THE NVWE BLOG
Welcome to the NVWE Wine Blog! We hope it will be good and informative reading. Our blog will be as varied in style as our staff members are varied in personality and experience. Some staff-member entries may be brief notes about exciting new discoveries. Others may be descriptions of recent wine touring adventures. A few may be longer, with a bit of historical detail, like this one.
We recently tasted the 2011 Scribe Cabernet Sauvignon Outpost East, an absolutely gorgeous Napa bottling that any vintner on the planet would be proud to call his own. It is every bit as delicious as Scribe's wonderful 2010 Cab. The 2010s from Continuum, Boeschen and Lewis were terrific, and their 2011s are no less so. The 2011 Drinkward Peschon Cab is better than their 2010. If you taste these wines and a good many other 2011s, you might think this a great vintage, but it isn't.
This harvest is too complex to be explained in a few sentences. Wine lovers will soon be reading plenty about it however, and almost all of the news coverage will be broad, brief and bad. After all, 2011 was an unremittingly cool growing season that ended with rain at the harvest. What praise should they give a small crop that still managed to produce oceans of Cabernet unworthy of bottling? Who will waste ink defending a year in which so many of the least and most expensive wines were terrible disappointments?
I will for one, because we keep discovering jewels.
A complicated story sometimes begins with a question.
What did it take to make an exciting 2011 Napa Cabernet?
Consider these Five things, for a start:
1 - Control of the fruit source
2 - Freedom to make the right decisions
3 - The commitment to make those decisions
4 - The ability and willingness to adapt to what the vineyard gave you
5 - A bit of help from Mother Nature
1 - Ownership, or a contract/relationship with the grower that commits him to the course of action the vintner needs to follow. In a year like 2011, both parties had to be financially flexible and willing to make sacrifices to insure ripeness.
2 & 3 - Grape vines are pruned prior to each upcoming season, largely to help determine how many clusters the vintner will receive at harvest. Despite this, Mother Nature (who can just as easily wipe-out the crop if she chooses) sometimes provides too much fruit.
A vine can fully ripen a small number of grape clusters in a cool season, but must have hot weather to ripen a very heavy load. When a crop is so large that ripeness or concentration are jeopardized, the grower may "cut crop" to better guarantee the desired result. The grower or winery, in effect, pays workers to discard part of its own investment.
A privately-owned winery, with no stockholders looking over its shoulder, will often choose to make such difficult production decisions for the long term interests and reputation of the winery.
Historically, the CEOs of Corporately-owned wineries think only of the short term, invariably keeping self interest in mind. Stockholders, learning that the winery incurred extra expense in order to produce less wine, are liable to hand the CEO his walking papers. Corporate wineries look for market share, not quality, and they keep the yields high, trusting that Napa's famous Indian Summer heat wave will manage a last-minute rescue for over-loaded vines. About once per decade Mother Nature gives the Indian Summer a vacation. It was on holiday elsewhere in 2011, and then rain arrived, to really spoil the party.
4 & 5 - In the 1960s and 1970s many great and some legendary Cabernets were produced in the Napa Valley. The vast majority of them were picked at a much lower degree of ripeness than is common today. However, some of today's most influential wine reviewers find extremely high ripeness, even at the expense of balance, much more desirable. As a result, Cabs in that style often receive scores as elevated as their level of ripeness. Many expensive Cult wines are grown and vinified in a manner particularly designed to please these reviewers. High scores support high prices.
Pruning for low crop yields is part of the cost of doing business for the Cult producer, yet in the ultra-cool 2011 season even tiny yields could not bring the fruit to the super-ripeness some producers desire. No doubt some of those producers had crops ripe enough to produce lovely bottles, should that vintner be content with making wine in the 1960s-1970s manner. Others did not. Winemakers waited and waited, but it just would not get hot! What to do, what to do?
Near the end of September a truly scary weather prediction forced everyone's hand. Suddenly, everyone had to decide whether to pick at once (assuming workable ripeness), or gamble, hoping the storm proved less severe than expected and was followed by some heat. Unless the fruit was just plain unripe, not-picking was a big gamble. As things turned out, those who gambled, lost. A near-Biblical rain storm was followed by weather as cool as before. Some Cult favorites were thinned-out and many Corporate wines were washed-out.
