Tue 9 Dec 2008
Hopeless Wines aren’t necessarily bad; they’re just blah or disappointing. They’re wines that should be better than they are. If you drop a five-spot on some merry little sauvignon blanc from a vast appellation and it tastes like slightly perfumed water, you think, “Oh, what the hell, what did I expect for five bucks?” You drop 50 big ones on some single vineyard sauvignon blanc from the Stags Leap District, however, or a white Graves from a celebrity chateau, and it tastes like slightly perfumed water, well, there’s a disappointment, if not outrage. Hopeless Wines may even be well-made, but in a certain predictable or narrow style, often emulating or parroting an accepted fashion, in the sense that so many California cabernet sauvignon and merlot wines seem much the same in their toasty, over-ripe, high alcohol copy-catness.
Wines of Hope, on the other hand, remind us that people exist who put the vineyards, the grapes and the ultimate wine above their egos. Wines of Hope wear their purity and integrity proudly but not arrogantly. They offer such a panoply of detail, dimension and individuality that they seem not just to embody but to transcend their price range and station in life. Wines of Hope, through their individuality, give us faith in the future of wine and our wine-drinking.
The wines mentioned today are all California, all red. That’s the way it worked out.
An example of a Wine of Hope is the Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2000, Napa Valley. This is, let me say right now, a close to perfect cabernet. Just so you know, I’m not reaching into the past to write about this wine. It’s still available in some markets, and I tasted it a few weeks ago; the current release is the 2003. (I reviewed the ’03 on BTYH on Jan. 8, 2008.) The winery was founded in 1971 and is owned by the brothers Charles and Stu Smith, who maintain, as much as possible, a hands-off policy toward farming and winemaking. They produce annually about 1,000 cases each of riesling, chardonnay and cabernet sauvigon.
A blend of 90 percent cabernet sauvignon 8 percent merlot and 2 percent cabernet franc, the Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 offers deliriously seductive aromas of cassis and black cherry, lavender and leather, potpourri and sandalwood and a deep, heady mineral quality. Aged in new American oak for 25 months — 25 months! — the wine shows no trace of woodiness; rather, the fully developed, dry-farmed. mountainside grapes soaked up all the oak and put it to good use in building the wine’s beautifully balanced yet unassailable structure. Dry-farmed means no irrigation; the Smith brothers believe in letting the climate and the vineyard duke it out on their own. This is a wine of remarkable purity and intensity and superb integration of all elements. Still, it’s also a wine of rigorous intent and effect; it’s never heavy or overbearing, though grainy, chewy tannins and sinewy iron-like minerals come up like a tide, lending austerity to the finish. This would be best from 2009 or ’10 through 2018 or ’20. Exceptional. And get the price: About $39 a bottle.
Here’s another Wine of Hope, the Foursight Wines Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006, Anderson Valley, consumed with grilled chicken back in the summer. This is a lovely pinot noir, ripe and succulent, dense, intense and satiny, and fully framed by vibrant acid, polished oak (33 percent new French barrels) and tannins of moderate grip and power. Black and red current flavors are infused by dried spice and hints of cranberry and cola. The wine is pervasively layered with elements of moss and dried leaves, briers and brambles, clean earth and minerals; one senses the connection to the vineyard, the growing of the vine in the soil, a factor undiminished by the wine’s remarkable (for a pinot noir) alcohol level of 14.9 percent. Generally, I deplore pinots charged with this much alcohol — we’re not discussing zinfandel, after all — but careful winemaking turned out a wine completely satisfying for its balance and integration. Again, I celebrate a wine that eloquently expresses the character of its grape while maintaining faultless individuality. 425 cases, and definitely Worth a Search. Excellent. About $46.
And a third example. Michael and David Phillips continue to produce one of California’s great eccentric wines in the Michael and David Petite Petit 2006, Lodi. Every time I try this blend of 85 percent petite sirah and 15 percent petit verdot, it makes me laugh at the sheer audacity of its creation. The wine is about as dark as a red wine can be before it becomes plummy-black. It’s smoky and funky in the nose, ripe and meaty — sounds like the locker room at a barbecue competition — bursting with scents of cassis and black cherry, mulberry and loganberry dredged with cedar, lavender and black olive. Petite Petit 2006 is incredibly spicy, mouth-filling with juicy and luscious black fruit flavors but given form and foundation by the firmness of oak and the tautness of slightly austere tannins. Open this with steak au poivre, pork chops marinated in chili powder, cumin and garlic or braised short ribs, and just have a great ol’ freakin’ time. Excellent. About $20, though I’ve seen it on the Internet as low as $15.
Hopeless Wines? Sure, I’ll mention a couple of recent examples.
I have been impressed with previous vintages of the Obsidian Ridge “Obsidian Ridge Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, from the Red Hills of Lake County, but I found the version for 2005 puzzling and disappointing. Before, I had noted the wine’s sturdy integrity, its glossy permeation of fruit, polished tannin and resolute acidity — a cabernet sauvignon for grown-ups — but the ’05 I tasted last weekend was as over-ripe, exaggerated and stridently spicy as an over-ripe, exaggerated and stridently spicy zinfandel, if you care for that sort of thing; as cabernet, it’s a travesty. Could 15.2 percent alcohol have anything to do with it? This gets no recommendation from me. About $25.
Tasted on the same occasion was the Buehler Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley, a wine so over-ripe and extracted that it’s close to raisiny. Even as a zinfandel, I wouldn’t drink it. About $28.
What are people thinking? The word “yuck” comes to mind.