It is not every day that I get to drink both 50-year-old wine and 100-year-old wine. And no, I did not spit: I enjoyed these wines to the full.
“This is an old wine,” Wilhelm Weil says as he pours the glasses without showing us the label, as we follow a tasting through the 2020 vintage at Weingut Robert Weil with something completely different.
The wine is a dark caramel color and looks and smells sweet with a very mature nose showing honey, figs, caramel, and all the signs of intense botrytis. But it tastes almost dry.
It’s a Cabinet (with a C not a K). “Cabinet was the idea of dry wine in the early part of the twentieth century,” Wilhelm says. “I don’t know exactly, but there was a different view of dry wine then, and I would expect it had about 20g residual sugar.”
I’m sure that it must predate the second world war, and I’m thinking it might be 1937 or 1934 when Wilhelm shows us the label: it is 1921, perhaps the greatest year of the twentieth century. We celebrated its one hundred anniversary.
Botrytized notes dominate the palate, but without the kick of sweetness you usually get with a botrytized wine. It’s quite buttery, with the dryness letting some herbal impressions come through, still lively, and wonderfully elegant.
We then went to dinner with Peter Winter of Siftung Georg Müller. After several current wines, we finished up with the 1971 Hattenheimer Wisselbrunnen Auslese.
It is now a medium caramel color. The restrained nose shows botrytis, following to a palate which is honeyed, figgy, buttery, with notes of caramel. The palate is now just off-dry. The wine has moved to an almost savory overall impression on the palate with age, but acidity still keeps it lively.
Peter says that not every bottle is this good, and that accords with my own experience of a 1971 Schloss Vollrads Spätlese, where I have been drinking one bottle from a case in my cellar every few years. (I have one bottle left.) There have been some real ups and downs, but the last bottle, a few years ago, was almost dry and quite savory, and contrary to all expectations, the best yet.
Based on the extensive statistical sample of these three instances, my rule of three is that an off-dry wine will taste bone dry after 50 years, a sweet wine at Spätlese level will taste almost dry, and an Auslese will taste off-dry.
This reinforces my view that if you find German wines to be a little sweet at any level (from nominally dry Grosses Gewächs to rather sweet Auslese) just wait a few years for the sweetness to lessen. Of course, it may not be practical to wait 50 or 100 years, but even after 10 years there is some reduction in sweetness, and after 20 years it can be quite substantial.
A certain absence of information on the subject leaves room for much misunderstanding. When I was discussing Grosses Gewächs last week with a sommelier in the Mosel, he advocated a younger vintage on the grounds that “it has more acidity, older vintages lose acidity”. Oh dear. In fact, hydrogen ions (i.e. acidity) have nowhere to go, and acidity does not change much as wine ages. Sweetness on the other hand really declines. The basis for the reduction in sweetness is quite unknown, but the best suggestion I have seen is that sugars might polymerize like tannins and lose sweetness as a result. I wish someone would investigate this scientifically.
Discretion starts right at the front door. The property is identified only by a street number, and a small notice saying, ‘this is not Goosecrest cellars.’ Under the name of State Lane Vineyard, it was originally a family farm providing wine to Beringer for the Private Reserve from 1975 to 1991. The vineyard became infected with phylloxera, and the owners decided to sell; Lou Kapcsándy, a passionate collector of Bordeaux, purchased the estate in 2000. The property is a single block of 20 acres, with the Yountville Cross Road and Napa River as borders. The 15 acres planted with vines are divided into 15 blocks with different soil types. The first wine was made in 2003 and the first commercial release was 2005.
The wines are all based on Bordeaux varieties, except for the one white, a Furmint based on vines that came from Tokaj, a hommage to Lou’s origins (he left Hungary in 1956). Each of the four reds has a core block as its main source, and other sources vary with the year. The Estate Cuvée has been a blend since 2005 (two vintages were 100% Cabernet Sauvignon). “This is the representation of the estate.” The first vintage of Rhapszodia was 2010. It started as a 50:50 blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and then the Merlot was steadily reduced until it effectively became a Cabernet Franc varietal in 2015. Roberta’s Reserve is usually a blend, but has sometimes been 100% Merlot, coming from blocks along the river where there is more clay. The Grand Vin is the top Cabernet Sauvignon.
The house style is quite reserved. Each of the cuvées shows the characteristic flavor spectrum of its principal (or sole) varietal with its supporting structure almost imperceptibly integrated. Cabernet Franc shows purity, Merlot shows more roundness, Cabernet Sauvignon is structured. Each is a textbook for its type, within the context of the power of Napa. All could be drunk not too long after release, but will benefit from some time to develop.
