* With apologies to Julius Caesar, who is best known for his Latin conjugations and for his salad dressing; in 47 BC, the Emperor reputedly said “Veni, vidi vici,” wishing to say “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Unfortunately, English hadn’t yet been invented, so who knows what he really said.
About one-hundred wine writers, wine educators, sommeliers, and earnest wine geeks descended on the Rudd Center at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America), in St. Helena, this morning to taste, swirl and spit through a sampling of 60 different Napa Valley Cab-based wines.
The tasting was part of a weekend wine package – Napa Valley is abuzz with wine activities: out-of-town wine writers are on hand for the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, and the CIA is getting gussied up for tomorrow’s annual Premiere Napa Valley barrel auction, which is only open to members of the wine trade.
To keep assembled guest’s tongues flapping, the Napa Valley Vintners decided to host a tasting of local wines. Their professional panel tasted a large universe of 2004, 2005 and 2006 wines from area producers, narrowing the selection down to 20 producers for today’s tasting.
Guests were asked to taste the 60 wines blind (three wines from each producer – their 2004, 2005 and 2006 offerings). No prices were mentioned, no appellations were identified. All tasters had to go on was their palate, and a few water crackers to soak up the excess alcohol.
The wines presented were priced, on release, in a range from $35 to $132. As one discovers in so many blind tastings, price often has nothing to do with quality, despite the marketing attempts of wine producers to the contrary.
My top four favorite wines in the blind tasting were priced across the board, despite the fact that I scored each of them identically with 93 points. Though I must be developing an affinity for higher priced wines; my favorites this year were in the upper tier of pricing. In tastings past, I have often discovered a $45 gem in a pack of $175 wines. This was not the case today.
Napa Valley Vintners
I salute the Napa Valley Vintners for organizing this educational event, but points were lost on execution:
For one thing, chlorinated water was served for rinsing our stemware. The mere introduction of chlorine into any wine-tasting experience is a serious No-No.
The other observation: all 60 wines had been poured into decanters, which were identified by number only. When a decanter was running low on wine (guests poured for themselves), the very pleasant, and attentive, staff topped up the decanters with wine from new, masked bottles of the same wine and vintage. But this essentially dumbs down the best expression of any wine. The solera system, used to make sherry, is NOT an appropriate method for tasting wines blind. Let me explain.
Given: no two bottles of wine are really alike. You can have really great bottles and really good bottles and sometimes even clunker bottles of the very same wine from the very same lot.
When you mix two bottles, the sum cannot ever be superior than the better of the two bottles. If one bottle is compromised it will dumb down the better bottle. So by topping up the decanters of wine, mixing together two, or three, or even four bottles of a vintage… this can only produce a tasting experience that is less than the best single bottle that might have been tasted blind.
In fact, wine writers often go back in a blind tasting to taste a wine again from a different bottle just to learn if there is significant bottle variation. The hosts of this morning’s tasting did no wine justice by blending different bottles of the same wine in the serving decanters.
I tasted through 60 wines and scored them for color, aroma, mouthfeel, attack, intensity, balance, perceived level of alcohol, food friendliness and overall pleasure output.
For the purposes of this report, I will comment on my top four wines, each which scored 93 points. If you find them in the marketplace, trust me, they are luscious, the winemaking is serious, the pedigree is solid. These are keepers!
In alphabetical order, my four top wines, tasted blind, and each scoring 93 points:
2004 Darioush Signature Cabernet Sauvignon
Bright fruit on the attack with a delicious coffee undertow. Beautiful balance, really a delicious wine. Makes me want to run home and grill some lamb chops to serve with the remaining wine in the decanter.
A blend of 83% Cabernet, 9% Merlot, 5% Cab Franc, 2% Malbec and 1% Petit Verdot. $80 on release.
2004 Jones Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
This is a BIG wine, with a lot of oak still evident on the attack; but there is a gorgeous, silken mouthfeel that comes into play in the middle palate; there is also smoke, chocolate and a very long finish. If this wine were a Broadway play, it would be Phantom of the Opera. It is showy, but you leave the experience humming the main chords and think what a great time you’ve had.
A blend of 98% Cabernet and 2% Cab Franc with Petit Verdot. $80 on release.
2004 Pillar Rock, Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District
I am not as familiar with Pillar Rock as I obviously ought to be; first time I’ve tasted it blind anywhere and what a discovery! Great fruit on the nose and a rush of fruit on the palate. Perfect extraction, great length, lots of smoky middle notes, and a generous, silken middle portion that is as much about texture as it is about taste. Bravo! $125 on release.
2004 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways: by the attack, by the middle palate, by the finish. My tasting notes conclude: “A tremendous wine!” Coffee, toffee, rich ripe black fruits, all in wonderful balance. “This is an alluring wine” I noted on my tasting sheet. And fabulously food friendly.
97% Cabernet and 3% Cab Franc. $125 on release.
A wine writer’s observation
What is interesting about my top-scoring wines: they were all from the 2004 vintage from these four producers. I am not surprised; I like older wines, find it harder to judge, or quantify, really young wines, which are often filled with young wood, and which tend to be more tannic and less food friendly.
For the purposes of education, here are my scores for the other two wines of each of these four Top of Class producers.
2005 Darioush Signature Cabernet, 92 points
2006 Darioush Signature Cabernet, 90 points
2005 Jones Family Vineyards Cabernet, 92 points
2006 Jones Family Vineyards Cabernet, 90 points
2005 Pillar Rock Cabernet, 92 points.
2006 Pillar Rock Cabernet, 91 points.
2005 Spottswoode Cabernet, 90 points (a heap o’ horse – brett, which put me off)
2006 Spottswoode Cabernet, 90 points (after learning this was the 06 Spottswoode (tasted blind), I would conclude that this was poured from an aberrant bottle; I have had the 06 before and it has shown much better. Lost points for bottle variation.)