2008 Arise (42% Merlot, 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc)
and the 2007 Illustration (70% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Malbec)
, a wine that could have stood with any of the Meritage from the St. Helena tasting. Jeff Smith’s Hourglass
, famed for its single vineyard Cabernet, dazzled with its extraordinary 2008 Blueline Merlot
, eclipsing what was nonetheless a phenomenal wine in its own right, the 2008 Blueline Cabernet Sauvignon
I suppose it’s a testament to my personal doggedness that only two of the participating wineries had not previously been familiar to Sostevinobile. Sean Larkin’s eponymous label offered their highly acclaimed 2007 Cabernet Franc, a stellar wine tempered with 13% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, and 2% Petite Verdot, and its fraternal twin, the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, equally appealing with its undercurrents of Merlot (11%) and Petit Verdot (4%). The astounding revelation for the evening was Realm Cellars, a St. Helena venture that excels at Bordeaux varietals and blends. The 2007 Falstaff Proprietary Red Blend proved an extraordinary Meritage that emphasized Cabernet Franc, with 13% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot and 7% Petit Verdot. Just as impressive, the 2007 Farella Park Cabernet Sauvignon, an unblended expression of the grape, utterly seduced with its lusciousness.
Ghost Block was certainly not an unfamiliar label, but I surmise from my tasting notes I had paid it short shrift from my inadvertent encounter at First Taste Yountville. This night, I was able to give a span of undivided attention to their striking 2009 Estate Sauvignon Blanc, Sur Lie, while appreciating the more modest ambitions of their 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. On the other hand, I have often been effusive in my praise of Brown Estate, and this evening’s encounter would do nothing to detract from my previous impressions. As always, their 2009 Zinfandel Napa Valley held its own with the previous vintages I have sampled, while their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon displayed an equal versatility with this varietal. In between, the highly popular 2007 Chaos Theory proved to be a rare iconoclast, blending 60% Zinfandel with 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, while their ultrarich 2007 Duppy Conqueror, a Cabernet Sauvignon dessert wine, further flouted Napa’s unwritten strictures.
I was a tad surprised Cain chose only to pour one wine, the NV Cain Cuvée, a slapdash blend from both their 2006 and 2007 vintages of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot, but was favorably impressed. I missed out on the 2007 Quintessa, among several wines that ran short (somehow, I completely missed out on both Neal Family and Miner before I could try them), but I did manage to sample the marvelous 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from sister label Faust. Likewise, I only had the chance to resample Philippe Melka’s 2007 Fac
ets of Gemstone, a near-equal blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, from Gemstone Vineyard, but reveled in my good fortune.
On the other hand, I do wish I had been able to try another Melka endeavor, the 2007 Entre Nous Cabernet Sauvignon
that Kristine Ashe
poured, but I thoroughly enjoyed her 2008 Entre Nous Sauvignon Blanc
. Bumping into Gretchen Lieff
, I managed to take in a taste of her 2009 Sauvignon Blanc
before I revisited with Napa’s tallest winemaking duo, Tom and John Garrett of Detert Family Vineyards
, for a second taste of their compelling 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon
that I had tried at Acme Fine Wines
’ Pulse Tasting this past summer.
I confess I had quaffed more than a couple of glasses of the 2009 Blueprint Sauvignon Blanc Erin Lail poured at the Bardessono art gallery debut during another summertime visit, so I wisely deferred instead to her 2007 Blueprint Cabernet Sauvignon. I did, however, try both the 2009 Albion, a Sauvignon Blanc tempered with Sémillon, and the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain District from Marston Family Vineyard, yet another Melka project.
Former New York Mets pitcher Tom Seaver actually named every individual vine on his Calistoga estate. George Hendry may not be quite as fanatical, but there is an exacting precision to the 2007 Block 7 & 22 Zinfandel and the 2006 Block 28 Zinfandel I enjoyed this evening.In a similar vein, Maroon Vineyards poured its 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Old M Block from Howell Mountain, alongside a striking 2007 Zinfandel Chiles Valley.
My friend Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores paralleled Maroon with her 2007 Rutherford Estate Zinfandel and a deep 2006 Rutherford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. I had hoped to see Garen or Shari Staglin attending their wines, but engaged in a pleasant chat with daughter Shannon as she poured the family’s 2007 Salus Chardonnay and well-structured 2005 Rutherford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Equally impressive were the 2008 Chardonnay and 2005 Laureate Cabernet Sauvignon from White Rock Vineyards, certified as both a Napa Green winery and a Napa Green vineyard.
Also committed to sustainable winegrowing, Round Pond validated its “Hot Wine” reputation with their crisp 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, alongside their 2007 Rutherford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. The hottest winery on hand, however, truly had to have been Kongsgaard, with its 2008 The Judge Chardonnay—a wine worth every cent of the $165/bottle it commands—and its flat-out excellent 2007 Syrah, which would have been the top representation of this varietal even if it hadn’t been the only one poured this evening!
The tasting wrapped up with two somewhat conventional, albeit excellent, endeavors. Screaming Eagle founder Jeannie Phillips’ former real estate partner, Ren Harris’ Paradigm, contrasted its 2007 Merlot with a 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. Likewise, Switchback Ridge poured its 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2008 Merlot. The four wines served as a perfect coda to an all-round splendid evening.
I do wish that this tasting, as well as the earlier event in St. Helena, had embraced a bit of the esoteric and experimental sides of winemaking that does exist in Napa. After all, the AVA doesn’t simply limit itself to the approved Bordeaux varietals + Chardonnay + Zinfandel; Sostevinobile has encountered a wide swath of grapes grown throughout the county, from Carménère and St. Macaire to Ribolla Gialla and Sangiovese. Granted, one can hardly quarrel with success, and few regions do anywhere near as well with the mainstream wines that predominate here, but wherein lies the harm in showcasing the full panoply of what is available?
Still, a Cabernet that tastes as marvelous at 10 AM as it did at 10 PM leaves little about which to quarrel. And so I shan’t.