Cabernet sauvignon

Before Sonoma Mountain was approved as an American Viticultural Area in 1985, Patrick Campbell was producing excellent cabernet sauvignon wines from a vineyard 2,000 feet up the mountainside. lg_12_cp_beauty_webAfter 30 vintages, Campbell sold the winery and vineyards in 2011 to a group led by Bettina Sichel; Campbell still works as a consultant with a team that includes winemaker Randall Watkins and legendary California grower Phil Coturri and winemaker David Ramey. As is the case with many wineries, Laurel Glen offers several levels of products to make its wines more accessible, the instance here being its Counterpoint label. The Laurel Glen Counterpoint Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Sonoma Mountain, is a blend of 90 percent cabernet and 10 percent merlot, sourced primarily from the winery’s organic estate vineyard as well as fruit from two other vineyards in the AVA. The wine aged 16 months in French oak (and a bit of American oak), 40 percent new barrels. The color is very dark ruby-magenta, basically opaque at the center; ravishing aromas of ripe and spicy black currants, cherries and blueberries shift to graphite and ink, iodine and iron that admit notes of lavender and licorice, loam and leather. Readers, you could eat it with a spoon. You feel the dense chewy structure on the palate, the bold, dust-inflected, finely-grained tannins; the bright and lively acidity; the suppleness of burnished oak; also, thank goodness, the deliciousness of black fruit flavors swathed in cloves, allspice and bittersweet chocolate, all driving toward a sturdy, mineral-packed finish. 14.4 percent alcohol. This is a beautifully crafted and balanced cabernet seemingly influenced by its slightly austere mountain roots, for drinking tonight with a medium rare ribeye steak, hot and crusty from the grill, or through 2024. Excellent. About $40.

A sample for review. The bottle image is two vintages behind the wine reviewed here.

Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley is named for 19th Century settler Cyrus Alexander, who lends his given name, in turn, to the flagship red wine from Alexander Valley Vineyards. The winery CYRUS_2012_bottlegoes back to 1962, when Maggie and Harry Wetzel purchased a large portion of a homestead built by Cyrus Alexander. They planted grapes the following year and produced their first cabernet sauvignon in 1968, as a private project. By 1975, however, the family had built a small winery, and matters took off from there. Alexander Valley Vineyards is operated now by the third generation; winemaker is Kevin Hall. The Cyrus 2012, Alexander valley, is a blend of 76 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent merlot, 7 cabernet franc, 3 petit verdot and 2 malbec. It aged a total of 24 months in French oak barrels, 12 months before blending and 12 months after. The color is dark ruby-purple from core to rim; loads of graphite, iodine and iron encompass a pinpoint focus on black currant, black cherry and blueberry scents and flavors that unfold notes of plum pudding and red velvet cake, lavender, licorice and bittersweet chocolate. If all of these factors sound like a confusion of aims and a tendency toward sweetness, that’s not at all what I mean. Yes, the wine gushes with ripeness, but it also is governed by dense, dusty tannins, swingeing acidity and a rigorous granitic mineral element. Some moments in the glass bring in hints of dried rosemary and sage (with the slightly resinous character of those herbs) as well as a tantalizing tinge of wild berries and meadow flowers. 14.3 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2022 to ’25 with steaks, pork chops, venison and braised meat dishes. Excellent. About $65.

A sample for review.

Seed Wines was planted in Mendoza’s Altamira district by Tony Hartl and Alex Chang after a seedmountaineering accident gave them time to get to know the geography, the landscape and the people of one of Argentina’s most remote areas. Under the direction of winemaker Giuseppe Franceschini, the winery produces, from a vineyard more than 3,000 feet above sea-level, fewer than 200 cases of wine annually. For each bottle sold, a local child receives a new schoolbook.

The wines reveal a great deal of care in the making and packaging, which is very stylish. While I had a shade or two of reservation about the Red Wine 2014 because of the slight effect of the oak regimen, I had no such qualms about the Malbec 2014, which strikes me as a world-class wine and among the best malbecs made in Argentina.

These wines were samples for review. The winery’s website is

The Seed Malbec 2014, Altamira District, Uco Valley, is 100 percent varietal and aged 16 months in new French oak barrels. The color is a brooding deep ruby hue; aromas of black raspberries, cherries and plums are lively and engaging, permeated by notes of graphite, lavender and violets and traces of leather, black pepper and sage. On the palate, this malbec feels dark and spicy, vibrant and savory, thoroughly imbued with raspberry and blueberry flavors (and a touch of blueberry tart) supported by bright acidity and dusty, velvety tannins, like prom dresses from your grandmother’s attic; there’s an element of foresty bite and granitic minerality as the wine gathers power and purpose in the glass, all aspects leading to an elevating finish packed with woodsy spices, minerals and wild berry fruit. 14.4 percent alcohol. Production was 59 cases. A malbec of tremendous personality and character for drinking through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $60.
Also aged 16 months in new French oak barrels, the Seed Red Wine 2014, Mendoza, is a blend of 50 percent cabernet sauvignon, 40 percent malbec and 10 percent cabernet franc. The opaque ruby-purple hue, even unto dense black at the center, presages the wine’s intensity and concentration. It’s simultaneously robust and exotic, packed with sweet spices, lavender, bittersweet chocolate, cloves and cardamom, violets and blueberry tart, all in support of scents and flavors of ripe black currants, plums and cherries. The wine is quite dry, carrying a definite granitic mineral edge, and after a few minutes in the glass, the oak comes up in New World fashion but not overly obtrusive in manner; you know it’s there, and you either accept it or not. (I would prefer not.) 14.4 percent alcohol. Production was 49 cases. Try from 2018 or ’19 through 2024 to ’28. Excellent. About $75.

