Standouts Among 300 Cabernets

Diamonds In The Rough

Events that were part of the Symposium For Professional Wine Writers and  Premiere Napa Valley last month showcased staggering numbers of Napa Valley Cabernet.  Staggering.  Hundreds.  Literally.  And we cherry-picked the best of the lot for you here.

The events ranged from formal, wine-celebrity-studded dinners to free-for-all barrel tasting throwdowns.  And while there were some soul-stirring wines that captivated attention and hearts, the collective offerings were predominately, well...

Disappointing?  Napa Valley Cabernet?  Okay, at the risk of pissing off some very generous and gracious hosts, the wines - and this is a gross generalization - weren't just disappointing.   They were homogeneous.  Sometimes even mediocre.  Not special.  And expensive. 

A nonscientific sampling of retail prices suggests that a modest average was $60 (but was probably closer to $75).  Son of a bitch, sixty freaking dollarsAt these prices, you should expect emotionally evocative wines of uncompromising quality.  Seriously people.

But this is about the standouts, the winners.  Almost without exception, the auction lots poured at these events, which were barrel samples of ultra-unique Cabernet, were beautifulGorgeous.  Sometimes insane.  Alas, few, if any, of those wines will be available to the common man.

Before getting into specifics, a few disclaimers:
  • 300 wines over the course of a week, with over half of them on the final day, is an extraordinary number to absorb. As pointed out in the recap of the PNV perspective tasting, blitzing through that kind of volume is no way to appreciate, let alone enjoy wine. Paraphrasing David Yorgensen again, in comparative tastings where there is a torrent of juice, wines just don't get a fair shake. Standout wines - wines that are different, whether inherently better or not, end up seeming better - because they're different.  There are limits to every mouth, so there might be some truth to that.
  • Not every wine was tasted at every event.  Clearly some unreal wines were not included in this round up and the omission of some shouldn't be interpreted as being sub par.  If you want to know about a specific wine, ask away.
  • All prices are retail from the wineries or what wineries said the wines will retail for.  You might find them for less elsewhere.
  • Finally, some of the standout wines were not Cabs at all.  See the first disclaimer.  But it's also worth noting that some of the best wine being made in Napa is not 100% Cabernet
For those who would rather not get into the details, the very, very short list follows, but all of the wines named below are worth seeking out:
  • BEST OVERALL: 2007 Shafer One Point Five (pre-release, $70)
  • MOST TALKED ABOUT: 2007 Terlato Cabernet Rutherford (pre-release,$60)
  • BEST VALUE: 2007 Decoy Napa Valley Red Wine ($25)
  • EASIEST TO FALL IN LOVE WITH: 2004 Paraduxx Napa Valley Red Wine ($45)
  • MOST EXCITING: 2006 Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Gowan Creek Vineyard ($75)
Though there were many parties, tastings, dinners, etc. that week, just six are covered here.  One better than the next.

At the Symposium Fellowship Dinner at Meadowood (full list on the right) the big faves were:
  • 2007 Terlato Cabernet Rutherford (pre-release, $60)
  • 2006 Peju Cabernet Franc Napa Valley ($45)
The Terlato was something special indeed and we will be doing a full review of the Terlato after their press samples arrive.  The Peju was a breath of fresh air - and worth seeking out again (see below).

Charles Krug was the scene for the enormous Appellation St Helena tasting, featuring 40 horrifically overpriced wineries.  It was a circus.  One self-congradulatory pourer declared of his nice, but not outstanding Cab, "...and it's only $75!"

Of all these producers, there were a small handful of standouts:
  • 2007 Boeschen Cabernet (pre-release, $75)
  • 2006 Ehlers Cabernet 1886 ($95) Pictured
  • 2006 Parry Cellars Cabernet ($60)
The Boeschen men are making a really nice Cab and a respectable Carrera blend.  The soft-spoken Parrys' wine had a chance to open up a bit and showed beautifully.  Finally, the Ehlers Estate 1886 was refinement incarnate; lovely and distinguished.  But, really, are we talking about the wine or Kelly McElearney?
At the Spring Mountain District party (click here for full list of wineries), there were a lot of very expensive wines and not a lot of great ones.  The least expensive Cab tasted, a wine from Schweiger Vineyards, rings in at $48.  The winemaker said, "We believe our wine should be for every day drinking."  Get real, man.  Good ones (but mostly not worth the money) were:
  • 2005 Keenan Cabernet Spring Mountain Reserve ($96)
  • 2005 Newton Puzzle ($80)
  • 2007 Terra Valentine Amore ($35)*
  • 2006 Vineyard 7 & 8 Cabernet ($60)
  • 2007 Peacock Vineyard Pinot Noir ($35)
Terra Valentine was actually not pouring the Amore at that event, but it was poured at a Symposium dinner.  The Sangiovese-based blend is velvety and lush.  A unique wine worth checking out.

Peju Province Winery hosted the Rutherford Appellation party where the most popular beverage was - get this - a beer from a local microbrewery.  Still, these were some special wines:
  • 2005 Conn Creek Anthology ($50)
  • 2006 Meander Cabernet ($65)
  • Alpha Omega (barrel sample)
It's hard to believe there's any more of the 05 Anthology on the market, but the economy did hit the crapper.  Such a powerful blend that gets its message across with delicacy.  Amy Aiken's Meander was another treat, though we can't wait to see what her 07's going to be like.  The Peju Cab Franc mentioned above was also on hand and could not be resisted for another go.

The highest concentration of quality of all the stops was found at the uber-hip Stag's Leap District wine lounge, hosted in Pine Ridge's caves.  In attendance were some of the wine world's heaviest hitters - Chimney Rock, Shafer, Clos Du Val, Steltzner, and more.  Incredible shit is being made in this region - and not just the weed.  Some truly moving wines there were:
  • 2007 Shafer One Point Five (pre-release, $70) 
  • 2006 Baldacci Vineyard Cabernet ($65)
  • 2006 Baldacci Vineyard Brenda's Vineyard Cabernet ($85)
While the introduction to Baldacci's impressive lineup was eye-opening, time stopped for a few minutes at the Shafer station as lips met the 2007 One Point FiveSweet mother of God, this wine is heaven in a glass. Earth-shaking, soul-affirming, emotion-stirring love in a bottle.  Please, please, please Santa Claus.

Finally, perhaps the most boisterous and welcoming event of the week, Duckhorn and its associated brands hosted a dizzying array of food, wine, and people - all of which were top quality.  Duckhorn seems to be one of the few wineries to have gotten the message and is responding to new market realities in positive ways, such as their newly rebranded/repriced Decoy line.  One wine was more mind-blowing than the next, especially the Pinots...
  • 2007 Decoy Napa Valley Red Wine ($25)
  • 2006 Paraduxx Napa Valley Red Wine ($45)
  • 2004 Paraduxx Napa Valley Red Wine (Library wine, $45)
  • 2006 Duckhorn Merlot Three Palms ($85)
  • 2006 Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Gowan Creek Vineyard ($75)
  • 2004 Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Confluence Creek Vineyard ($75)

Pourers paraded around the joint with double magnums of rare vineyard and library wines making the affair even more dreamlike than seemed possible. The 2004 Paraduxx was one such wine and drew ooohs and aaahs from all who partook.  But the Goldeneye Pinots were perhaps the most exciting wines of the week - Lobster tail must taste great after a week of filet mignon, too.

So, where does all this leave us?  On the hunt for the pockets of value we know to exist in Napa Valley.  Yes, they're rare, but not quite Sasquatch rare.  Stay tuned as we turn up the heat on finding winemakers who can - and do- put out some extraordinary wines inside the pricing stratosphere.