A Cult Napa Tasting – Not Your Everyday Affair

Best of California Cabernet
by John Szabo MS

John Tasting

John Szabo, MS

The following is a report on a (more than likely) once-in-a-lifetime tasting of the best of California cabernet, part of a week-long event with the rather grand title the “The California Wine Summit” organized by the Wine Institute of California last October. Admittedly, however, its grandness surpassed expectations, and this was just one of multiple landmark tastings throughout the week, if you can believe that.

The selection of wines was done simply (and cleverly) enough: the Institute asked some of California’s most respected writers, including Jon Bonné (San Francisco Chronicle), Linda Murphy (US contributor to the Oxford Companion To Wine and co-author with Jancis Robinson of American Wine), Alder Yarrow (Vinography: a wine blog), Karen MacNeil (author of The Wine Bible), and Patrick J. Comiskey (Wine & Spirits Magazine), to submit a list of their favorite Napa Cabernets, no holds barred.

The Institute then tallied up the results and the wines with the most mentions were tracked down, miraculously in some cases, and presented to our group of international wine press. All manner of rarities were included, the sort of tasting one hardly ever reads about, let alone participates in. And to make matters better, the tasting was expertly prepared and hosted by Master Sommeliers Geoff Kruth and Matt Stamp, while additional colour commentary was provided by Patrick Comiskey, Karen MacNeil and Alder Yarrow. It was extraordinarily grand, a tasting not even the great Chateaux of the Médoc could touch (not least because the Bordelais would never allow anyone else to select, let alone publicly comment on their wines, on their own dime).

A pretty nice line up of Napa Cabernet..

A pretty nice line up of Napa Cabernet…

The formal tasting was followed by dinner at Silver Oak, where more fine wines were heaped upon the table like the grandest Medieval wedding , including many older vintages of the same wines. It was a night to remember to be sure, but those later notes remain my private property.

Napa Cabernet: The Best of the Best

The reviews below were edited only for spelling, making it an intimate and unadulterated view of the moment, including some impressions that surprised even me. Wines are ordered by my score, top down; prices are approximate.

Diamond Creek 2009 Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain ($200.00)

Really pretty, lifted, floral, spicy, tar and roses-scented, almost nebbiolo-like red from the iconic Diamond Creek estate, in this case from the iron-rich red soils of the Red Rock Terrace parcel. The complexity is extraordinary to be sure. Tannins are grippy and firm, grasping your palate and leaving no doubt that this will age magnificently. The finish goes on and on. Extraordinary stuff.  Tasted October 2013. 98 points.

Dunn 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain ($90.00)

A supremely dense, spicy, lightly herbal-vegetal, scorched earth and mineral-flavoured wine within the regional, almost savage profile of Howell Mountain. The palate is rustic and thick, with firm, tannic structure – this will age magnificently no doubt – built on a solid frame, yet there’s more than enough fleshy fruit to ensure full integration over time. All in all, quite approachable considering the customary burly house style. Tasted October 2013. 95 points.

Corison 2009 Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley St. Helena ($125.00)

From Cathy Corison’s flagship, 40-year old vineyard planted on phylloxera-resistant St. George rootstock, the 2009 Kronos delivers a dense, dark-fruited, briary, highly spicy, orange peel-scented nose, with very well-integrated oak profile. It’s structurally tense, anchored on almost tart acids with ripe, almost red fruit, and old vine vinosity. Terrific length. I suspect this will be best from about 2017 on, with the potential to live well into its third decade. Tasted October 2013. 95 points.

Quintessa 2010 Napa Valley Rutherford ($145.00)

Classic, ripe black and blue fruit, with savoury forest floor, pine needle, marked but gentle wood influence, and high-toned floral notes. This is polished and elegant on a big frame, like Bordeaux in a very warm vintage, classy and complex. Best after 2015. Tasted October 2013. 95 points.

Spring Mountain 2010 Elivette Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain ($150.00)

Spring Mountain Vineyards has been producing cabernet for a century, with vineyards now farmed virtually biodynamically on the top of Spring Mountain and its volcanic and sedimentary soils. There’s a freshness and lifted floral note, more red fruit-driven, and light sweet baking spice touch alongside an earthy undertone. The palate offers excellent succulence, and fine-grained, firm tannins. A very fine and elegant wine, with depth and complexity, to be enjoyed after 2018 or so. Tasted October 2013. 95 points.