I write so much about cabernet sauvignon wines from Napa Valley — collectively they form a sort of irrevocable juggernaut — that I thought it might be appropriate to touch on a cabernet from a different area in California. The Broadside Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Paso Robles, derives from two sub-AVAs in that Central Coast region, Santa Margarita Ranch and Estrella District. The wine matures for 14 months in neutral French and American oak barrels; winemaker Brian Terrizzi generally eschews the use of new oak. The color is dark ruby-purple with a vivid magenta rim; it’s a real “plums and roses” cabernet, bursting with ripe, fleshy red and blue fruit scents and flavors with after-thoughts of rose petals, lavender and graphite. Ripe and fleshy yes, even spiced and macerated, but not blowsy or bosomy, because the wine maintains a steady ferrous line of vibrant acidity and dusty tannins for structure. A few moments in the glass bring out notes of sage and boxwood, cranberry and blueberry, briers and brambles, and the fruit and mineral drenched finish features a core of espresso and mocha. The alcohol content is a sensible 13.5 percent. Drink now through 2018 to 2020 with burgers, steaks, braised short-ribs and other hearty food of that ilk. Very Good+. About $18, representing Real Value.

A sample for review.

So, here we are, in the 11th segment of “Whither Napa Valley Cabernet,” a series devoted to exploring the many aspects of the cabernet sauvignon wines created in the various regions of the Napa Valley. It’s a question worth asking, since, as readers will see in today’s selection of 12 examples, the cabernet wines from this legendary area and its sub-AVAs, can vary from an austere Old School character to the new style of very ripe — or over-ripe — fruit and plush textures. Most of the models in today’s post hew to the old-fashioned style of emphasis on structure, but a couple of them are over-the-top for my palate. These are mostly from 2012, with a couple of ’13s and one from 2011. Except for one wine encountered at a wholesale trade tasting, these wines were samples for review.
bv private
I tasted the Beaulieu Vineyards Georges De Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, last November at a wholesale distributor’s trade event. This great and historic label had a difficult period in the first decade of the 21st Century, but made a real effort under the direction of world-famous (and extremely busy) consultant Michel Rolland. If the 2012 is a pertinent example, the winery (owned by Diageo) is hitting on all cylinders again. The color is an obsidian-like, brooding dark ruby-purple; it’s a cool, chiseled, graphite and granite-based amalgam of power and elegance energized by swingeing acidity — call it the Lafite-Rothschild of Napa Valley — and as taut and tense a cabernet as I have encountered. Tannic? Oh, yes, but tannins that seem as generous and supple as they are sinewy and chewy. The blend is 93 percent cabernet sauvignon, 4 percent petit verdot and 3 percent malbec. Oak regimen was 22 months, 90 percent new French barrels. The alcohol is a soaring 15.5 percent, by far the highest in this roster of a dozen cabernets. Try from 2018 or ’20 through 2030 to ’36. Excellent. About $135.
The Cornerstone Cellars Michael’s Cuvée Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, is named for Michael Dragutsky, a doctor in Memphis who is one of the winery’s founders. It’s a blend of 91 percent cabernet grapes and nine percent merlot; I have no information about the oak regimen. The color is ruby that is dark unto opacity; a broad pungency of intense black currants and plums infused with tapenade, fig paste and roasted fennel, graphite and lavender, iodine and iron characterizes the complex and beautifully integrated bouquet. Likewise, the wine is broad and deep and dense on the palate, though it flows like a lithe and supple source of power and elegance; fathomless, dusty, cushiony tannins support concentrated black fruit flavors poised over tremendous reserves of forest and loam. 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was under 250 cases. Drink from 2017 or ’18 through 2028 to ’32. Exceptional. About $75.
The grapes for the Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Oakville District, derive primarily from the Martin Skelling Vineyard, planted in 1978 and located just behind the winery in Oakville. The wine is a blend of 97 percent cabernet sauvignon and 3 percent petit verdot; it aged 17 months in French oak, 77 percent new barrels. Winemaker was Nicole Marchesi. The color is very dark ruby-purple with a magenta cast; this feels like classic Oakville, with its bastions of iodine and iron, graphite, cedar and lead pencil and notes of plums, black cherries and currants touched with dried thyme and rosemary — with the latter’s hint of branchy astringency — and roasted fennel. The structure is like taut muslin, fresh and snappy, full of energy. On the other hand, the wine delivers a chiseled, hard-edged character in its dusty chewy tannins that take on a velvety quality. A few minutes in the glass bring in touches of ancho chili and bitter chocolate, and the finish grows increasingly austere. 14.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2018 or ’20 through 2030 to ’32. Excellent. About $155.
The Flora Springs Trilogy 2013, Napa Valley, is a blend of 87 percent cabernet grapes, seven 2013_trilogy_labelpercent petit verdot and 6 percent malbec; it aged 22 months in French oak, 60 percent new barrels, 40 percent one-year-old. Winemaker was Paul Steinauer. The color is an opaque ruby-purple, black at the center; aromas of pure and intense cassis, blackberry and raspberry are permeated by notes of cloves and sandalwood, lavender and licorice, mint and eucalyptus, with iodine and loam in the background, all contributing to a pleasing balance of the exotic and the earthy. It’s a dry, large-framed cabernet whose dusty velvety tannins fuse with an indisputable oak foundation driven by vibrant acidity, all of these elements keenly balanced but needing some time to unfurl to higher usefulness. 14.2 percent alcohol. Try from 2018 or ’19 through 2028 to ’32. Excellent. About $80.
Galerie 2012 Pleinair Cabernet
Winemaker Laura Diaz Muñoz aged the Galerie “pleinair” Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, 18 months in 58 percent new French oak barrels. The unforgettable color is deep ruby-purple with a thermonuclear violet-magenta rim; it’s a large-framed, dense, chewy and minerally cabernet but neither ponderous nor obvious, carrying its elements of graphite, iodine and iron, spiced and macerated black currants, raspberries and plums with pinpoint focus and fervent poise. This cabernet is mouth-filling without being plush or ostentatious, made vivid with bright acidity and a chiming tannic-mineral structure. A few minutes in the glass bring up hints of lavender and licorice driving into a long deep finish that’s dry and furnished with granitic minerality, making for an effect that’s chaste, spare and strangely elegant. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink from 2018 or ’20 through 2028 to ’30. Excellent. About $50.
