Napa's Cultish Cabernets

All notes by Ben Sherwin


A great event with some great wines. I love mature wines as much as the next guy, but there is nothing wrong with enjoying something bright and shiny. To say you can't love both is like saying you can't love soccer and football. Things linked at their core, but fundamentally different. So, 12 of us celebrated the greatness of Napa Cabernet the best way we know drinking it. Missing were the big boys (Colgin, Harlan, Sloan, etc.), but I think we got a pretty damn good collection of wines if I do say so my damn self.

Thanks to Mike for organizing (as always). I'm not sure I've been to a more contentious tasting, but it was all in good fun. Thanks to everyone for bringing such great wines.

We started with a...
  • 2005 Eric Kent Wine Cellars Chardonnay Russian River Valley - USA, California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
    A nice example of RRV Chardonnay. Somewhat reticent on the nose with some white stone fruit and toast, but it really comes alive fruit-wise (peach and melon) on the palate. Decent acidity and a hint of minerality. Nice complexity through the midpalate with hints of exotic spice. The oak was tucked in pretty nicely, although it probably could use another year in the bottle.
...before starting in earnest.

A Slow Start
Nothing wrong with any of these wines, but none that really blew the doors off. Clearly the least favored flight of the night. For my money, the V29 was the clear stand out.
  • 1994 Behrens & Hitchcock Cabernet Sauvignon Staglin - USA, California, Napa Valley
    A nice Cabernet that I ultimately found a bit linear and lacking in complexity for a wine of this maturity. The nose was pleasant enough with some white flowers, blackcurrant and anise. Decent weight with a slight herbal quality on the midpalate that wasn't there on the nose. The tannins were fully resolved and while this probably has some life left, I doubt its going to get any better. Not a bad wine, just outclassed by the competition.
  • 1995 Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon - USA, California, Napa Valley, Oakville
    I sense that this would have been a better wine to sit down to a meal with rather than sample at a tasting. The nose was quite prefumy with lots of cherry, herbs and anise. Unfortunately, I picked up a big dose of VA that really messed it up for me. I could see how others might think it was an elevating characteristic, but I found it off-putting. The midpalate was a little flat as the tannins have not released their chalky grip on this wine. My guess is that it could have used a quick decant.
  • 1997 Vineyard 29 Cabernet Sauvignon - USA, California, Napa Valley, St. Helena
    Now we're talking. A nicely made wine with clearly delineated varietal characteristics. Expressive nose of sweet, dark fruit, licorice and tobacco leaf. Smooth entry to a lush wine that shows off nice depth and concentration. Finishes long and complex with a little baking spice on the back end. Not a blockbuster, but a seamless soup to nuts effort. WOTF
The Wines of Mark Herold
The flight of the night by a wide margin. The Meruses (Meri?) showed beautifully and the Kobalt really showed some great bang for the buck. The 2002 Merus was a revelation.
  • 1999 Merus Cabernet Sauvignon - USA, California, Napa Valley
    A rich, dense wine that is one of the better wines I've had from this (not my favorite) vintage. Beautiful, exhuberant nose of cassis, black cherry, earth and leather with a sweetness that walks the right side of porty. Perhaps a soupçon of VA? Big, round and juicy in the mouth and, while fruit is the hallmark of this wine, it is framed admirably by an underlying acidity and ample tannin. I found it interesting that the wine showed well right away and didn't really change much in the glass. My guess is that it will plateau at this level for the next 5 or 6 years, although it's got the stuff to last at least another 10.
  • 2002 Merus Cabernet Sauvignon - USA, California, Napa Valley
    A massive wine, with exceptional depth and breadth. Soaring nose of dark black fruit, toast and asian spices. Also hints of black licorice and a hint of pepper. Plush and sensuous it spreads out over the palate without losing its focus. While it had tremendous weight, it never feels heavy and maintains a surpising nimbleness. It possesses the impeccable structure and balance that you'd expect from Merus and that will carry this wine for a long, long time. This is only going to get better, but it's a WOW wine right now. Superb. WOTF and WOTN
  • 2003 Kobalt Cabernet Sauvignon - USA, California, Napa Valley