Ridge 2009 Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains ($160.00)

Apparently enough folks named the Monte Bello among their favourite wines that is was included in this otherwise all-Napa lineup. The 2009 includes about 30% merlot and petit verdot along with cabernet, offering wonderfully perfumed aromatics, high-toned, violet-floral, sweet but just ripe black berry fruit. Amazingly enough, the American oak in which this is aged is a gentle spice addition (wood is air-dried long-term). The palate is mid-weight in the usual elegant style of Ridge, with fine, succulent acids, balanced alcohol (13.5%) and terrific length. Although surprisingly approachable now, this is of course a wine with great tension and tremendous ageing potential. Best from 2019- 2039. Tasted October 2013. 95 points.

Spottswoode 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley St. Helena ($145.00)

A classically styled Napa Cabernet from the historic Spottswoode property, biodynamically-farmed, ripe yet with a distinct roasted vegetable note. Fruit is both black and blue, with a sweet core and dense concentration and very firm, ageworthy structure. Alcohol is generous. This is far from prime, I’d say this will be best after about 2018, and should last several decades after that without a stretch. Tasted October 2013. 94 points.

Scarecrow 2007 Rutherford ($500.00)

From an old plot of vines adjacent to Inglenook, planted in the 1940s. This is classy to be sure, with evident ripeness and concentration and a vinous, old wine density, excellent balance and extraordinary length. A very fine wine to be sure. There’s great precision and elegance beyond the dense masses of flavour – a wine you can truly drink and enjoy, not just sit on a pedestal. Tasted October 2013. 94 points.

Harlan Estates 2009 Oakville ($770.00)

The 2009 Harlan is quite classy and surprisingly approachable at this early stage (if still a long way from maturity), with a marvelous amalgam of earth, spice box, tobacco, leather and of course plenty of dark fruit, and dried prune, figs and dates. Tannins are bold, ripe, anchoring the masses of fruit, with excellent length. For fans of the full on, bold, dense, rich Napa style. Tasted October 2013. 94 points.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2009 SLV Cabernet Sauvignon, Stag’s Leap District ($145.00)

Quite sweet and oak-tinged on the nose, with masses of (high-quality) barrel spice notes, vanilla, bitter chocolate, espresso bean, plus dense black fruit verging on liqueur-like concentration. The palate is smooth and supple, with very ripe, plush tannins, generous alcohol and long, long finish. There’s a scorched earth, red iron-like mineral note, though this remains a wood-infused bottle for the time being. To be revisited after 2017, with longevity of a couple of decades I’d suspect. Tasted October 2013. 93 points.

Continuum 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Pritchard Hill ($175.00)

The project of Tim Mondavi, an estate (92% estate fruit) wine from about 40 acres on Pritchard Hill, with 15% cabernet franc on iron-rich volcanic-derived soil. The nose is suppressed for the moment, a dense and brooding wine, though with a surprisingly supple and approachable palate – the texture here is fully beguiling, silky, yet densely packed and high in alcohol. The finish is long but carried on alcohol vapours – more of a winemaker’s wine, yet very fine in any case. Best from 2015. Tasted October 2013. 93 points.

Bond 2009 Pluribus, Spring Mountain ($250.00)

A markedly spicy, and lifted, wood spice-driven wine, very refined and elegant, yet with high, palate warming alcohol. There’s an intriguing aromatic profile with orange peel nuances I more often associate with Italian wines. Structurally the wine is firm and fine-grained, buoyed on alcohol, with nutty, chestnut flavours lingering over ripe red and some black fruit. Great length.  Tasted October 2013. 93 points.

The iconic tower at Silver Oak

The iconic tower at Silver Oak

Silver Oak 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($110.00)

The all-American oak ageing regime of Silver Oak comes through in spades in this 2009, delivering plenty of melted butter, coconut, and sandalwood – the particular house style is well-marked. The palate is as always neither heavy nor light, with vibrant acids, nicely succulent and balanced. One gets the sense that the base material is really very fine here, though you must also enjoy the heavily wood-derived profile to enjoy the ensemble, or wait at least a decade before opening. Tasted October 2013. 91 points.

Dalla Valle Maya 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville ($N/A)

Fully ripe and raisined, evidently a forward and dense, stylized wine, complete with a touch of VA. The palate is thick, hot, very firm, almost astringent, with very good length. All in all, an exaggerated style, with challenging drinkability in my view. Tasted October 2013. 91 points.

Shafer 2009 Hillside Select, Stag’s Leap District ($275.00)

Full on blue fruit and espresso, wood-derived flavour, in an unabashedly ultra-ripe, Napa valley style. Alcohol is hot, likely over 15%, with blueberry yoghurt flavours. All in all this comes across as rather one-dimensional, not in the top league in my view, though revisit in 4-6 years. Tasted October 2013. 90 points.


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS

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