The Grgich Hills Estate Yountville Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley, derives from 11CSYT_FRONT_NO-ALCvines planted in 1959. The wine is a blend of 82 percent cabernet grapes, 14 percent petit verdot and 4 percent merlot; it aged 23 months in French oak, 80 percent new barrels. The color is an intense and warm dark ruby hue with a tinge of magenta at the rim; it’s all about structure now, filled with wheatmeal and walnut shell elements, loamy and briery, and it opens cautiously, a heavy old volume whose pages turn very slowly or, from another aspect, a block of oak buffed and burnished by sandalwood sandpaper. Velvety tannins are pumped up with notes of graphite and granite dust, while a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of plum pudding and fruitcake, lavender and bitter chocolate. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 772 cases. Try from 2018 or ’20 through 2030 to ’32. Excellent. About $185.00, yes, per bottle.
The “Allomi” tier is the entry-level cabernet sauvignon for The Hess Collection; a less expensive example falls under the cheaper “Hess Select” rubric. So, the Hess Collection Allomi Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa Valley, displays a dark ruby hue, shading to a tinge of mulberry; it offers rich black currant-cherry-raspberry scents and flavors permeated by graphite, iodine and iron, lavender and black licorice. Plush, dusty tannins have roots in underbrush and foresty elements, while ripe and spicy black fruit flavors are spicy and savory. 14.4 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 or ’20. Very Good+. About $30.
On the “shop” page of the winery’s website, The Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Mount Veeder, is described thus: “Nothing is quite so luscious as blueberries framed by hints of vanilla, cassis, creamy milk chocolate caramel and oak spice.” Gack, thank god, that’s not the character that emerged from my tasting; had that been the case, I would have given this one a definite thumb’s-down. Granted, this wine — 80 percent cabernet sauvignon, 20 percent malbec and aged 20 months in 80 percent new French oak barrels — feels ripe and rich, but the ripeness and richness of black and red currants and raspberries are balanced by tannic elements of mineral dust, graham and wheatmeal and a touch of walnut shell, and the wine is far more intense and concentrated than the unhelpful notation quoted above implies. It’s quite dry, substantial, dense and inky, with graphite minerality and dark, oaken polish. The wine finishes with a high note of wild cherry. 14.6 percent alcohol. Drink through 2022 to ’26. Director of winemaking for Hess Collection is Dave Guffy. Excellent. About $60.
Lüscher-Ballard Wine is a project of Christina Lüscher-Ballard and Carroll Ballard, married labelformer filmmakers who own a tiny property, 2,200 feet high on Spring Mountain. John Kongsgaard makes the wine. The Lüscher-Ballard Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Spring Mountain District, fermented with native yeast and aged 22 months in French oak barrels. The color is dark ruby with a black center and a faint mulberry rim; it’s a majestic wine, freighted with massive elements of iron and iodine, graphite, cedar and tobacco, with hints of old leather, dried rosemary and ancho chili, and high-notes of lavender and bitter chocolate. On the palate the wine combines density and weight with airiness and elegance, though tannins need a few years to recede from a feral state. Fruit? Of course, in the range of spiced and macerated black currants and plums with a cast of red fruit overall. Altogether, lovely balance and integration of every element. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was about 200 cases. Try from 2018 or ’19 through 2030 to ’32. Excellent. About $80.
Brothers Charles and Stuart Smith deserve a Nobel Prize for consistency and integrity. Making sm_label_lr_cab_12their Smith-Madrone wines using the same methods every year and allowing the vintage to speak through the grapes, they produce chardonnay, riesling and cabernet sauvignon wines on Spring Mountain that embody ideals of realism, individuality and location. Produced from 40-year-old, dry-farmed vines and aged 18 months in French oak barrels, the Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Spring Mountain District, is a blend of 82 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, 10 percent merlot and eight percent cabernet franc. The color is dark ruby from stem to stern; notes of dried sage and rosemary, briers and brambles, cedar and tobacco leaf are etched on intense elements of ripe and dried black currants, raspberries and blueberries, all balanced on a well-oiled vehicle of graphite and granitic minerality. On the palate, the wine is — no surprise — lithe and sinewy, bolstered by dusty, slightly velvety tannins and vibrant acidity. The finish is long and lean and laden with chiseled flint-like minerality. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 1,815 cases. Drink through 2028 to ’32. Excellent. About $48, the bargain of this group.
Established in 1943 and producing its first vintage in 1952, Stony Hill Vineyard, on Spring Mountain, is still operated by the McCrea family. It says something about loyalty and tradition that Mike Chelini has been making the wines since 1972. A specialist in non-malolactic, all-neutral-oak, long-aging chardonnay, the winery — probably the least known of Napa Valley’s Old School producers — only began making cabernet sauvignon wines in 2009, and it’s not surprising that the Stony Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, mirrors the philosophy that governs its chardonnays; this is not a cabernet for consumers looking for the glamorous or the gorgeous. The wine aged 18 months in oak barrels and 18 months in bottle before release. The color is dark ruby shading to medium ruby at the rim; aromas of black currants, raspberries and blueberries are intense and concentrated, permeated by notes of lead pencil, rosemary and cedar, briers, brambles and loam. Tannins feel deep, rooty and dusty, and an aura of wood-smoke pervades the whole vibrant, resonant, chiseled package. An eminently sensible 13.5% alcohol. Production was 430 cases. Try from 2017 or ’18 through 2028 to ’32. Excellent. About $60.
Young Inglewood winery touts this initial release as an “instant crowd pleaser,” but the Venn Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa Valley, did not please me all that much; everything about it, except for the moderate alcohol level, blares “contemporary Napa Valley” in the glass. The color is very dark ruby-purple shading to a glowing magenta rim; the nose draw up scents of ripe cassis, vanilla, cloves, blueberry jam, lavender, graphite and mocha, while on the palate the wine is rich and succulent, ferrous and sanguinary and framed by heaps of charcoal and graphite.
14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 209 cases. If this is a crowd-pleaser, I’ll drink alone, thank you. Very Good. About $50.