Drinking at the High Table
The annual Oakville Growers tasting is a showplace where lots of heavy-hitting Cab producers introduce their next vintage, logically 2011 at this point. At the May 2014 event some of them failed to do so, pouring older vintages instead. 2011s were on display, but far fewer than we expected. Some of these were over-oaked, over-extracted and short of fruit, yet nevertheless appallingly expensive. There were a few Corporate wines poured as well, with the expected results. A few of the 2011s that we did taste were truly delicious, my personal favorite being Linda Neal's 2011 Tierra Roja. It was my favorite wine in the room, regardless of vintage.
Linda owns her own vineyard and is a vineyard manager by trade. Her Cab is always classically made and is typically outstanding. The marketing of Tierra Roja is utterly free of pretense, as is Linda. Yet Tierra Roja is a great vineyard, one of Oakville's best. Linda's 2011 drinks much like a great 1970s Cab, a trait typical of the most successful 2011s. Bye the way, my 2nd favorite Cab at the Oakville Growers tasting was made by Tor Kenward Winery, from Tierra Roja grapes.
Remembering to enjoy the amazingly good, while ignoring the bad and the ugly
Lots of decisions were made during the 2011 harvest and the results, good and bad, will soon be visible on store shelves. In early tastings we have seen $25.00-$40.00 range 2011 Cabernets that are delicious, just like the pricier wines mentioned above. We keep discovering jewels and have come to believe that Napa vintners have a lot to be proud of.
It is true that we have tasted some $200.00 Cult Cabernets that seemed unattractive at any price and it appears that a fair number of upscale producers plan to either second-label their 2011s, or skip the vintage outright. We confess that indifference has kept us from fully perusing the produce of the usual Corporate suspects, but we frankly suggest you follow our example. As regards the rest of our 2011 Napa Cab explorations, we are having fun!
Remember, in 2011 pride trumps price. Keep looking and you will find jewels as well!
A Napa Cabernet vintage moves through the marketplace with the predictability of a tide, and although Spring and Fall are the primary release periods, as many as five vintages may be in play at any given moment. As with waterways there are ebbs and floes, and broad patterns emerge which can distract the attention. It takes careful panning to reveal the gold nuggets hidden therein.
At NVWE we deal in small production wines. Currently, the first 2012 Cabs are just making their appearance. 2012 looks to be an abundant year of fine quality. At the same time the final stragglers from 2009s are reaching the shelves. The very fine, but tiny 2010 Cab vintage has been in full flood, but the best 2010s disappear as quickly as they are released. The more problematic and equally tiny 2011 harvest waits in the wings, with wines from most of the important properties not yet released.
We taste dozens of wines each week at our store and attend trade tastings throughout the year. The best Napa events tend to showcase a specific appellation. The Oakville Growers tasting comes this April, while the Coombsville, Howell Mountain and Yountville events were held in the very recent past. Facing back-to-back small harvests we must make quick purchasing decisions, or lose the opportunity. What follows is a brief distillation of wines that have recently impressed us. As a group they are essentially Reserve Level in quality, if not necessarily in price. Not all of these Cabs are released as yet, although many are to be released this April. We will only receive tiny quantities of some, and substantial quantities of only a few. The wines tasted are listed by appellation and alphabetically. Prices for wines that are currently available can be found on our website. Feel free to call about any others.
