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Tasting Integrity: 25 Years of Corison Napa Cabernet

“This is how integrity tastes,” I found myself concluding as I tasted through 25 years of Cathy Corison’s efforts to express what she thinks her little patch of Napa Valley can say. In addition to meaning honest and upright, integrity means wholeness and completeness, and both definitions apply to Cathy’s wines individually, and as a group of 25 vintages. The honesty expressed in these wines manifested as a transparency to the qualities of each vintage, and a willingness to let the fruit speak freely without a veneer of oak. But perhaps more impressive was the constancy of these wines. They expressed a vision of Napa Cabernet forged before the region’s modern popularization and stubbornly unchanged in the face of major stylistic shifts that have transformed the wines of Napa Valley in the last 25 years.

More than anything, these wines are a meditation on the relationship between a woman, her vines, and the place she calls home. And what a statement it is.

Cathy Corison fell in love with wine as an idealistic and romantic college student in Biology at Pomona college. Fascinated by the “living” microbiology of wine, she went on to get a degree in Enology in the hallowed halls of U.C. Davis. After graduating in the Seventies and starting her career in winemaking at a time when Napa was just coming into its own again as a major wine producing region, she worked at a number of major wineries in the valley, including York Creek Vineyards, Yverdon Winery, Chappellet Vineyard, Long Meadow Ranch, and Staglin Family Vineyards.

Getting started in winemaking at that time afforded Corison the opportunity of realizing a dream that many new winemakers will never achieve: to own their own vineyard in Napa. It took her 12 years, but eventually in the late 1980’s, Corison Winery was born. Since its first vintage in 1987, the winery has been a labor of love and life’s work for Corison.

Corison’s roots in Cabernet Sauvignon run deep. Inspired by the old world wines of Saint-Julien, Bordeaux, she has spent decades learning everything there is to know about growing and making Cabernet in the Napa Valley with a single-minded, quiet intensity. Apart from a small production of Gewurztraminer, and occasional dabblings in other varietals for second labels, Corison winery makes only two wines, both of them Cabernet Sauvignon from her 10 acres of alluvial vineyards on the sloping west side of the Napa Valley between Rutherford and St. Helena.

Even at a time when it was harder to find reasonably priced land in Napa, the Corison property was a diamond in the rough. In an interview a few years ago in the San Francisco Chronicle, Corison noted that the property was passed over by many buyers because of an old, likely-to-be-condemned farmhouse on the property and a Cabernet vineyard that most believed needed to be ripped out and replanted. It turns out that neither supposition was quite true, and both the farmhouse and the vineyard continue to fulfill their original purposes today.

Corison, it turns out, doesn’t like to change much once she’s settled in the right place, whether that’s the broken pottery shards on her labels or her approach to ripeness. Were it not for global warming and the need to have replanted some of her vineyard acreage, she’d still be making 12.8% alcohol Cabernet in exactly the same way she was in 1987.

This single-minded approach to her winemaking has meant that up until recently her wines were largely ignored by the most prominent wine critics. Robert Parker reviewed some of her earlier vintages with lukewarm praise, and then stopped reviewing her wines in the midst of the 1990s. Only when Antonio Galloni took over reviewing California from Robert Parker did Corison’s wines start to gather significant attention from The Wine Advocate. Wine Spectator has bestowed a few low-90s scores on her wines over the years. Her biggest champions have been Wine & Spirits Magazine and smaller fry like me. But now it seems Corison’s days in the shadows are over. The combination of continued high 90s scores from Galloni and the recent lovely article penned by Eric Asimov following his experience with the same set of wines I tasted below means Cathy is finally getting the recognition she deserves.

But back to the wines.

Putting together a 25-year vertical remains a feat only a few wineries in Napa can accomplish, and fewer still would be confident enough in the quality of their wines to do so. And almost none would be able to display the consistency of vision and approach demonstrated by the bottles described below, if only because very few wineries in Napa have had the same winemaker for the last 25 years, never mind the determination to keep making wines the same way every year.

More so than almost any group of Napa wines I’ve tasted, these bottles had a definitive physiognomy, voice, or fingerprint if you’ll forgive the grasping at metaphors. They were all so distinctively of the same place, of the same grape, and of the same hand.

The rarity of such an identity in Napa remains one of the greatest signatures of the region’s continued adolescence. Our culture and lack of familial vignerons simply doesn’t produce the kind of lifetime or generational winemaking that remains common in Europe and much of the Old World.

That consistency of expression across 25 years would be intellectually interesting enough to recommend the experience of tasting Corison’s wines, but the quality of what she produces brought the experience to a place that deserves adjectives like epic.

Admittedly, Corison’s wines were already among my favorites in Napa, so the opportunity afforded by this tasting was something of a dream come true, both for the people attending and for Cathy herself, who made it clear that this wasn’t an experience she had ever had, or expected to again, given the small size of her wine library.

