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11.06.2010

Looking Forward To, and Back On, the Last Decade of Napa Cabernet

napa_decade.jpgThere are few types of wine writing I tend to ignore so completely as I do vintage reports. The generally pithy paragraphs that attempt to sum up a vintage in Sonoma, for instance, are about as useful as a few sentences dedicated to an attempt at characterizing the quality of food in Lower Manhattan. No matter what you might say, there are a thousand and one exceptions.

This vague uselessness tends to be true even if the vintage report purports to speak at the level of an individual AVA or appellation. There are just too many differences in micro climates across a region, not to mention the single most important thing that determines the quality of the vintage: the skill of the winegrower. Hence the well known truism that great winegrowers can make great wine in the most challenging years.

The only time that vintage reports are at all interesting is when the year has been uniformly and particularly tough. When the year falls somewhere between tough and total disaster, a broad assessment can be more accurate, but it is never sufficient.

Which brings me to the 2010 vintage in Northern California. By all accounts, this has been one hell of a challenging year for wine in Northern California.

So when the Napa Valley Vintners association offered up four top Napa winemakers and superstar vineyard manager David Beckstoffer to share their stories of the vintage with members of the press in San Francisco, I took an extra long lunch break from work and went to hear what they had to say.

It didn't hurt that each of them brought along an entire decade of wine to taste, from 2001 to 2010.

The session began with Beckstoffer giving an overview of the vintage in Napa from his perspective. Apparently the year started off spectacularly, with a nice wet winter that left a lot of groundwater replenished and topped up reservoirs.

But then the rain didn't stop as the year moved into April and then May. And that's when things started to go south.

From unseasonably late, cool rains into June, to an unusually chilly summer punctuated with an excruciating 4 straight days of 100+ degree temperatures in many parts, to 8 inches of rain in the midst (for some people) of harvest, Mother Nature threw one curve ball after another.

People who opened up their canopies in the summer by thinning leaves to extract as much sunlight as they could from the gloomy days lost a lot of fruit to sunburn when the heat spike happened. And then when the harvest rains came, mildew was a problem for some grapes, especially those with tighter clusters that trap moisture.

The folks that had a lot of experienced vineyard management labor on tap were able to salvage some good grapes, however, though after the sunburned and mildewed clusters were taken out, yields were generally much lower by the end of harvest.

Beckstoffer went on to suggest (and was backed up by the winemakers in attendance) that the fruit that did arrive perfectly ripe in bins at the end of harvest had, in general, gotten the opportunity to ripen more slowly, under less heat than normal, and seemed to be making for a higher acid, lower alcohol vintage across the board.

Of course, that all needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Some producers likely had a calamitous harvest this year, while others may have exceptional fruit. We'll just have to see what happens when the wines are ready for tasting in a couple of years.

After the readout on the harvest, it was time to take a look at the first decade of the 20th Century in Napa through the lens of four producers: Cakebread, Corison, Far Niente, and Opus One.

Vertical tastings are some of the most educational activities that wine lovers can experience. They can help teach you to taste what characteristics of a wine are factors of the unique circumstances of the year, provided the winemaker is both talented enough and consistent enough to not make radical changes from year to year.

Conversely, for wineries that are making changes, such tastings can afford an opportunity to watch a winery's style, not to mention the wine itself, evolve over time.

This particular tasting was remarkable for its inclusion of barrel and tank samples of 2008, 2009, and even 2010 wines.

So without further ado, here's what the first decade of the 21st century looked like for four Napa producers.

CAKEBREAD
Cakebread is one of Napa's best known brands. The Cakebread family has been producing wine since 1973 when photographer Jack Cakebread took the plunge and bought some vineyards to start making wine with his name on it. The Dancing Bear Ranch is a new project for the winery on Howell Mountain, and the first vintage harvested from the vineyard was 2002.

2002 Cakebread Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright black cherry fruit with hints of cocoa powder and nutmeg. In the mouth the wine is bright and lush with dark black cherry fruit, and slightly tacky tannins that grip at the edges of the tongue. Good acidity makes the fruit flavors bright, but a light bitterness and somewhat unintegrated feel to the wine keeps it from performing at the top of its game. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $105.

2003 Cakebread Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of forest floor, black cherry fruit and roasted espresso bean aromas. In the mouth the wine offers beautiful velvety tannins that wrap and flow around a body of rich black cherry, cola, and roasted espresso flavors. Hints of sweet oak and its vanilla scent weave their way through the wine, even as an earthier, even leathery aspect adds a base note. Tasting very complete, very well integrated with nice acid balance, this wine is drinking beautifully. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: 105. Click to buy.