2011 Midsummer Cabernet Sauvignon Haystack Peak Vineyard
2010 C. Beck Cabernet Sauvignon Barlow Vineyard
2011 Faust Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
2011 Kobalt Cabernet Sauvignon
2010 Mi Sueno Cabernet Sauvignon
2008 Sciandri Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
2010 Wallis Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
2011 Wallis Family Little Sister Proprietary Red Wine
2010 Arkenstone Obsidian Proprietary Red
2010 Michael James Cabernet Sauvignon Beatty Ranch
2010 Pina Cabernet Sauvignon Buckeye Vineyard
2010 Red Cap Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
2011 Saunter Cabernet Sauvignon Eagle Summit Vineyard
2009 Spence Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
2010 Spence Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
2010 Mount Brave Cabernet Sauvignon
2011 Drinkward Peschon Cabernet Sauvignon Entre Deux Meres
2011 Elizabeth Spencer Cabernet Sauvignon
2010 Fifty Rows Galleron Cuvee Proprietary Red
2010 Keenan Cabernet Sauvignon
2009 Krutz Family Cabernet Sauvignon Stagecoach Vineyard
2009 Sequum Cabernet Sauvignon 4 Soils
2010 Steelmark Cabernet Sauvignon Small Lot Red Walnut Vineyard
2011 Whitehall Lane Napa Valley
2009 Whitehall Lane Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve
2010 Darms Lane Cabernet Sauvignon Bonne Passe Vineyard
2009 Darms Lane Cabernet Sauvignon Linda's Hillside Vineyard
2010 Paradigm Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
2010 Bell Cabernet Sauvignon Clone Six George III Vineyard
2011 McGah Family Cabernet Sauvignon Scarlett
2010 Whitehall Lane Cabernet Sauvignon Millennium Vineyard
2010 Keenan Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve
2010 Keenan Mernet Proprietary Red Wine
2010 Malk Cabernet Sauvignon
2011 Boeschen Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
2011 Revana Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
2010 Sequum Cabernet Sauvignon Kidd Ranch
2011 Vineyard 29 Cru Cabernet Sauvignon
2010 Whitehall Lane Cabernet Sauvignon Leonardini Vineyard
2101 Young inglewood Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
2011 Blankiet Rive Droite Proprietary Red
2010 Corley Family Cabernet Sauvignon State Lane Vineyard
2010 Laird Jillian's Proprietary Red
2010 Rocca Cabernet Sauvignon Grigsby Vineyard
Napa Valley Winery Exchange opened its doors in 1988, with the idea of offering travelers a glimpse of the California wines not encountered out of state. One of the first wines we introduced was Jason Pahlmeyer’s Bordeaux inspired 1985 Napa Valley Red. Years later we launched Coho’s 2002 Headwaters Napa Red. Both were labeled Napa Valley, yet both were produced from Coombsville grapes, and in the vintages to follow each would receive consistent critical praise.
In California, a celebrated wine growing area may be recognized as special enough to have its name and distinctive geographical identity protected by law. This appellation system was developed in Europe and is now in place in one form or another around the world. Under this system, a wine labeled Russian River Valley may come from nowhere else.
The Napa Valley appellation is now famous worldwide and over the years its most important districts have received their own special recognition as sub-appellations. In the wine marketplace, the more specific the appellation, the more valuable the grapes. Last winter, an NVWE crew attended the inaugural trade and media tasting for the newly recognized Coombsville appellation.
Although Coombsville has been a source of outstanding wines for over a century, its growers and vintners were slow to seek appellation status. Recently, the locals petitioned the government for that recognition, romantically suggesting that the appellation be known by the areas 19th Century name: Tulocay. Appellation status was promptly, but at first only provisionally, approved: a condition was that the name Tulocay be replaced by Coombsville, a place that can actually be found on a map.
Coombsville is cooler than northern Napa and its vineyards fan-out over rolling hills, without the contrasts in elevation found in the Valley. Houses and horse barns dot this landscape, and Coombsville Road is dotted with 19th Century properties, lichen-covered trees and semi-crumbled native rock walls. Although the feel is decidedly rural, newly built houses and rock walls are to be seen everywhere.
Tasting in Coombsville is a pleasure. The place is rural-friendly. The tasting tables are free of high-profile pretense and everyone seems cheerful and optimistic. The food supplied for the tasting was both more elaborate and better than that served to us earlier in Yountville, the home of many of California’s most celebrated restaurants. The food-truck in which it was prepared was parked just outside the airy residential barn where we did our tasting. The barn, owned by the Chin family, overlooks their Syrah vineyard, a source for Caldwell Winery’s Rocket Science blend.
This has traditionally been Cab-Merlot-Syrah country and it was no surprise that we were knocked-out by three local reds. Two were Cabernets: The 2008 Sciandri Estate Cabernet was a true beauty, showing the concentration of its vintage and great clarity to its cherry, cranberry, vanilla and baking-spice flavors (Later, John added a bottle to a San Francisco Wine Tasting Panel Cab tasting, where it was the clear favorite!). The 2011 Edict Cabernet Sauvignon Collinetta Vineyard is obviously a 2011 vintage star and looked like a cult-wine in the making. It is a June release and we hope to launch it in our June High Rollers Cabernet Club box.
