Return to Wine Notes Index:
Napa (California) Wineries:
I sometimes poke fun at the Napa wine industry's tendency towards pretentiousness. The tourist industry has provided small and large wineries alike with a direct income at the tasting room, but this has led to high tasting room fees and the occasional hard-sell that belongs more in a used car lot. I tend to avoid the tour busses and seek out the smaller wineries, many without tasting rooms, hoping to discover the few values left in Napa. I prefer many of the hillside vineyards to the valley floor, the hillsides offering higher acidity and more variety in styles. Nevertheless, Napa still ranks among the best wine regions in the world, with a variety of winemaking styles to please almost any palate.
Rutherford Dust 2005
Every year, the wineries of Napa's Rutherford appellation host a trade tasting to show off their recent releases. The Rutherford Dust Society tasting includes some of the more high-end wines in Napa, and offers a benchmark for each vintage of the valley's "Big Cabs." It's easy to get saturated by tannin and oak at these events, and most of the subtleties of these wines get lost. But then some would argue that many of these wines aren't subtle. A generic profile of black cherries, tobacco, leather and chocolate becomes apparent throughout all of these cabernets, so I personally tend to notice wines that show something different. Since most of these wines cost over $50, I also give special attention to wineries willing to charge less.
My favorite wines this year included Martin Estate's Cabernet and Reserve Cabernet ($60, $100), Quintessa ($100), and William Harrison's Rutherford Red Blend ($45), with kudos to Provenance for charging only $35 for their excellent Cabernet. Heitz Cellars also impressed me with their library sample of 1989 Trailside Cabernet. Here are my notes:
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($18)
Bright and light on the palate, with red cherries, strawberries and a characteristic dusty nose.
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Georges de Latour (tasted 7/05) ($100)
Much softer and smoother than the Latour vintages from the late '90s. This wine used to show intense steely blueberry fruit and black olive acidity, but 2002 vintage has more chocolate and anise, with warm black cherry fruit. I would not expect this to age as well as the tighter style, but it's certainly pleasing right now. Not for the price, though.
2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 4 (tasted 7/05)
Here's the tight black olive fruit of the old Latour, leathery and rusty. I find this more interesting.
2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 6 (tasted 7/05)
Soft, round and herbal, black cherry and cassis fruit with a hint of Band-aid in the nose.
Bell Wine Cellars
2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Clone 6 (tasted 7/05) ($40)
Slightly vegetal nose, with Cabernet profile of roasted sweet peppers and pencil shavings alongside dark cherry fruit. Not a standout.
Conn Creek Winery
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Hozoni Vineyard (tasted 7/05) ($50)
One of my favorites at the tasting, with a complex nose of blueberries and rust, rose petal perfume and a touch of iodine. Balanced palate exposes dark toasted oak, bright oily cherry fruit and black liquorice, with well integrated tannins.
El Molino Winery
2003 Chardonnay Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($40)
An excellent non-malolactic Chardonnay that avoids the soft buttery style that I personally find a bit cloying. This shows crisp sweet apples and dust in the nose with a palate showing hazlenuts and ripe meyer lemon.
2002 Pinot Noir Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
An unusual and complex Pinot, with nose of strawberry and sandlewood, palate showing tropical flavors of li chi and berry fruit, at once bright and deep, with a finish dominated by new French oak.
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Tietjen Vineyard (tasted 7/05) ($60)
Earthy nose with rust, salt, blueberry, trout skin. Palate full of oily bright red fruit with hints of strawberry.
2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Morisoli Vineyard (tasted 7/05) ($60)
Softer than the 2002, more earthy, with gravelly minerality, tar and some rich loamy mushroom qualities.
Fleury Estate WInery
2003 Merlot Fleury Estate Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Sweet cherries and rose petals in the nose, soft chocolate-cherry palate with some herbal character. Round and supple in the mouth with a smooth finish.
Flora Springs Winery and Vineyard
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($100)
A big supple wine with dry cocoa, black cherries and cassis on the nose with fresh herbal grassy characteristics. It fills the mouth with rich chocolate and coffee qualities and finishes rather smooth. Very polished but overpriced.
2002 Cabernet Trilogy Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Mild nose, still closed at the time of tasting. Palate shows bright spicy red cherry fruit, leather, crisp acid backbone and a tart finish with Christmas spices. Needs a few years to wake up.
2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Morisoli-Borges Vineyard Rutherford (tasted 7/05)($45)
An excellent wine, especially attractive at around half the price of other wines at this tasting. Interesting nose of dry tobacco, cigarette smoke, dark oily cherries and Belgian chocolate. Round mouth feel with a slightly minty finish. Excellent.
Frank Family Vineyards
2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Reserve (tasted 7/05) ($65)
A tough and rather tannic wine that will probably age quite well for a decade. Bright red cherries with black pepper and saddle leather with a light chocolate-cherry palate, some tobacco.
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford reserve (tasted 7/05) ($65)
Similar to 2001 but with more chocolate profile to the fruit.
2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Winston Hill Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Restrained and tight, still young, but with a smooth ripe mouth feel. Slightly bitter strong tannins linger in the finish. Needs a few more years to find its center.
Freemark Abbey Winery
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Bosche Vineyard Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Green pepper dominates the nose followed by blueberry, cassis, black pepper, brambles and cinnamon from oak. Complex and good for those who like green pepper in their cabernet.
I have often liked Frog Leap's wine for its good value, and I respect them for their honest practices and pursuit of organic grape farming. They buy some of their fruit from the Del Bondio family, who speak highly of Frog's Leap as a business partner. At this particular tasting, I was a bit surprised to learn that their Rutherford Cabernet costs about the same as others in the room (they used to keep their prices lower) and while I like it, I didn't think it stood out at this price point. Good folks nevertheless.
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($65)
Within characteristic black cherry fruit, layers of leather, black pepper, minerals and dust join with a hint of Band-aid.
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Kathryn Hall Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Deep ripe cherries, chocolate and Christmas spices surrounded by tough grainy tannins that take over in the finish. Hopefully the tannins will soften in a few years, but this tastes very tough at this young age.
Heitz Wine Cellar
Famous for the eucalyptus tones in their Martha's Vineyard Cabernet, Heitz remains one of the old-guard leaders for quality Napa wines. This year they showed their confidence by opening some 1989 Trailside Cabernet, which pleased the palate after a roomful of young upstarts.
1989 Cabernet Sauvignon Trailside (tasted 7/05)
Madeira oxidation in the nose with related toasted almond nuttiness. Deep warm earthy cherries coat the palate with good viscosity and an old wine minerality. Veering away from the graphite profiles of a tougher old Cabernet, this shows rich oily character with clear remnants of supporting acidity.
1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Trailside (tasted 7/05)
Light fresh nose with red cherry, limestone and iodine, showing warm chocolate on the palate. Still fresh and young at five years.
1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Bella Oaks (tasted 7/05)
Dusty cherry nose with wet road tar, artichoke, mint. Showing some age.
2000 Cabernet Sauvignon Bella Oaks (tasted 7/05)
Oily smooth black cherries, pepper, menthol, bay leaves, perhaps some of that eucalyptus profile that one expects from Heitz?
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($75)
An excellent, complex, musky wine with smells of deep fruit, earthy loam, rust and sweat. Liquorice and soft chocolate on the palate with lingering cocoa tannins.
I was so impressed with these wines that I called the Martin family after the tasting to arrange another meeting. Although I often sort my wine impressions by price, the Martin Estate wines jumped out at this tasting in a way that made price irrelevant. Not cheap by any mark, but not the most expensive either, Martin's wines have the type of complexity that makes me take special notice. These wines show pure Cabernet profile of blueberry-cassis, graphite, green pepper, oregano, tar and more, with an immediate appeal supported by the kind of structure that will help them mature for a long time. Regardless of price, these are beautiful wines.
Greg and Petra Martin bought the building that housed one of the oldest wineries in Napa's history, a lovely stone mansion dated 1887, built by Henry Harris and later used by George de Latour for some of the first Beaulieu vintages. The Martins refurbished the old building in 1996, returning it to its original intention as a winery.
Greg Martin grew up in Morgan Hill, south of San Jose. His parents owned a restaurant near the main road, plus a prune and walnut orchard in the hills. Since he was 14 years old, Martin started making wine from grapes growing along the border of his parents' orchard, teaching himself winemaking from scratch. Later he built a career as an antique auctioneer, and followed his calling into Napa.
2001 Martin Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($60)
Tasted next to the Martin Reserve Cabernet, this has a similar profile with slightly softer structure and more of a black olive mouth-feel. Otherwise, refer to the notes for the Reserve, but imagine a lighter, more grainy texture. Excellent and well structured.