2004 Cakebread Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and cola, with hints of cassis. In the mouth, rich cola flavors mix with chocolate and cherry flavors that are surrounded by lightly leathery tannins. Nice acidity and restrained oak make this a very nice package. Score: around 9. Cost: $105. Click to buy.

2005 Cakebread Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of licorice, chocolate, and black cherry liqueur. In the mouth black cherry and cassis flavors meld together while grippy, leathery tannins wrap around the core of the wine. A nice cocoa powder quality lingers through the finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $105. Click to buy.

2006 Cakebread Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a chocolate and cherry aroma that is quite disarming. Bright cherry and chocolate flavors dominate the palate, with a hint of sweet oak and a nice, non-woody vanilla note lingering in the finish. Restrained tannins and nice acidity. Score: around 9. Cost: $105. Click to buy.

2007 Cakebread Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of grapey cassis and black cherry aromas. In the mouth it is bright and juicy, with cassis and chocolate flavors mixed with a hint of licorice and cedar spice. The licorice and cassis linger long through the finish, buoyed by good acidity. A hint of sweet oak creeps into the finish. Not yet released to the public. Score: around 9. Not yet released.

2008 Cakebread Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a very primary black cherry aroma. In the mouth the wine is explosively bright and cherry driven with a grapey quality that gives it an exuberant youth. Needs to settle down a bit in the bottle and gain some gravitas, but when it does it will likely be a very nice wine. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Not yet released.

2009 Cakebread Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain
Dark purple in color, this wine smells of black cherry and cocoa powder. In the mouth it has a wonderful plush texture and a raw power and richness that is quite appealing. Velvety tannins sneak around in the background, waiting to make their appearance as the wine finishes with floral and fruit. Score: around 9. Not yet released.

2010 Cakebread Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain
Test lot from tank. Selected blocks of the estate vineyards. Juicy and sour, with black cherry and cola flavors. Delicious and drinkable, with great acidity that puckers the cheeks. Hints of slightly greenish tannins hang at the edges of the mouth. Not rated.


CORISON VINEYARDS
Winemaker Cathy Corison worked for a lot of other people before she finally saved up enough money to buy a piece of property and make her own wines. From her first vintage in 1987, Corison has followed her own instincts rather than the trends of the marketplace, which means a more old-world style in her wines than most of her neighbors. Her Kronos Vineyard Cabernet is her flagship bottling.

2001 Corison Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of bright cherry fruit, wet earth and leather. In the mouth a light violet scent creeps into the wonderfully smooth mélange of cherry and wet dirt. Smooth, impeccably balanced, with great acidity and fine grained, restrained tannins, the wine soars through a long finish. Delicious. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $90. Click to buy.

2002 Corison Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in color, this wine has a nose of black cherry, Bing cherry and wet slate aromas. In the mouth the wine explodes with a juicy cassis quality that was not evidenced in the nose. These bright flavors are backed up with black cherry, cocoa powder, and a deep earthiness that is quite disarming. Hints of cedar linger in the finish along with cocoa powder and forest floor flavors. Fine grained, muscular tannins hang at the edges of the mouth, and will no doubt continue to mellow and smooth over time. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $100. Click to buy.

2003 Corison Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dark cherry, smoked meats, and pencil lead. In the mouth, the wine has a powerful black cherry, cassis, and tobacco quality with a lingering gorgeous pencil lead flavor through the very long finish. Fantastic acidity delivers a wine of great power while remaining graceful. Mouth coating, suede-textured tannins linger with cedar notes along with that stunning graphite quality long after the wine has left the mouth. Outstanding. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $90. Click to buy.

2004 Corison Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a wonderful cola and black cherry aroma to it. In the mouth, cola and black cherry flavors mix with dark earth and chocolate flavors. Powdery tannins hang in the background as the wine lingers long in the finish. Excellent acidity. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $120. Click to buy.

2005 Corison Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of cola and black cherry with an undertone of pencil lead. In the mouth, that graphite note gets a stonier, earthier flavor that is then mixed with dark cherry fruit. Great acidity, fantastic balance, this wine is quite juicy and delicious, but clearly in its infancy. Very tasty now, and undoubtedly delicious in another five years as well. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $100. Click to buy.

2006 Corison Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Dark garnet n the glass, this wine smells of graphite, black cherry, and adds a nice cedar quality with some exposure to oxygen. In the mouth, cherry, graphite and wet earth flavors linger pleasingly on a bed of fine grained tannins. Great acid balance. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2007 Corison Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry, leather, and hints of pencil lead. In the mouth bright cherry flavors bounce with great acidity amidst forest floor and stonier qualities that linger through the finish. Bright, exuberant, and very young, this wine needs some time to settle down. Score: around 9. Not yet released.

