Thu 29 Mar 2012
I happened upon a local Mom-and-Pop wine and liquor store recently with which I was unfamiliar. Right inside the front door stood the “Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!” sign, four months late. The shelves and racks held a typical selection of wine and spirits genres, brands and labels. Oh, well, I thought, doing a little exploring, not much interesting here. And then I spied a couple of shelves that presented a different appearance, an aura, as it were, of confidence, prosperity and unlimited potential. These shelves held rows of California cabernet sauvignon wines going back to 1995 and coming up to 2007, with all the years between represented. Some top-flight wines, well-known names. I felt a frisson of wonder and beguilement, expressed in a whispered, Holy shit! The selections seemed equally divided between those still at their original prices and those that had been reduced in price. I casually perused the labels and vintages and then plucked a couple from their resting places: Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Napa Valley, and Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Oakville District, Napa Valley.
Mount Veeder was founded in 1973 by Michael and Arlene Bernstein, 2,000 feet up the mountain for which the winery is named. From the beginning, they produced earthy, tannic, mineral-laced cabernets that often required a decade to shed their austerity and then rewarded those having patience with deep, rich, resonant flavors and balanced structures. Occasionally, the mountain-side tannins got the better of the wines, and there are Mount Veeder cabernets from the 1970s and early ’80s that never came around. Still, it was always gratifying to know that one could expect no compromise from this focused winery. The Bernsteins also made a little zinfandel, chenin blanc and chardonnay.
The Bernsteins sold the winery to Henry and Lisille Mathieson in 1982, but the significant change came in 1989, when the Mathiesons sold Mount Veeder to the partnership of Agustin Huneeus and the Eckes Corp. of what was then West Germany. The Eckes had hired Huneeus, a Chilean, to put Franciscan in shape to be sold, but under his sensible leadership, the winery had turned around and improved. In optimistic expansion mode, Huneeus launched Estancia, and then acquired the venerable Simi and Mount Veeder wineries. Along with Veramonte, in Chile, these properties comprised Franciscan Estates. The whole kit-and-kaboodle was sold to Constellation in 1998. Mount Veeder is now part of that giant corporation’s Icon Estates portfolio.
And what about the vintage?
The cabernet sauvignon grape profited from a series of fine years in the 1990s, particularly 1994 through ’97 but at each end of the decade too. The Spring and late Summer of 1998 were atypically rainy, and uneven ripening required careful practice in the vineyards and brought the prospect of a late harvest. September came through, though, with warmth and clean skies, and the harvest, which was somewhat reduced, lasted into early November.
So, the color of the Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 is a lovely dusky ruby with a faint garnet-hued rim; aromas of spiced and macerated red and black currants are just touched with cedar and tobacco and hints of mossy forest floor and dried mushrooms, while after a few minutes in the glass, the wine pulls up notes of iron-and-iodine-tinged minerality and lightly toasted walnuts. It’s quite dry in the mouth, with red and black fruit flavors ensconced in silky, finely-milled tannins and spicy, supple oak; give it 30 minutes or so to develop elements of dried orange zest, mocha and oolong tea, even as the acidity begins to assert itself a bit sharply. The finish is austere, a little woody, sweetly autumnal. 13.5 percent alcohol. This wine, a graceful and elegant measure of a mature Napa Valley cabernet, should drink nicely through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $42.