If you owned a winery in a region recently granted status as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) by the generous folks at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), how would you go about capturing the hearts and minds of wine consumers? Would you start by establishing a solid reputation as a producer of reliable wines, wines that even punch above their weight, in the range of, say, $18 to $30? Or would you attempt to capture the elite spender’s attention by releasing the Mercedes and Porsche models of your line, the wines that cost $50 to $175? My recommendation would be to take the first route to consumers’ approval and their wallets, but a group of wineries in the Coombsville AVA chose the second alternative, sending out the top dogs for review. Coombsville was granted AVA status in December 2011.
All producers and winemakers want their wines to be unique, and one way they see to achieving that special status is an emphasis on a specific place. That drive is the primary motivation, in this country, for petitioning the TTB to grant official status as an American Viticultural Area to increasingly smaller regions within larger AVAs. The thinking goes that if, for instance, Napa Valley, however illustrious its history may be, seems a bit broad and uninteresting as a designation, how much better to mention on a label that one’s wine derives from Oakville District or Howell Mountain, important splinters within the Napa Valley AVA. Vineyard owners, winery owners and winemakers hire consultants, geologists and climatologists to determine the individual qualities and values of a proposed AVA, often working for years to secure approval. In 2014, for example, the Paso Robles AVA, itself a delineated region within the larger San Luis Obispo AVA, was divided into 11 sub-AVAs all at once, on the assumption that consumers will harken to the call of Paso Robles Willow Creek AVA or Santa Margarita Ranch AVA on wine labels.

Coombsville is the most recent (and the 16th) sub-AVA granted in Napa Valley. It lies east of the burgeoning city of Napa, bordered on the west by the Napa River, on the east by the Vaca Range, on the north my Mount George and runs south to Imola Avenue. This newish AVA encompasses 11,075 acres, of which something like 1,400 acres are planted to vines. Located in the southern Napa Valley, Coombsville comes under the influence of San Pablo Bay and its cooling maritime nature, being, actually, the coolest AVA in Napa Valley except for Carneros. The unique feature of the Coombsville AVA — named for Natham Coombs, who founded the town of Napa in 1848 — is a vast caldera, an ancient horseshoe-shaped ridge that is the result of a collapsed volcano. The volcanic ash and debris left from this geologic event created a soil suited for the nurture of grapevines and the necessary stressing of their roots. In addition, alluvial flows from Mount George contributed to the rocky-volcanic quality of the soil.

I received six samples for review from wineries in the Coombsville AVA, and while several struck me as classic Napa Valley, compounded of distinct mineral-black fruit-sleek tannin elements, others felt too emphatic, over-determined and unbalanced. I also thought that some of these prices smacked of delusions of grandeur. Lemme see what you can do at $25, please, before you send me the bottle that carries a $175 tariff. I omit, unfortunately, a great deal of technical information I would typically include in these reviews because the websites of most of these wineries seem not just reticent but downright secretive. Come on, people, the point of a website is to deliver information.

