September 2011


… and both are single-vineyard wines. And neither are huge, super-ripe, high-octane, hot, cloying, sweetish zinfandels, examples of which continue to be produced in California, though they clearly defy any rational sense of balance and drinkability. No, these models are exemplars of the grape’s deeply fruity, spicy and innate tannic character that doesn’t have to resort to exaggeration and baroque, not to mention bizarre manipulation. We drank the first, the Benessere Estate Black Glass Vineyard Zinfandel 2008, Napa Valley, with pork chops rubbed with cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper and seared and then roasted with lime juice, cilantro and garlic; the Jake-Ryan Cellars Bald Mountain Vineyard Zinfandel 2007, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, we had with one of my heartier pizzas one Saturday for Pizza-and-Movie Night.

These were samples for review.
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Benessere Vineyards was founded in 1994 by John and Ellen Benish on a 42-acre property north of the town of St. Helena; they restored a former winery, vineyard and residence. The winery specializes in the Italian grape varieties of pinot grigio, sangiovese, muscat di canelli and — quite rare for California — sagrantino and aglianico, as well as zinfandel, which, to be nit-picky, could in a way be called Italian since it is the same as the primitivo grape grown in the Italian calf and boot-heel. (No primitivo wine I ever tasted, however, was anything like a California zinfandel.) From a first release of 135 cases in 1995, Benessere grew to annual production of between 4,500 and 5,000 cases. Winemaker is Jack Stuart. (At the end of May, I reviewed the excellent Benessere Rosato 2010.)

The Benessere Estate Black Glass Vineyard Zinfandel 2008, Napa Valley, spent 18 months in new and used French and American oak barrels. This is truly a lovely, dark-ruby-hued, old-fashioned sort of zinfandel that bursts with notes of plums, red and black currants and cloves with touches of rhubarb and fruitcake and beguiling hints of orange rind and violets, sandalwood and leather that require a few minutes in the glass to unfold. It’s a well-balanced and integrated zinfandel whose smooth, well-wrought tannins and burnished oak qualities contribute to a texture of moderate density that encloses delicious ripe black and red fruit flavors just touched with elements of dried fruit and spices; vibrant acidity keeps the wine lively and attractive, while a reasonable measure of granite-like minerality and slightly sandpapery tannins give the finish a bit of austerity. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Alcohol content is 14.7 percent. 390 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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Jason Benge and Traci Seville launched Jake-Ryan cellars in 2004, naming the enterprise after Benge’s sons Austin Jake and Colby Ryan. Winemaker is Jeff Fontanella, about whose own label I will have something to say soon. I’m on a bit of a tear about Mount Veeder, and several producers were kind enough to send me samples, including Mayacamas, about whose wines I wrote recently.

The Jake-Ryan Cellars Bald Mountain Vineyard Zinfandel 2007, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, practically shimmers in the glass with the purity and intensity of the zinfandel grape. At almost four years old, the wine is fresh and clean, immediately appealing. The emphasis lies in profound graphite-granite-like minerality and an extraordinary level of pungent, deeply flavorful spicy elements, akin to sandalwood and dried ancho chilies ground together and adorned with a crisply etched filigree of dusty sage and heather. The fruit component consists of intense and concentrated black and red currants bolstered with undertones of blueberries, mulberries and rhubarb, all slightly spiced and macerated, making for a complex and satisfying experience; great balance and integration and notable acidity lend the wine poise, while finely-milled and fairly dense tannins add momentum and purpose. Definitely Worth a Search for zinfandel lovers. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. 400 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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… which almost rhymes with Death Cab for Cutie, but that’s not a reflection on this trio of damned fine cabernets.

V. Sattui Winery is a Napa Valley institution that sells its products only at the tasting room south of St. Helena or by mail order through the winery’s website. The company was founded in San Francisco in 1885 by the merchant Vittorio Sattui; 90 years later, Vittorio’s great-grandson Dario re-established the business at its present site, conceiving the unique idea of not selling the wines to wholesalers or restaurants. V. Sattui makes about 40,000 cases of wine annually, comprising 45 different wines. The company owns 230 acres, mainly in the Napa Valley, and also sources grapes from vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, Amador, Lodi and Mendocino counties. Winemaker is Brooks Painter. You can’t miss V. Sattui from Highway 29. It’s an extensive Italianate compound with winery, tasting facilities, picnic grounds and a store that sells all sorts of ready-to-eat foods as well as more than 200 cheeses.