2001 Martin Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($100)
Immensely complex wine that opens up into layers of flavor as it breathes. Nose of blueberry, rust, oregano, earthy tarmac; changing into graphite, a bit of green pepper, a hint menthol - bay leaf or dusty eucalyptus, saddle leather, dried tobacco, liquorice, coffee, dry haystacks, alongside the more obvious black cherry, with caramel and cinnamon oak. The palate unfolds over time with blackberry fruit, bittersweet chocolate, mint, and a lingering subtle bitterness that resolves into soft coating tannins. Over time it opens up to add green pepper and pencil shavings, with reminders of blackberry jam that protrudes after the other flavors have passed. A beautiful wine. (14.8% alc.)
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer Vineyard Clone 6 (tasted 7/05)
Almost dead center in the profile of a textbook Napa Cabernet. That's both good and bad. It's a really good wine, with no flaws and generous complex fruit; but it has few characteristics that actually call attention to it. Bright red/black cherry fruit, cassis, liquorice, tar, black olives, with a finish of gravelly tannin and cinnamon red-hots from a big dose of new French cooperage.
Neal Family Vineyard
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Soft and slightly vegetal, with good chocolate and spice character. Something's wrong here though. Either this bottle has gotten cooked or it's a soft and flabby wine.
Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery
I have been hard on Coppola in the past for charging too much for soft drab wines. They make their reputation on Rubicon, wich had better be good for $100. This year it was very good. A hundred bucks good? Well, at least it stood out from the middle of the pack, but I still think it's overpriced.
2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Rubicon Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($100)
Oily black fruit, tar, peppery Greek oregano, black liquorice. I expect this will age into a dark earthy intense wine. Has few of the green-pepper nor graphite characters of Cabernet, showing mostly the tight but ripe tarry profile of big black fruit.
2002 R.C. Reserve Syrah Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($65)
Salty spicy black fruit with an echo of smoked fish skin. A big sulking dark wine, with smooth tannins considering it's Syrah.
2003 Edizione Pennino Zinfandel Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($40)
A lovely, austere but fruity dark Zin, with black pepper, dust, blackberry jam and chocolate. The tannins show good balance with the fruit. Pretty darned expensive for a Zin, but one of the better Zinfandels out there, showing rare balance.
2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Barrel tasting showing bright cherry, Red-vines liquorice, chocolate, pepper, and Sweet-tarts candy sharpness. Could turn into something interesting.
2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain (tasted 7/05)
(Not a Ruthorford appellation, they sneaked this one under the table.) Showing characteristic traces of eucalyptus common on Howell Mountain, with bright chocolate, cherry spice, black pepper and minerals. Might be a better wine than their Rutherford.
I have tasted through a few of Pine Ridge vintages, and generally find that they make light and balanced wine. They didn't stand out at this tasting among the big guns, but I still like their wines.
2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Creamy, light and smooth, with strawberry-raspberry overtones in the fruit, hints of sweet rose petals, liquorice and chocolate. Not big in the mouth, but finishing clean and light. A refreshing break from the big tannic Napa Cabs.
Recently purchased by the Chalone group, Provenance showed one of the best value wines at this year's Rutherford Dust. Not the best wine at the tasting, but full-bodied, solid and without flaws. I liked it as much as many of those costing twice as much.
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($35)
Woody cherries, black liquorice, white pepper, salty ocean breeze and limestone. Cherry-cassis fruit, basic Napa profile, fresh but full-bodied, with slightly granular tannins and cinnamon oak finish.
2002 Red Meritage Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($100)
An absolutely satisfying wine, full-on flavor from start to finish. After hours of careful spitting during the tasting, this was the wine I returned to for actual sipping. Deep black fruit with smooth chocolate mouth-feel, complex and earthy with rich liqueur-like flavors resembling creme de cassis and kahlua, perhaps a touch alcoholic, with giant but well-integrated chalky tannins in the finish.
Raymond Vineyard & Cellars
2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($50)
Somewhat predictable Napa profile, a good wine that didn't stand out in a roomful of giants. Cherry/cassis fruit, coffee, leather, with a touch of Band-aid in the nose and drying tannins at the end.
Rutherford Grove Winery
2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($40)
A slightly odd wine in this context, with a bright nose showing red cherries, menthol and tar. The oily mouth feel shows good acidity, with minty bright red fruit.
2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($46)
A very good wine - I marked a star by their name while taking notes. Nose shows Creme de Cassis, red and black liquorice. The rich, deep earthy palate offers chocolate and sweet spices with a warm cinnamon finish. By using only the free-run juice and leaving the pressed portion for other purposes, Sawyer has built a rich and smooth wine with softer tannins than many.
2001 Red Meritage Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Warm ripe cherry fruit with brighter acidity than the Cabernet, with balanced oak treatment and smooth tannins. Still young and slightly simple.
Sequoia Grove Winery
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($60)
On the smooth and chocolatey side of the spectrum, with some alcoholic heat and liqueur-like fruit. Rounded nose with blueberry, coffee, chocolate and tar. The rich, rounded palate shows Kahlua and smooth cassis, with hefty lingering tannins.
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($60)
Bright cherry fruit, leather and pencil shavings, with dusty tannins. A tight wine with a mineral profile.
2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($60)
Fruit shows more of a raspberry quality alongside the cherry, with pepper and pencils.
2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Star Vineyard Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($80)
A hint of Brett in the nose adds a softening touch of wet hay to warm rusty blueberry smells, tar and black cherries. The palate is soft and rich, with black liquorice overtones and mouth-filling fruit, with a minty finish and supple tannins.
Staglin Family Vineyard
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
A deeply layered wine with fragrances directed both towards the bright and dark sides of the spectrum. The nose offers ripe fruit profiles of blueberry, liquorice, coffee and cream, but also a sweet-tart quality that resembles sour grape candy (concord grapes.) The flavors are deep and spicy, with leather, mint, tobacco, and a rusty finish, then resolving toward the trinity of coffee, chocolate and liquorice.
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($55)
Nose of bright red/black cherry fruit, anise and cassis. The palate shows black oily qualities with lingering chocolate.
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Estate Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($100)
Musky black cherries, more earthy than the Estate Cabernet, with a clean open palate and strong lingering tannins.
2002 Meritage Couer de Vigne Estate Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($90)
A generous and detailed wine, with deliniated and balanced flavors. Spicy red fruit fills both the nose and palate with full ripe character, chocolate, cinnamon and mellow tannins.
Tres Sabores Vineyard
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Perspective Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Red berry fruit - strawberry or raspberry - with a big jammy palate that one could almost mistake for a Zinfandel, which is a bit ironic considering that most of their other wines were Zinfandel. After a double-take, I confirmed that this was indeed Cabernet.
Trinchero Family Estates
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Chicken Ranch Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($27.50)
One of the lowest priced wines at this tasting, and certainly not the worst. Nose shows strawberry fruit, coffee & cream, with a big black cherry palate and a trace of lingering bitterness within the tannin structure.
2002 Merlot Chicken Ranch Rutherford (tasted 7/05)
Not complex but yummy, with rose petals, pepper and cherries in the nose and deep earthy cherry fruit on the palate.
William Harrison Winery
2002 Cabernet Franc Estate Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($35)
Light floral nose, a good expression of the aromatic qualities of Cab Franc. Smooth and light on the palate, with an oily tar quality and hint of strawberry.
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($39)
Coffee and chocolate, big ripe black fruit, a finish that almost feels slightly sweet. Seductive.
2002 Rutherford Red Estate Rutherford (tasted 7/05) ($45)
One of my favorite Bordeaux style blends at the tasting, with complex layers of herbal smells and rich ripe fruit. Nose shows a trace of Bretty wet grasses, iodine, coffee, leather. Rich and round in the mouth with dark cassis fruit, leather, tobacco, mocha and big lingering tannins.
2002 Merlot Repartie (tasted 7/05)
A big smooth Merlot with port-like overtones, nose of rose petals and chocolate. Palate shows oily ripe fruit with sweet cherry juice, coffee, and good tannic structure, perhaps a fraction of residual sugar?
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer, Georges III (tasted 7/05) ($48)
Bright spicy nose with black cherry and traces of oregano, tar-weed or menthol. Deep earthy coffee and cola palate, round and rich.
I sometimes poke fun at the Napa wine industry's tendency towards pretentiousness. The tourist industry has provided small and large wineries alike with a direct income at the tasting room, but this had led to high tasting room fees and the occasional hard-sell that belongs more in a used car lot. I tend to avoid the tour busses and seek out the smaller wineries, many without tasting rooms, hoping to discover the few values left in Napa. I prefer many of the hillside vineyards to the valley floor, the hillsides offering higher acidity and more variety in styles. Nevertheless, Napa still ranks among the best wine regions in the world, with a variety of winemaking styles to please almost any palate.