Map from
Cairdean Acquaintance Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Coombsville, Napa Valley. The color shades from dark ruby at the center to medium ruby at the rim; it’s a highly structured wine now, with a bouquet characterized by elements of toast, dust and graphite, charcoal, cedar and tobacco, rosemary, lavender and licorice and a core of iodine and iron. The segue onto the palate produces similar results, with the glimmering addition of intense and concentrated blue and black fruit — blueberries and blue plums, black currents and cherries — drenched in granitic tannins. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 224 cases. Try from 2018-’20 through 2028-’32. Very Good+ for now. About $84.
Covert Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Coombsville, Napa Valley. Signaling a wine of deep extraction, the color here is opaque ruby shading to glowing purple-magenta at the rim; the bouquet delivers powerful snootfuls of iodine and graphite, with notes of charcoal, cedar and lavender, black currants and baked plums touched with mint, mocha and fruitcake in an array of structural and esthetic effects. Not surprisingly, the wine is quite dry, characterized by a vibrant arrow of graphite minerality and resonant, lip-smacking acidity that serve to animate black and blue fruit flavors encased in depth-charge tannins, both dusty and succulent. A lingering finish pulls in elements of smoke, tobacco, cigarette paper and iron. 14.9 percent alcohol. 356 cases produced. Drink from 2018 or 2020 through 2030 or ’32. Excellent. About $175.
Maroon Vineyard Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Coombsville, Napa Valley. This wine spent 30 months in French oak, though we are not informed of the percentage of new barrels. It is, in any case, a strapping example of dynamic structure, cloaking its modicum of rich, jammy black and red fruit scents and flavors, all spiced, macerated and roasted, with blueberry undertones, in a panoply of large-framed, dusty and gritty tannins that seethe with charcoal, cold ashes and foresty funk. 14.4 percent alcohol. Nowhere near drinkable now, try from 2019 or ’20 through 2030 to ’34. Production was 1,340 cases. Very Good+, for now. About $80.
scalon cab
Scalon Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Coombsville, Napa Valley. The color of this 100 percent cabernet wine is very dark ruby-purple; it aged 20 months in all new French oak barrels. Penetrating aromas of ripe blackberries and and black currants carry hints of blueberry jam, graphite and lavender, rosemary and cedar, black olives and braised fennel; a few minutes in the glass unleash elements of iodine and iron. On the palate, this cabernet sauvignon is lively and vibrant, lent dynamism by vivid acidity and a keen mineral edge that bolsters a dense, dusty, chewy texture and velvety but rigorous tannins. 13.8 percent alcohol. 235 cases produced. Drink now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $85.
scalon priorityScalon Cellars Priority Red Wine 2012, Napa Valley. This very limited edition wine is a blend of 51 percent cabernet sauvignon, 40 percent cabernet franc and nine percent merlot; it aged 20 months in French oak barrels. It starts with a dark ruby-purple hue and opens with aromas of ripe and slightly roasted black cherries and plums infused with cassis and cloves; the wine is quite woodsy and foresty, with undertones of briers and brambles, graphite and lavender. It’s very dry, even a bit austere, yet imbued with jammy and spicy black fruit flavors, leaning altogether, with its shaggy tannins, toward a rustic presentation. The least coherent of this group, the wine needs more balance and integration. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 50 cases. To give it chance to cohere, try from 2018 or ’19 through 2030 to ’32. Very Good+. About $50.
silver stag
Silver Stag Parsley Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. The color is dark ruby with a magenta rim; the chief feature of the bouquet is ripe black currant and black raspberry scents permeated by notes of cedar and tobacco, iodine, iron and loam; it’s a lively and energetic cabernet but dense with a towering structure of austere oak and dusty tannins, still, somehow, managing to be rich and jammy on the palate. A few minutes in the glass bring in hints of lavender, bitter chocolate and graphite. 14.4 percent alcohol. Give this a few years to find better balance. Very Good+. About $90.

strong cab
The Sonoma County designation indicates the basic level of wine for Rodney Strong Vineyards, with the hierarchy, we’ll call it, rising through sub-AVAs like Russian River Valley and Knights Valley up to the powerful single-vineyard cabernet sauvignons. At the Sonoma County range, the wines tend to be well-made, tasty and mainly more solidly varietal than exciting, though I’m happy to make an exception for the Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Sonoma County, a product that bartenders and waiters could sell the hell out of in restaurant by-the-glass programs. Not to say that consumers wouldn’t enjoy it at home with a burger or steak or hearty pasta dish. The wine aged 15 months in American oak barrels (80 percent) with the balance in French oak. The color is a vibrant dark ruby-purple with a magenta cast; it’s a warm and spicy cabernet, bursting with aromas of black currants and raspberries, an inky aspect of iodine and iron, and notes of cedar, sage and tobacco. Lots of presence and heft here, ordered in terms both broad and elegant, with lively and spicy black fruit flavors highlighted by dusty tannins, a feeling of slightly chiseled graphite minerality and coursing acidity. 13.5 percent alcohol. Winemakers were Rick Sayre and Justin Seidenfeld. Drink now — I’m thinking grilled pork chops with a cumin-chili powder glaze — through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $20.

A sample for review.

