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American Pleasures #6: A Tale of Two Cabs

January 4, 2022 2 comments

Wine should give you pleasure – there is no point in drinking the wine if it does not. Lately, I had a number of samples of American wines, that were the delicious standouts – one after another, making me even wonder if someone cursed my palate. I enjoyed all of those wines so much that I decided to designate a new series to them – the American Pleasures. 

California Cabernet Sauvignon.

Magical words for any wine connoisseur. Out of more than 100 grape varieties used in wine production in California, I would safely bet that Cabernet Sauvignon clout exceeds that of Chardonnay, Merlot, and Pinot Noir, and even including Pinot Noir in this list is a stretch. Cabernet Sauvignon is The One of California wines (if you are willing to disprove this with actual numbers, I will be happy to publish a correction, but until someone will step forward, this stands as unquestionable truth).

While we can agree that California Cabernet Sauvignon is an object of craving for uncounted many, it also should be recognized as an object of controversy. How do I mean it? Easy. There are probably 50 or so producers whose wines are impossible to get, due to both availability and pricing – you have to be on the mailing list with a waiting list stretching for 20 years or so, and once you get there you should be willing to pay $500++ per bottle of wine you will need to wait for another 10-15 years to enjoy. Alternatively, you need to be prepared to pay an upward of $500 per bottle and scour the internet daily looking for those special bottles.

On the flip side, you can join most of us walking into the wine store asking (begging?) for a good bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon under $20, trying not to notice the poorly hidden smirk on the face of the salesperson, who knows that we are on the quest for the impossible. If you like Cabernet Sauvignon and not buying those wines from your expense account, I’m sure you can relate to the experience firsthand. Even $50 per bottle doesn’t come with any guarantees. But – that number gives us hope. Yes, folks, it is possible to find a good bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon under $50. Let’s talk about it.

Lots of my wine learning and discoveries are linked to unimitable wine educator Kevin Zraly and his Windows on the World Wine School. I remember one of the lessons where we were talking about California Cabernet Sauvignon. One of the wines was particularly good, and I remember Kevin remarking that the wine was produced by Louis M Martini, who doesn’t charge nearly enough for the quality of the wines they produce. That reference got engraved in my memory literally forever, and Louis M Martini became somewhat of the safe bet when looking for reasonably priced and consistent California Cabernet Sauvignon.

Louis M Martiny winery was founded in 1922 when Prohibition was already in full swing. It was actually known as L.M. Martini Grape Products Company and was focused on the production of sacramental wines and concentrate for home winemaking. In 1933, expecting that Prohibition will end, the new winery building was constructed north of the town of Napa. This was the actual beginning of the Louis M Martini winery and pioneering role of the Martini family in the Californian wine industry, helping to establish Napa Valley Vintners Association in 1943, being one of the first to use wind machines to prevent frost in the vineyards, and being one of the first to bottle varietal Merlot in 1970.

Louis M Martini offers a substantial range of wines today, going way beyond standard Sonoma and Napa Cabernet Sauvignon offerings, including Cabernet Sauvignon from some of the best regions in Napa Valley such as Stagecoach Vineyard and Howell Mountain, as well as a number of Merlot, Malbec, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel wines – unfortunately, most of those are priced well beyond the $50 we are talking about today. Sill, there is Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon which can be found at around $15, and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon around $35. The Napa Valley bottling I tasted was simply outstanding with or without any regard to the price:

2016 Louis M Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (15.1% ABV, $40)
Garnet
Cassis, eucalyptus, baking spices
Roll of your tongue smooth, velvety, fresh cassis, perfectly ripe fruit but over, firm structure, long finish.
8+/9-, excellent, classic California Cabernet Sauvignon

If Louis M Martini can be called an iconic winery, then our next winery can be only referred to as the most iconic winery in Napa Valley. Charles Krug winery, established in 1861 in Napa Valley by Prussian immigrant Charles Krug was the very first winery in Napa Valley, the 540 acres estate which Charles Krug received via marriage. In 1943, an immigrant family from Italy, Mondavi, purchased the Charles Krug estate which had been run by the family now in 4th generation.

Charles Krug winery also offers a good number of wines, including Chardonnay, Malbec, Merlot, Zinfandel, and others, with Cabernet Sauvignon still being a flagship offering, including clonal selections (one of the Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon wines is called X Clone as it is produced as a blend of 10 Cabernet Sauvignon clones). I always wanted to try the Charles Krug wines, and finally, I was able to do so:

2017 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (14.1% ABV, $39, 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, 3% Petite Sirah)
Dark garnet
Blueberry, blueberry jam, dark chocolate, pipe tobacco
A touch of nutmeg and cloves, much crispier on the second day, firm tannins, firm structure, good acidity.
8-/8, definite improvement on the second day.