A cooperative of small Diamond Mountain wineries arranged a promotional tasting in San Francisco in May 2005, which provided an excellent opportunity to taste the common character shared across this excellent appellation. This is the northernmost mountain in the Napa region, bordering Calistoga with Lake County to the north. Most of these wineries are small and family owned, striving for depth, quality and a sense of place. Trying to summarize the common ground between the wines tasted here together, I would describe the profile among the reds (Cabernet in particular) as sharing elements of milk chocolate, anise and a lingering oily quality, with bright red cherry fruit. The Cabernet Francs on Diamond Mountain are among the best I have ever tasted. After the initial tasting, I reconnected with Graeser Winery and tasted most of their current releases, coming away very impressed.
1999 Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine, Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
High acidity with a nose showing bright green apples, hinting at strawberries and dry grasses. Clean and refreshing palate with a light finish.
2001 Von Strasser Zinfandel, Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
Nose showing sweet strawberry ripeness, vanilla and a dusting of black pepper. The palate shows much more feisty acidity than the ripe nose implies, with slightly pinched raspberries and lots of pepper, finishing smoother with vanilla oak.
2001 Von Strasser Cabernet Sauv. 5 Vineyards, Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
Delicate light cherry nose with a hint of rose petals. Flavors of young bright cherry fruit, balanced and spicy with lingering tannins, yet finishing slightly quickly with some stemmy qualities. Clean and bright overall.
2001 Von Strasser Cabernet Sauv. Estate, Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
A deep and complex nose with leather, oily cherry and cassis fruit, cloves, black olives and oak caramels. The palate shows well integrated soft tannins in ripe cherry fruit with a hint of mint. Should develop well with age.
2001 Von Strasser Red Wine, Sori Bricco Vnyd., Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
A blend of 49% Cabernet Sauvignon, 42% Merlot, and 9% Cabernet Franc. Fragrances of white taffy, leather, pencils and ripe cherries. These flavors echo on the tongue, with ripe red fruit and leathery cedar. The oak never dominates, only providing subtle support while strong tannins linger in the finish.
255 Petrified Forest Rd., Calistoga, CA 94515
Phone: (707) 942-4437 Fax: (707) 942-4437
After the May '05 Diamond Mountain tasting I got a call from Richard Graeser asking if I would like to taste more of their wines, and possibly help them with release notes. I've known this winery since the late 1990's, but only recently came to appreciate the range and quality of their wines. The Graeser family has owned this land since the mid 1950s, and the buildings on the property date back to the late 1800s. Dick Graeser has been making wine for 20 years without large distribution or marketing. The locals know how good his wines are, and library bottlings from 1990 are still showing well today.
2001 Graeser Alex's Ruff Red Table Wine ($18) (tasted 6/05)
An excellent second tier bottling that uses non-estate grapes but still shows Graeser's clear Bordeaux-style profile, with nose of anise, chocolate, dry grass, caramel and dust. Palate of tart cherries, bright spices, coffee and chocolate mint with soft tannins.
2001 Graeser Cabernet Franc Diamond Mountain ($27) (tasted 6/05)
Nose opens to berry fruit rather than cherries, with black olive, graphite, dry grass, dust, cedar, black pepper. Palate shows creme de cassis, pencils and leather with a light smooth cherry finish. 13.6% alc.
2002 Graeser Cabernet Franc Diamond Mountain ($27) (tasted 5/05)
Surprisingly rich and complete for a Cab Franc, with clean sweet floral fragrances of violets or rose petals, caramel and vanilla oak, bright red fruit, black and green olives, tobacco, liquorice, tar, cherry cream pie and dry haystacks. The palate opens up to black cherries and hibiscus tea with a hint of raspberries, milk chocolate and a creamy coffee finish reminiscent of Kahlua.
2002 Graeser Two Dog Merlot Diamond Mountain ($28) (tasted 6/05)
A rich and generous wine with plenty of complexity, nose of black cherry, chocolate, pepper, coffee, mint and cream (aged cheddar cheese?) Big mouth-filling flavors of spicy black cherries and currants, sweet oak and persistent cocoa tannins.
2002 Graeser Simba's Sinful Zinfanfandel ($27) (tasted 5/05)
An intense combination of ripe generous fruit and slightly austere mineral profile. The nose offers deep earthy blackberries with coffee, smoke and black pepper, opening up into some sweet caramel and rusty-dusty minerality. The rust and blackberries continue on the palate, with big lingering graphite tannins and creamy coffee finish.
2002 Graeser Coeur de Leon Diamond Mountain ($28.50) (tasted 5/05)
A Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, with a nose of dry grasses, cherry fruit-leather, cedar and milk chocolate. The palate delivers a combination of crisp bright acidity and rich oily fruit texture, mint and liquorice with similarly lingering bright ripe fruit and a hint of cinnamon and coffee. The finish lingers into a smooth creamy mouth-feel. Should develop good complexity with age.
2002 Graeser Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain ($29) (tasted 5/05)
A brambly nose with grasses and saddle leather, coffee, graphite, fennel greens and vanilla taffy oak. Bright palate with oily red cherry, hints of wintergreen, anise, chocolate liquer, finishing in soft cedar/graphite and coffee tannins with lingering caramels. 13.6% alc.
2002 Graeser Chardonnay Diamond Mountain ($24) (tasted 6/05)
A balanced nutty Chardonnay that shows hints of the buttery style while maintaining its freshness. Nose of light butterscotch, baked pippin apples, macadamia nuts and a waft of washed-rind cheese. The crisp and spicy palate shows nutmeg, apple, lemon and vanilla with subtle well integrated oak that offers spices without overpowering. 13.2% alc.
2003 Graeser Semillon Diamond Mountain ($23.50) (tasted 6/05)
Rich musky smells reminiscent of French perfume integrated with crisp pineapple, marzipan, custard. The palate offers lingering hazelnuts, musk and limestone in lemon custard fruit. Would pair well with mussels or baked crab. 13.2% alc.
2003 Graeser Late Harvest Semillon Diamond Mountain ($23.50) (tasted 6/05)
Unfortified dessert wine, not overly sweet, simply allowed to ferment until the yeast stopped at about 15% alcohol. Musky earthy fragrances mingled with pineapple upside-down cake, almonds, apricots and chalky minerals. Lingering smooth sweet palate of apricots, mint and smoke. Pair with a strong aged goat cheese.
2001 Dyer Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain ($70) (tasted 5/05)
One of my personal favorites on Diamoind Mountain, this is seriously structured age-worthy wine. Small amounts of Merlot, Cab Franc and Petite Verdot add complexity. Sophisticated nose of black liquorice, black currants, red plums, caramel and chocolate. Rich, smooth and lingering on the palate, with integrated tannins and hints of anise spice in soft ripe cherries. 14.3% alc, 348 cases made.
1996 Dyer Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain (tasted 12/03)
Pure California Cab, but showing such strong acidity that it could sit a few more years. Nose shows dark chocolate and light bright red cherries. Tingling acidity on the tongue, like chewable vitamin C. Bright fruit lingers into chocolate tannins and hint of citrus.
1400 schramsberg Rd., Calistoga CA 94515
www.jdavies.us, Tel: 707-942-8354
Among the Diamond Mountain wines that I have tasted, Davies' show the strongest tannins and the most mineral toughness. At the '05 tasting, I picked up notes that appeared to resemble TCA, although it didn't appear to be cork damage. Some wineries seem to show that profile in the wine naturally. These wines are made in a tough age-worthy style.
2002 J. Davies Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
Nose showing bright minty red fruit with hints of bay leaves and coriander, tar, fish-skin and ocean breezes with a hint of chlorine. The palate delivers far more fruit than these austere fragrances imply, with black cherries, coffee, tar, chocolate, liquorice and other inky black mineral laden flavors. Finishing with big tannins, drying and intense.
2002 Diamond Creek "Red Rock Terrace" Cabernet blend (tasted 5/05)
Nose shows hints of Brett which actually help soften the tough gravelly minerality. In the palate the fruit also shows minerals, with some pepper spiciness, oily cherries, liquorice and caramel, with a finish of cinnamon oak and lingering dusty tannins.
2002 Diamond Creek "Gravelly Meadow" Cabernet blend (tasted 5/05)
Similar to the Red Rock Terrace but with more chocolate and liquorice notes. The finish also lands on a sweeter and smoother character, with rounder tannins. My favorite of the three Diamond Creek wines tasted here.
2002 Diamond Creek "Volcanic Hill" Cabernet blend (tasted 5/05)
Minty nose with light red fruit, ocean and a bit of fish-pond. Very tannic on the palate, with a slightly thin finish. This needs a return in several years to learn if these tannins resolve and if the fruit pokes its head out from the minerality.
Among my favorite of the wines at the Diamond Mountain tasting, it didn't surprise me that Diamond Terrace is the next-door neighbor to Dyer, another favorite. They have a terraced hillside vineyard with good drainage and wide sun exposure. Their wines tasted rich and balanced, with balanced acidity, round chocolatey fruit and integrated oily-velvet tannic structure.
