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10.23.2013

Icon Wines of Napa: A Tasting

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What would you do if someone offered to hold a tasting of all the best Cabernets in Napa according to you? You'd give them a list, and then do a little dance, and then you'd show up early with bells on.

That's not entirely how it went down, but a few weeks ago I was indeed invited to help put on a tasting of many of Napa's top wines for a group of visiting writers, sommeliers, and wine buyers from all over the world.

Organized by the Wine Institute, this tasting and the dinner that followed were the penultimate event in a five-day, no-holds-barred tour of California wine that these visitors were experiencing.

The Institute asked myself and several of the other wine writers who they had employed as hosts and moderators during the week to submit a list of our "most favorite" Napa Cabernets. According to the Institute, they selected the most commonly chosen bottlings, and put together a tasting, hosted by Master Sommeliers Geoff Kruth and Matt Stamp. Writers Patrick Comiskey, Karen MacNeil, and myself were also present to offer color commentary on the wines and the wineries.

We ended up with quite a lineup, and certainly many of the very best Cabernets that Napa had to offer. And apparently enough people mentioned Ridge Monte Bello, so it ended up in there too.

There were a few missing from my ultimate Cabernet list (Dominus, Kapscandy, and Araujo, most notably, along with Futo, Heitz Martha's Vineyard, and a few other candidates) but no one, myself included, was particularly complaining about having to spend an evening tasting these wines.

As if the superstar lineup of wines wasn't enough, we then proceeded to go to dinner, where another batch of wines was on offer, including a number of older vintages from the same producers, some of which were stunning.

So for your educational, and perhaps envy-inducing pleasure, here are my tasting notes from the whole "ordeal."

PART I
Formal guided tasting.

2009 Silver Oak Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of whiskey barrel and coconut over the top of cherry. In the mouth bright cherry fruit has great acidity, but very drying tannins. Lean and narrow, with sweet fruit and too much wood. 13.9% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $ 95. click to buy.

2009 Corison "Kronos Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of violets and cedar and forest floor. In the mouth the wine is bright and juicy with cherry and licorice on top of a beautiful deep earthy mineral core. Fabulous acidity and length, not to mention a gorgeous texture. 13.1% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $130. click to buy.

2010 Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa
Dark garnet in the the glass, this wine smells of violets, cassis, and tobacco. In the mouth gorgeous, lush black cherry and cassis flavors have supple but very muscular tannins and excellent acidity. Still quite young and somewhat tight, but lip staining and rich. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $140. click to buy.

2009 BOND "Pluribus" Proprietary Red Wine, Spring Mountain District, Napa
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich cassis and black cherry. In the mouth, deep wet dirt and cassis flavors mix with black cherry and earth. Massive tannins and bright acidity don't distract from the richness of this wine. Fabulous.14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $340. click to buy.

2009 Stags Leap Wine Cellars "SLV" Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District, Napa
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of toasted oak, graphite and deep rich dark cherry fruit. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful supple smoothness with gorgeous, muscular tannins, great acidity, and impeccable balance. The wine walks a fine line between elegance and rusticity but with serious class. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90. click to buy.

2009 Shafer Vineyards "Hillside Select" Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District, Napa
Inky purple in the glass, this wine smells of bright cassis and black cherry. In the mouth the wine has a deep cherry and chocolate richness, with thick fleecy tannins and a hint of sweetness to it. Rich, thick, and somewhat blocky today, it is not showing as well as it has on previous tastings. 15.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $240. click to buy.

2009 Harlan Estate Proprietary Red Wine, Oakville, Napa
Dark garnet in the get glass, this wine smells of raisins, chocolate, and roasted figs. In the mouth the wine is huge and rich with some alcoholic heat that carries massively rich flavors of cherry and cassis across the palate. Too big..14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $675. click to buy.

2009 Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Napa
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of crushed nuts, cocoa powder, and cherries with a hint of pyrazine green bell pepper. In the mouth the wine offers bright flavors of cherry, tobacco, green bell pepper, and earth. It is rich and remarkably generous for its age, as Dunn wines generally need more time to open up. This is stunning. 13.9% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $90. click to buy.

2010 Quintessa Proprietary Red Wine, Rutherford, Napa
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, cassis, and wet earth. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful cola quality, cherry and tobacco. A wonderful balance between leanness and richness with good acidity and well integrated oak. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $130. click to buy.