    A nice effort from an uneven vintage. It doesn't knock your socks off, but more grows on you as it sits in the glass. Expressive nose of black and blue fruit, ample vanilla and bacon fat. This wine is absolutely packed on the palate. Assuming that it unwinds in an organized fashion, I think this will be even more impressive. The tannins are ripe and lack the harshness that makes this an uneven vintage. Good now, I think this a good one to lay down for a while, depending on whether you like your pleasures intellectual or visceral.
A Mixed Bag
I liked this flight better than others and this flight held the most disagreements about individual wines. Still, nothing to shake a stick at here.
  • 2003 Switchback Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Peterson Family Vineyard - USA, California, Napa Valley
    A young, stellar wine, it possesed an interesting, complex and evolving nose. It started out more on the salty, savory side with some notes of grilled meat, but some the red fruit picked up nuance of anise, chocolate and white truffle. It showed ample weight as the fruit turned darker on the palate and picked up some asian spice, always with the telltale chocolate. Still, for all the interesting elements, I didn't feel it was tightly knit together at this point. Decanted for almost 6 hours, it still evolved in the glass. I'm not sure if it knows what it wants to be yet and I'd definitely recommend holding for a long while. WOTF and 3rd place WOTN
  • 2002 Blankiet Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Paradise Hills Vineyard - USA, California, Napa Valley
    A big powerhouse of a wine, this could have used some heavy duty decanting. Even so, it showed some nice spicy, savory black fruit with nice elements of white flowers and mocha on the nose. It is exceptionally tightly wound on the palate and if that solid core of fruit ever explodes, then look out. This wine was clearly built to last and I would keep my hands off for now.
  • N.V. ZD Wines Cabernet Sauvignon Abacus - USA, California, Napa Valley
    Solid and fairly seamless, the effortlessness it displays renders it somewhat unexciting. It just felt a little textbook next to some of the other wines. Still, it had nice complexity with deep black fruit, licorice and tobacco leaf. It was interesting to try a Cabernet solera.
Bringing It Home Strong
Not a bad way to finish off the night.
  • 2002 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select - USA, California, Napa Valley, Stags Leap District
    If it is possible to feel bad for a wine, I feel bad for this one. I've had it a couple of times and I think it really suffers for the albatross of the 100 point score. That's perfection, so it's almost like a gotcha trying to find flaws instead of enjoying it for what it extraordinary wine. That said, I'm not sure of the value of opening this wine now, other than to track its evolution. I just find it to be a massive wall o' wine right now, not unlike tasting a young first growth (which is probably an apt comparison). An inch wide and a mile deep. Nonetheless, everything is there and one can't help admiring it for what it will be if what it is now is something less. Like watching a young Mozart. WOTF and 2nd place WOTN
  • 2003 Scarecrow Cabernet Sauvignon Cohn Vineyard - USA, California, Napa Valley, Rutherford
    Another bruiser of a wine. The nose really jumps out and grabs you with deep, dark fruit fruit, espresso, licorice and toast. Tightly packed layers of fruit slowly open in the glass providing rich, chewy pleasure even to the most fatigued palate. Great concentration and wonderful focus for such a big wine. It will be interesting to see where this goes in terms of developing the more complex nuances for which we love Cabernet. A stellar first effort.
  • 2004 Maybach Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Materium - USA, California, Napa Valley, Oakville
    A bit out of its depth next to the HSS and Scarecrow, it is the nevertheless a classy, well-made effort. Not surprising for a wine this young, the oak is a bit fatiguing, but there are some really nice elements here. The nose is expressive if not explosive with black and blue fruit, white flowers and, yes, toasty oak. It picks up speed as it hits the mouth with black cherry, cassis and black plums nicely layers and easily delineated. The tannins are ripe and sweet and provide a nice lift to the mouthfeel. I'd give this some time. It has ample structure and is impeccably balanced to weight out some of the awkwardness that it shows at the moment. I don't think it will ever be a great wine, but I'm a fan.


CLONYC Blog coming in 2007

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