2002 Diamond Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon (tasted 5/05)
Nose showing ripe black fruit, black olives and liquorice. The ripe oily palate offers a smooth round mouth-feel, rich with chocolate and coffee overtones, with silky integrated tannins and good acid balance. The finish lingers with bittersweet cocoa, black tar and coffee. Yum.
1999 Diamond Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon (tasted 5/05)
Library tasting, not for sale. A few more years have exposed the complexity of the fruit, with layered aromas of fresh olives, black liquorice, coffee, sage, red cherry, and slightly salty oceanic smells. More tannic than 2002, with higher acidity, drier and more herbal. A lovely wine with many more years' potential.
1520 Diamond Mountain Rd. Calistoga, CA 94515
Norm Kiken started his winery in 1993, leaving his east coast investment job to pursue his love of wine. People don't make fortunes this way; but in Kiken's case, he made great wine. His steep 40 acre property has volcanic soil and south-facing slopes, producing a variety of big red wines, and one of the very best and most unique Cabernet Francs I've ever tasted.
2000 A.S. Kiken Red Table Wine Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
Nose shows a hint of wet hay (Bret) with bright red cherries, black olive and liquorice. Something goes a bit awry on the palate, with extremely tannic minty fruit and dry baker's cocoa, ending in an onslaught of tannin.
2002 Reverie Cabernet Franc Diamond Mountain ($45) (tasted 5/05)
Exceptional chocolate nose with rich candied espresso beans, violets, toasted and rich mocha -- more than any cherry or berry fragrances. The palate also shows rich milk chocolate fruit with a hint of dry grasses and smooth cocoa-butter tannins, toasted sweet peppers, blueberries, lingering into a caramel oak finish. Unique and astonishing.
2002 Reverie Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
Nose shows a hint of wet grass, salted fish and leather with chocolate. After studying the profile, some bretty qualities become noticeable, but not bothersome. Palate of blueberry, cherry, cassis with a finish of black olive tannins.
2000 Reverie Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
A salty nose with black cherry and cassis fruit, liquorice, tar and mint. Delicious structured flavors with chocolate-mint and a smooth mouth-feel, finishing in black liquorice and black olives. A good balance between fruity and earthy flavors, excellent rich and clean Cabernet profile.
2001 Reverie Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
Slightly more generous ripe fruit than the 2000 Reserve Cabernet, but also a hint of Bret in the nose, which integrates well and only serves to make the fruit seem softer and riper. Nose of chocolate, anise, tar and barnyard with a palate showing rich milk chocolate or Kahlua with clean acidity and a finish hinting at chocolate and black liquorice.
2001 Andrew Geoffrey Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain (tasted 5/05)
A small winery with 14 acres of grapes owned by Peter Thompson and named after his two sons Andrew and Geoffrey. He makes an excellent Cabernet blend (small amounts of other Bordeaux varietals) with deep complexity and a hint of grassy Bret overtones. Nose is slightly herbal, musty, with leather, creme brulée, black cherries, anise, barnyard. The palate resembles chocolate covered dried cherries, with crisp minty brightness from clear acidity. Dry dusty oak lingers on the palate with soft tannins alongside oily chocolate, cinnamon and cloves from new French oak. I like this one very much - an example of a wine that benefits from tiny amounts of Bret to add depth to an already excellent profile.
Diamond Mountain Vineyard
2121 Diamond Mountain Rd.
Calistoga, CA 94515
Tel: 707-942-0707 Fax: 707-942-0249
2001 Constant Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Estate (tasted 5/05)
75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cab Franc, 10% Merlot. Nose of chocolate, liquorice, mint and dusty toasted oak. Palate shows some black pepper with cocoa powder and dry tannins, not as characteristically oily in the mouth as many of the Diamond Mountain wines. Anise seeds linger in the finish alongside black cherry fruit.
2002 Constant Syrah (tasted 5/05)
Pure syrah nose of wet grasses, blueberries, rust and sweaty leather. A bit too much oak for my own taste in a syrah, with a lingering finish of chocolate, mint and dry grasses. This might pair well with an aged brie and sausage. A big stinky good wine.
Beaucanon (St. Helena)
Visiting the tasting room in 2000, I liked many of the wines here, but overall I came away with the impression of a better than average industrial-method winery. The Cab Franc on their discount label La Crosse, however, was surprisingly good for the $10 price, with a balanced food-friendly clarity.
1998 La Crosse Cabernet Franc Napa Valley (tasted '00 - '03) $10
Nose slightly more cherry and pepper than a typical Cab Franc, but also strongly perfumed with the characteristic violets and rose. By 2003 it developed delicate plum and chocolate/coconut character, deeper and darker, with hints of caramel and sweet oak, still bright and clean. Medium to light bodied palate, softening with age. At its best after four years, but some VA developing. Cleansing, fresh and plummy, with firm tannins. (13.5% alc.)
1999 Beaucanon Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa (tasted 5/04)
Upon first opening, tasted somewhat one-dimensional, with cherry cassis fruit still showing signs of youth, with medium acidity and balanced tannin plus some rusty minerality. Left covered for 24 hours, some earthy layers developed in the nose, with dusty roadside smells, some tar and coffee, smoke and a hint of artichoke. In the mouth it still tasted a bit simple, but with more dark fruit and more apparent acidity. A solid if somewhat manufactured-seeming effort.
One of the older wineries in Napa, now rather corporate, generally making good value, medium-bodied reds that compliment food. Their flagship George Latour Cabernet is a big, honest, balanced and brightly acidic wine, perhaps not as age-worthy as its $80 retail price would imply (10-15 years at best); but to its credit, it isn't cloying and over-oaked like many of the Rutherford newcomers trying to sell at the same price point.
1997 BV Coastal Cabernet ($8) (notes on 3/03)
Nose of cloves and dusty peppercorns (more like pepper-tree blossoms), hints of mineral dust, strawberry seed and cassis, toasted French oak profile, slightly alcoholic heat. Palate is bright and thin, cherry juice with a lingering green mouthfeel, slightly low ripeness but good spicy acidity. Clean flavors. Not great, but a good value table wine, in my opinion. (13% alc.)
1998 BV Cabernet Sauvignon George Latour (tasted 10/03) $38-80
When a cork problem showed up at BV, combined with a tough sell on the '98 vintage, Latour showed up for a brief time discounted half-off, and definitely worth it. Still a deeply complex wine, with steely blue fruit tannins, lingering rounded oily finish, almost impenetrable hard metallic qualities. The new French oak hasn't overpowered these intense grapes. I want to taste this again in a few years.
1999 BV Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford ($20) (tasted 3/03)
Nose showing bright cherries and distinctive Rutherford mineral tones of a dusty dirt road in summertime, with coffee, tobacco, bitter chocolate and oak vanillins. The palate shows deep extracted fruit, raspberry brambles, cocoa butter, mild acidity and soft tannins. The finish hovers around an oily fruit smoothness. A very well balanced and characteristic Californian wine, and a personal favorite for the money ($16 at Costco.) (13.8% alc.)
Castle Rock - Napa
I discovered these wines through my friend JK at Oakville Grocery, and I am very impressed with the price to flavor ratio - surprisingly affordable, yet beautifully ripe and deep enough to be interesting.
2000 Syrah (Napa) (tasted 3/03) ($10)
Nose begins with light sweet vanillins from the oak, then mildly smoky plum and hints of black pepper, thick and ripe fruit, a bit earthy, with a wave in the direction toward the barnyard and blueberry smells of an austere Cote-Rotie. The palate comes forward with cherry fruit tones, hint of black pepper, slight smoke. Lingering fruity finish with cherry pits and a hint of chalk (like fruit flavored "Tums" but not sweet.) A lush affordable table wine, perfect with smoked duck. (13.5% alc.)
2001 Pinot Noir (Sonoma) (tasted 3/03) ($11)
Soft and floral; for Pinot Noir, it leans more towards cherry fruit than Burgundian mushroom. Smooth sweet smells of ripe red fruit, red-vines liquorice, a hint of sweet pipe tobacco and oak vanillins, rose petals? The palate is friendly, low acidity, medium tannin and well extracted, with a lingering Pinot brambliness that tastes honest and grapey. I like this wine very much, excellent with strong cheeses or salmon in dill sauce. (13.5% alc.)
Chateau Potelle (Mt. Veeder)
This small family winery makes exceptional well-structured wines that exhibit complexity and age-worthy qualities balanced with ripe mountain fruit. Marketta and Jean-Noël Fourmeaux came to California in 1980 to research the wine business, they decided to stay and purchased property on Mt. Veeder, high above Napa valley. They continue to receive awards from the press while making honest and serious wines.