2010 Continuum Proprietary Red Wine, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich cherry fruit and hints of tobacco and licorice. In the mouth, licorice, cherry, and tobacco flavors have a wonderful rich creamy quality and bright fruit Character. Wonderfully supple tannins, good acidity and excellent balance. A smooth operator. 14.7% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $160. click to buy.

2007 Scarecrow Proprietary Red Wine, Rutherford, Napa
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich cherry and cassis. In the mouth the wine offers juicy cherry, fleecy tannins, rich cassis bright acidity over a deep resonant well of minerality and firmer structure. There's a remarkable mouthwatering juiciness to this wine that is impossible not to love. Yum! 14.6% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $750. click to buy.

2009 Diamond Creek "Red Rock Terrace" Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain District, Napa
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of beautifully floral violets and cherry. In the mouth the wine is equally, and stunningly floral with flavors of candied violets and cherry That leap around the mouth on the back of excellent acidity. Tough leathery tannins add a rusticity to the wine that is quite charming, and suggest there's a long way for this one to go. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $160. click to buy.

2010 Spring Mountain "Elivette" Bordeaux Blend, Spring Mountain District, Napa
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of graphite and deep cherry fruit. In the mouth the wine offers bright cherry and tobacco flavors enlivened with a juicy acidity. There's also a stony earthiness underneath the fruit and cocoa powder in the finish which is uncharacteristically showing a little alcoholic heat, despite the wine's quite moderate 13.8% alcohol. Maybe a slightly off bottle. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $120. click to buy.

2009 Ridge Vineyards "Monte Bello" Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of the coconut of American oak quite distinctively as a layer over rich cherry and tobacco scents. In the mouth bright cherry and tobacco flavors mix with crushed green herbs a hint of forest floor. Powdery tannins and mellow and quite restrained. While this wine is still showing a little too much of its wood in the nose, it doesn't taste of oak, and with time it will blossom into something even greater than its current stupendous state. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $160. click to buy.

2009 Dalla Valle "Maya" Proprietary Red Wine, Oakville
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells quite distinctly of cherry cola. In the mouth rich cola, cassis and cherry flavors mix with notes of chocolate, all wrapped in sweet tannins. Rich velvety, and whole the wine offers a kick of earthiness in the finish. 14.6% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $295. click to buy.

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PART II
Wines with dinner.

2003 Diamond Creek "Volcanic Hill" Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain District, Napa
Dark garnet in the get glass, showing none of its age in the color, this wine smells of cedar, violets, licorice, pencil lead, and well worn leather. In the mouth, the wine is stunningly silky with suede-like tannins that lovingly wrap around gorgeous red berry fruit. Notes of crushed roasted nuts, lavender, and leather swirl across the palate. Fabulous acidity and length. Remarkable and very youthful, yet. 14.1% alcohol. 500 cases produced. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $175. click to buy.

2003 Corison "Kronos Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cassis and cherry, with hints of violets and tobacco. In the mouth the wine is beautifully lithe, with gorgeous acidity and great length. Flavors of cherry, cassis, floral notes, and just a hint of the cedar, mix with the leather and red apple skin of age. Suede-like. Very youthful. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $109. click to buy.

1993 Spring Mountain "Mirabelle Alba Chevalier" Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District, Napa
Medium ruby in the glass. This wine smells of pine duff, cedar and cherries. In the mouth, flavors of cherry, cedar, leather are wrapped in elvety tannins with a wonderful minty chocolate and cherry quality that lingers in the finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2006 BOND "Quella" Proprietary Red Wine, Rutherford, Napa
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright cherry fruit and a hint of new oak. In hype mouth the oak is not yet fully integrated, but it doesn't obscure the gorgeous bright cherry fruit brought to life with fantastic acidity. Long lean supple tannins, great finish. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $300. click to buy.

2005 Harlan Estate Proprietary Red Wine, Oakville, Napa
Inky, cloudy garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, tobacco, and dark roasted espresso. In the mouth, rich cherry, chocolate, and cigar box spices are enclosed in a fleece blanket of powdery tannins that coat the mouth. Lush and rich and quite pleasurable, though perhaps leaning towards the ripe end of the spectrum. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $500. click to buy.

2002 Ridge Vineyards "Lytton Springs" Zinfandel Blend, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet blackberry, cherry and cedar. In the mouth, the wine is velvety and lush with cherry, raspberry, cedar, and hints of lavender. Gorgeous, bright, long, seamless, lush, drinkable, Yum!!! A blend of 75% Zinfandel, 20% Petite Sirah, and 5% Carignan. 14.4% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $42. click to buy.

