By “all over the map,” I don’t mean that every sub-AVA of the Napa Valley is represented in this post, seventh in a series. True, Mount Veeder is here and Howell Mountain and Rutherford, but what I actually refer to is the technical and stylistic map upon which these examples of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon play their part. Seven of these wines are from 2012, one each from 2011 and 2010. The alcohol levels range from a mild 14.2 percent to a soaring and unmanageable 15.7. The use of oak barrels for aging varies enormously. The intention of the wines feels vastly different, with some wineries going whole-hog for the opulent and super-ripe, others tracking more toward the structured and elegant. In this panoply of approaches, do we discern a Napa Valley style? It’s difficult to say. To my mind — and my palate — the Sequoia Grove, Robert Mondavi and S.R. Tonella 2012s and the Napa Vintage 2011 adhere to a kind of general Napa-ness in their balance of fruit, tannin, acidity and mineral qualities and their pleasing herbal qualities, texture and depth. The other five feel more anomalous, marred by high alcohol or strenuous deployment of oak barrels. Of course no one would want Napa Valley to be homogenous nor its many wineries to operate on identical practices. We celebrate the place and the individuality together. These wines were samples for review.
Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. There really are towering sequoias — I guess that’s redundant — at Sequoia Grove Winery; one feels rather dwarfish in their company. The winery, founded in 1979, occupies salubrious geography in the Rutherford appellation, in the heart of Napa Valley. President and director of winemaking Mike Trujillo has been at Sequoia Grove since the early 1980s, was appointed assistant winemaker in 1998 and in 2001 took the position he has now. Winemaker is Molly Hill. The winery is owned by its national distributor, Kobrand Corp. Sequoia Grove, while making a variety of wines, focuses on chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, and it’s to the latter that we turn today.
The blend for the Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 is 77 percent cabernet sauvignon, 11 percent cabernet franc, 10 percent merlot and 1 percent each petit verdot and malbec, meaning that it employs, even if only in dollops, all five of the classic Bordeaux grape varieties. The wine aged 20 months in barrels, 60 percent French oak, 40 percent American oak. The color is opaque ruby with a tinge of magenta at the rim; the aroma profile begins with dusty leather and graphite and unfolds notes of ripe black currants and plums with a hint of blueberry, all permeated by cloves and allspice and a background of walnut shell and wheatmeal; top-notes are wild and slightly exotic. This is a dense, chewy and dry cabernet that coats the palate with dusty, velvety tannins; it’s loamy and rooty, a bit granitic, and yet bright acidity keeps it lively and boldly ripe and slightly fleshy and roasted black and blue fruit flavors make it delicious. Still, it could use a year or two to meld. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink from 2016 or ’17 through 2022 to ’24. Beautifully crafted and balanced. Excellent. About $38.
Flora Springs Winery and Vineyard Trilogy 2012, Napa Valley. Trilogy is the flagship wine for Flora Springs. The winery was founded in 1978 on the site of an abandoned 19th Century “ghost winery” by Jerry and Flora Komes, though the real work of establishing the facility and vineyards went to their children John Komes and his wife Carrie and Julie Garvey and her husband Pat Garvey; now the third generation is poised to take command. Winemaker is Paul Steinauer. I generally enjoy the wine of Flora Springs and last year made the Chardonnay 2012 and the Soliloquy Sauvignon Blanc 2013 Wines of the Week. I have a quibble, however, with the Trilogy 2012.
The blend is 82 percent cabernet sauvignon, 6 percent each merlot, malbec and petite verdot. The wine aged 22 months in French oak barrels, 60 percent new, 40 percent one-year-old. The color is dark but vivid ruby-magenta with an opaque center. The bouquet — indeed the entire package — is centered to an obtrusive degree on the graphite, smoke and charcoal-tinged character of oak. You know how I feel about these matters; if a wine smells like oak and tastes like oak, there’s too much oak! Bright glimmers of ripe and spicy black currants, cherries and raspberries emerge, with notes of lavender and licorice and undertones of loam and aged fruitcake, and the wine certainly offers an almost rapturously supple and lithe texture, verging on plush but balanced by clean acidity, dusty tannins and a slightly chiseled granitic structure, but the oak kills it for me. 14.2 percent alcohol. Perhaps a few years in bottle will tame it; try from 2016 or ’17 through 2022 to ’24. Very Good+. About $75.
Napa Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. Sean Piper grew up in Napa Valley, and after a career in the Coast Guard, he returned to, first, start Wine Consumer Magazine and, now, establish his own wine label, Napa Vintage. The initial outing is sourced from Howell Mountain and is an example of a successful cabernet sauvignon produced in a chilly rainy year. The wine is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon, aged 20 months in all new French oak barrels. The color is inky ruby-purple, and the whole package reflects the intensity and concentration available from mountain-grown fruit, with its attendant notes of walnut shell and dried porcini, classic touches of cedar and rosemary (with the herb’s hint of resiny earthiness) and burgeoning elements of black currants and plums highlighted by a hint of pomegranate; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of cloves and allspice, with the latter’s touch of exotic astringency. This is, no surprise, quite dry, replete with densely buttressed tannins, and thoroughly oaked, yet well-balanced and integrated. All these elements are wrapped around a fervent core of lavender, licorice and bitter chocolate. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 414 cases. The Napa Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 seems to me to be a model of an upper-altitude Napa cabernet, displaying its rooted firmness and supple flexibility in fine style. Drink now with a medium rare rib-eye steak, hot and crusty from the grill, through 2020 or ’21. Excellent. About $42.