2001 Cougar Pass ($22) (tasted 4/04)
30% Syrah, 26% Merlot, 26% Zinfandel, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon. Sweet fruit profile, with metallic notes of rust or tin, red cherries and wirey tightness in the nose. Big and grapey in the mouth, with ripe blueberry-plum and rounded texture, with some well integrated cigar box oak notes.
2001 Syrah Paso Robles (tasted 4/04)
The nose indicates a tough tight wine, with blueberry, tin, and anise notes underlaid by sweet taffy oak; yet the palate offers much more approachable floral fruit (roses and violets) with dark tar (black liquorice?) and coffee-like tannins, with a lingering sweet finish.
2000 Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder ($55) (tasted 4/04)
Still a baby, with tough brambly nose and inky black fruit, caramel oak, tobacco, coffee and dry grasses. Revisit this in five years to discover more earthy complexity and softer acid/tannin structure. A big clean Cabernet.
Chimney Rock (Stag's Leap)
A winery with some obvious money behind it (deBeers diamonds, apparently) making good big Napa cabs in the typical Napa style, tending not to be over-oaked, and retaining some clarity and structure. Expensive like its brethren in the neighborhood. These brief tasting notes from October 2003, at the winery.
1997 Cabernet Sauvignon ($60 approx)
Mineral nose, basic cherries and chocolate, a bit hot, a bit simple. Still quite tannic, still has many years left for development possibilities.
1998 Cabernet Sauvignon ($58)
More cedary and pencil shaving qualities than the other years, some green pepper, cinnamon toast, cherry juice and dried fruit, quite strong and acidic on the palate, somewhat astringent.
1999 Cabernet Sauvignon ($58)
Mocha, cinnamon and fireplace in the nose, rose petals, cassis and cherries of course. Oily tannins in the mouth, with a buttery feeling, some ash finishing in the oak profile along with caramel. Softer and more fruity than '97 or '98.
2000 Cabernet Sauvignon ($48)
The softest of the four years in this vertical tasting. More cherry-like than tar, some chocolate. Soft, big, floral and feminine.
1999 Cabernet Franc ($40)
Lots of sweet oak in the nose (too much, maybe) then soft fresh and dusty flower scents, like peach blossoms. Clean acidity and light soft fruit. Not very complex on the palate, but very pleasant. Overpriced.
2000 Elevage ($72)
Deep dark fruit, chocolate, cassis, burlwood, tar, strong tannins, needs some time to develop and soften. Spicy cinnamon oak finish.
2000 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve ($100)
huge fruit, huge oak, still very young, coating tannins and explosive fruit in the mouth, almost like soapy perfume. Still a baby.
2001 Rosé of Cabernet Franc ($15)
A dry rose with some finesse. Tropical berry notes (a hint vegetal, possibly from the bottle being open in tasting room). Very crisp and dry on the palate, with buttered toast flavors, lemon and smoke.
Del Bondio (Oakville - Rutherford)
1289 Bella Oaks Lane, Napa, CA 94558
The Del Bondio family has grown fruit in Oakville and Rutherford since 1910, when prunes dominated the Napa valley. Replanting to vineyards 40 years ago, they began selling grapes to surrounding wineries, recently Frogs Leap and Downing Family. The new generation began a label in 1997, with father Rich Poncia and son Shawn Sellers at the helm, winemaker Randy Mason consulting.
I met Poncia on a recent rainy November morning at the construction site of his new winery building. In coveralls and boots, more farmer than entrepreneur, Poncia looked a bit like Jerry Garcia. Del Bondio's vineyard has organic certification. Their compost operations convert grape wastes into natural fertilizer. Around the vineyards, boxes on poles offered homes for owls, hawks and bats to rid pests without poisons.
1999 Del Bondio Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Napa Valley ($38) (tasted 10/03)
A Rutherford cab that shows clean varietal flavor without the typical heavy oak treatment so common in this region. Nose with pepper, brambly cherries, earth and musk wrapped in delicate sweet oak. Very clean and cedary on the palate, a bit thin and bright, with red cherry fruit. The finish lasts longer than the thin center-palate would imply, with a hint of tobacco and subdued oak character. A clear honest Napa cab. 2400 cases made. (The 1998 and 2000 Cabernets have a similar profile but thinner palate. So far I think the 1999 is the best of these three vintages for Del Bondio.)
2000 Del Bondio Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Napa Valley ($38) (tasted 7/05)
Returning to the 2000 Rutherford Cabernet a couple years later, I like how the flavors have developed. It seems to be at a good age right now and probably does not have the structure for long term cellaring, indeed a lighter and softer wine than the 1999, but very pleasant. Hints of Brett in the nose add an underlayer of wet grass, wet leather and pond-water to rich red cherry fruit, marbled with chocolate and dusted with the dry soil of a country road on a hot summer day. Richer mid-palate fruit than the '99, without the tight cedary character. Opens up with cinnamon oak spices and more dry dust. Very pleasant. (14.1% alc.)
2001 Del Bondio Syrah Oakville Napa Valley ($25) (tasted 10/03)
A fascinating contrast between a candy nose and austere tannic flavors. Perfumes of sugared cherries, coffee, soft caramel oak. Very acidic dry palate with rose oil, black coffee, and strong lingering tannins. Tough and bright, would pair perfectly with fatty meat like leg of lamb. 1000 cases made.
4500 Atlas Peak Rd., Napa, CA 94558
Patrick Elliott-Smith lived in France during his teens, where he tasted some of the great Bordeaux from his grandfather's cellar. He and his brother came to California the early '70s, bought property on the slopes of Atlas Peak and began farming.
After procuring property near the summit in 1979, he lived in a teepee while clearing brush and planting Cabernet vines. He sold his grapes to Caymus, who used them to add structure to their Special Select, a wine which now sells for well over $100.
Elliott-Smith started Elan in 1992, making fewer than 1000 cases annually from his own Cabernet grapes. He built a house of rammed earth where the teepee once stood, vineyards surrounding it, cellar beneath. Patrick's wife Linda helps run the business, their two children help charm the guests.
1992 Elan Cabernet Sauvignon (tasted 10/03)
Amazingly clean and youthful after 10 years in the bottle. Complex smells of fireplace ash, pepper and cloves from integrated oak, raspberry fruit that opens into the rusty blueberry quality of the younger Elan vintages; but overall more grapey, less herbal than the younger wines. The palate softens into chocolate and graphite minerality as it breathes. Quite delicate and lovely, showing amazing age-worthiness for these grapes.
1995 Elan Cabernet Sauvignon (tasted 10/03)
It seems that Elan almost inverts the usual vintage profiles, austere in ripe years and softer during tough years. This '95 shows much more fruit than the '97, surprising considering the vintages. Maybe it's the altitude? This is huge, tough and lovely. More caramel, chocolate and blueberries in the nose, less tar and rust than '97, much more generous. A bit of iodine on the palate, with the blueberry fruit receding behind herbal lime citrus acidity, but softer in the finish with orange oil, fully integrated oak and a hint of dusty tar.
1997 Elan Cabernet Sauvignon (tasted 10/03)
An austere wine, full of dusty herbal complexity. Challenging aromas of Herbs de Provence, sage, graphite, rust, fish tank, dusty roadside tar after an early rain. The usually predominant Elan steely blueberry fruit actually hides in the background behind all this herbaceousness until it hits the palate. There it is: blueberries and raw meat with sweet oak and a twist in the direction of tart cherries as it fades alongside cocoa tannins.
1999 Cabernet Sauvignon ($45) (tasted 10/03)
A huge complex nose with blueberry fruit, cola, cocoa, iron rust minerality, mint leaves, hints of anise, cedar, sage and tar. Huge and oily in the mouth, lingering with big chocolatey dark fruit, a touch of black liquorice,
and deep lasting tannins. One of Elan's more gentle years, showing lovely deep fruit. Not anything like a simple fruity Napa cab, but more serious and likely to live long in the cellar.
2000 Cabernet Sauvignon ($45) (tasted 10/03)
A crusty big cab. Might have a similar profile to the 1995 (chocolate, ripe blueberry, rust) but harder, more metallic, hints of coffee, higher tannin, more austere. Two years of 70% new French oak didn't overpower this giant wine, whose mountain austerity reminds me of a big Pomerol. Makes the 1999 seem soft by comparison. Set this one down for at least 5-10 years.
Well, OK, it's not exactly Napa. Guenoc lies north of Calistoga in the northern extremity of the Napa valley, and they buy their grapes from all around. They make excellent affordable wines, with perhaps some slightly flattened "predictable" qualities.
1999 Guenoc Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast ($12) (tasted 2/05)
One of the better bargain Cabernets. Nose of red cherry fruit, sweet and floral, hints of brambly tannin, pepper and vanilla oak. A very good balance of flavors, with mid-palate fruit, medium tannin and acidity, lingering brightness. A simple and excellent wine centered around the fruit, not hiding any flaws nor surprisingly complex.
