2003 Cardinale Proprietary Red Wine, Oakville, Napa

Often I find that the joys, as well as the travails, of my life spring from the fact that things are never quite as simple as they seem. A cliché, to be sure, but like all the well worn platitudes in our culture, one with a core of truth. As human beings we like to put everything and everyone in a box, preferring to speak about the world in one dimension, rather than in four. I suppose such generalizations, so prevalent in the polarized and highly opinionated wine world, are simply easier for our minds to grapple with — less stressful than actually dealing with the complications and subtleties of our existence.

A lot of us wine lovers like to dismiss large wine corporations — the big conglomerates that make millions of bottles of wine a year — as representing the evils of a wine world gone corporate. Without getting into a treatise on the market economy to prove that the rise of such companies is an inevitable and necessary thing in the wine world, it’s clear that they’re an easy target for those whose palates have long since evolved beyond those of the happy customers who buy the hundreds of thousands of cases these folks manage to sell.

Increasingly, these large corporations are not only huge brands that churn out boxes and bottles of wine for supermarkets around the country, but also holding companies that own smaller wineries. And despite having massive corporate parents, these wineries can produce excellent, and sometimes even phenomenal wines.

Which is precisely why anyone who dismisses, or even looks askance at Cardinale for being owned by Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, is a fool. Cardinale makes some seriously good shit.

Cardinale was born from a relatively prosaic beginning. In 1994, Kendall Jackson purchased a modestly well known winery called Robert Pepi, which sat on the northern flank of a steep hill that rises off the Napa valley floor just north of the town of Yountville and which was known for producing Italian varietals. At first the company simply continued to make the Robert Pepi wines from this facility, but a couple years earlier, founder Jess Jackson had developed a vision for a super premium red wine unlike anything else in the company’s portfolio, and the Pepi site seemed the perfect place to house this fledgling new wine that the company had named Cardinale. For a couple of years the Cardinale wines were made side-by-side with the Pepi wines, eking out space here and there, but the production of the Pepi wines was eventually moved to the company’s larger facility in the valley, the winery was renovated to house only the Cardinale brand, and things were, as they say, “kicked up a notch.”

To call Cardinale “Kendall-Jackson’s answer to Opus One” may not give the creators enough credit, but it’s both an apt comparison (Cardinale produces only a single wine each year, like Opus One, and the price is nearly the same) and a tongue-in-cheek one, since Cardinale’s first dedicated winemaker at the new facility was Charles Thomas, formerly of Opus One. Thomas took over in 1995 and began to establish the precedents for the winery’s current status as one of the valley’s upper echelon Cabernets. Under Thomas the winery shifted its vineyard sources to incorporate more mountain fruit, and riper fruit, moving away from a more traditionally Bordeaux style.

The evolution of Cardinale has continued over the years, both in terms of the blend of the wine (predominantly Cabernet, but with varying quantities of Merlot) as well as the vineyard sources. Currently the wine is made from four sources in the valley: the Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard on the valley floor, the Keyes vineyard high on Howell Mountain, the Veeder Peak vineyard on the slopes of Mount Veeder, and the winery’s own organically farmed estate vineyard in the Stag’s Leap District.

Lokoya Vineyards’ winemaker Chris Carpenter joined Cardinale in 1998 as an Enologist and took over winemaking duties from Charles Thomas in 2001. Carpenter is a gentle giant of a guy that looks more the part of a lumberjack than winemaker, but that is an illusion quickly dispelled when he opens his mouth. He has a distinct vision for the wine that comes across in surprisingly poetic terms, but which centers around balance as the lynchpin to a wines success.

Hearing Carpenter talk about how the wine is made makes it clear that this is a winery where no expense has been spared in how the wines are created. From hand-harvesting of low yield vineyards; to multiple hand sorting of grapes at the cluster level; to a specially designed basket press that allows better tannin management; to custom open top fermenters, the wine is meticulously produced every step of the way. The wine is picked and made in thirty different lots, representing the distinct blocks of the three vineyards that make up the wine, all of which are vinified and aged separately right up until the final blend that is made just before bottling.

This particular vintage is 86% Cabernet and 14% Merlot that was aged for over 20 months in 100% new French oak. The wine is lightly fined with egg whites before the final blending and bottling. I am not sure whether it undergoes any filtering.

Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.

Tasting Notes:
Dark, opaque garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose that recalls the atmosphere of a Sherlock Holmes mystery — dark brooding aromas of leather, graphite, and a core of blueberry fruit. In the mouth It is exquisitely soft and round with striking poise and balance, offering up a core of black cherry and blueberry fruit wrapped in supple tannins. The wine has extraordinary length, rolling through the palate with incredible inertia and lasting to a fantastic finish. For a difficult vintage this is a magnificent wine, and I believe it will age extremely well for at least the next decade.

Food Pairing:
I can’t imagine anything better than a tenderloin of Kobe beef with morel sauce.

Overall Score: 9.5

How Much?: about $130

This wine is available for purchase on the internet.