2017 Estate Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 89%, Merlot 8%, Petit Verdot 3%) Quite reserved aromatics on the black fruit nose, quite a stern impression on the palate, with a slightly crisp edge and a touch of asperity, not quite bitterness, on the finish. Blackberry fruits dominate the palate with a touch of asperity, and you see the freshness, even a touch of salinity. All this gives the impression of a broader-based blend than it really is. 14.2% 90 Drink 2022-2034 2015 Rhapszodia Cabernet Franc Reserved nose is still rather dumb. Nice purity of fruits, makes an unusually elegant impression for Napa Valley, with well-delineated black fruits of ripe Cabernet Franc. Silky tannins are barely evident on finish, perhaps there is a very faint hint of tobacco, before the tannins kick in to show some bitter chocolate and dryness at the end. The palate is moving towards minerality with some cooler-climate impressions. You could drink this now but personally I would wait a year or two. 14.4% 2 Drink -2033 2014 Roberta’s Reserve Merlot (Merlot 97%, Cabernet Franc 3%) Greater roundness to the nose than in the Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc cuvees, slowly releasing black fruit aromatics. Smooth palate shows some flavor variety in what is certainly a reserved style for Merlot; in fact, you might say the house reserve is coming through. Nice sense of delineation to the fruits, although the palate is broader than the Cabernet Franc of Rhapszodia. Tannins are supple on the finish, and you can see the structural support, although there’s no overt bitterness. This is an unusually pure impression of Merlot. 14.4% 92 Drink -2034
2014Grand Vin Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 95%, Merlot 5%) Quite reserved nose shows hints of blackberries. Sweeter and riper impressions than the Merlot or Cabernet Franc varietals, overall more forthcoming. Black fruits are cut by almost crisp acidity. The structure is well integrated, tannins are firm but not obvious, with just a faint touch of bitter chocolate on the finish. This needs time, not so much for tannins to resolve but to let flavor variety develop. 13.9% 94 Drink -2040
Widely regarded as a pioneer winemaker in California, Merry Edwards established a reputation for Pinot Noir at Mount Eden Vineyards in Santa Cruz from 1974, followed by Chardonnay at Matanzas Creek in 1977. When she founded her own winery in 1997, it became a leading source for single-vineyard releases of Pinot Noir. She sold the estate to Roederer in 2019, and stayed on for a year to help the transition. She had already hired Heidi von der Mehden from Cabernet-specialist Arrowood in 2015, with the idea of handing over winemaking to an experienced winemaker who had no preconceptions about Pinot Noir.
When I visited Merry Edwards in 2011, she said: “I probably have two stylistic aims. I like the fruit to come through, I view this as the personality of the wine. And I like to see the texture come through.” The style still holds through two AVA wines and eight single-vineyard releases. The Sonoma Coast is based on purchased fruit from a single vineyard; the Russian River comes from the same vineyards as the individual single-vineyard releases (some in the estate, some from fruit purchased from plots farmed to specification. “We feel that farming is the only way to come to great Pinot and that is what we have based everything on,” Merry said.). Winemaking is similar for all the Pinot Noirs. The AVAs have 45-50% new oak, the single vineyards have 55-60%. (This is down from 55-60% for AVAs and 75-80% for single vineyards, ten years ago.) Wines are usually bottled in August following the vintage, so they spend 10-11 months in barrique.
The Russian River Valley release shows a restrained style with a sense of structure. Coopersmith is the vineyard at the winery that Merry planted in 2001; this is a relatively cooler site. Farther north, Georganne is a warmer vineyard that Merry planted in 2005. Both were planted with the UCD37 clone that she developed at Mount Eden. They show as more refined versions of the AVA wine, a little smoother and deeper on the palate, with greater sense of structural support. The first vineyard she planted was the Meredith Estate in 1997; this gives a more varied impression on the palate and is more elegant.
Olivet Lane is the vineyard with which Merry had the longest association, making wine there for 46 years. The vineyard was planted in 1973, and Merry started making wine from it in the late seventies; it’s now the oldest single vineyard of Pinot Noir in Russian River Valley. In a horizontal tasting of the 2018 single vineyard releases, Olivet Lane offers the greatest sense of sophistication and elegance. When I tasted the 2008 Olivet Lane at the winery in 2011, it seemed to be the most complete of the single-vineyard wines; when I tasted it again this week, it seemed to have reached a peak, and you could see the same potential in the 2018.
From 1998 to 2002, Merry followed her intention of making Pinot Noir focusing on single vineyards, but she had established a reputation with white wines, and then returned to making Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Both show a rich, textured style.
2018 Pinot Noir Restrained nose shows dark fruits. Faintly nutty palate shows soft black fruits with hint of bitter cherries at end. This needs a little time for tannins to lighten. 14.5% 91 Drink 2022-2030
2018Coopersmith Pinot Noir Richer impression than Olivet Lane. Black cherry fruits show on palate with tannins on finish, giving a sense of structure. Some bitterness lingers on the finish, but overall this is softer than Georganne. 14.5% 92 Drink 2023-2033
2018Georganne Pinot Noir Faint spicy notes to nose. Palate shows more grip than Coopersmith, greater sense of dryness from the tannins on the finish and a hint of menthol. Fruits are a little darker and deeper, with good grip on the palate. 14.5% 92 Drink 2024-2034
2018Meredith Estate Pinot Noir Reserved nose, Sweeter but tighter impression on palate than Coopersmith and Georganne with hints of red fruits as well as black. A hint of eucalyptus in background enhances sense of tightness. Precision gives this a sense of elegance. 14.5% 93 Drink 2022-2032
2018Olivet Lane Pinot Noir Lighter color than the Russian River or other single vineyards. Restrained nose shows faintly earthy notes in the background. More sense of tension balancing the fruits than the Russian River Valley AVA release. Mix of red and black fruits on palate are followed by touch of tea-like tannins. This has the most elegant balance of the single vineyard wines. 14.2% 93 Drink 2022-2032
2008Olivet Lane Pinot Noir Some orange showing on rim. Development shows on nose as less primary, more mature fruits, more red than black. With tannins resolving, you can see the elegance of the fruits, soft and ripe, with only a faint hint of dryness at the end. With the tannins resolving and the fruits maturing, this may now be at its peak. 13.9% 93 Drink 2013-2025
2017Olivet Lane Chardonnay Nose shows stone fruits with some exotic overtones, following to a textured palate. This flavorful style offers a fine expression of the typicity of Russian River Valley through the old vines (planted in 1973). Sense of viscosity to palate enhances the long finish. The wine was barrel-fermented, went through MLF, and aged in 40% new barriques. 93 Drink -2028
2019 Sauvignon Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc 55%, Sauvignon Musqué 45%) The wine opens with typical herbaceous overtones tending to asparagus. The palate shows a rich Fumé Blanc style with herbaceous elements returning on finish to cut the richness of the stone and citrus fruits. The flavorful palate is quite viscous and round. The wine was barrel-fermented with 18% new oak and had battonage for 4-6 months. 90 Drink -2025
The first time I visited Dominus, I was warned that rattlesnakes lived in the outer walls, and I’ve approached it cautiously ever since. One of the most striking wineries in the valley, Dominus was constructed under the principle that it should blend invisibly into the landscape. It has an unusual double skin, with an outer construction of stones packed into netting hiding the construction inside—in the valley, it’s sometimes called the stealth winery. It was founded in the historic Napanook vineyard in 1983 by Christian Moueix of Petrus, originally as a partnership, and in 1995 he became the sole owner. Looking through an arch in the center of the building as you approach, it seems to be floating in front of the Mayacamas Mountains.