Comparing these two Cabernet Sauvignon wines, Louis M Martini was a perfect pop and pour example, which is ultra rare among California Cabernet Sauvignon, where Charles Krug bottling definitely needed time.

Here you are, my friends. If you are looking for a good bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon under $50, there is still hope!

Wine Bloggers Conference 2014: Live Wine Blogging

July 26, 2014 17 comments

I’m continuing my stories from the Wine Bloggers Conference 2014 (here are the links to the Day 1 and Day 2 posts). The subject of this post is tasting of the wines in the time-constrained scenario, or the Live Wine Blogging sessions (also some attendees called it “speedtasting”).

When it comes to the wine tastings of the large scale, I pride myself with being a professional. I’m attending trade wine tasting events for many years, and I don’t have any issues being faced with 300-400 wines in only 3 -4 hours of time. No problems. You use spitton, and you are very decisive about what you want and don’t want to try. I also take pictures and very minimal notes (typically the “+” signs with few descriptors) to designate the wines I like.

The Live Wine Blogging Session was yet a very new and different experience. All attendees sit at the round tables. Each table has a number in the  middle. Winemakers are ready with their wines and information in hand. As soon as the host says “go”, winemakers approach the tables they are next to, start pouring their wines and talk about them. 4 minutes 30 seconds into this, the host shouts a “30 seconds warning”, and on the 5 minutes mark the next instruction is “winemakers, go to the next table” (next table with the higher number it is). The session lasts for 50 minutes – 10 wines, 5 minutes per wine.

This is the “Live Blogging Session” – so the bloggers are expected to share their impressions live in real time as they taste the wines. What do you think about the 5 minutes time allotment for this task? I found it quite challenging. Yes, 5 minutes is more then plenty to figure out if you like the wine or not. But to come up with some reasonable impressions and taste descriptors (don’t think “nice wine” is a good qualifier) and to share them with the world with the 140 characters limit is not a simple task in my opinion. I don’t know how the winemakers felt, but for sure I was exhausted by the end of each 50 minute session.

Another feature of this live wine blogging exercise is complete unpredictability – the only known factor is the color of the wine which will be served in the session (White and Rose or Red). The wines come from all over the world, and there are lots of participating wineries, so at every table attendees only get to taste a fraction of the total selection available for the session. The wines also represented a broad range of price points – from $10 simple Washington Riesling to the $125 rare California Cabernet Sauvignon.

I did my best to adhere to the principal of the “live blogging” and posted all notes on twitter as we tasted the wines, in real time (if interested, look  for twits with #wbc14 hashtag). For what is worth, below are the notes as they appeared on Twitter, with the small processing I did to make them more concise.  To give you a “live” example, here is how the twits looked like in the real time:

Twitter SnippetHere are my notes for the white wines (each line represents a separate twit, so mostly I had 2 twits per wine, with some exceptions):

2013 Main & Geary Chardonnay Sonoma – beautiful nose, tropical fruit, apple, touch of vanilla and green apple on the palate

2012 Cornerstone Cellars Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley – a lot of white fruit on the nose, palate: touch of grass, steely acidity
Cornerstone Cellars Sauvignon Blanc is made to age. long finish, very acidic. Food wine

2013 Aridus Viognier Arizona (!) – beautiful nose, classic floral Viognier – wow palate!  Very elegant (despite a touch of heat)
also nice saltiness on the palate, great complexity. Most favorite so far

2012 Alta Maria Vineyards Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley – great nose, nuttiness, vanilla, touch of butter
closed on the palate, Chablis like acidity. needs time!

2012 Fess Parker Viognier Santa Barbara County – nice nose, minerality and gunflint. Sweet fruit on the palate, very balanced, short-med finish
finish is longer than I thought, nice acidity. Very good overall

2011 Scratchpad Chardonnay Central Coast – label and the bottle – creativity through the roof!!!
Chablis-like nose, minerality, touch of vanilla, but the palate is somewhat single dimensional. Malo noticbl

2012 Pacific Rim Riesling Columbia Valley, WA – Sweet nose, nice acidity, good fruit – but overall doesn’t resemble Riesling
it is a nice wine for $10, but it wouldn’t pass for Riesling if I crave one. Okay summer wine