2010 Scarecrow "M. Etain" Proprietary Red Wine, Rutherford, Napa
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells incredibly lush with bright mulberry, cherry, and cassis fruit. A truly gorgeous nose that makes the mouth water. In the mouth the wine is stunningly bright and juicy with flavors of cherry, cassis, and cola. Velvety tannins, sleek and muscular wrap around this core of fantastic fruit electrified by wonderful acidity. Yowza! And this is the "second" wine of the estate. 14.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $250. click to buy.

2010 Stags Leap Wine Cellars "Fay Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District, Napa
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of bright cassis and black cherry fruit. In the mouth, gorgeous and bright mulberry cherry, and cassis are dusted with hint of new oak. But despite the overt wood, this wine has beautiful acidity and great length. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $80. click to buy.

2011 Orin Swift "The Prisoner" Red Blend, Napa Valley
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich cassis and mulberry fruit. In the mouth the wine is distinctly sweet, with lush cherry, sweet blackberry and mulberry. Faint tannins dust the edge of the mouth and good acidity keeps the wine from being too cloying. Definitely on the sweet side, but so well blended that it's still quite pleasurable, with very little trace of its massive 15.2% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $36. click to buy.

2010 Beringer "Private Reserve" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich cherry and mulberry fruit with bright cola notes. In the mouth, cherry, mulberry and cola flavors are bright and juicy with great length. Elegant and refined, but missing a little something in the middle of the wine at the moment. 14.6% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $140. click to buy.

2003 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of whiskey barrel and coconut sunscreen. In the mouth velvety tannins enclose cherry and coconut flavors. Good acidity but the wood obscures the fruit, which is drying out at this point. Poured from magnum. 13.9% alcohol. Score: between 7.5 and 8.

Photos by George Rose, courtesy of the Wine Institute.

Comments (11)

David R wrote:
10.24.13 at 11:59 AM

You're taking quite the risk publishing high praise for some of those wines. While I applaud you, those who make the laws dictating which wines can be enjoyed, let alone enjoyed with food, may now have you in their sights.
I expect they would give you a pass on the Corison, Dunn and Diamond Creek. Many of the other, well... Good luck to you sir!! ;-)

Alder wrote:
10.24.13 at 12:51 PM

David,

Your comment seems to presume or imply that the cognoscenti currently pushing the low-alcohol, less ripe trend in California wine (which I am in full support of) are now the judge and the jury around here?

I've always had broad tastes in wine, and continue to do so, and have no fear of praising whatever passes for good wine as I see it, regardless of the alcohol level, ripeness, etc.

I await my sentencing.

David R wrote:
10.24.13 at 12:58 PM

I'm just winding you up. I hate the "oeno culture wars", so I make fun
-d

Monica wrote:
10.24.13 at 4:47 PM

Just out of curiosity, were these tasted blind?

Alder wrote:
10.24.13 at 9:05 PM

Nope. I would have mentioned that if they were.

Gary wrote:
10.26.13 at 5:14 PM

Thanks for these notes--wow. it indeed induced a bit of envy. Stags Leap, Schafer and Dunn.... and two 2003 cabs,mmmmm.

Anonymous wrote:
10.27.13 at 3:53 PM

Two comments here:
- Is Diamond Creek back or what? They seem to have gone through a prolonged funk, but they may be the "comeback" winery of the year!
- Conspicuous by it's absence is Dana Estates. Sad. They are firing on all cylinders!

Alder wrote:
10.27.13 at 4:15 PM

Anonymous,

Dana Estate and a lot of the "new guard" are particularly absent from this tasting. Recent Diamond Creek releases have indeed been better than I remember them being in some time.

Alder

Ron Saikowski wrote:
10.27.13 at 6:19 PM

Have you experienced a true BLIND wine tasting where you taste the wine blindfolded? The visual senses are totally impaired with tasting notes dictated orally. All you can sense is smell, taste, body, and possibly oral. However, if visual is important, then the wines can be judged in a second shift of wines with wines re-worked as to order. I would call this a true blind wine tasting. Try it! It is different since senses are different!

Alder wrote:
10.27.13 at 8:13 PM

Ron,

I close my eyes while drinking good wine all the time!

peter Tsairis wrote:
10.28.13 at 2:20 PM

Recently drank Buccella Cabs from Napa-2009 Private reserve and
2009 Mica--outstanding and would put them in a blind against any of the top wines that you've mentioned.

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