1999 Guenoc Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer IV Vnyd St. Helena ($20) (tasted 6/05)
Starting with a rich sweet fruity nose of spiced black cherries and boysenberries, with hints of ripe black olives, dusty loam, liquorice and tobacco leaves. As it breathes, the fragrances get dustier with iodine and more leathery complexity along with cinnamon spice from oak. Palate shows strong acidity up front followed by a distinct buttery creaminess and clean red cherry fruit. Strong tannins in the finish, along with traces of light oak. A very clear expression of Napa Cabernet. 14.4% alc.
Heitz became famous for their Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which has good aging potential and a rich ripe fruit profile combined with its rather infamous notes of eucalyptus. Currently I only have specific tasting notes for one of their more hard to find wines:
2001 Heitz Grignolino (tasted 5/05)
Light ruby color, with a nose of sweet-tart candy fruit, attar of roses, kumquats, candied fennel seed, fruit punch Cool-Aid, coriander (Fruit Loops cereal) and other bright tropical fruits with low oak. The palette offers what the nose suggests: rosewater, fruit punch, tart with a slightly spicy finish. Bizarre and loads of fun.
Jade Mountain (Napa)
2000 Mourvedre Contra Costa Evangelho Vineyard (tasted 3/03) ($17)
This wine is a big bomb of coconut and ripe cherries, fruity and oily in the mouth. The nose shows dust and cocoa butter, coconut, sweet red fruits, loamy soil, taffy, hints of garden herbs and some oxidation artifacts that blow off after about ten minutes. The flavors are big, ripe and chocolatey, slightly sweet, fruit forward and a touch simple, but with a velvety smooth and buttery mouth feel. A typically Californian take on a very Rhone grape. (14.9% alc.)
2001 Mourvedre Contra Costa Evangelho Vineyard (tasted 5/05) ($17)
Bordering on cloying ripeness, with a nose full of berry liquer (Chambord), freshly laid tar, coconut, chalk, dusty damp hay bales, with sweet nutty undertones resembling peanut butter. The palate is slightly bitter with intense jammy fruit and a puckery berry finish with cocoa tannins. Seemingly high pH gives it a chalky feel in the mouth.
Joseph Phelps (St. Helena)
1996 Joseph Phelps, Insignia, meritage (tasted 12/02)
Sadly going downhill, with a nose dominated by vegetal smells. The palate shows better character, with low acidity, hint of cinnamon, but flabby and fading. What a shame. Insignia might not be quite as age-worthy as Phelps claims, or this may have been a bad year (the bottle had been well-kept.)
1997 Le Mistral (tasted 2/03) ($20)
43% Grenache, 28% Syrah, 12% Mourvedre, 8% Petite Syrah, 7% Alicante Bouschet makes this a clear contender for a California attempt at a classic Chatauneuf du Pape blend -- only, at the peak of ripeness. A beautiful and balanced wine, crisp, complex and food-friendly. By 2003 the nose had become cocoa butter, hints of oxidation (clean, not vegetal), cherries, chocolate, brambles, lingering vanillins and some oak terpines, quite smooth, ornate and rich. As it opened, complex vanilla perfumes started to volatilize and become spicy. Brambly tannins came up on the palate first, then cherry fruit and cocoa. The finish showed good firm acidity and lingering dry dusty tannins. The light oxidation and smoothness tells me that this wine is at its best right now, could last a year or two longer, but may start to slide into low fruit and high oxidation. Overall not for long-ageing. (13.5% alc.)
Louis M. Martini (St. Helena)
What sad news came in 2002, when Gallo bought Louis Martini. They said they were trying to solidify the traditional "family owned" wineries in California. If Gallo is a "family" then so is Bill Gates and Microsoft. Martini is an old California winery that has continued to make high quality wines with no-nonsense clarity and some subtlety, selling at a bargain price. You wouldn't want to age a Martini wine longer than 5-10 years, but it will certainly show good character during that time.
1997 Merlot California ($7) (tasted 3/03)
A French style Merlot with California simplicity, a bit reminiscent of Languedoc. Nose shows dry limestone mineral, like tarmac at the start of a rain, cherries, and hints of tobacco and sweat. Some mild cork problems have appeared on some of the bottles from this vintage, despite the fact that the corks are composite. Subtle vanillins creep underneath the minerals, cocoa butter and fruits, but I like the way this wine hides its oak. The fruit is clear and fresh on the palate, bright acidity, light and slightly simple, with a raspberry-plum finish.
1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma ($12) (tasted 10/02)
Cassis and simple berries, dust and a bit of graphite. Round slightly oily palate, some Christmas spices, clean acidity, a pleasant table wine, and an excellent value.
I love Merryvale's high end Bordeaux-style blend "Profile" but I think it's way too expensive at around $90. This winery also makes good quality mid-priced wines under the Starmont designation, but they sometimes share some of those perfumed over-oaked Rutherford qualities that make them pair well only with big meaty food.
2000 Starmont Cabernet
Nose of sweet spicy vanilla tones, hints of cherry cough syrup, milk chocolate, cinnamon and toffee. The oak overpowers the fruit a bit. Palate has up-front cherries and cassis, hints of blueberry, velvety tannins, very soft and low acidity. The medium dry finish has strong new-oak characters of cinnamon candy and chocolate.
I have been hard on Coppola in the past, feeling that their wines are overpriced and overhyped. Maybe I would like them better if they were cheaper and didn't come with Hollywood and restaurant chains attached. So much for marketing. I have actually come to feel recently that they have some very good wines at the high end of their spectrum. Still expensive, but good wines nevertheless.
2000 Merlot Blue Diamond (Rutherford) (tasted 3/03)
Nose of leather, blueberries, plums, oaky sweetness, turning vegetal. The palate luckily doesn't show the same vegetal character, instead with a quirky big earthy flavor, low tannins and medium acidity, oily ripe plummy fruit. The flaws tell me this wine should not be aged.
2001 Merlot Blue Diamond (tasted 2/04)
Nose of plums and black cherries, liquorice, chocolate, vanilla taffy oak. Palate shows big dusty tannins, jammy plum fruit, better acidity and cleaner than the 2000. Quite good, but still prone to vegetal softness. (13.5% alc.)
Pine Ridge makes serious, structured wines with a clean fruit profile that shows clearly through a delicate oak treatment. Considering their consistent quality, I respect them for resisting the temptation to hike their prices during the boom in the late Nineties. These aren't cheap wines, but some of them stayed priced within reason relative to quality.
*2000 Crimson Creek Merlot (tasted 10/03) $27
Beatiful wine and probably a good value for the quality. 50/50 blend between Carneros and Rutherford fruit, with 86% Merlot, 8% Cab Sauv, 4% Cab Franc, 2% Malbec, almost like a St. Emillion Bordeaux blend. Giant cherry fruit nose, slightly stemmy tannins, briar patch characters. Tarry on the palate, with deeply structured tannins, oily and serious with a long lingering finish hinting of coffee, tobacco and caramel.
2000 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford (tasted 10/03) $39
Complex smells of cinnamon oak, bay leaf menthol, coffee, pencil shavings, smoke, black pepper and blood. Spicy in the mouth, bright with good acid structure, cranberry fruit which softens into sweeter oak notes. Late in the palate, a hint of pink peppercorns enters, and lingers with some tannic dryness.
2000 Onyx (tasted 10/03) $50
60% Malbec, 16% Merlot, 24% Tannat. A huge mouthful of fruit with oily toasty qualities, ripe and chocolatey. Nose is a bit hot, with peppery undercurrents that imply more tannin than the mouth feels. Somewhat low acidity, rounded soft and very ripe in the mouth, with a sweet caramel finish.
2000 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District (tasted 10/03) $70
Pine Ridge's flagship Cabernet with 8% Petit Verdot, 6% Malbec and 5% Merlot. An explosive nose of cassis and coffee, red liquorice, cardomom, anise and cherries. Bigger fruit and less lean than the Rutherford Cab, more creamy on the palate, more chocolate and ripe cherries. Supple and fruity but well structured.
2000 Andrus Reserve (tasted 10/03) $135
Blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec. Opaque color with a hint of briarpatch in the nose. The nose is still a bit tight and simple, needs a few years. Inky fruit extraction shows itself in the soft and sensual palate, with an extremely long fruity finish, velvety soft tannic structure, and a finish that fades slowly like long reverb: first with caramel oak, then oily tannins, longer into mocha chocolate then fading into cinnamon and ash.
2002 Chardonnay Carneros Dijon Clones (tasted 10/03) $27
Smokey nose, buttery but not cloying, tropical pineapple and toast. Very smooth on the palate, with Meyer lemon, clean bright woodiness, oaky finish in the glass.