For this edition of Weekend Wine Notes, I offer a miscellaneous group of red wines from California, dominated by cabernet sauvignon, but with entries from the merlot and pinot noir camps. Truth is, I probably receive more samples of California cabernets to review than from any other region and any other grape variety. State-wide, today, we range from Russian River Valley in the north to Paso Robles in the south. As is usual in this series of Weekend Wine Notes, I dispense with the technical, historical, geographical and personal data that I dote on for the sake of incisive and, I hope, vivid reviews ripped, as it were, from the pages of my notebooks. These wines were samples for review. Enjoy, and always consume in moderation.
Aleksander 2011, Paso Robles. 13.3% alc. 80% merlot, 20% cabernet sauvignon. 840 cases. Glowing medium ruby color with a transparent magenta rim; a very impressive merlot exhibiting structural qualities of generous, supple tannins, clean acidity and ebon-like minerality; mint and thyme, lavender and violets, iron and iodine, black currants and raspberries with a trace of dark plum, smoky and dusty; a little resiny with notes of rosemary and cedar; lovely shape, tone and presence. Now through 2020 to 2023. Excellent. About $75.
cage pinot
J. Cage Cellars Nunes Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. 119 cases. Deep, vibrant ruby shading to lighter magenta; warm and spicy yet with a dark meditative aura; macerated red currants, cherries and plums, with a touch of cherry skin and pit; loam, briers and brambles; opens to notes of tar, violets and rose petals, pomegranate and sandalwood; a dense and sinewy pinot noir, enlivened by the influence of brisk acidity; elements of lithic dust, some root-like tea and a bare hint of orange rind. I’ll say, “Wow,” and “Please, bring on the seared duck breast.” Excellent. About $40.
2013 Merlot-small
Ehlers Estate Merlot 2012, St. Helena, Napa Valley. 14.2% alc. With 8% cabernet franc. Opaque black-ruby shading to a vivid purple rim; very intense and concentrated, coiled power; black currants and plums infused with lavender, licorice and graphite; a scintillating core of granitic minerality that almost glitters, magnified by the wine’s bright acidity; lots of vibrancy and resonance, marred, unfortunately, by the taint of toasty oak that dominates from mid-palate back through the finish. You know what I always say, friends: If a wine smells like oak and tastes like oak, there’s too much damn oak. Now through 2020 to ’24. Very Good+. About $55.
Ferrari-Carano Tresor 2012, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. 71% cabernet sauvignon, 9% petit verdot, 7% each merlot and malbec, 6% cabernet franc. Dark ruby color with a tinge of magenta at the rim; warm and spicy but with a cool mineral core of graphite and iron; cassis, black raspberry and plum, with notes of cedar, lavender, violets, leather and loam; dusty, velvety tannins coat the palate midst intense and concentrated black fruit flavors and bastions of wheatmeal, walnut shell and burnished oak; how the finish manages not to be austere is a wonder. Try 2017 or ’18 through 2024 to ’28. Excellent. About $60.
Geyser Peak Pluto’s Fury Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley. 14.4% alc. 1,379 cases. Medium transparent ruby color; first come spice and herbs: cloves, sandalwood, sage; slightly macerated black cherries and red currants, touch of pomegranate and rhubarb; sleek, supple, lithe and satiny; generous with burgeoning elements of violets and rose petals; a well-made pinot noir that lavishes fruit and bright acidity on the palate. Now through 2017 or ’18. Very Good+. About $36.
grgich merlot
Grgich Hills Estate Merlot 2012, Napa Valley. 14.9% alc. With 5% cabernet sauvignon. Dark ruby hue from stem to stern; rooty and loamy, with finely sifted elements of forest floor, dried porcini and graphite; ripe raspberry and black currant aromas inflected by seductive notes of mocha, black licorice, allspice and sandalwood; very intense and concentrated on the palate, framed by sturdy tannins that feel slightly sanded and roughened; after an hour or so, the tannins and oak flesh out and take over, giving the wine a formidable, monumental quality. No punk-ass little merlot here; this one is for the ages, or through 2024 to ’28. Excellent. About $43.
KRUG_FR_HM_11 5006
Charles Krug Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. 15.2% alc. (!) 80% cabernet, 18% petit verdot, 2% merlot. Very dark ruby-purple with a bright violet rim; despite the soaring alcohol content, this is a beautifully balanced and harmonious wine, with perfect weight and presentation, yet plenty of structure for support and the long-haul; a full complement of dusty, graphite-laden tannins bolsters black currant, cherry and blueberry flavors inflected by notes of lavender, licorice, black tea and black olive; a few moments in the glass bring up hints of cedar, rosemary and tobacco; girt by a framework of granitic, mountain-side minerality, this classic cabernet is still a lovely drink, though built for aging through 2022 through 2028. Excellent. About $75.
Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. (Jackson Family Wines) brave logoOpaque black-ruby with a glowing purple rim; a focused line of graphite and granite defines the space for elements of spiced, macerated and roasted black currants, cherries and plums, permeated by iodine and iron, mint and lavender; a feral, ferrous and sanguinary cabernet, somehow both velvety and chiseled, seductive and lithic; it’s mouth-filling, dynamic, impetuous. Try from 2017 or ’18 through 2027 to ’30. Excellent. About $75.
Signorello Estate Padrone 2012, Napa Valley. With 9% cabernet franc. Whoa, what is up with this 15.8 percent alcohol? That factor dominates this wine and throws it off balance, though initially it reveals deep, brooding qualities of cassis, bitter chocolate, briers and brambles, leather and loam that might blossom into harmony; sadly, the austere tannins, the astringent oak and, above all, the sweet, hot alcohol demolish that hope. Not recommended. About $150.
tongue dancer
Tongue Dancer Wines Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast. 14.5% alc. Production was 125 cases. Transparent medium ruby shading to an invisible rim; indelible and beguiling aromas of pomegranate and cranberry, red and black cherries and currants, anise and lavender, with bare hints of rhubarb, thyme and celery seed; a thread of loam and graphite runs through this wine’s supple satiny texture, creating a sense of superb weight and heft on the palate, yet expressing eloquent elegance and delicacy of effect. Now through 2018 to 2020. I could drink this pinot noir every day. Exceptional. About $45.
Trione Vineyards and Winery River Road Ranch Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Trione-2012-Pinot-NoirCounty. 14.5% alc. 1,408 cases. Medium transparent ruby hue; dark and spicy with cloves and allspice (and a hint of the latter’s slightly astringent nature); black and red cherries and currants, notes of cranberries and pomegranate; turns exotic with violets, lavender, mint and sandalwood; a lively and engaging pinot noir, incredibly floral; a lithe texture, moderate oak with lightly sanded edges. Now through 2018 to ’21. Excellent. About $39.
The label image is one vintage behind.
Young Inglewood Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, St. Helena, Napa Valley. 14.8% alc. 612 cases. With some percentage of merlot and cabernet franc. Dark ruby color; redolent of graphite, iodine and mint, cassis and blueberry, cloves and sage and ancho chile; acidity that runs silent and deep through canyons of dusty, granitic tannins; plenty of spice and scintillating energy, gradually opens reservoirs of lavender, licorice and violets and stylish, polished oak that carries through the brooding but not austere finish. Touches all the moves in the Napa cabernet playbook — meaning that it’s an exemple rather than an individual — but still very impressive. Now through 2024 through ’28. Excellent. About $90.