2008 Corison Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Bright, medium to dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, leather, and quite unusually for Corison's wines, a bit of oak. In the mouth, sour cherry, black cherry, and cedar mix with a hint of sweet oak that lingers into the finish. Winemaker Cathy Corison suggests this wine is in bottle shock as it was just bottled a week or two ago. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Not yet released.

2009 Corison Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Barrel sample. Medium to dark purple in the glass, this barrel sample smells of cassis, black cherry, and a hint of pencil lead. In the mouth leathery, very grippy tannins enclose flavors of cassis and black cherry. Notes of chocolate and cedar emerge on the finish. The tannins have a nice fine grain to them. Good acidity. Score: around 9. Not yet released.

2010 Corison Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Tank sample. Inky opaque purple in the glass, this tank sample has bright black cherry and cassis flavors, with broad tannins. Bright, mouth puckering acidity and smooth fruit. Tasty. Would love to mix this with seltzer. Not rated.

FAR NIENTE
Far Niente, started in 1885, was a casualty of Prohibition until the estate and its name were revived in 1979 by Gil Nickel. Since then, Far Niente has become one of Napa's better known brands, especially for Cabernet Lovers. Winemaker Dirk Hampson overseas a team that produces a number of single vineyard bottlings each year. The wine on offer for this tasting is the Estate cabernet, which is made up of fruit from primarily the winery's Stelling vineyard right behind the winery, as well as a little fruit from the winery's sister vineyard Nickel and Nickel down the road in Oakville.

2001 Far Niente Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of chocolate, cedar, and a hint of well worn leather. In the mouth it offers aromatic and intense flavors of cedar, chocolate, and dried cherries, with some fresh dark cherry fruit rumbling about in the basement. Good acidity, smooth tannins, and well integrated oak flavors. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90. Click to buy.

2002 Far Niente Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville
Very dark garnet in color, this wine has a nose of black cherry and chocolate flavors. In the mouth, drying, black tea flavored tannins wrap around a core of black cherry and chocolate fruit. Scents of tobacco and a slightly woody bitterness linger in the finish. The oak is well integrated, and the acidity nicely balanced. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $225. Click to buy.

2003 Far Niente Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of ripe black cherries, candied violets, and a hint of licorice. In the mouth bright black cherry fruit is rimmed with lightly tacky tannins and underwritten by a bright grapey, licorice like flavor that reminds me a bit of Good and Plenty candy. Excellent acidity. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $145. Click to buy.

2004 Far Niente Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville
Dark garnet in color , this wine smells of sweet oak, dark cherry, and graphite. In the mouth black cherry and cassis flavors mix with sweet oak's vanilla and coffee flavors. Nice acidity and muscular tannins hold this wine firmly on the palate. The finish offers oak, cherry, and chocolate flavors. Score: around 9. Cost: $120. Click to buy.

2005 Far Niente Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of dark black cherry fruit aromas with hints of green herbs and bits of licorice scents. In the mouth the wine is unusually powerful, with brawny tannins, and a core of black cherry and cassis flavor that linger very long through the finish. The oak is well restrained and nicely integrated. Give this wine some time and it will sing a great song. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $115. Click to buy.

2006 Far Niente Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis. In the mouth aggressive tannins grip the front of the palate, and flavors of cherry and cassis linger with hints of cocoa powder in the finish. Needs some time. Good acidity and nice balance. Score: around 9. Cost: $90. Click to buy.

2007 Far Niente Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright black cherry and cassis. In the mouth the wine has deep expansiveness, with lush black cherry and earthy flavors, mixed with well integrated oak flavors that emerge a bit more in the finish. Fine grained tannins, and wonderful texture. Good acidity. Score: around 9. Cost: $85. Click to buy.

2008 Far Niente Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis with notes of cedar. In the mouth the wine is powerful and juicy, with broad shouldered tannins. Black cherry, cassis, and chocolate flavors mix nicely with a deeper earthiness and no real perceivable oak. This will turn into a tremendous wine with some time in bottle. Nicely balanced despite its power. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Not yet released.

2009 Far Niente Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville
Barrel sample. Very dark purple in the glass this barrel sample has a bright plummy cassis aroma. In the mouth grippy, velvety tannins grip the palate while rich flavors of cassis and black cherry dance around. Nice acidity. A rich, broad wine. Score: around 9. Not yet released.

OPUS ONE
Opus One is the mega-famous joint venture between the late Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild. The two met in the Seventies and forged a friendship, as well as the first example of a major joint venture between the Old World of traditional French wine aristocracy and the upstart California wine industry. Their first vintage in 1979 went on to be the highest priced case of wine ever sold California when it was offered at the first ever Napa Wine Auction in 1981. Today the winery continues the tradition established by its founders, making a single wine each year from its estate vineyards.