Pride Mountain Vineyards
and Robert Foley
4026 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena CA 94574
Winemaker Bob Foley is a master at balance, making big wines that show good fruit, acidity, tannin, and spicy complexity. When he bottles his own label, the balance point sits at the extreme of saturated flavors: crazy big wines. It helps that his grapes come from one of the best high-elevation growing regions in California, above the Napa Valley on Spring Mountain.
These wines are expensive, and they get high points in the wine press. They deserve the accolades, but I wish the prices could come down a bit so I could buy more! Foley releases only two wines on his own label, Charbono and Claret. The Charbono is a fruit-driven wine with smoky spicy flavors. His gigantic Claret uses the same grapes as the Pride Reserve Cabernet (around $150/bottle), blended to his own tastes and sold at "only" $100.
2001 Pride Merlot ($48)
Intense nose of chocolate, cassis, black cherries, caramel oak, a hint of brambles and clove, some dark floral overtones (violets). Giant fruit on the palate, black cherry with coffee, velvety large tannins. The tannins and fruit linger for a very long time. 5382 cases (14.1% alc.)
2001 Robert Foley Claret ($100)
This wine makes everything else seem small, a bully wearing velvet gloves. Big everything: tannin, oak, fruit, nose, palate, finish, etc. Deep sweet black cherry nose surrounded by caramel taffy oak, chocolate mint, almonds, cinnamon and winter spices. I pictured zabaglione for some reason: marsala in sweet heavy cream with ripe berries. The flavors conquered the mouth with monstrous sweet black fruit, bitter chocolate, splinters and rock hard tannins (seemingly integrated due to overwhelming fruit and oak), almost impenetrably deep with an endless finish (still lingering 5 minutes after.) After five hours in the glass, it opened into coconut, dark chocolate, blackberries and liquorice. The next day (in the same glass) it tasted like black cherries, caramel oak, milk chocolate and wet leaves. A crazy megawine.
2002 Pride Chardonnay ($35)
A sweet nose of caramel apples, butter and a hint of citrus. Full ripeness, soft malolactic flavors of butterscotch and toasted pineapple, lingering oak sweetness but with enough acidity to keep it from getting cloying. 1484 cases (14.3% alc.)
2002 Pride Viognier ($40)
Floral and fleshy-fruit perfumes show great depth and subtlety. Tropical flowers, peaches or apricots, not much oak at all (a refreshing change that will make this pair well with food.) Crisp yet lingering in the mouth, a viscous mouth feel, with a sense of sweetness despite full dryness and high acidity. Not a trace of bitterness in the long smokey finish. Clean, complex and lovely. 1867 cases (13.9% alc.)
2002 Robert Foley Vineyards Charbono, Napa Valley ($35)
Nose of young unintegrated oak, toasted caramel, hints of cherry, dark earthy chocolate, some VA, low-frequency notes. Flavors reminiscent of barbecue, lots of acidity, lots of fruit extraction, medium low tannin. A slightly quirky wine whose spicy smokiness would pair perfectly with barbecued ribs.
2002 Pride Merlot ($48) (tasted 7/04)
Slightly more herbaceous than the '01, but with similar black cherry and chocolate ripeness. The subtle leafiness opens into earthy complexity, with ripe blackberry fruit in the palate, and very soft silky tannins. As usual, a luscious wine.
2003 Pride Viognier ($40) (tasted 7/04)
Tropical smells of passion fruit, li-chi and apricots, with some creamy and bread-like softness. Luscious rich mouth feel with a hint of smoke and mild lemony brightness within a cushion of ripe fleshy fruits.
Van Der Heyden (Napa, south Eldorado Trail)
Van der Heyden has occasionally been one of my favorite small Napa wineries, making brilliant huge late harvest wines and some German style sweet white table wines. Not cheap, and getting a bit overpriced as they strive for uniqueness, these wines have huge fruit and deep complexity. The tasting room consists of a tin shed with the charming curmudgeonly André Van der Heyden himself sitting behind his desk pouring wines and lecturing like a tape machine (with great pride) about his wines. The Van der Heyden family sold their house in Piedmont CA in the mid 1970's to follow a dream, turning his winemaking hobby into a full time career. He has won many gold medals since then, but continues to do it all at a tiny scale. His son-in-law acts as chief vintner, baby grandson charming the visitors with his antics. I try to take visiting friends here for tastings just to experience the unique wines and funky family atmosphere.
I am still puzzling over their Cabernet Sauvignon, which I think they age too long in the barrel. I bought some 1998 on futures when I had a barrel sampling. It tasted beautiful then, with deep nutty complexity, citrus and winter spices. They didn't release the wine for almost a year after that, and when I tasted it a few years later ('03) it showed signs of serious "volatile acidity" - a euphemism for turning into vinegar because of too much exposure to oxygen in the barrel.
1997 Van Der Heyden Zinfandel Amador County Late Harvest (tasted 10/03) $45 for 350 ml
Some oxidation with vegetal notes in the nose, drying dusty tannins, large acidity, nose of strawberry and chocolate but also a bit too much oak and air. Lingering sweetness and long plum/chocolate finish make up for any vegetal smells. Too expensive.
1998 Van Der Heyden White Table Wine (tasted 2/03) $11
Nose of apples, pears, hints of terpentine, clove and Christmas spices, minute trace of tobacco and brown sugar. Sweet palate with apples, pears, peaches, lingering spiciness matches the nose, with a fresh fruit finish. The age has amplified the terpenes a bit. This wine is best when young.
1998 Van Der Heyden Cabernet Sauvignon (tasted 12/03) $65
When first opened, completely overtaken by acetaldehyde, medicinal smells, weirdness. Two days later - as I write this: astonishingly, much of the acetaldehyde had blown off. Comparing previous notes with the glass in front of me... Two days ago: VA, Band-Aids, chocolate, gardenia flowers, citrons, pickled bergamot orange peel. Intense astringent palate of unsweetened chocolate mint, very spicy and very oaky. Today: Smells of deep dark Belgian chocolate, jasmine and orange blossoms, allspice, cloves, dry sycamore leaves, camphor, subtle acetaldehyde but drinkable. The palate is still somewhat astringent and medicinal, with iodine, camphor, bergamot oil and mint. Next time I open one of these bottles, I'll decant it three days before serving.
1999 Van Der Heyden Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (tasted 10/03) $50
I think this has been aged too long in oak, and suffers from some oxidation effects -- volatile acidity, acetaldehyde. Nose of chocolate and cassis, bright berry and deep cherry. Puckery mid-palate acidity, viscous buttery finish. Potentially a lovely huge wine, I think it sat too long in barrel.
2000 Van Der Heyden Cabernet Sauvignon Late Harvest Napa Valley (tasted 10/03) $150
Van Der Heyden claims to be the only winery in the world to make a late harvest Cabernet, a very risky undertaking considering the late ripening fruit. This wine shows perfect age effects, light oxidation that adds complexity, a huge chocolatey nose with hints of beautiful dark sweet fruit. Surprisingly not cloyingly sweet in the palate, but with clean acidity and firm tannins. The almost endless finish in the mouth leaves a toasted apple/butter flavor like tarte tatin, bready and sweet. Frightingly expensive but lovely to taste.
2001 Van Der Heyden Chardonnay Napa Valley Estate (tasted 10/03) $22
Tropical fruit profile of mango and lime, pineapple, honeydew melon, green apple. Crisp acidity, not too much oak. Sweet smells, dry palate, lovely.
2001 Van Der Heyden Merlot Napa Valley Estate (tasted 10/03) $?
A giant wine, very structured with good tannin and acidity, nose of chocolate and a hint of sawdust (unintegrated oak). Some seediness from the tannins. One of the biggest Merlots I've tasted.
Other Napa Wines
1999 Atalon Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (tasted 12/02)
Red cherries, ocean, hints of bay, tobacco, toasted oak smells. The nose is restrained, the flavors are big oaky fruit, tobacco and lingering cherries. Definitely a good industrial-method Napa cab, but not memorable.
2001 Behrens & Hitchcock Petite Sirah, Spring Mountain, Napa (tasted 5/04)
Quite lovely and soft, with a slightly hot nose of alcohol, but full of fresh raspberry, sweet cherry and a touch of pondwater. Soft and not tannic on the palate, with black cherry and milk chocolate, dry grasses and sweet cinnamon oak. Slightly simple but well centered and mouth filling.
1994 Beringer Private Reserve (Napa Valley) (tasted 12/03)
Showing beautiful age effects, cherry fruit leather, dusty tar, red vines liquorice, and fragrant Italian herbs, especially oregano. The palate showed excellent structure, bright spicy cherry fruit, oily smooth mouth-feel and still some feisty acidity after nine years. This seems the perfect age for this bottle.