Christian Moueix has strong views on irrigation, and Dominus is dry farmed. “We’ve never had as much water stress as this year,” manager Tod Mostero says, and the vines are smaller than usual due to the extended drought. “Actually they do better than irrigated vines, because dry farming forces them to make deeper roots with smaller vessels for taking up water,” Tod explains. The vineyard is on an alluvial fan, with its apex opposite the winery at the base of the Mayacamas Mountains. Below the fan is a hard pan of clay, and water flows from the mountains on top of it from April until September. “We’ve even built drains to allow it to go into the creek at the end of the vineyard,” Tod says.
“Our style is more reserved, less obvious, we’re not looking for a fruit bomb,” Tod says. Indeed, Dominus is one of the reserved Cabernet Sauvignon blends from Napa Valley, typically with 80-90% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest split between Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Merlot was included until 2002, but was abandoned because its profile did not really complement the blend. “Now it’s too dry and hot for Merlot.” A second wine, Napanook, was introduced in 1996, with a very similar varietal composition.
“It’s not our concept to make a second wine from left-over lots,” Tod says. There are no designated plots for either cuvée, although wine from the blocks closer to the Mayacamas usually go into Dominus. “Napanook should easier to drink sooner, the wine is a little more friendly and fruit forward. Dominus is more austere and meant to be aged. It takes five years for Napanook to be ready and ten years for Dominus for the fruit to really appear.” Emphasizing the value of aging, there’s an annual release of a library box of Dominus containing 2 bottles from each of 3 vintages: the latest release had 2001, 2008, and 2012.
The difference between Dominus and Napanook when they are young is partly a matter of readiness, but you certainly sense greater complexity in Dominus and more potential for flavor variety as it develops. Personally I would not describe Napanook as ‘approachable’ on release: the structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon flattens the fruits and requires patience. Dominus is yet more reserved, but its extra depth is already evident. These are far from typical wines for Napa Valley, built for potential rather than immediate gratification.
Tasting Notes on the 2018 Vintage
Napanook Deep color with some purple. Fruity black nose with just a touch of lifted blackcurrant aromatics. Pretty reserved on palate, blackberry fruits showing as a little brambly and then some impressions of bitter chocolate on the finish. Even though this is the second wine, it is rather well structured, certainly showing its dominant Cabernet Sauvignon, and still needs time 90 Drink 2023-2035
Nose is more reserved than Napanook with black fruits pushed more into background. Palate certainly shows a resemblance to Napanook, but fruits are less obvious, very black, with blackberries and blackcurrants in the background. Tannins are firm but not aggressive and there’s a touch of tobacco on the long finish, which gives a sense of the complexity to come. This is something a coiled spring waiting to unwind, but it has the structure and the fruits for longevity. It does soften and develop just a little in the glass, emphasizing its greater complexity compared to Napanook. 94 Drink 2025-2040
Cain is located well up Spring Mountain, to the west of St. Helena, with vineyards ranging from 1,400 to 2,100 ft on sedimentary soils. The Cains bought a 550 acre estate on the mountain in 1980, which had mostly been used as sheep pastures. They planted vineyards and constructed a winery. The Cains were joined by Jim and Nancy Meadlock, who took over when the Cains retired in 1991. (Wines can’t be tasted at the winery but can be tasted in St. Helena.)
Cain was originally planted largely on AxR1 in large blocks for each variety, mostly using individual clones. After Chris Howell arrived as winemaker in 1990 (having previously worked in the Médoc) the vineyards had to be replanted because of problems with phylloxera. “I mixed it up a lot so weren’t susceptible to problems affecting particular varieties or clones,” Chris says. “We want diversity not a single clone. The idea of the clone was that everything would mature together. But it leaves wines that are simple.”
Cain Five is not simple. The first vintage for the flagship wine (named because it includes the five Bordeaux varieties, Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec), was 1985. Cabernet Sauvignon is more than half, but the wine gives a strongly structured impression that might lead you to think there is more. The structure dominates the wine when it’s young, to an extent varying with the vintage. Today the 2008 is coming around, the 2012 is more backward, the 2016 is almost ready, and the 2017 is a lighter style because the lots that were picked last were not included because of the fires.
The estate has made two other cuvées. Cain Concept was made from purchased fruit, and states Benchland on the label to indicate that it comes from the valley rather than the mountain. With more lifted aromatics, round black fruits, and chocolaty finish, it’s much more immediately approachable. The difference in style is due solely to sources, as criteria for harvest , and the aging regime, were the same as Cain Five. “We stopped making Concept in 2015,” Chris says. “It might be your favorite wine but it doesn’t reflect our vineyard. There’s no need for us to add to the list of Napa wines.”
The second wine is now based on a different concept. The NV series does not have a vintage label. Each successive release carries an increasing lot number, and is a blend of two successive vintages. It’s lighter than Cain Five on nose and palate, with good freshness, and immediately flavorful fruits tending as much to the red as to the black spectrum. “It’s a definite outlier in the world of Napa,” Chris says. It is 60% Merlot with the rest divided between Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc. It includes purchased fruit, and is picked for purpose, starting earlier than Cain Five, and is given less sustained maceration.