S.R. Tonella Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Rutherford, Napa Valley. There’s little doubt that Napa Valley’s Rutherford Bench is one of the most advantageous pieces of earth on which to grow cabernet sauvignon grapes. Lying at the heart of the Napa Valley, west of Highway 29 and bordered (approximately) on the north by Zinfandel Lane, just above the town of Rutherford, and on the south by Oakville Grade, just below the town of Oakville, this area backs up to the foothills of the Mayacamas range in the west. The soil on this alluvial fan is well-drained gravelly loam. André Tchelistcheff, famed winemaker for Beaulieu Vineyards and guiding spirit of its George de Latour Private Reserve, called wines from the bench “dusty,” a term now accepted, perhaps too easily, as “Rutherford dust.” The cabernet wines that originate from the area undeniably often display a dry, dusty granitic aspect but not so uniformly as to make that characteristic applicable in every instance.
Steve Tonella’s heritage goes back a century in Rutherford. His great-uncle, Joseph Ponti, came from Italy to San Francisco after the earthquake in 1906, traveled up to Napa Valley, and became superintendent and winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards, founded in 1900. Ponti’s nephew, Louis Tonella, joined Ponti at BV when he was 17. From his uncle, Louis Tonella inherited vineyards in the Rutherford area to which his son, Raymond Tonella, added purchased acreage. The Neibaum-Tonella Vineyard in Rutherford is the winery’s estate vineyard; Morisoli-Borges, owned by Mike Morisoli, a fourth-generation grower, lies at the heart of the Rutherford Bench. From these sources, Steve Tonella makes his cabernet-based wine.
There’s five percent merlot in the S.R. Tonella Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2012; the wine aged 28 months in French oak, 75 percent new barrels. The color is opaque ruby-magenta; the wine is deep in its dimensions, intense and concentrated, full-bodied and flush with dense, dusty, lithic tannins. Aromas of walnut-shell, dried porcini, loam and graphite yield little space to hints of ripe black currants and black cherries that carry classic notes of cedar, tobacco and mocha. It’s a cool yet savory and spicy cabernet wrapped around a tight core of bitter chocolate and lavender buoyed by vibrant acidity; the finish, not surprisingly, is focused, dynamic and granitic. 14.4 percent alcohol. Despite it’s size and substance, the S.R. Tonella Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 feels well-balanced, filled with energy and personality. Fewer than 500 cases were made. Try from 2017 or ’18 through 2028 to ’30. Excellent potential. About $74.
Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. Robert Mondavi wasn’t the first person to think that the Napa Valley was capable of producing world-class cabernet sauvignon wines, but after he founded his winery in 1966, he brought the full force of his conviction, enthusiasm and larger-than-life personality to the task. Barrels of ink and puncheons of pixels have been spilled in outlining and commenting on the history of Robert Mondavi — the man, the family and the winery — so I will forgo that endeavor for this post. The winery continues to turn out excellent products under the ownership of Constellation (since late in 2004) and the tutelage of winemaker Genevieve Janssens, though I’ll say that this admittedly well-made cabernet felt almost too typical of its place and intention; it could have used a bit more individuality. On the other hand, it’s not a single vineyard or sub-appellation cabernet, so perhaps we should all just enjoy it.
The wine employs all five of the “classic” Bordeaux red wine varieties: 88 percent cabernet sauvignon, 6 percent cabernet franc, 4 percent merlot and 1 percent each petit verdot and malbec. Thirty percent of the grapes came from the famous To Kalon vineyard in the Oakville AVA, with 14 percent derived from Mondavi’s Wappo Hill vineyard in the Stags Leap District, with the rest, I assume, grown in other estate or nearby vineyards; the intention obviously was to create a “Napa Valley” style cabernet sauvignon without reference to a particular sub-AVA. The wine aged a very sensible 16 months in French oak, only 15 percent new barrels. The color is a rich dark ruby with a magenta tinge; aromas of cassis and black cherry are permeated by notes of cedar, tobacco and dried thyme, with deeper hints of lead pencil, briers and brambles and loamy graphite. Tannins are dry, a bit earthy and leathery, firm yet unobtrusive; fleet acidity keeps the wine energetic and thirst-quenching; a subtle oak influence shows up in the wine’s supple, lithe texture and in a wafting of exotic spice.The sense of balance and integration is well-nigh perfect. Alcohol content is the now New World average of 14.5 percent. What’s not to like? Drink now through 2020 or ’22. Excellent. About $29.