If you look at the website for Rodney Strong Vineyards, you’ll see quite an array of cabernet sauvignon wines, arranged in the order of Sonoma County, Estate, Reserve and Single Vineyard, seven offerings altogether. There’s rodney-strong-logo-crest-72dpialso a “meritage” style blend called Symmetry, which in the current vintage contains 75 percent cabernet, so that counts. Does the winery really need eight cabernet sauvignon-based bottlings? Does an audience exist for each level in this broad cabernet category? Do consumers care?

As to the issue of price, the basic Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon goes for $20. The two Estate bottlings — Alexander Valley and Knights Valley — are $35. Moving up the ladder, the Reserve costs $40, the Symmetry Meritage is $55 and the Single Vineyard wines — Rockaway, Brothers and Alexander’s Crown — top out at $75. These are not cheap wines by any means, yet let’s be honest, compared to limited edition reserve-style wines from other California producers, particularly in Napa Valley, the Rodney Strong cabernets are bargains, though quality also is a factor in determining if a wine delivers good value, at whatever price.

Rodney Strong’s single vineyard project was launched in 2008 with the release of Rockaway 2005. Brothers — originally Brothers Ridge — and Alexander’s Crown were added over the next few years, the latter named for the elegant Alexander’s Crown cabernet-based wines that Rodney Strong himself made in the 1970s. Elegance is not the game-plan for this contemporary trio of high-concept cabernet sauvignons, except in terms of the simple, suave packaging.

From the beginning, alcohol levels have been high — 15.4 percent in the Rockaway 2005 — a device that consistently contributes a sense of over-ripeness and opulence on the palate and sweetness on the finish. On the other hand, these single vineyard offerings are crafted with rigorous tannins and dominant dusty graphite-inflected minerality, lending them a sleek, chiseled structure. Too often, though, the contrast between the succulence and ripeness of fruit and the precision and austerity of the structure isn’t resolved, leaving the wines awkward and unbalanced. I have chided this winery in the past with the overuse of French oak barrels and the length of aging, a criticism that applies to the wines presently under consideration. A criticism that I leveled against Rockaway 05 was that it felt made by a committee, as if a checklist of characteristics desirable in a cabernet wine from Alexander Valley had been followed. Indeed, it takes four men to make these wines: Rodney Strong’s longtime head winemaker, Rick Sayre; winemaker Greg Morthole; winery owner Tom Klein; and consultant (and highly regarded producer of his own label) David Ramey.

To this somewhat discouraging discourse, I’ll add a note of sweetness and light. The Rockaway and Alexander’s Crown 2012 are the best I have tasted in this series, a reflection, I feel sure, of a superb vintage but also, in some sense, of a certain delicacy of touch from the team. On the other hand, these are highly calibrated wines; visit the winery’s website to see how exacting the scheme behind each wine is, from the picking of the grapes at different times from various areas of the vineyards to their treatment in the cellar.

I review today the trio of Rodney Strong Single Vineyard offering from 2012 and 2010; for some reason, I had only the Brothers from 2011. If the other two from 2011 show up in the barbarian welter of my notes, I’ll append them promptly. I’ll write about the winery’s other cabernet-based wines in a subsequent post.