Cain leaves no doubt about its origins: the wines are clearly mountain cuvées, with that characteristic sense of tension and reserve. “We picking about three weeks before people who are looking for 100 points (and I still get 14% alcohol),” Chris says. They are very much their own style, and not at all like the caricature of big powerful fruit-bombs from Napa.
An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.
Cain Five 2017
This vintage offers a lighter impression than usual, perhaps because the lots picked after the fires (which as the last to pick are the most powerful) were not included. Shows a smoother and fresher style than 2016, with a light impression of still quite tight black fruits on the palate, and a faint tannic bitterness on the finish. It lacks the superficial richness that you can see through the structure of other vintages. In some ways, the trend towards fresh fruits is more Bordeaux-like than other vintages; this feels more like a cool-climate wine, although that’s not a reflection of vintage conditions, but rather of the fact that it contains only the lots to be picked first. “It has the high notes, but lacks the base,” says Christopher Howell. 91 Drink 2026-2038
Cain Five 2016 Black fruit nose with some herbal overtones and faint perfume. This vintage offers a more immediate sense of finding its balance straight away than 2008 or 2012. The mountain reserve is there alright, but the fruits are beginning to come through. The reserve here is due to youth. This is a coiled spring waiting to open. 93 Drink 2025-2037
Cain Five 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon 50%, %, Merlot 20%, Petit Verdot 8%Cabernet Franc 8%, Malbec 5%) Stern nose with reserved black fruits. Very backward, more backward than 2008, with tannins flattening the fruit profile. This is the old style of needing a long time to come around. The structure is not aggressive but it is certainly dominant, and is reinforced by the acidity. This is a really brooding wine. 14.4% 90 Drink 2027-2039 Cain Five 2008 (Cabernet Sauvignon 61%, Merlot 15%, Cabernet Franc 13%, Malbec 6%, Petit Verdot 5%) Expressive black fruit nose with lifted aromatics shows in front, with blackberries and blueberries, and then some more restrained impressions following on the palate. Firm tannins have a touch of bitter chocolate on the finish with a sense of powerful mountain structure. The structure is still (just) dominating the fruits. 92 Drink 2023-2037 Cain Concept 2012 This comes from purchased fruit, mostly in Rutherford, including some Cabernet from the George III vineyard, and Merlot and Cabernet Franc from Carneros. Nose shows some faintly developed aromatics with hints of minerality. Round black fruits on the palate follow to a chocolaty texture on the finish. Lifted aromatics soften the impression of structure; tannins are relatively supple. This if benchland (as marked on the label) as opposed to mountain. 90 Drink -2031
This is a blend of 2015 and 2016. Lighter than Cain Five on nose and palate, nice freshness, immediately flavorful fruits tending as much to the red as to the black spectrum. “It’s a definite outlier in the world of Napa,” Christopher Howell says. It’s more inclined to freshness than power, and like a Bordeaux second wine, is more approachable and does not need so long to age. Not a lot of stuffing, but very pleasant. It is 60% Merlot with the rest divided between Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc. 88 Drink -2025
“We are making wines that are in a more restrained style. We want to showcase fruit, not bury it in oak,” says Eric Sussman, adding, “I lived and worked in France for two vintages.” Eric grew up in New York, not in wine, and became interested when he went to agricultural school at Cornell. He started out in viticulture, specializing in organic viticulture in Washington state, then gained experience in Burgundy and Bordeaux, and then was in Sonoma before he started Radio-Coteau (originally with a partner). “When I started in 2002, it was all with purchased grapes, including some from the estate site. I made wine from here from 2002-2007. In 2012 the family offered to sell it to me.”
The winery is an old apple pressing plant near Sebastopol, a bare bones warehouse devoted to fermenting and then aging wine. The estate is about 10 minutes away at Occidental, and consists of a single block, with 20 out of 42 acres planted to vines; there are also apple trees, from which Eric makes several ciders. The ranch dates from 1892, with a house built in 1908 that’s used for tastings. The property is at 800 ft elevation, 8 miles from the ocean. The estate includes a biodynamic farm with goats, chickens, and a flower garden for making preparations. Grapes come about half from the estate and half from purchases. County Line is a second label, all from purchased grapes, introduced in 2003.
The estate grows Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel, and Riesling. “How can we grow so many grape varieties here?” Eric asks. “The estate is right on top of the ridge on Goldridge soil, there is lots of light, it doesn’t get frost. We’re at the boundary of three AVAs, Russian River Valley, Green Valley, and Sonoma Coast. I label the wines as Sonoma Coast to express the maritime influence; I feel more coastal than Russian River Valley. We tend to pick early and all the Pinots and Chardonnays are under 14%.”
The wines are entirely natural. “We never acidify. The only additive is a bit of sulfur. If we have to do anything to the wine, it doesn’t go into Radio-Coteau.” The Chardonnay goes through MLF, but shows a relatively lean, almost saline style. Pinot Noir uses quite a bit of whole clusters, and shows an interesting reversal of the usual vintage character with a leaner version from 2017 and a rounder version from 2018, both tending to elegance rather than power. The restrained, faintly peppery Syrah reminds me of the northern Rhone. The Board and Batten blend of Syrah and Zinfandel shows an unusual combination of the fruitiness of Zinfandel and the reserve of Syrah. The Lemorel Zinfandel comes from the vines planted in 1946, still growing in gobelet form, and gives a cool-climate impression of the variety, with brambly fruits showing peppery overtones and a finish of bitter chocolate.