Petar Kirilov made 50 cases of his Kukeri Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, aging it 36 months — yes, My Readers, three years — in French oak. Come now, sir, this is not Brunello di Montalcino, but Kirilov believes in oak, so oak it is, and the inky dark wine wears its oak on its sleeve. Aromas of cedar, tobacco and dried rosemary are drenched with notes of walnut shell, dried porcini, leather and loam, with all the attendant resinous, foresty, underbrushy elements we would expect. Fruit? Yes, there are glimmers. Acidity? Oh, sleek and dynamic. I still wouldn’t touch this wine, though, for five more years. The 2011 is the current release, made in 79 cases. 14.5 percent alcohol. Rating? Anybody’s guess, but time will be the ultimate judge, as it is in all matters concerning these sublunary precincts. About $79.
Jamieson Ranch Double Lariat Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. Jamieson Ranch Vineyards is the southernmost winery in the Napa Valley. Formerly known as Kirkland Ranch Winery and Reata Vineyard, the company changed its name to Jamieson Ranch in 2013. The history of the property is tangled, involving dubious business decisions going back to the late 1990s and bankruptcy filings, but it is owned now by Madison Vineyard Holdings of Greenwood Village, Colorado, a company involved in myriad enterprises including high-end art storage in New York. Jamieson Ranch produces about 35,000 cases annually under its eponymous label, retaining the Reata name for some pinot noirs and chardonnays, and uses the Light Horse brand for inexpensive products. Winemaker is the Chilean Juan Jose Verdina.
About 2/3s of the grapes for this wine went through “flash détente,” a process much used in Europe, South America and Australia but fairly new to California. Before fermentation, grapes are heated to about 180 degrees and then sent to a vacuum chamber where they are cooled and the grape skins burst from the inside. The result — don’t ask me how — is better extraction of skin tannins and anthocyanins, the phenolic compounds responsible for the color of red grapes. That’s the simplified version, believe me, and doesn’t begin to approach the complications inherent in the process or the opportunities for manipulation they present.
The blend for the Jamieson Ranch Double Lariat Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 is 86.5 percent cabernet sauvignon, 9 percent merlot, 4.5 percent — surprise! — petite sirah. The wine aged 18 months in French oak barrels, amount of new oak not specified. A dark ruby-purple color is fresh and vibrant; aromas of ripe and spicy black currants, raspberries and plums are wreathed with notes of leather and lavender and a touch of graphite. Slightly dusty and granite-tinged tannins are well-integrated in a lithe texture that’s animated by bright acidity, while black fruit flavors are deep and rich; the finish brings in the oak influence. 14.8 percent alcohol. A well-made and enjoyable but not compelling cabernet sauvignon. Drink now through 2019 to ’22. Very Good+. About $40.
Priest Ranch Somerston Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley.
Perhaps it’s the 14.9 percent alcohol, but I found this cabernet to be inchoate and unbalanced. It’s 100 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, aged 22 months in French oak, 35 percent new, 65 percent neutral, a regimen with which I fully agree. It displays a dark ruby-mulberry hue and all the austere elements of wheatmeal, walnut shell and dried porcini mushrooms over loam, dusty tannins and a startlingly high yet hollowed-out level of acidity. On the other hand, the black and blue fruit flavors are not only very ripe but sweet and jammy, making, altogether, for a package that does not cohere. Perhaps a few years in bottle will calm the wine down, but I’m not hopeful. Not recommended. About $48.
Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. The story begins in 1977, with Ray Signorello’s purchase of 100 acres on the Silverado Trail in eastern Napa Valley. Originally intending to grow grapes to sell to other wineries, the emphasis shifted to making wine in 1985. Ray Senior died in 1998, and Ray Signorello Jr. operates the estate now. He is listed as proprietor/winemaker and Pierre Bierbent as winemaker/vineyard manager. This is a luxury wine estate, with packaging and prices to match its aspirations.
A touch of cabernet franc — 6.5 percent — completes what is otherwise all cabernet sauvignon in this large-framed and fairly lumbering wine. Fermented with native yeast, yes, that’s nice; aged 21 months in French oak. all new barrels, okey-dokey, but 15.7 percent alcohol? Please! The color is motor-oil-opaque with a purple-violet rim; it’s a vivaciously ripe wine, with sweet scents and succulent notes of cassis, black raspberry jam, brandied cherries, fruitcake and a hint of zinfandel-like blueberry tart. By contrast, potent tannins and truckloads of dusty graphite define a structure that becomes formidably dry and austere, leading to a feeling that the wine is at war with itself; imbalance and lack of integration personified. Give it a few years if you so desire, but don’t invite me when you eventually open a bottle. Not recommended. About $90.
What’s disheartening about this wine is that I rated the Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (the last I tasted) as Excellent and named it as one of my “50 Great Wines of 2012.” It came in at 14.7 percent alcohol. The cabernet under review today feels as if it had been given different marching orders.