The wines were in impeccable shape, as you will see, and aging beautifully — as beautifully as any of the great Cabernets from Napa’s early history have done, and much better than many of their contemporaries are doing. Simply put, these are among the finest Cabernets made in Napa Valley, and for anyone who appreciates a higher-acid style of winemaking, they are a benchmark for what Napa remains capable of.

I hope you enjoy the notes below, and perhaps will take the opportunity to pick up a bottle of her wine. Even some of the older vintages are available in select online outlets.

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TASTING NOTES:

1987 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
A bright medium ruby in the glass with a hint of orange at the rim, this wine smells of cedar and red apple skin, dried cherries and dried citrus peel. In the mouth, gorgeously bright citrus peel, raspberries, cedar, and beautifully fine dried herb flavors have a remarkable dynamism and lift. Long finish, outstanding acidity, and a very soft, silty tannin texture that is quite compelling. Tasted out of magnum. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $na

1988 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Bright medium ruby with a coffee colored haze, this wine smells of wet earth, dried leaves and carob. In the mouth raspberry and cherry flavors taste filtered through wet earth and carob, cedar and dried herbs. A little muddy in character. Soft, even plush tannins have a creamy quality to them. Good acidity but not fantastic. Tasted out of magnum. Score: around 9. Cost: $na

1989 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of graphite and cedar and red berries and forest floor. In the mouth, gorgeously supple tannins powder the mouth as flavors of cherry and raspberry and black tea mix with dried flowers and graphite and forest floor. Excellent acidity and depth, with an extremely long finish. Tasted out of magnum. Delicious. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $na

1990 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Medium to dark ruby in color, this wine smells of wet stone and sweet berry fruit mixed with cedar and herbs. In the mouth, gorgeously bright and juicy fruit is laced with fine grained tannic structure that provides a delicate yet remarkably musculature to the wine. Beautiful cedar and cherry and citrus brightness linger through a long finish. Poised, balanced, and mouthwatering with fantastic acidity. Utterly outstanding. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $85 click to buy.

1991 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Medium ruby in the glass with a hint of orange at the rim, this wine smells of forest floor and dried herbs and cedar. In the mouth, gorgeous cedar, red berries, rose petals and redcurrant have a tight brightness, with a fine grained muscular tannic structure. Gorgeous citrus notes emerge at the end of the finish, with great acidity and length. Tasted out of magnum. Delicious. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $100 click to buy.

1992 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Medium cloudy ruby in the glass with a hint of orange at the rim, this wine smells of sweet cherry and cedar with gorgeous forest floor earthiness behind. In the mouth, phenomenally bright and aromatically sweet cherry raspberry and redcurrant flavors are tinged with cedar and backed by a diaphanous film of tannins that floats suspended in the mouth. Fantastic acidity and brightness brings black pepper and citrus peel juiciness to the finish. Utterly fantastic, and among the best older Napa Cabernets I’ve ever tasted. 12.8% alcohol. Score: a perfect 10. Cost: $90 click to buy.

1993 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Medium to dark ruby in color, this wine smells of graphite and dried flowers and cedar. In the mouth, bright cedary cherry and raspberry flavors are shot through with tight tannins layered over a forest floor earthiness that is wonderfully deep and loamy. Great acidity. Still has a lot of stuffing for its age. Robust. 12.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $92 click to buy.

1994 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers and forest floor with a hint of green herbs. In the mouth, stunning flavors of dried flowers, licorice, thyme, and cherry mix with cedar and forest floor through a deep long finish. Outstanding, rich and round, but with a deeply savory and herbal component that is exquisite. Wow. 12.8% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $ click to buy.

1995 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
A medium to dark perfect ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and blackberry and graphite. In the mouth the wine has a crystalline quality that is really incredible. Stony forest floor, citrus and berry flavors swirl in an incredible quartz pane of shimmering red fruit and dried flowers that is rarely experienced in Napa Cabernet. Stunning and flawless. Fine grained, incredibly supple tannins. Utterly captivating, this is a truly phenomenal wine. 12.8% alcohol. Score: a perfect 10. Cost: $127 click to buy.

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1996 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Medium to dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of sweet mocha and dried flowers and forest floor. In the mouth, the wine has a creamy brightness with a gorgeous milk chocolate and dried cherry quality. The tannins are billowy and broad and voluminous, and linger through the finish with a loamy forest floor quality. Excellent acidity still vibrates in the wine..12.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $99 click to buy.

1997 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of bright cherry and citrus peel, dried flowers and dried herbs. In the mouth fantastically bright and juicy cherry, redcurrant and raspberry flavors mix with dried herbs and a forest floor earthiness that is quite compelling. There’s also a slight saline, green herbal quality to the wine that accompanies the fantastic acidity. Great length and depth, and phenomenal balance achieved in a year when many wines were over the top. 13.2% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $100 click to buy.

1998 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of dried cherries and forest floor. In the mouth, cocoa powder, faint, powdery tannins and a supple silky texture carry flavors of cherry, cedar, and rose petals across the palate. Wonderfully earthy, with a deep forest floor quality that lingers through the finish along with a hint of saltiness. Thrumming with vibrant acidity and floral complexity. Gorgeous. 13.6% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $110 click to buy.