Tasting Notes on Current Releases
2020 Riesling Spice notes tending to cinnamon on nose. Bone dry and lemony on palate, very much a New World style. Undeveloped at present (only just bottled) and needs a year for flavor variety to emerge, although already more variety develops in the glass. 88 Drink -2023
Sea Bed 2018 Chardonnay Lean, lemony nose shows freshness, following to a flavorful palate with a good finish. Oak is not evident. It is ready now, as evidence also by a fugitive whiff of tertiary aromas. I wouldn’t call the style mineral so much as fresh, with a faint catch of salinity at the end. 90 Drink -2024
Belay 2017 Pinot Noir Slightly earthy red fruit nose, palate shows mélange of red and black fruits with some subtle earthy notes in background that meld into a faint tannic bitterness on the finish. The aromatics more resemble a French Pinot Noir than the lifted notes often found in Russian River. Feels quite Beaune-ish with a nice sense of crispness, and even a touch of youthful asperity (perhaps from the 30% whole clusters), balancing the fruits. 13.6% 91 Drink 2022-2028
Belay 2018 Pinot Noir Although 2018 was not generally as ripe a vintage as 2017, the 2018 Belay has more rounded and forward fruits than the 2017. Palate shows a touch more viscosity, with ripe fruits tending towards red cherries, and supple tannins better subsumed by the fruits. The smooth palate shows only a hint of tannins just at the end. This feels more Chambolle-ish. 13.0% 92 Drink -2031
Harrison Grade 2016 Syrah Quite fruity nose with some hints of asperity and a faint touch of menthol. Round fruits on palate with a touch of white pepper in a classic northern-Rhone-ish flavor spectrum. Altogether a restrained cool climate style. 89 Drink -2026
Board and Batten 2018 Red This is a proprietary red, usually 70% Syrah and 30% Zinfandel, although the 2018 also includes 5% Pinot Noir. Nose shows slightly lifted fruit-driven aromatics. Some overt richness on the palate is offset by peppery spices and a faint catch of tannin on the finish. 89 Drink -2024
Lemorel 2017 Zinfandel This comes from the vines planted in 1946. Brambly nose shows some spicy impressions. Round blackberry fruits on palate with brambly notes and asperity at the end. Hints of bitter chocolate on the finish. Fruits are supported by good acidity (but not showing the overly piquant character Zinfandel often has). Definitely a (relatively) cool-climate version of Zinfandel, with good sense of flavor variety, and even a touch of tannic dryness. 89 Drink -2029
Is it still true that Kosta Browne has a ‘big’ house style, I asked current winemaker Julien Howsepian. Founded by Dan Kosta and Michael Browne in 2001, the winery became famous for its forceful style for Pinot Noir. “This happened as an accident when some fruit came in at very high (25.2) Brix,” said Dan Kosta, “We made the wine, and it was just perfectly exhilarating. That turned me on to picking fruit when it tasted good, rather than when people are telling me.”
Dan Kosta and Michael Browne sold the winery in 2017, and it moved through some subsequent changes of ownership before ending up with Duckhorn in 2018. “[The big style] is still true,” Julien says, “but we have tightened it to make a more balanced wine with a more sophisticated style. We decided we wanted to fine tune the cellar, but we still have a bold style that is Californian, that is who we are. We want to celebrate California fruit. We’re a little more restrained, but we don’t want to turn our back on what made us successful.”
Located in old apple processing plant that’s part of a development on the outskirts of Sebastopol, where Kosta-Browne is the anchor, production is exclusively Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It has broadened from Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Santa Lucia with the addition of Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley. There are five AVA Pinot Noirs, 1 Chardonnay, and 20 single-vineyard wines (15 Pinot Noirs and 5 Chardonnays).
The late harvest policy for the old style at Kosta Browne often produced wines around 15% alcohol. They did not taste as over the top as the alcohol level might suggest, but there was no mistaking the forceful style. The current releases that I tasted on my visit ranged from 13.4% to 14.4% and in no case was alcohol particularly evident on the palate. It is fair to say they do indeed show a more sophisticated style.
The Russian River Chardonnay (One Hundred Sixteen, named for route 116 that runs through Russian River Valley) shows an underlying richness, but a mix of vessels for fermentation and aging has given it good flavor variety. “We didn’t really develop this style for our Chardonnay until 2015,” says Julien. The main difference moving to the single vineyard El Diablo Chardonnay is the increased sense of refinement. “This is our leanest Chardonnay,” Julian says. “It marks our progress with Chardonnay. We used to pick later, then one year we picked a week earlier, and realized that we’d missed the mark.”
The Pinot Noirs share impressions of earthy red fruits on the palate with an underlying richness cut by a sense of structure partly reflecting some use of whole clusters. The Russian River Valley AVA release has smoky undertones and lifted red fruit aromatics. Gap’s Crown Vineyard from Petaluma Gap is more forceful and intensifies the sense of earthiness, and has more grip on the palate. Free James from a vineyard near the coast gives a more linear, cool-climate impression, with a sense of mountain tension. Moving to Mount Carmel from Santa Rita Hills, the aromatics are higher-toned, and the sense of tension increases. “This is the coolest region we work with,” Julien says. Cerise Vineyard from Anderson Valley is the most concentrated and most tannic release.
The house style remains relatively bold, but fruits are (relatively) more restrained and better balanced by the structure. Refinement increases from AVA to single vineyard, and each single vineyard has a character you can relate to its soil, climate, and region, far from the uniformity of super-ripe fruits. Julien says the wines drink best from 3 to 6-8 years after the vintage.
Tasting the Current Releases
2019 Chardonnay One Hundred Sixteen (Russian River Valley) Fruitful nose with bright fruits tending to citrus contrast with smoky notes from new oak. Nice balance on palate: I wouldn’t call this lean, but it shows a citrus flavor spectrum and is not big or buttery. Some richness comes through the textured palate, which is flavorful. The wine fermented 80% in barriques and 20% in foudres, and aged two thirds in wood, including new French oak, used French oak, and Austrian oak. 13.5% 90 Drink -2025
2018 Chardonnay El Diablo (Russian River Valley) The vineyard is at 500 ft in a warm site on the east of the hill, planted with a tight spacing of the Robert Young and Montrachet clones. The wine ferments and then ages half in foudre and half in barriques; overall there is 48% new French oak and 14% new Austrian oak. Aging lasts 14 months The wine gives a leaner impression than the 116 Chardonnay, starting with its smoky nose. The palate is smoother with a silkier texture. There’s an impression of stone fruits in front with citrus behind. Good acidity supports the fruits. Flavor variety develops slowly in the glass. 13.4% 91 Drink -2018
2019 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley) The predominant source for the AVA release is Bootlegger’s Hill (almost a quarter), with about ten other sources. This vintage used 6% whole clusters and includes about ten clones, It ages in 45% new French oak for 16 months. Complex nose shows earthy notes, smokiness, bright red fruits, and some lifted red fruit aromatics. Smooth silky palate reprises those smoky notes with a sense of tobacco. Silky tannins are barely noticeable on the finish, which leaves a smoky, earthy, tobacco aftertaste. 14.1% 91 Drink -2027
2018Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast) The vineyard is in the Petaluma Gap AVA planted with a variety of heritage and Dijon clones. Fermentation uses 10% whole clusters, with aging in 40% new French oak and 15% concrete to keep freshness. The nose is more forceful and earthier than the Russian River release. The red fruit palate offers a rounder impression but also has more sense of structure. Earthy red fruits on the palate are cut by a touch of tannin on the finish; good grip on the palate. Needs another year for the tannins to soften and allow the fruits to show as earthy strawberries, but already this is the roundest and approachable of the single vineyard Pinot Noirs. 14.4% 92 Drink 2022-2029
2018Mt. Carmel Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills) Aromatic nose is higher-toned than Gap’s Crown from Russian River. Earthy red fruit impressions are poised between strawberries and cherries. Firm tannins are just evident by some bitterness on the finish. You can see the greater use of whole clusters (49%). This has the greatest sense of tension of the single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and something approaching a sense of salinity on the finish. 13.5% 92 Drink 2022-2029
2017Free James Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast) The vineyard is at Freestone, very near the coast. The wine aged in almost 50% new French barriques for 22 months. The nose has taut aromatics and a sense of tension. The palate has relatively restrained fruits tending to red cherries, and the sense of tension returns on the palate. Fruits are more linear and there is more of a cool-climate impression than other cuvees. 13.4% 91 Drink -2028
2017 Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley) The wine ferments in a mix of wood and concrete and ages in barriques for 19 months with almost half new oak. Earthy red fruit aromatics show on the nose. This is the densest and most viscous of the releases, the weightiest with the greatest sense of extract, with red fruits supported firm tannins that show a touch of bitterness on the finish. It’s the most tannic of the single vineyard wines. That earthy impression increases in the glass. It would benefit from more time to let the tannins soften. 13.4% 92 Drink 2022-2029
By far California’s most famous (and expensive) cult wine, Screaming Eagle has a very discrete entrance off Silverado Trail with only the number to indicate the address. There is nothing remarkable to see across the slightly sloping vineyard, and winery buildings are workmanlike wooden structures without any of the flamboyance of the price of the wine.
Nick Gislason came as winemaker in 2010 and takes a pragmatic view to viticulture and winemaking. “We are a low-tech operation,” he says. Harvest is determined by tasting, not by technical details, although sugar levels and acidity are measured to have a record. The vineyard is divided into roughly 1 acre lots for picking, so there are about 50 different fermentations. This is an early ripening site, but even so, they are early pickers here, usually a week to ten days ahead of everyone else.
About half the vineyard was replanted in 2006, with the row orientation changed slightly, and spacing increased from 550-600 vines/acre to 2,300 vines/acre. Another 4 acres were replanted in 2014, and 2 acres in 2021, with wider spacing. It all depends what suits the spot. The proportions of the three black varieties in the vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, have stayed the same.
Viticulture has moved to a no-till system. “If you mow or till, what do the insects have to eat except the vines,” Nick says, as we walk the vineyard, pointing to cover crops that harbor a variety of predators that prey on insects that might attack the grapes. There hasn’t been a tractor anywhere in the vineyard since October 2020.
Trials to eliminate spraying for mildew started with 2 acres in 2014 and have now extended to the whole vineyard. The vineyard has been fitted with a clever system for spore trapping for mildew. (It’s about the only example of anything remotely hi-tech in the place.) It consists of a spinning rotor that is coated with grease, which picks up spores. The rotor is sent off every week for DNA analysis, and spraying is done only if a density of spores is detected. There are 4 in the vineyard, placed at points where mildew pressure has been experienced previously, but Nick thinks that one would probably be enough. There has not been any need to spray this season.
The winery (completed in 2010) is quite compact, with a fermentation hall and barrel room. There’s a mixture of wood and concrete fermenters, all in a conical shape, but Nick doesn’t attach much importance to the type of vessel. Almost everything is destemmed. There’ve been some trials with whole clusters, so there may be a tank with 10-15%, but this amounts to only a small proportion of the total blend. After cold soak for a week, fermentation now takes place with native yeasts. The blend is made after 15 months. Depending on the year, one or two barrels of press wine might be added to the blend.
There are two red cuvées. Screaming Eagle is usually 75-85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3-4% Cabernet Franc, and the rest is Merlot. Originally this was the only wine. But this comes from only part of the crop. Before Stanley Kroenke bought the estate in 2006, a large part of the crop, including most of the Merlot, was sold off, because the original winery had limited capacity. After the sale in 2006, they began to use all the crop. “We had the choice of changing the blend of Screaming Eagle, or making another wine with the Merlot,” Nick explains.
“We made a wine based on the Merlot from 2006 to 2011 and then decided in 2011 to release the wine.” The first release was a pack of two bottles each from 2006-2009, and it was called Second Flight. “But the name didn’t feel right since we were putting the same effort into the Merlot-based wine as we put into the Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine, so we changed it to Flight (in 2015). It’s an expression of a different variety.” Flight is usually 60-70% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, and the rest is Cabernet Sauvignon. Production of Screaming Eagle and Flight is roughly equal.
The surprise when you taste Screaming Eagle, if you are not familiar with the wine, is that it does not at all fit the image of the typical Napa cult wine: big, bold, and powerful. Instead, what comes across most of all is the sheen of refinement. Supple tannins make it approachable even in the first few years, although its black fruit palate is quite reserved. Flight is more open, showing more perfumed, lifted aromatics, but shows the same house style of smoothness melding into elegance.
An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.
Tasting the 2016 Vintage
Screaming Eagle Sterner nose than Flight, with black fruit aromatics not so lifted and more in background. Smooth and elegant on palate, touch of tobacco on gravelly finish with hints of chocolate coating. Very supple tannins make it possible to drink already, but I would wait at least a couple of years. Tannins are very fine indeed and evidenced directly only by some residual dryness on finish. A fresh, restrained style, starting off relatively tight, but promising elegance and even delicacy as it develops. 95 Drink 2023-2040
Flight Opens with slightly lifted blueberry and blackberry aromatics giving a smooth impression. Palate offers faint sense of tannic bitterness and some hints of tobacco at end. Nick Gislason describes fruits as floral; they are supported by good freshness. Already quite flavorful on palate. Overall quite a delicate impression for Merlot. 93 Drink -2031
One of the more striking wineries in Napa when you get close to the circular entrance, Opus One was created as a joint venture between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild in 1979. After Constellation took over Mondavi in 2004, it functioned more independently of the individual owners.
When the winery was built, the attitude towards consumers followed Bordeaux rather than Mondavi, and they did not intend to open to the public. That has changed dramatically with a new focus on oenotourism. The winery has just completed a five year reconstruction program. The working winery has been extended at the back, and a luxurious hospitality center has been created at the front, with lounges and verandas where hosted tastings can be held. There will be a culinary program as well, “but everything stays focused on the wine.”
As one of the first collaborations between Bordeaux and Napa winemakers, it was assumed from the start that the wine would be a Bordeaux blend. The wine is labeled as a proprietary red, but usually has more than 80% Cabernet Sauvignon (enough to carry a varietal label). The lowest Cabernet Sauvignon was 71% in the cool, wet year of 2011; the highest was 97% in 1989.
There are 70 acres of vineyard around the winery and another 100 acres split between To Kalon north and south. Plots are replanted after 25-30 years. Initially the blend started with Cabernet Franc and Merlot; Malbec was added in 1994 and Petit Verdot was added in 1997.
Opus One is easy to under-rate in its early years, when it tends to be somewhat dumb, with a touch of austerity, but it comes out, decade by decade, so my tasting at the winery of wines from three decades was the perfect way to assess it. Taking the European aesthetic farther, the wines are extremely expressive of vintage.
The current release, the 2017, isn’t releasing a lot of fruit or aromatics yet; coiled up tight, it is waiting to unwind. The 2010 is more developed than the 2006; in fact, in a blind tasting I would probably have reversed the vintages of this pair. The 2010 reflects a (relatively) cooler growing season until there were heat spikes at the end of August and in September. The wine impresses as ripe, but reflecting cool-climate conditions. Showing some tertiary notes, it’s perfect now. The 2006 growing season was also relatively cool, but had a heat wave earlier in the season, in July. The wine feels 4-5 years less developed rather than more developed by comparison with the 2010: it is just at the point of making the transition from fruity to savory. All the wines show a restrained style in which flavor development steadily accentuates with age.
The oldest vintage I have had was the inaugural 1979 (made from grapes from Mondavi’s To Kalon vineyard) which at 30 years of age was still vibrant. Other vintages have been excellent after 20 years, so I anticipate a very long life for current vintages.
An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.
Tasting Three Decades of Opus One
2017 (Cabernet Sauvignon 80%, Cabernet Franc 1%, Malbec 1%, Merlot 5%, Petit Verdot 9%) Fairly tight as it opens but promises elegance as it matures. Tannins are tight but not overbearing. Aromatic black fruits come out slowly in the glass. Not ready yet, not because of tannins, but needs time to develop flavor variety. Overall a relatively restrained European style. 92 Drink 2024-2039
2010 (Cabernet Sauvignon 84%, Cabernet Franc 5%, Malbec 1%, Merlot 5%, Petit Verdot 4%)
Some signs of development with tertiary notes that are typical of cool climate extending to faint vegetal notes as counterpoise to the fruits. Mature black fruits have touch of sous bois in background and very faint touch of herbaceousness. Complex flavors on palate give Bordeaux-like cool climate impressions, then the black fruit aromatics take over from the herbaceous overtones in the glass. This is perfect for drinking now. 92 Drink -2026
2006 (Cabernet Sauvignon 77%, Merlot 12%, Cabernet Franc 5%, Petit Verdot 3%, Malbec 3%) On release the wine was closed and austere and hard to read. Now it has really come out. It’s developing slowly as the aromatics are fresher than 2010 and show only a faint touch of development. It seems in fact to be a few years behind 2010 in development. Mature black fruits are right at the tipping point from fruity to savory. The style plays to elegance rather than power. 14.4% 93 Drink -2030
For comparison, this is my tasting note for the 2006 soon after its release:
Deep purple with black hues. Deep black fruit nose, some nutty aromas coming to the fore in the glass. Although the Cabernet Sauvignon percent is low this year, the wine shows greater austerity than usual. Falls just a bit short in flavor interest, and is a bit briary and closed at the moment.