Two of these cabernets were made from grapes grown in Napa Valley’s Rutherford sub-appellation. Rutherford and its neighboring region Oakville mark the heart of the Napa Valley’s great cabernet sauvignon belt, featuring soil and climate that pioneering planters recognized, whether by instinct or training, as perfect for the grape. Not for whimsy do we find such wineries as Beaulieu, Caymus, Frog’s Leap, Grgich Hills, Rubicon Estate (formerly Niebaum-Coppola), Sequoia Grove, St. Supéry, Cakebread, Harlan and Staglin or their associated vineyards clustered in Rutherford. The area is famous for a geographic feature now called the “Rutherford Bench,” a flat, slightly elevated benchland that backs up to the Mayacamas range where the soil composition of gravel, loam and sand with volcanic deposits and marine sediment contributes to the wines a distinctive earthy, gravelly, minerally aspect sometimes called “Rutherford dust.” You can see the outline of these appellations or AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) in the excellent map herein displayed above.

These wines were samples for review. Map from calwineries.com.
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The grapes for the V. Sattui Preston Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley, derive from a 28-acre site just west of the town of Rutherford, that sacred Napa Valley area noted for the well-known yet difficult-to-define “Rutherford dust.” This wine does exude a loamy, dusty, graphite-like mineral element that qualifies for the term, though cabernet wines made elsewhere in the valley or otherwise in California may display dusty-minerally qualities. Still there’s something about it, the “it” of Rutherford wines that lends some distinctive features. Anyway, the V. Sattui Preston Cabernet 08 offers a dark inky-purple robe (to use an old-fashioned term) and vivid aromas of licorice and lavender, violets and potpourri, bitter chocolate, mint and iodine and quite intense and concentrated scents of black currants and plums, as well as, of course, that dusty graphite characteristic. Man, this is about as deep, plush and opulent as cabernet gets, though fortunately the voluptuousness, the sheer enveloping factor, is balanced, off-set, call it chained, whipped and tamed, by rigorous and stately tannins and minerality of staggering power. Not to mention acidity so vibrant that you practically feel it through the stem of the glass. Still, though, the wine is supple, muscular but not lean, and it drinks surprisingly smoothly at this stage; fact is, it’s delicious in a sort of pinpoint, brightly-faceted, obsidian-esque manner. Try from 2013 or ’14 through 2018 to ’20, or, hell, just open it with a crusty, medium-rare rib-eye steak right off the coals. 14.7 percent alcohol. 1,644 cases were made. Excellent. About $47.
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All right, let’s look at the V. Sattui Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet Savignon 2008, also from the Rutherford Bench. This is Mr. Big in every way — Big Tannins, Big Oak, Big Minerals — and it’s dense and dusty and chewy, but, boy, does it ever deliver a gorgeous snootful and mouthful of ripe, macerated, spiced and roasted black currants, blueberries and mulberries packed with licorice, toasted exotic spices and fruitcake. Fortunately — again! — this largesse of delights is hung on nerves of whiplash acidity and a backbone of finely-milled tannins, somehow both condensed and expansive; the cumulative effect is of a substance that’s almost as much an object as a liquid, coating the mouth with its mass of velvet and iron filings, as decadently seductive and dangerous as some ebon odalisque out of Gustave Moreau. And yet, far from being forbidding, the balance here is so impeccable that the wine is actually enjoyable, at least with the right sort of food, that is, barbecue brisket, braised short-ribs, osso buco, rack of venison and such. Try — being realistic — from 2013 or ’14 through 2017 to ’19. Alcohol content is 14.4 percent. 772 cases. Excellent. About $60.
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OK, now this is the one that I really like. The V. Sattui Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley, from the winery’s hillside Henry Ranch Estate — there’s a dollop of petit verdot — really plays with your nose and palate in a series of seductive paradoxes; it’s scintillating yet brooding, elegant yet powerful, expressive yet a little detached and deeply rooted. The bouquet absolutely bursts with beguiling notes of mint and iodine, bacon fat, black currants, black cherries and rhubarb over layers of more demanding graphite and flint; a few minutes in the glass bring in intriguing hints of black olive, thyme and tomato skin. One feels the tension and stress here of higher elevation vineyards in the wine’s intense concentration of black fruit flavors, its rigorous structure and in a finish that blends slightly parched tannins with profound granite-like minerality. Yet, as with the two previous wines, there’s a sense of innate poise and equilibrium that lends this cabernet surprising approachability. Still, this would be best from about 2014 to 2018 to ’20. My last jotting on the V. Sattui Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 was “this is great”; that says it all. Alcohol content is 14.8 percent. 1,487 cases. Excellent. About $42.
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