Sat 22 Nov 2008
Mike Dragutsky and David Sloas, two doctors from Memphis, launched Cornerstone Cellars in 1991, when Sloas was visiting winemaker Randy Dunn on Howell Mountain and Dunn offered to sell him 4.8 tons of cabernet sauvignon grapes, a gesture that falls into the “can’t refuse” category, even after a sanity check. Seventeen years later, Cornerstone turns out 2,000 cases together of a Howell Mountain bottling and a Napa Valley bottling (the majority is Napa), is available in almost every major market, and boasts as winemaker Celia Masyczek, who was named Winemaker of the Year by Food and Wine magazine in its October issue.
These are serious cabernet sauvignon wines — 100 percent varietal — for serious cabernet drinkers. The wines age about 22 months in French oak, of which 75 to 85 percent are new barrels. Devotees of the plush, super-ripe, toasty and spicy Napa style should look elsewhere; Cornerstone cabernets offer purity and intensity, resonance and rectitude and, still, for all the emphasis on structure, loads of flavor.
The wines from 2004 are sold out at the winery but can be found in retail stores and in restaurants around the country. The 2005s are being released this month.
Here are my notes on the Cornerstone Howell Mountain and Napa Valley cabernets from ’04 and ’05.
The Cornerstone Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Napa Valley, looks as inky as midnight and feels as deep as the valley where the grapes are grown. At four years after harvest, the wine is both tight and generous, a sleek amalgam of earth, iodine and slate slicked with cassis, black cherry and plum. The structure is purposeful, unassailable, the tannins dense and chewy and fathomless, and yet the wine is downright delicious, its concentrated black fruit flavors opening to touches of smoke and black pepper. You could open this tonight with a steak or let it rest a year or two; in any case, this should drink well through 2016 or ’18. Excellent. About 60 or $65.
For the first time, the Cornerstone Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley, used a large component of grapes from the UC Davis vineyard in Oakville; the difference is immediately apparent in boldly expansive aromas of black currant, black cherry and cedar with a briery-brambly element right up front. Like its older cousin, this is a solid, firm and resonant cabernet, unfolding layers of clean earth and granite-like minerals, well-oiled tannins and polished oak, intense and concentrated black fruit flavors, all permeated by the vital presence of vibrant acid for the essential factors of balance and magnetism. Try from 2010 to 2018 or ’20. Excellent. About $60 to $65.
It says something about the quality of the grapes and the skill of the winemaker that the Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon wines from 2004 and 2005 seem to express so eloquently the consistency of a true house style. It’s almost superfluous to say that each rendition offers tremendous depth and dimension, that each is so intense and concentrated that one glass of wine seems to hold twice that amount; there’s a complete sense of the vineyards having drawn the geological life of the bedrock up through the roots of the vines. The difference between the wines seems to lie in subtleties of structure and texture; ’04 is all about power and dynamism and delineation, while ’05 (still a powerful wine) is more shapely, a little more nuanced even in its size and substance. If you will forgive a musical analogy from Beethoven, the ’04 is the “Hammerklavier” sonata; the ’05 is the “Waldstein.” In any case, these are cabernets for the longterm; try the ’04 from 2011 or ’12 through 2020 or ’24; try the ’05 from 2012 or ’13 through 2024 or ’25. Both rate Excellent. About $80 to $85, not chump change, but you’re buying monuments here.