“For us the holy grail is a wine that technically has a lot of tannin but tastes soft,” winemaker Philip Titus says as we taste the flagship Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, when he returned to Chappellet as chief winemaker in 1990 (he had previously been at the winery as assistant winemaker) his first mandate from Don Chappellet was to soften the mountain tannins in Chappellet Cabernet.
Chappellet is venerable as one of the first wineries to be built in Napa after Prohibition, in 1967 (one year after Mondavi). Driving up the narrow access road from Lake Hennessy, deep into the woods, it feels quite isolated. Covering 700 acres, the estate extends well beyond the 100 acres of vineyards, which range from 1000 to 1700 feet, just above the fog line. The winery was in the shape of a striking pyramid, but a new winery was built just behind it in 2014, and now the pyramid is mostly filled with barriques. There were already vines on the property when it was purchased, but there was a lot of Chenin Blanc. Following a replanting program in the nineties, most of the vineyard today is Cabernet Sauvignon, the variety for which Chappellet is best known.
Some Chenin Blanc was restored in 2006 and now makes the one white wine from the estate. “There was Chardonnay here, but in the early 90s I was aware it was too warm for Chardonnay. We pulled it out and went farther south. Eventually we ended up in Petaluma Gap in Sonoma.” The Chardonnay is one of the Grower Collection series of wines, which come from named vineyards aside from the Chappellet estate. The series also includes Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley. It’s fair to say these wines show a different character from the bold fruity style of Cabernet for which Chappellet is known, and reflect a cooler-climate style.
“The Signature Cabernet really gets back to what we’ve been doing for the last 54 years, Philip says. “It should be ready to drink, has to be stylistically approachable, but needs the ability to age.” It started out as 100% varietal, but now is a blend with 75-85% Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot and Malbec. “We didn’t find that blending with Cabernet Franc improved the wine,” Philips says, but he had gained experience with Petit Verdot and Malbec when his father planted them at his family vineyard in the 1970s. (Philip and his brother were skeptical, but their father said: you’ll need them one day.) Signature comes mostly from the estate, but also includes grapes from neighbors, and reflects its mountain origins in a sense of tension. Current vintages seem to have a more mineral style than the bolder vintages of the past.
The latest Cabernet Sauvignon cuvée is the 100% varietal Hideaway Vineyard, which comes from a plot just on the other side of Pritchard Hill. The first vintage was 2016. The terroir is different from the rest of the Chappellet vineyards, and has very shallow, rocky, red volcanic soil. It shows great purity of Cabernet fruits, with slightly lifted aromatics conveying a sense of precision.
“Pritchard Hill is the top wine. Everything we do revolves around this wine,” Philip says. It’s a vineyard selection followed by a barrel selection. A bigger wine, with long aging potential, it ages in 100% new oak compared to Signature’s 50%. Like Signature, it started as a varietal but now is a blend. It has impressive depth and density and needs several years to begin to show its quality.
An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.
2019 Signature Chenin Blanc Fruity nose, citrus overtones, ripe fruits but with slightly tart finish. Smooth and full of flavor, lives up to its name as a signature wine. “This is a very simply made wine,” Philip Titus says, “to keep brightness and minerality.” It’s aged half in neutral barriques and half in tank. 13.7% Chappellet 89 Drink -2025
2019 Petaluma Gap Calesa Vineyard Chardonnay Barrel fermented with 30% new oak and going 100% through MLF. Nose gives a lean mineral impression with only faint traces of oak. More aromatic on the palate than expected from the nose, although stopping short of exotic fruits (this was fermented at low temperature). The palate is more phenolic than mineral with a long finish. The phenolic or floral impressions are due to the range of clones in the vineyard, which tend to high production of terpenes. 90 Drink -2026
2018 Russian River Valley, Apple Lane Vineyard Pinot Noir
This comes from the cool area of Green Valley. Nose opens with hints of earthy notes and red cherry fruits. It’s earthy on the palate, which shows quite bright red cherry fruits with just a touch of tannic bitterness at the end to show the structure. It’s a very clear, precise style for Russian River, with well-delineated fruits. It’s full of flavor and beginning to develop. “This is what I like about Russian River Valley,” Philip Titus says, “a richer deeper style of Pinot Noir.” It ages in 45% new barriques. 90 Drink -2028
2018 Napa Cabernet Franc (Cabernet Franc 75%, Cabernet Sauvignon 15%, Malbec 6%, Petit Verdot 4%)
Nose offers sense of chocolate and tobacco, following to palate which shows some breadth with furry tannins on the finish–softer than the precision and structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon. Starts out quite primary but Philip Titus says it should start to develop secondary characters after 6-8 years. 91 Drink -2033.
2018 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 85%%, Petit Verdot 10%, Malbec 5%) Quite a restrained nose leads into smooth palate with tannins giving a chocolaty texture and just a touch of bitter chocolate at the end. The lean character of the fruits shows the influence of volcanic soils and the elevation of the vineyards. Palate inclines towards herbal or mineral notes. This can be enjoyed now but will really come out in a few years. 92 Drink -2034
2018 Hideaway Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (100%) Chocolate notes overlay very pure black Cabernet fruits, with tannins showing as bitter chocolate on the finish. Aromatics are a little more lifted compared with the Signature Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s still very young, flavor variety has yet to develop, but it conveys a great sense of volcanic tension and purity of Cabernet fruits. It shows a mountain structure now but will become smooth and silky as it ages. It ages in 100% new oak. 94 Drink 2024-2039 2017 Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon Black inky color. Stern nose shows deep black fruits. This is a rich, big wine, with a chocolaty texture that carries its high tannins well. Fruits show as blackberries with hints of blueberries, but aromatics haven’t come out fully yet. Finish is very long with some breadth on the palate. Already it shows a seamless quality that I expect to be reflected in layers of flavor as it develops 94 Drink 2027-2045