1999 Cloud View, Napa Valley (tasted 12/02)
44% Merlot, 56% Cabernet Sauv. Smells like chocolate and pepper, light and fresh with age-worthy acidity and tannins. Vanilla oak, plummy fruit, hint of eucalyptus. Tingling acidity on the palate tells me this wine is too young. Still shows excellent balance and solid structure. The oak needs more time to integrate.
1999 Conn Valley Eloge (Napa Valley) (tasted 12/02)
65% Cab, 25% Cab Franc, 10% Merlot
Strong graphite in the nose, cedar and a background of red cherry fruit. On the palate, the fruit showed surprising restraint within a complex tannic-acidic profile of black tea, bitter cocoa, and pencils. I didn't get a chance to return to this wine to see if the fruit worked its way forward from under the tightness, but it might show fascinating complexity in 5-10 years.
2002 Cosentino Merlot Napa (tasted 7/04)
Very soft ripe smells of chocolate covered cherries, with herbaceaous leafy qualities and earthy (high pH) mulchy soil. Very soft in the mouth, medium soft tannin, medium soft acidity, very ripe and full: this Merlot has a fat belly and feet in the soil, full of the dusty Napa valley loam.
1997 DOMINUS, Napa Valley Red Wine, Christian Moueix (tasted 12/02)
At first very tight, pencil shavings, cocoa butter, blueberry and sweet spicy smells. The palate is big and complex, centered and hard to pull apart. Cocoa butter and ferric meat flavors, opening toward cheesey - blue cheese or maybe feta? Hmmm... Wow, what a big wine.
1994 Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon (tasted 4/04)
A very tough Napa cab, with so much tannin and acidity that it seems
it could age for another decade and still taste young and tight. Nose shows anise and sweet herbs, cherry cola, wet tar, opening to dusty books and oak, and later into red cherries. Feisty palate with grassy tannins, cherry and cinnamon, with a slightly wirey Sweet-Tarts candy finish, trailing off into pinched dusty tannins.
2000 Fife Cabernet Sauvignon (tasted 2/04)
Shows an unusual soft oily mouth feel for Spring Mountain fruit. An odd barnyard softness that may be Brett, but not out of control. Nose of very heavy oak treatment that might need a few years to tame, soft cassis/cherry. Intense black cherry oiliness in the mouth, seems like fairly low acidity, bacon fat, with a finish that gets brighter in the mouth with dry haystack and red cherry.
1991 Groth Reserve, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, (tasted 12/02)
Complex smells of live-oak mulch, lovely old fruit, black and green peppercorns, rich and spicy, generous and complex. Palate is spicy and dry, very peppery, extremely deep and interesting.
2001 Hundred Acre, Cabernet Sauvignon Kayli Morgan Vyd. (tasted 4/04)
Concentrated profile of a big Napa cab, but with high altitude clean lines and perfect structure supporting its enormous ripe fruit. Black cherry, chocolate, dry grasses, oaky caramel and graham cracker sweetness. Very balanced palate, an almost perfect harmony between dark fruit, sweet oak, rounded tannins and clean acidity. Astonishingly balanced and refined for such a massively ripe cabernet.
1998 Merus Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville) (tasted 12/03)
I liked this wine so much I wrote down the phone number from the back of the bottle (707-251-5551.) Generous and soft fruit with a good strong backbone, it typified the best of ripe Napa Valley Cab. Complex nose of black cherry and cassis fruit with notes of peppermint, chocolate, graphite, taffy oak, opening up to traces of humus, grass and pondwater. Sweet fruit explodes on the palate with floral cherries and lingering oily finish with cocoa tannins. (14.9% alc.)
1997 Richard Perry Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
A lovely giant berry bomb with somewhat simple profile. An explosive nose of brambly blackberry fruit, dusty gravel and ripe berry seeds that hint at big tannins. Indeed, a mouth-full of berry juice, rich dark chocolate and tannin, with a lingering note of oak spice and sweet residual dark fruit. I could spread this on toast.
2001 Orin Swift, "The Prisoner" (tasted 3/04)
51% Zin, 20% Syrah, 13% charbono, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Petite Syrah. Jammy red raspberry fruit, some soapy perfumes (high pH?), hints of white pepper. Good strong tannins in the mouth with a slightly waxy finish.
2000 Palio Vecchio Merlot Luna Vineyards (Napa Valley) (tasted 4/03)
This bottle had been open for a while, and is a bit oxidized. The nose is herbal, with a note of fennel greens, blueberry, vanilla oak, humus earth and sweet fruit. The palate is plummy with a bright finish, deep but simple, fruity. Typical California ripeness, a fruity wine, not for aging.
1997 Paoletti "Non-Plus ULTRA" Napa Valley Red Table Wine, (tasted 12/02)
One of my own personal favorites in a night of tasting among an all-star lineup. Nose of bright red fruit, towards pencily cedar, tobacco and coffee. Big acidity on the palate, balanced between cherry and cassis, bittersweet chocolate, black pepper and tobacco. Cleansing, centered, balanced and classic.
2002 Pepperwood Grove Syrah (tasted 5/05) $8
Sebastiani's budget label designed by winemaker Bob Broman to offer ripe fruit at low prices. Indeed it tastes quite cheap, with a mulchy grapey nose redeemed slightly by lingering flavors of coffee and cream. Forgettable.
2000 Prager Claire Napa Reisling
Sweet perfumes of honey and clover blossoms, limes, nutmeg and a hint of terpentine. Heavy sweet flavors of very ripe pineapple, fuji apples and honey. It lacks some of the acidity that helps add clarity to cold-weather Reislings. (7% alc.)
1999 Quail Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve (tasted 2/04)
A batch of these showed up at blow-out prices, possibly because of a bad batch of composite corks, many of which have left a subtle TCA smell in the wine. Older Quail Ridge that I've tasted had a tendency toward Band-Aid smells, but these '99 bottles showed more variation than usual. Finally I had a good one, which showed classic Napa Cab flavors. This has a nose with intense cassis and dark chocolate, sandlewood perfume, hints of coconut and cinnamon (clean integrated oak characters, mostly) with additional subtle hints of iodine and pondwater. Inky tingling palate with oily acidity, clinging dusty cocoa tannins, clean cherry fruit and some tobacco toward the finish.
1996 V. Sattui Zinfandel Suzanne's Vineyard (Rutherford)
(tasted 1/04) Nose shows coconut and hints of acetaldehyde, caraway seed, bitter chocolate, some alcohol heat. Palate offers a rush of clear red fruit and cocoa tannins, dying off quickly. Over time it opens into raisiny ripeness.
1984 Silver Oak Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (tasted 12/02)
French-like minerality, oceanic, clamshells (calcium), dry summer grass, blueberries, olive oil. Opens to anise and complex mushroom earthiness. Palate is cedary, with graphite and other mineral characters, but still with tastes of very fresh fruit and clean acidity. A big pleasant surprise to taste such good age characters on a much overhyped wine.
1999 Stags' Leap Reserve Cabernet (tasted 12/02)
Plummy black fruit nose, cassis, sensual and soft. This one is all about ripe fruit. Palate soft and smooth, velvety, buttery. Finishes with a hint of lime or cumin and a bit of bitter oak tannin. Yum.
1995 Sullivan Vineyards Rutherford, "Coeur de Vigne" (tasted 12/02)
80% CS, 20% Merlot. Nose of horse saddle leather, cherries, cassis, lapsang souchong tea, cigar smoke, and mint. French oak character, I think. Palate shows very bright acidity, clean and crisp tannins, not a big fruit bomb like some of the others, more toasty and spicy.
2000 Switchback Ridge Petite Sirah Peterson Family Vineyard (tasted 3/04)
Bob Foley does it again, making one of the biggest and most complex wines among a night of big flavors night. Intense nose of cherry Cool Aid, fennel, salt, limestone, Mediterranean herbs (white sage?) with almost impenetrable depth. After three hours in a glass, come some hints of Brett and Band Aid (in a good way). Very well-structured acidity and tannin.
2000 Terra Valentine Cabernet Sauvignon (Spring Mountain) (Tasted 3/04)
Soft sweet oaky nose with vanilla and caramel, dark milk chocolate, black cherries, horse sweat and wet hay (a bit of Brett?) An oily palate shows tar and black olives, strong leathery tannins, tight and slightly brooding.
1999 Vine Cliff Merlot (tasted 3/04)
Clean spicy cherry nose, bitter chocolate and a hint of pondwater, some tight acidity, rust, a hint of Band-aids. Fruit-driven palate with high acidity and good firm tannins, showing good balance. Clear cherry fruit with a touch of mint and cedar, but not over-oaked. Deep and clean flavors.
2001 Whitehall Lane Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa (tasted 6/04)
Balanced smells of warm woody oak, classic black cherry/cassis Napa Cab profile, loamy soil with a hint of iodine. Beautiful ripe palate with full-bodied fruit and cinnamon spice, still young. Seems structured for the long haul.
Return to Wine Notes Index: