Rutherford


When the first European settlers entered what became California’s Napa Valley in the early 1830s, they found six small tribes of Native American Indians who spoke different dialects and were often at war. A smallpox epidemic in 1838 put an end to that situation. George Yount, perhaps the first Anglo settler in the area, built a log house on the Mexican land grant in received in 1836 and planted the first vineyard in Napa, though Charles Krug established the first winery, in 1861. Though by the end of the 19th Century Napa Valley was home to 140 wineries, the rest is not exactly history, at least not of the straight-line sort, because the plant louse Phylloxera followed by the scourge of Prohibition brought a halt to grape-growing and commercial wine production.

Napa Valley’s real influence emerged after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 and the proliferation of and focus on the cabernet sauvignon grape. Such wineries as Beaulieu Vineyards, Inglenook, Louis M. Martini and Charles Krug took the lead in finding the best sites for the vineyards and in putting the name of the grape on the label. These wineries of what I’ll call the first generation were joined in the 1960s and ’70s by a second wave in the form of Mayacamas, Diamond Creek, Heitz, Clos du Val, Freemark Abbey, Cakebread Cellars, Robert Mondavi, Duckhorn, Dunn, Burgess, Chateau Montelena, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Smith-Madrone, Joseph Phelps and many others. Excellent vintages like 1968, ’74, ’78, ’84, ’85 and ’86 and the cabernet wines they produced caught the attention of wine buffs all over the country and in the Old World. It didn’t hurt that two Napa Valley wines, Chateau Montelena Chadonnay 1973 and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV Cabernet Sauvignon 1973, beat their counterparts from Burgundy and Bordequx in the ground-breaking (and infamous) Paris Tasting of 1976. Napa Valley became a name to conjure with in terms of cabernet sauvignon, though of course most of these wineries also made other sorts of wine: merlot, zinfandel, pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc.

The third generation, coming into prominence in the 1990s and often involving huge outlays of fiduciary prowess in acquiring expensive vineyard land and building showplace facilties, includes such “cult” wineries as Screaming eagle, Harlan Estate, Bryant Family and Colgin, followed in the 21st Century by such recent additions as Sloan Estate and Hundred Acre, most sold primarily by mailing list and avidly sought by collectors.

Anyone who has tasted Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon going back to the 1970s will attest to a vast change in style over the decades, a transformation that includes higher alcohol levels — even to 15 percent and over; riper, jammier fruit; and voluptuous textures. The reasons for these changes may be attributable to several factors: global warming, consumer taste and the exigencies of the market, the palates and dictates of high-profile critics and wine publications. Whatever the case, it is and has been fascinating to observe and experience the evolution of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, even if I don’t always agree with the results. I tend to favor more structured, lean and elegant cabernets, the iron fist in the velvet glove approach (in Warren Winiarski’s phrase), as opposed to the more flamboyant and opulent renditions, though I can be swayed by adequate acidity.

Anyway, today I launch a series of posts dedicated to Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon wines, beginning with detailed reviews of six examples, including two Old-School models — Chateau Montelena and La Jota Vineyard — and two quite recent start-ups — Calla Lily and Volta. Some are traditional Bordeaux-style blends, others are 100 percent cabernet sauvignon; some see all new oak for several years, while others are subjected to a less rigorous regimen. These are from 2011, 10 and ’09. The series will continue with group reviews and with posts dedicated to products from a single winery. Napa Valley cabernet has become legendary in the world of wine, but even legends must bear scrutiny.
These wines were samples for review. Map of Napa Valley and its sub-appellations from napavalleypassport.com.
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Calla Lily Ultimate Red Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. This bold effort, aged 25 months in French oak barrels, is the first release from a fledgling winery, established in 2013 in Pope Valley, east of Calistoga. The color is dense ruby-purple with an opaque center. Altogether, it displays the gratifying paradox that balances intensity and concentration of all aspects with a generous and expansive character. Highly expressive aromas of lavender and black licorice, espresso and graphite, toasted walnuts, fruitcake and just a whiff of vanilla open to notes of ripe black currants, black cherries and plums; this is succulent on the palate, plush and powerful, quite dry and packed with dusty, velvety tannins and oak that gives off elements of dried woody spice and a hint of exoticism. The finish is austere, high-toned but lithe and supple. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drinkable now with steaks and braised short ribs or try from 2016 or ’17 through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $80.
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La Jota Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. La Jota fell off my radar for quite a few years, meaning that I didn’t write about the wines because I received no samples. Then — boom! — comes to my door this dignified-looking bottle of cabernet sauvignon. The winery dates back to 1898, when Swiss immigrant Frederick Hess purchased 327 acres of George Yount’s Rancho La Jota land grant on Howell Mountain. (The jota is a Spanish folk-dance, in 3/4 or 6/8 time, that achieved broad popularity in the mid 18th Century.) Within a few years, La Jota wines were winning awards at national and international competitions. Phylloxera and Prohibition put an end to the winery’s accomplishments, and the estate did not see a revival until 1974, when the original stone winery and 40 surrounding acres were bought by former oilman Bill Smith and his wife Joan. They planted new vines and added acreage, developed several new varieties and were instrumental in persuading what was then the BATF to declare Howell Mountain a separate American Viticultural Area within Napa Valley. In 2001, Smith sold La Jota to Markham Vineyards and its parent company Mercian Corp. The late Jesse Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke acquired La Jota in 2005, and it is now a part of Jackson Family Wines. Winemaker for La Jota is Chris Carpenter.

La Jota Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Howell Mountain, is a blend of 82 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8 percent merlot, 4 petit verdot and 6 cabernet franc. The wine aged 19 months in French oak, 91 percent new barrels. The color is deep ruby-purple with a magenta cast; marked by intensity and concentration in every respect, the wine offers aromas of graphite and charcoal, lavender, violets and bitter chocolate, spiced and macerated black cherries, raspberries and plums. It fills the mouth with dense, chewy, dusty tannins and a texture that feels sleek and chiseled, like arrowheads carved from obsidian; a few minutes in the glass bring out notes of fruitcake and plum tart, sandalwood and ancho chile. Wine reviewers are fond of saying that they can sense the high origins of mountainside wines; I’ll go so far as to say that in this case the prominent granitic minerality feels like a permanent ledge that time in the bottle will gently erode. While the wine developed some notions of being broad and expansive, after an hour or so, it began to shut down. 14.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 or ’18 to 2025 to ’30. Excellent. About $75.
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Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Calistoga, Napa Valley. Chateau Montelena is another estate whose roots go back to the late 19th Century. The winery was founded in 1882 by Alfred Tubbs, who commissioned the looming Chinese-Gothic castle that appears on Montelena’s labels. Tubbs’ efforts failed, however, early in the 20th Century, and the property was a “ghost” winery until 1972, when it was bought by James L. Barrett, an attorney from Southern California. His son Bo Barrett is now the winemaker for Montelena. The winery received a huge boost when its Chardonnay 1973, made by Mike Grgich, was named best white wine in the legendary (or infamous) Paris Tasting of 1976. I have a bias toward the cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays produced at Chateau Montelena, because they fall exactly into the parameters that I prefer in such wines, representing an ideal of purity and intensity, without being overripe, flamboyant or scrumptious. You could not find a better metaphor for the perfectly balanced marriage of power and elegance.

The Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Calistoga, is a blend of 91 percent cabernet grapes, seven percent merlot and two percent cabernet franc; the wine aged 14 months is a combination of French and Eastern European oak, only 12 percent of which were new. The color is medium ruby, but fairly opaque at the center; cabernet sauvignon’s classic notes — what to me are classic notes — of cedar, black olives and thyme are meshed with elements of dusty graphite and whiffs of lightly spiced and macerated black and red currants, black cherries and raspberries, all poised over a clean, vivid backdrop of briers, brambles and loam. Tannins are stalwart and slightly lithic, yes, but etched with hints of lavender, black licorice and potpourri, while black and red fruit flavors evolve into a finish that’s sleek and polished yet faintly austere with touches of walnut shell and underbrush. 13.4 percent alcohol. Drink now or let it rest through 2016 or ’17 for consumption by 2023 to 2025 or ’26. Excellent. About $50.
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Sanctuary Usibelli Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Rutherford, Napa Valley. Not many wineries place the name of the winemaker on the front label — or the back label for that matter — but there is Dennis Martin’s name at the top, albeit in small letters. He is assisted by a young woman with the wonderful name Zidanelia Arcidiacono, though she is mentioned not on the label but on the winery’s website. Sanctuary obtains grapes from vineyards throughout California’s major regions for its wines, in this case from the Usibelli Vineyard in Napa Valley’s Rutherford AVA.

This is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon. It rested 14 and a half months in French oak barrels, percentage of new barrels not specified. The color is an entrancing deep ruby hue with a magenta rim, brimming with health and intrigue; penetrating aromas of iodine, iron and graphite smolder in the glass, along with notes of spiced, macerated and lightly stewed red and black currants, raspberries and black cherries; the whole effect is of rather fleshy fruit briefly grilled over charcoal. Matters turn fairly serious on the palate, where the wine unlimbers leathery tannins, elements of walnut shell, underbrush and forest floor, and brings the oak slightly to the foreground. Still, the spicy black and red fruit flavors, though spare, are delicious, nestled into a sensuous velvety texture. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $40.
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Silverado Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley. The Silverado Vineyards compound perches like its own Italian hilltown above the Silverado Trail in eastern Napa Valley. The winery was established in 1981 by Lillian Disney (1899-1997), widow of the world-famous animator and entrepreneur; her daughter Diane Disney Miller (1933-2013); and the latter’s husband Ron, former president and CEO of Walt Disney Productions. The emphasis at Silverado is on cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sauvignon blanc. Winemaker is Jon Emmerich.

Grapes for the Silverado Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Napa Valley, derive 40 percent from Stags Leap Vineyard, next to the winery; 55 percent from Mt. George Vineyard, east of the city of Napa; and five percent from Oakville Station in the Oakville AVA, the heart of Napa Valley. The wine is a blend of 81 percent cabernet sauvignon, 16 percent merlot, 2 percent petit verdot and 1 percent cabernet franc; it aged 17 months in French oak (90 percent) and American oak (10 percent), the total of new barrels being 44 percent. O.K., enough with the percentages. This one radiates an intensity of purpose and confidence as well as bastions of spicy oak, buttresses of dusty tannins and flashes of electrifying acidity, which is to say that there’s balance here, of sorts, and great liveliness and appeal, but the wine needs some time to let fruit emerge from the structure. The color is a ravishing deep ruby-purple; aromas of red and black currants and red and black cherries are permeated by touches of loam and graphite, cloves, lavender and walnut shell. On the palate, this is dense, chewy, lithe, supple, managing to be both sleek and substantial; the finish is packed with woody spice and granitic minerality. 14.7 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $48.
The image on the winery website has not caught up with newer releases.
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Volta Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. This recently founded winery is owned by music industry veteran Steve Lau and finance and real estate expert Frederick McCarthy. Winemaker is Massimo Monticelli, who learned the ropes during a five-year stint at Silver Oak Cellars. The wine is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon from the certified organic Mission Ridge Vineyard; it aged 22 months in 100 percent new French oak barrels. Production for Volta 2009 was 450 cases. The color is deep ruby-purple, markedly opaque at the center; aromas of ripe and macerated black currants, black cherries and plums pull you in to a bouquet that seethes with cloves and walnut shell, lavender and licorice and bitter chocolate, all encompassed by a circumference of graphite, slightly toasty-vanilla tinged oak, iodine and iron. There’s an air here of artfulness but also a tinge of the feral; the wine is dense and chewy, powerfully and dynamically tannic, but also light on its feet, almost balletic in its sense of elevation and wildness. Still, it has some aging to go through, so try from late in 2015 or 2016 through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $60.
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The immediately appealing factor about the Round Pond Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Rutherford, Napa Valley, is that it bears no burden of exaggeration. Made completely in stainless steel and seemingly equal parts savory, saline and spicy, this pale-gold wine offers notable balance and integration of all elements. Don’t mistake it, though, for being mild-mannered or wimpy; plenty of crisp acidity and citrus fruit keeps this wine refreshing, lively and energetic. Hints of lemongrass, cloves, lime peel, quince and ginger permeate a background of roasted lemon and tangerine; crystalline limestone minerality lends shimmer and litheness to the structure, which supports bracing lemon and peach flavors that open to an intriguing edge of sunny leafiness and a ping of currant. The finish brings in more spice and a faint line of grapefruit bitterness. 14.5 percent alcohol. The Round Pond Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2013 will be terrific this Summer as aperitif or with grilled shrimp, chicken salad, cold fried chicken, watercress and cucumber sandwiches (crusts sliced off, please) and other patio and picnic fare. Founded in the early 1980s, the winery is now operated by the second generation of the MacDonnell family, brothers Ryan and Miles MacDonnell. Excellent. About $24.

A sample for review.

The point of wines from Nickel & Nickel is that they are all one-variety — the cabernet sauvignons are all cabernet, the merlots all merlot and so on — and that each bottling is from a single, designated vineyard. Most of the wines are produced in quantities of 1,200 to 1,800 cases, with a few dipping as low as a few hundred. The philosophy, of course, is that the individual vineyards, even when compared to vineyards in the same region or sub-region, will bring distinctive features to the wine, taking varietal character into account. I would say that generally the theory, the process work well and deliver wines that distinguish themselves on an individual scale while retaining the similarities inherent in single-variety wines. What’s interesting is that these selections from 2010 and 2009 — and typically for all cabernets from N&N whatever the year — were treated almost identically in the winery, particularly in the point of new oak, almost always kept to under 50 percent. (By the way, N&N produced 12 single-vineyard cabernets from the 2010 vintage.) Director of winemaking for Nickel & Nickel and sister wineries Far Niente, Dolce and Enroute is Dirk Hampson. Because this post is an entry in the “Weekend Wine Notes” series, technical, geographical, geological and historical data are kept to a minimum for the sake of quick, evocative notices. These wines were samples for review. Enjoy!
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Nickel & Nickel Hayne Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, St. Helena, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. Very dark ruby-purple, almost opaque; mint, anise, violets, lavender, bitter chocolate; spiced and roasted black currants, blackberries and blueberries; very dry, tannic, austere, a real iron and granitic character; intense and concentrated through and through, tremendous weight and gravity. Try 2016 or ’17 through 2024 to ’28. Excellent potential. About $100.
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Nickel & Nickel C.C. Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Rutherford, Napa Valley. 14.8% alc. Dark ruby-purple color; graham flour, wheatmeal; cedar, tobacco and cloves; intense and concentrated black cherry and raspberry with a touch of plum and a note of pomegranate, all evolving to dark chocolate-covered black cherries; deep core of graphite and granite-like minerality, glinting and scintillating; dry, grainy tannins, long powerful and profound finish. Try 2015 or ’16 through 2022 to ’28. Excellent. About $100.
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Nickel & Nickel Branding Iron Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Oakville, Napa Valley. 14.8% alc. Impenetrable ruby-purple color; cedar, thyme, tobacco, caraway; spiced and macerated black fruit with a note of roasted fennel; the classic iron fist in a velvet glove syndrome; very dry, dusty, earth and loam; tannins both rigorous and plush; buttresses of oak, a foundation of graphite-like minerals and surging acidity; just a freaking huge wine in every respect. Maybe from 2016 or ’17 through 2025 to ’30. Very Good+ to Excellent potential. About $100.
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Nickel & Nickel John C. Sullenger Vinetard Caberney Sauvignon 2010, Oakville, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. Very dark ruby-purple color; cedar, mint, tobacco, dried thyme, black olive, with intense and vibrant notes of black currants, black raspberries and plums and a graphite-lavender-licorice,bitter chocolate overlay: feels like classic Oakville District cabernet; a wide range of dried spices almost exotic; but ultimately a large-framed, deep austere wine freighted with dry leathery foresty tannins and stout oak. Needs from 2016 or ’17 through 2025 to ’30. Excellent potential. About $100.
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Nickel & Nickel Martin Stelling Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Oakville, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. (298 cases) Very inky purple-violet color; a monumental and broadly dimensional wine but actually a tad more approachable — as one approaches an Eastern potentate, on bended knee — than its counterpart of 2009; again that classic Oakville dusty, cedary, tobacco aspect, wafting amid really intense and concentrated (yet sweetly ripe) black currant, blackberry and raspberry fruit with a hint of plum compote; wood smoke, licorice and lavender play off against this black fruit array, as well as fronting for a vast reserve of dense, chewy tannins, resonant acidity and a stalwart granitic mineral component; the oak emerges through the earth and mineral-packed finish. Another keeper, say 2016 or ’18 through 2028 to ’32. Excellent. About $155 (a bottle).
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Nickel & Nickel State Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Yountville, Napa Valley. 13.8% alc. Deep ruby-mulberry color, opaque at the center; briers, brambles, beetroot, bitter chocolate; intense and concentrated black currants, raspberries and cherries permeated by graphite, fruitcake, rhubarb and cloves; dense, grainy, almost gritty tannins; tremendous vibrant acidity; notes of cedar, roasted fennel, packed with spice and earthy minerality; finishes with walnut shell and wheatmeal. Try from 2015 through 2022 to ’24. Excellent. About $100.
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Nickel & Nickel Hayne Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, St. Helena, Napa Valley. 14.3% alc. Inky ruby-purple color; smoky, fleshy, meaty, huge graphite element and leather-brier component; every element in the wine feels crushed, pulverized and indelibly sifted; bristles with ripe black fruit flavors but tannins are huge, impenetrable, and you feel the oak permeating every aspect; very earthy and loamy, with underbrush, mushrooms, moss and truffles; potpourri, bitter chocolate; finish is deep, complex and fairly austere. Try from 2015 through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $100.
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Nickel & Nickel C.C. Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Rutherford, Napa Valley. 14.4% alc. Very dark ruby-purple; whoa, a huge, pungent, penetrating graphite element; spiced and macerated, black fruit compote, cinnamon and cloves, lavender, black licorice, violets; dense, intense and concentrated, squinching acidity and tannins (which are slightly woody and dusty); a wine with a sense of momentum and power, but some astringency on the finish. 14.4 percent alcohol. Try from 2015 or ’16 through 2024 to ’20. Excellent. About $100.
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Nickel & Nickel Branding Iron Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Oakville, Napa Valley. 14.8% alc. Opaque inky-purple; a bit less dimensional, a little more straightforwardly typical and slightly monolithic compared to these other cabernet efforts from 2009; dry and austere, this is primarily about oak, tannin and granitic minerality; even eight hours later, having stuck the cork back in the bottle, the wine was beset by monumental tannins. 14.8 percent alcohol. Try, if you dare, from 2016 or ’17 through whatever. Very Good+. About $100.
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Nickel & Nickel Martin Stelling Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Oakville, Napa Valley. 14.7% alc. Very dark inky-purple with a deep mulberry rim; tremendous acid, tannin and mineral structure, rigorous, granitic; smoke, ash, leather, fruitcake; very dense and chewy; bare hints of macerated and roasted black fruit and lavender and a wave of bitter chocolate. Needs lots of quiet time, say 2016 or ’17 through the next eon. Very Good+ to Excellent potential. About $155.
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The point of bottling wines made from similar grapes from separate vineyards or regions is that those entities, because of differences, sometimes minute, sometimes pronounced, among geography, geology, soil and microclimate — terroir, friends, terroir’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout — will produce wines that reflect those differences in their individual characteristics. Such a premise is the whole basis, as much moral and philosophical as practical, of the wine industry in Burgundy, for example, with its myriad tiny vineyards each classified and codified in a (basically) three-tier scheme of theoretical quality. Such, too, is the premise of the five wines from Pine Ridge Vineyards that we look at today. Four of these wines are from the Napa Valley sub-appellations of Rutherford, Oakville, Howell Mountain and Stags Leap, bearing, inherently, the promise of distinguishing regional qualities.

Pine Ridge was founded in 1978 by Gary Andrus and a group of investors on the Silverado Trail in what would become the Stags Leap District. The winery made its name with various bottlings of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, though its biggest seller is an inexpensive and perennially popular chenin blanc-viognier blanc blend; every winery should have a product that pays the rent, so to speak. Pine Ridge and its sister winery in Oregon, Archery Summit, are owned by the Crimson Wine Group, also owners of Chamisal Vineyards, Seghesio Vineyards and Double Canyon, in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills.

Pine Ridge’s general manager and winemaker Michael Beaulac came on board in 2009, moving from St. Supery, where he made a string of superb sauvignon blancs and cabernets; assistant winemaker is Jason Ledbetter.

These wines were samples for review.
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The Pine Ridge Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 is a blend of 75 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent malbec, 7 percent petit verdot, 4 percent merlot and 1 lonely percent cabernet franc; it aged 18 months in French oak barrels, 60 percent new. The grapes derived from Pine Ridge’s three estate vineyards in the Rutherford appellation, totaling 61 acres. The color is deep ruby-purple; the bouquet is a heady amalgam of graphite and lavender, bittersweet chocolate, ripe nut intense and concentrated black currants and black cherries, all wound with smoky allure. Tannins feel like an inescapable mesh of infinitesimal fineness and finesse, though composed of dusty velvet and iron. The wine coats the mouth with elements of granite and shale-like minerality, earth and loam and succulent black and blue fruit flavors, succulent but nothing like opulent or sumptuous; all the qualities conspire here to keep the wine substantial but elegant. Dust, earth and loam? Perhaps this is evidence of the famous yet elusive “Rutherford dust” for which the district is noted. The finish is long and packed with spice, minerals and, ultimately, layers of brambly-foresty qualities, becoming a little demanding but not austere. 14.3 percent alcohol. Best from 2014 or ’15 through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $80.
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Oakville is only two miles south of Rutherford on Hwy. 29 –the drive is under five minutes; geographically, the shape of Oakville is slightly flatter and a bit broader, as it reaches from the slope of the Vacas range in the east to Mayacamas range in the west. The Pine Ridge Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, 96 percent cabernet and 4 percent petit verdot, offers more fruit and slate and slightly woody spices — sandalwood, cloves, allspice — than its stablemate from Rutherford, though it displays similar dusty, granite-flecked and mouth-coating tannins; the black currant, black cherry and plum scents and flavors for “Oakville” are also a little more macerated, fleshy and meaty. This is definitely the most herbal of this quintet of cabernets, a characteristic I miss in most examples produced in California; here we have hints of cedar and thyme and and a high-note of bay leaf. The wine is undoubtedly dense and chewy, and the mineral elements of graphite and granite surge forward from mid-palate back through the surprisingly smooth (and smoky) finish. This cabernet aged 18 months in French oak barrels, 55 percent new. 14.1 percent alcohol. Best from 2014 or ’15 through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $80.
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Pioneered by Randy Dunn, who released his first cabernet from the 1979 vintage, and established by the federal government in 1983, Howell Mountain was the first sub-appellation in the Napa Valley. Most vineyards in this AVA north of St. Helena and east of Calistoga are planted at altitudes of 1,400- to 2,200-feet above sea-level. The Pine Ridge Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 reflects its mountain origin in its power structure and its brambly-briery, loamy and flinty character; the wine is 100 percent cabernet and aged 18 months in 50 percent new French oak barrels. Squinching tannins are drenched in dusty graphite-and-shale-like minerality that dominates the wine from front to back and top to bottom, and that dimension of minerality and the leathery-foresty nature of the tannins build austerity into the finish. The whole effect is of ink and obsidian, opaque and impenetrable. Fruit? Yes, but tightly furled now; enormous potential but try 2015 or ’16 through 2024 to ’29. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $90.
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Stags Leap District — no apostrophe — was approved as an AVA in 1989. Grapegrowing commenced in this hilly area east of Yountville athwart the Silverado Trail in the 1870s. Pine Ridge owns four vineyards in the district: the 47-acre Pine Ridge Estate Vineyard, the steepest; Locked Horns Vineyard (6 acres) and Cornerstone Vineyard (7 acres); and the particularly rocky 9-acre Circle Hill Vineyard; all contribute grapes to the Pine Ridge Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, a 100 percent varietal wine that defines what we think of as largeness in a wine; it’s broad and deep, with roots that seem to extend down into the soil and strata of the vineyards and with an emphasis on an impeccable and pretty damned unassailable (yet beautifully balance) structure of acidity, tannin, oak and a prominent mineral element; the wine aged 18 months in 65 percent new French barrels. The color is deep purple, nigh unto black; the bouquet delivers whiffs of classic cedar and lead pencil and cigar box wrapped around very intense and concentrated black fruit scents and a stab of flint that’s like a sharp exhalation. In the mouth, the Pine Ridge Stags Leap 09 is dense and chewy, gritty and grainy and yet — there’s always an “and yet” when one talks about complicated wines — the wine’s poise and integration, however “big” is it, are lovely. 14.1 percent alcohol. best from 2014 or ’16 through 2020 to ’25. Excellent. About $85.
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The idea behind Fortis, whose composition changes every year, seems to be a sort of ideal of Napa Valleyness rather than the expression of a more narrow AVA or vineyards within an AVA, as is the case with the other Pine Ridge wines mentioned in this post. And there’s not a thing wrong with that scheme; many wines that come from this valley that’s legendary for cabernet sauvgnon operate on the same principle. The question is: What is the platonic ideal for a Napa Valley wine? For the Pine Ridge Fortis 2009, it’s this: A 100 percent cabernet wine — a varietal tradition that goes back to the origins of the Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de La Tour Private Reserve in the 1930s — that balances power, dynamism and multi-faceted dimension with integration, elegance and finesse. For 09, Fortis is a blend of 52 percent Rutherford grapes with 48 percent Stags Leap, in other words, the western valley floor but backing up to the Mayacamas slopes combined with the rocky hillsides on the eastern side of the valley. The wine is sturdy, robust, cleanly focused, smooth and velvety yet dusty, deeply imbued with flint-and-graphite minerality; and it’s rich with black currant and black cherry flavors steeped in spicy oak — 60 percent new French barrels, 18 months — and grainy tannins, yet, paradoxically, while the finish retains a rather Olympian distance, there’s nothing austere to violate the wine’s essential poise. 14.1 percent alcohol. best from 2014 or ’16 through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $150.
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