1999 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones, forest floor and dried flowers. In the mouth, graphite and tight red berry flavors mix with crushed stones and dried herbs. Fantastic acidity and length for a wine that is still fairly tightly wound. Bright citrusy flavors accompany the zingy bright notes of this wine, which lingers for minutes in the finish. Outstanding. 13.6% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $na

2000 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark ruby in color, this wine smells of rich black cherry, graphite, licorice, and forest floor. In the mouth, graphite, forest floor, dark cherry and plum skin mix with a juicy citrusy acidity under a blanket of fleecy tannins. Big and robust, this wine has a depth and intensity that is quite powerful despite being incredibly light on its feet. Notes of forest floor graphite and a bit of leather linger in the finish. Excellent acidity. Phenomenal. 13.6% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $60 click to buy.

2001 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark ruby in the glass with a hint of garnet in the core, this wine smells of sweet cherry, cedar, and forest floor. In the mouth the wine has an incredible bright freshness still, with crystalline pure flavors of cherry, redcurrant, raspberry and plum skin. Gorgeous minerality and depth, as crushed stones and dried flowers and forest floor swirly in a powdery cloud of chalk-dust-fine tannins. Stunning length and acidity. A phenomenal wine. Poised and elegant, yet exuberantly joyous. This is what Napa Cabernet should be. 13.6% alcohol. Score: a perfect 10. Cost: $150 click to buy.

2002 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark ruby in color with a hint of garnet, this wine smells of plum and cherry and dried flowers. In the mouth, gorgeously bright berry fruit mixes with cedar and forest floor and a nice citrusy zing thanks to fantastic acidity. Bright, delicious, and very long. Very fine, powdery tannins stretch supple and smooth like the arch of cat’s back. Incredible length and depth. Supple and smooth and simply stunning. 13.6% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $70 click to buy.

2003 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Very dark ruby in the glass with a hint of purple, this wine smells of black cherry and plum and licorice with a hint of green herbs. In the mouth, the wine is darker and more brooding, but with that characteristic brightness and lift to it thanks to excellent acidity. Black plum and the lingering tanginess of plum skin hang in the finish. Very fine tannins meld with the wine’s loamy qualities. 13.6% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $100 click to buy.

2004 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and black plum. Cherry, plum, and graphite dominate the supple, gorgeous body of the wine. Notes of lavender and dried flowers linger in the finish with a bright, juicy citrusy quality that is deeply satisfying. Long and rich, yet bright and lithe at the same time. Fabulous. 13.6% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $110 click to buy.

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2005 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright cherry, cedar, and graphite. In the mouth, lavender and dried flowers, swirl in a crystalline bright sphere of flavor that glints with gorgeous brightness and juiciness. Incredibly fine grained tannins add a skein of structure to the glassy pure fruit. Phenomenal acidity makes for a long citrusy finish. Utterly fresh and compelling. A knockout of a wine. 13.6% alcohol. Score: a perfect 10. Cost: $125 click to buy.

2006 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and graphite and a hint of licorice. In the mouth, powdery muscular tannins wrap around a core of black cherry and cocoa powder. Long and rich and deep and broad. Great acidity and depth. Powerful without being overpowering. Mouthwatering. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $100 click to buy.

2007 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of dried flowers, dark cherry and licorice. In the mouth, rich black cherry and cocoa powder mix with licorice and graphite notes on top of a faint wet earth quality. Supple but muscular tannins, enclose the wine in a firm grip. Excellent acidity and length. A gunpowder note lingers in the finish. Juicy and delicious. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $90 click to buy.

2008 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of green herbs, cherry, tobacco leaf, and plum. In the mouth tight muscular tannins wrap around a deliciously juicy core of cherry, cocoa powder, and graphite. Fantastic acidity and length. The tannins are still tight, but this wine will blossom into something gorgeous in 10 years time. Hard not to drink it now, however, give its delicious sweetness of fruit. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $80 click to buy.

2009 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of green herbs, black cherry, forest floor and a hint of graphite. In the mouth, blueberry and black cherry fruit mix with wet earth and crushed stones. Bright juicy acidity and muscular, fine grained tannins. Long and juicy. Tight. This wine will be quite long lived judging by its acidity and structure. Excellent. 13.6% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $80 click to buy.

2010 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of crushed green herbs, cherry, and black pepper. In the mouth, cherry, black pepper and forest floor flavors are wrapped in a tight sheath of fine-grained tannins. Gorgeous acidity and length. Cool and juicy with a distinctly herbal cast that speaks to the coolness of the year. Wonderfully satin textured. 13.6% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $80 click to buy.

2011 Corison Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of flowers, green herbs, roses, and lavender. Amazingly floral, bright, and juicy, the core of this wine delivers a thunderbolt of cherry, pure, bright, and crystalline across the palate. Very fine grained tannins stretch along the pure and long profile of the wine. Airy, elegant, and powerful. Among the best tasting new releases I’ve had from Cathy in many years. Wowza. 13.7% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $80 click to buy.

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