2013 Urban Legend Grenache Blanc Capay Valley – beautiful nose, white ripe fruit, fresh, clean
fresh palate, good acidity, white stone fruit, minerality – very pleasant. Medium finish

2012 Uproot Grenache Blanc Santa Ynez Valley – restrained nose, nice minerality, melon, earthiness
palate: acidity, spices, nutmeg, minerality, clean, refreshing. very Good overall

2013 Charles Krug Sauvignon Blanc St. Helena – Napa: beautiful fresh cut grass on the nose, SB at its best! Clean, fresh
Cat Pee on the nose, yes!!!
palate: perfect, fresh, lemongrass, acidity, touch of gooseberries – wow, just a classic!!! fav!!

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Charles Krug Sauvignon Blanc was definitely my most favorite wine of that session. Aridus Viognier from Arizona was most unique (I don’t get to taste too many wines from Arizona). The “prize” for most creative design goes to the Scratchpad Chardonnay, taking into account both the cool label and a little pencil which hangs of the bottle top – unfortunately, the taste didn’t fully support the creativity of the bottle.

And here are the reds:

2012 Garnet Vineyards Estate Farmed Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast – beautiful ruby color, touch of smoke, earthy, herbaceous
beautiful sweet fruit on the palate, young gripping tannins, pomegranate, slight heat in the back
long sweet finish. Needs a bit of time (2012)

Vineyard 511 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain – dark garnet color, sweet plums and cassis on the nose, touch of eucalyptus
beautiful! Great density, soft, approachable, with firm tannins, perfect acidity. will evolve greatly

Rodney Strong Vineyards 2011 Symmetry Meritage – open herbaceous nose, touch of red fruit, raspberries
nice Bordeaux blend, cherries, firm structure, firm tannins

2011 Rios de Chile Reserve Carmenere – barnyard, smoke, complexity on the nose, bacon and roasted meat
beautiful, round,concentrated, dark fruit, herbs, spices

2006 Jordan Winery Cabernet Sauvignon – beautiful nose, open fruit, touch of earthiness, cassis, the same on the palate. Perfect Cab!
2010 Jordan Winery Cabernet Sauvignon – wow, open, explicit nose, eucalyptus, soft fruit, wow again. young tannins

2010 Adelaida Cellars Touriga Nacional  – mind blowing nose, beautiful fresh fruit, wild berries – strawberries and blueberries
spectacular palate of fresh berries, firm, concentrated, excellent balance. Great wine

2011 Danza Del Sol Cabernet Franc Temecula Valley  – varietally correct nose, touch of cassis and eucalyptus, green bell pepper
great palate, fresh fruit, balancing tannins and acidity. An excellent effort

2012 Ferrari Carano Siena fresh berries nose with hint of smoke and tobacco
sweet fruit on the palate, some cherries, round and delicious. Excellent balance

2011 Carr Winery Cabernet Franc Santa Ynez Valley interesting nose – mineral, with some cherries, eucalyptus, cassis
soft, delicious palate, with more eucalyptus, cassis and greens bell pepper. Perfectly balanced and soft

2010 Grassini Wines Estate Cabernet Sauvignon on the nose, young fruit with some smokiness, minerality
lots of sweet fruit on the palate (too much for me), mocha, good structure

2011 Taken Red Wine Napa Valley – blueberries and blackberries on the nose, nicely restrained
palate – delicious, perfect acidity, firm tannins, good structure, right amount of fruit and excellent balance

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The red wines line up was very impressive, it is hard to pick the favorite. The Adealida Touriga Nacional from Paso Robles was probably the most unusual (my first 100% Touriga Nacional wine from US), and very tasty. Jordan is always a stand out for me, and both 2006 and 2010 were delicious. My wine of the day was still the Vineyard 511 – a rare treat from the Diamond Mountain district (tiny area of 500 acres in size) in Napa Valley, perfectly structured and impeccably balanced wine; the conversation with Ed and Irene Ojdana who makes the Vineyard 511 Cabernet Sauvignon was a pleasure in itself. I also have to mention Taken Red wine from Napa Valley, which was simply put on our table after the session concluded – this was an excellent wine, created by Carlo Trinchero and Josh Phelps, both coming from the very well respected winemakinig families in California.

Here we are – two speedtasting, live wine blogging sessions. I know that this exercise is very polarizing for many attendees – some hate it, and some love it. I’m in the latter category, and I definitely enjoyed the sessions and already looking forward to the repeat at the next year’s conference. What do you think – would you love it or hate it? Cheers!

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