2001 Opus One Proprietary Red, Napa Valley
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cut green herbs, graphite, and toasted oak. In the mouth, dark cherry and graphite flavors mix with the spicy tobacco notes of toasted oak. Nice acidity and beautifully taut tannins give the wine a very nice feel. The oak has a heavier presence, but is not extreme. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $200. Click to buy.

2002 Opus One Proprietary Red, Napa Valley
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet oak, dark cherry fruit, and a hint of meatiness. In the mouth sweet oak flavors dominate, along with massive, mouth coating tannins that wrap around a core of cherry and chocolate fruit. The oak lingers mercilessly in the finish. Good acidity and well packaged as a wine, albeit a little heavy handed to my taste. Those who like their Cabs massive will enjoy it. Score: around 9. Cost: $200. Click to buy.

2003 Opus One Proprietary Red, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and sweet oak. In the mouth, you almost taste the coffee and sweet vanilla oak tannins before you taste the wine. These strong tannins wrap around flavors of sweet oak and cherry, with a hint of red licorice. Coffee, chocolate, and espresso notes linger in the finish. The oak here is too dominant for my taste, though other than that, the wine is relatively well balanced. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $200. Click to buy.

2004 Opus One Proprietary Red, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, cocoa powder, and sweet oak. In the mouth, grippy tannins tightly clutch flavors of cherry and chocolate, and the oak lends espresso and vanilla flavors. The oak is pretty well integrated, though prominent. Nice acidity and balance. This wine will age quite well for a long while. Score: around 9. Cost: $200. Click to buy.

2005 Opus One Proprietary Red, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of wet dirt, black cherry, and hints of sweet oak. In the mouth the wine is powerful and expansive, with broad flavors of graphite, black cherry, and well integrated sweet oak. The finish is long and aromatically sweet, with hints of vanilla and oak, but also cherry and that cocoa powder earthiness that the aroma suggested. This may well be the best vintage of Opus One I've ever tasted. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $190. Click to buy.

2006 Opus One Proprietary Red, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells heavily of sweet oak and cherry. In the mouth the sweet oak dominates the palate, encircled by powdery, coffee flavored tannins. A core of cherry fruit makes a valiant showing but tends to be subsumed by the oak. The finish is coffee laden and long. Good acidity and structure mean this wine will age for some time. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $160. Click to buy.

2007 Opus One Proprietary Red, Napa Valley
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright cherry and cola with notes of chocolate, this wine has a raw power that is impressive. Muscular, grippy tannins surround flavors of cherry, chocolate, and sweet oak with vanilla and cedar qualities. The sweet oak lingers in the finish, but is already well integrated and will continue to improve with time, I wager. Score: around 9. Cost: $160. Click to buy.

2008 Opus One Proprietary Red, Napa Valley
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of tobacco, cherry, and chocolate. In the mouth the wine offers aggressive, leathery tannins that wrap around flavors of cherry, chocolate, coffee and sweet oak. The sweet oak and chocolate linger in the finish. Score: around 9. Not yet released.

2009 Opus One Proprietary Red, Napa Valley
Barrel sample. Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich black cherry and chocolate. In the mouth the wine is huge and powerful and has a fantastic texture and breadth. Flavors of black cherry, chocolate, and very little sign of oak at this point in its evolution. Quite a powerful wine, this will be exquisite when it is ready to drink especially if the oak remains restrained. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Barrel sample, not yet released.

2010 Opus One Proprietary Red, Napa Valley
Block blend, in barrel, pre-malolactic fermentation. Inky purple in the glass, this wine smells of grapey cassis and cola. In the mouth the tannins are heavily aggressive and yank the tongue about a bit. Cedar and wet dirt in the finish. Hard to evaluate at this point. Not rated.

Comments (2)

randomGurl wrote:
11.08.10 at 11:57 PM

I enjoyed reading this article and detailed tasting notes. I really like the Cabs from Corison Winery. I visited the winery for the first time last summer and tasted the 2005 Kronos. Ooohhhh... so delicious. I also like Cabs from Cornerstone Cellars. But I don't purport to be an expert on whether it measures up with the rest of these. Most folks pair wines with food. I like to pair mine with Jazz. The Kronos made the list paired with Cannonball Adderley's "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy". Though it pairs quite well with his rendition of "Autumn Leaves" too. C

11.10.10 at 8:22 AM

Alder, I heard from Stag's Leap's guys, when I visited Nicki Pruss recently, that they are quite thrilled with their 2010's so far. They picked much later than normal. We'll see... To me, it seems that a long cool extended hang-time and dry weather toward the end of the season bode well.

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