The Mink Vineyard, produced each year by Ancien Winery, is the only consistently brilliant Pinot Noir property we know of in Coombsville. We have a faithful following for this wine, which is typically almost masculine in personality. It almost always serves-up rich dark fruit and lots of spice, and has a great track record for improvement in bottle. We found the 2012 intense, yet stunningly feminine. It displays lovely perfume, gorgeous fruit clarity and lively zest. Its tannic grip lurks below an already silky texture. Our Pinot Noir Club members can expect a bottle in their April box.
We didn’t leave Coombsville until after dark. It had been a long day in the trenches, but a good one.
View of Syrah vines from the terrace at the Chin's barn.
Don holds living proof that great Pinot can be grown in Coombsville.
Don, at end of day, recalling why he does not live in Minnesota.
Circumstances rarely permit the full NVWE staff to visit wine country together, but a few times each year several of us are able to travel as a group. Recently Kristen, Lisa, John & I spent a long day together in Napa Valley. The valley is blissfully traffic-free in winter and that day we were also blessed with blue skies, sweet clean air and 70 degrees. It was a working day, one involving three short and two long stops.
11:00am found us high above St. Helena, in the chilly tasting room of Spring Mountain’s Robert Keenan Winery. We came for a private tasting of upcoming releases including Keenan’s two flagship reds.
Keenan’s 2010 Mernet (Merlot, Cabernet & Cabernet Franc) was picture-perfect: deep, stylish & of outstanding clarity, it is packed with delicious fruit and is clearly age-worthy. Their 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve is great Cabernet. It is powerful, focused and deeply-etched with that mountains sweet cherry & mineral signature. I found it wonderful already, but God (who has more time and money than I) will likely be enjoying his bottles over the next 30 years.
Laura Kewell, our host, was justifiably ecstatic about the tasting rooms 2014 lineup, which will also include Keenan’s rarely seen Syrah. The 2010 is a gorgeous marriage of creamy, cherryish Coombsville fruit to darkly rich Syrah from Atlas Peak. Laura seemed just as excited however, by the promise of a tasting room remodeled to include heaters. The building she currently greets guests in was built in 1904, for the long defunct Conradi Winery.
Kristen was driving, and a bit past noon she took us down the mountain to St Helena proper, for a fast snack at Taylor’s Refresher. We ate at a picnic table under brilliant sunshine, in Taylor’s grass-covered back yard: fortifying ourselves with gourmet fish tacos, hot dogs and sweet potato fries.
After lunch, we moved south to Whitehall Lane Winery, to pick up wine for a last minute special order for one of Whitehall’s two flagship Cabs (and we did a bit of tasting, of course). We are proud to be the only store in the world authorized to sell these bottlings. The 2010 Leonardini Cab and the 2010 Millennium MM Cab are fabulous. Already lauded by the press, they are likely the greatest pair ever released by Whitehall, which opened its doorsin 1981. The Leonardini Vineyard saw its first vintage in 1993, while the Millennium property was developed post 2000.
We next found ourselves parked alongside Botega Restaurant, on our way into the annual Taste of Yountville.
Nearly all of Yountville’s premium wine is red, and Bordeaux grapes dominate. On entry we found that some of our favorite producers (like Keever and Darms Lane) were not in attendance. There were several high-profile high-price wines being poured, although on this day we did not feel that a single one of them deserved its elevated price.
We did make two exciting discoveries: Rocca’s 2010 Grigsby Vineyard Cabernet and Corley’s 2010 State Lane Cab. Blankiet’s Bordeaux-esque 2011 Rive Droite checked-in as a good dark horse, outstripping that winery’s vastly pricier Estate wine. We didn’t linger, as the path to our last stop meant a trip further south and east into the Napa suburb of Coombsville.
John evaluates Rocca's 2010 Grigsby Cabernet at Taste of Yountville
Kristen writes a tasting note on one of the few whites at Taste of Yountville
John and Don chat with the Napa Wine Train's Yuri Soshizaki