These wines were samples for review.
Rodney Strong Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Alexander Valley. A dark ruby-purple hue leads into a definitive rockawaystatement of intensity and concentration in nose and mouth; the bouquet is characterized by cassis, black cherry and plum infused with cedar, sage and graphite and notes of leather loam and black pepper. Dusty, dense but manageable tannins cloak a rigorous and chiseled mineral element that maintains discipline while relegating plenty of space to juicy black and red fruit flavors; the finish is granitic, a bit austere and sustained. 14.5 percent alcohol. The vineyard lies at elevations from 225 to 700 feet. 14.5 percent alcohol. This feels classic Alexander Valley and the best Rockaway I have tasted. With 4 percent malbec; aged 21 months in French oak, 56 percent new barrels. Drink now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
Rodney Strong Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Alexander Valley. The color is unvarying dark ruby; crownstructure is foremost, with the nose detecting whiffs of wheatmeal and walnut shell and intense and concentrated aromas of black currants, cherries and plums; give it a few minutes and it offers hints of black olives and bell pepper and, with a little more swirling of the glass, touches of lavender and violets. Tannins are lithe, sinewy and rigorous, and the wine’s structure includes incisive acidity and graphite-tinged minerality, yet for all that, this is a surprisingly approachable (and slightly over-ripe) wine for drinking now through 2022 to ’25. The vineyard lies at elevations of 250 to 360 feet; the wine aged 21 months in French oak, 38 percent new barrels. 15 percent alcohol, but carries it lightly. Excellent. About $75.
Rodney Strong Brothers Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Alexander Valley. For 2012, the Brother Cabernet feels like an brothersamalgam of its stablemates, the Rockaway and the Alexander’s Crown. (It contains 2 percent petit verdot; it aged 21 months in French oak, 44 percent new barrels.) Yes, the intensity and concentration; yes, the important tannins, meaningful acidity and sleek, sculpted graphite minerality; yes, the spicy, slightly roasted and succulent black fruit flavors; yes — damnit! — the 15.5 percent alcohol that creates a slight sweet and over-ripe aura. So, that being the case, what is the justification for these wines created from separate vineyards in Alexander Valley, this one the highest at 400 to 1,030 feet elevation? They are far more similar than they are different, perhaps a reflection more of a house style and philosophy than the actual character of the vineyards involved. And if that’s the case, what’s the point? Drink now through 2020 to ’22. Very Good+. About $75.
Rodney Strong Brothers Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Alexander Valley. The color is deep ruby verily unto the opacity of a black hole, with no trace or purple or magenta or mulberry; the bouquet offers an extraordinary melange of mint, iron and iodine layered with lavender, violets and loam, finally delivering notes of ripe red and black currants and cherries bolstered by dusty graphite. Well, that’s quite a performance! The effect on the palate is more typical and unsurprising, that is, the standard plush, velvety mineral-laced tannins, boot-strap oak hauling up the wood influence, vibrant acidity, all at the service of an austere, lithic finish. 15 percent alcohol. This wine is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon; it aged 26 months in French oak, 48 percent new barrels. Very Good+. About $75.
Rodney Strong Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Alexander Valley. A deep ruby-purple hue presages a bake-shop bouquet of blueberry tart and plum jam as a glaze to graphite, lavender and licorice and hints of black currants and cherries; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of rosemary and thyme and a hint of black olive. A huge and daunting tannic and oaken presence creates a dense, dusty, chewy structure on which to hang glimpses of succulent blue and black berry flavors. 15 percent alcohol. Plenty of substance, not much character. 88 percent cabernet sauvignon, 7 percent malbec, 5 petit verdot; aged 20 onths in French oak, 57 percent new barrels. Very Good+. About $75.
Rodney Strong Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Alexander Valley. The color is dark ruby-magenta, with little fading at the rim; notes of caraway, roasted fennel, potpourri and violets mingle with hints of very intense and concentrated black currants, blueberries and blue plums; a few minutes in the glass open a dusty-herbal aspect. A tremendous element of graphite and charcoal minerality plows every other quality under, dominating the palate from entry through the chiseled finish. 15.5 percent alcohol. Only for wine masochists. About $75.
Rodney Strong Brothers Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Alexander valley. The wine is 100 percent varietal; it aged 21 months in French oak, 43 percent new barrels. Very dry yet sweetish with alcohol and oak; wearying opulence, tiring alcohol, strident, unbalanced. 15.5 percent alcohol. Not recommended. About $75.

Since its inception in 1981 — founded by investment banker Justin Baldwin and his wife Deborah before Paso Robles, in San Luis Obispo County, was an AVA — Justin Winery has been known for cabernet sauvignons that make no concessions to elegance or nuance, rather emphasizing size, texture, structure and what feels like a deep connection to the vineyard. The Justin Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Paso Robles, fulfills that ideal. The color is dark ruby with an opaque center; aromas of iodine and mint, underbrush and walnut shell, briers and brambles bolster scents of ripe and roasted black cherries and currants with a tinge of blueberry; a few minutes in the glass bring up aromas of graphite, lavender, licorice and sage. The wine is 100 percent varietal; it aged 14 months in small American oak barrels, 25 percent of which were new. Dense, dusty, sinewy tannins provide depth and dimension for rich, spicy, lip-smacking black fruit flavors enlivened by vibrant acidity; the whole enterprise is intense, concentrated and focused, loamy and earthy, and while the wine could use a year or so to expand its reach a bit, boy, it was terrific with a hefty strip steak coated in cracked black pepper and seared in a cast-iron skillet to medium-rare. In 2010, the Baldwins sold the winery to Stewart Resnick, owner of Fiji water and POM pomegranate juice. Presently, the director of production and winemaking is Fred Holloway; winemaker is Scott Shirley. 14.9 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $26.

A sample for review.

« Previous PageNext Page »