Napa Diary Day 6: Stony Hill – from Chardonnay to Cabernet

It’s all change at Stony Hill, an icon in Napa Valley for its early production of Chardonnay. Fred and Eleanor McCrea purchased the property in 1943 and planted their first Chardonnay in 1947. The first vintage, produced in a lean style without malolactic fermentation, was 1952. Even today, after a half century of changes in fashion, it remains one of Napa Valley’s best-known Chardonnays. although its style lives up to the name of the winery, stony and lean, the antithesis of the caricature of rich, fat, buttery Chardonnay that more often typifies Napa. “Fred’s objective  was to produce Chardonnay that would do well after ten years,” says Laurie Taboulet, the estate manager since Gaylon Lawrence bought the estate in 2020. Jamie Motley came as winemaker from Pax Mahle.

The address on St. Helena Highway North is deceptive. The estate is actually an enclave within the Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park (the winery was founded before the park), several miles up a steep, twisting road to the winery, which at 800 ft elevation is in the center of the vineyards, which rise up to 1500 ft, all above the fog line. This may not be the most isolated winery in Napa Valley, but it’s certainly a contender. Soils have more clay around the winery, and become volcanic and quite ferrous as indicated by a redder color as you go up to the top. The woods were burned by the Glass Fire but the vineyards escaped.

The winery was originally built as a house for the McRea’s in 1952.

Long time winemaker Mike Chelini used short elevage and the wine was bottled the June after harvest. Wine was aged only in used barriques, and MLF was blocked. Jamie plans to use longer elevage and to age wines in a mix of demi-muids and foudres of Austrian oak from Stockinger, as well as some cement. New oak will remain light, but may be a bit higher during the transition period.

The style of the Chardonnay is distinctly reserved, more stony than mineral. The herbal edge of young vintages gives an impression of austerity. There isn’t much development in the first couple of years, but after about six years the style opens out, and the herbal character of young vintages segues into a sense of garrigue, releasing more mature flavors inclined towards a citrus spectrum, with a delicious delicacy. This for me is the peak. Flavor intensifies and the palate becomes more viscous for another few years, until the wine begins to tire.

The Cabernet Sauvignon (either 100% varietal or close to it) is an eye opener, one of the very few Cabernets in Napa where I might hesitate in a blind tasting as to whether its origins were New World or European. The first year was 2009. Even a young vintage such as 2017 shows a distinctly restrained style, silky and elegant (if I wanted to compare with Bordeaux, St. Julien would come to mind). Ten years after the vintage, the style of the 2010 shows the tension of mountain tannins without the aggression that characterizes many mountain Cabernets. These are very much food wines, and left me persuaded that Stony Hill has the potential to produce Cabernets that will rival its reputation of Chardonnay.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting Notes of a Chardonnay Vertical

2018 
Stony with austere impressions on palate. Very dry impression with just a faint lift at end. Flavor variety hasn’t started to develop yet, but there’s a sense of a coiled spring waiting to unwind. 13.5%   91 Drink -2030

2017 
Palate hasn’t really started to develop yet, acidity melds into hints of piquancy as it opens in the glass. The austere stony character really lives up to the name of the vineyard. A slightly nutty aftertaste promises complexity to come. 13.5%    92 Drink -2030

2015 
Fresh nose still offers some herbal impressions. Development shows as softness on palate, tending to salinity rather than minerality, with a real impression of delicacy. The palate has really come into balance now with mature citrus fruits and a faint viscosity. This is the perfect point of balance, retaining freshness but showing development. It’s the roundest of the vintages of the past decade. 13.0%    92 Drink -2025

2012 
Distinctly more golden color than younger wines. Greater sense of viscosity cuts the austere impression on palate, bringing more roundness with age, and a sense of the garrigue has come with development. Intensity picks up in the glass.    89 Drink -2023

Tasting Notes on Cabernet Sauvignon

2017 
Fresh herbal impressions on nose retain the familar house style from the Chardonnay. This impresses as a restrained Eurocentric style. Fruits are already showing flavor variety and are balanced by light silky tannins. I would not have difficulty in believing this smooth style came from Bordeaux.    93 Drink -2031 2010

 2010
Fruits show as more red than black on nose, with faintly piquant developed character. Silky palate shows maturing red and black fruits, showing the restraint and tension of mountain fruits but without the tension of mountain tannins. This is very much a food wine. 13.5% 91 Driuk -2033

Napa Diary Day 5: the Ultra-Concentrated Cabernets of Alejandro Bulgheroni

Along Meadowood Lane, round the back of the Meadowood hotel complex, is the Alejandro Bulgheroni Estate on 15 acres that Alejandro (an Argentine multi-billionaire) purchased from Bill Harlan. It’s a somewhat isolated, rather forested site, but the focus anyway is on making single-vineyard cuvées from grapes purchased from top vineyards elsewhere. The winery looks all but deserted from the outside (I almost drove away when I arrived because I thought I had come to the wrong place) and consists of an industrial-looking warehouse at ground level, with a somewhat snazzier barrel room underneath.

The winery is a discrete building in the woods

There are 7 cuvées, with 5 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2 Cabernet Franc. The Lithology series comes from Beckstoffer vineyards, including Las Piedras (Cabernet Sauvignon), Dr. Crane and To Kalon (Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc), and the Lithology Napa Valley (a blend from several sites). The Alejandro Bulgheroni Estate Cabernet Sauvignon comes from selected lots in Rutherford and Oakville. (Alejandro took over the Bounty Hunter wine bar and shop in Napa in 2014 and acquired the lots that Bounty Hunter had previously bought from Beckstoffer). Production starts with roughly twice as many grapes as are needed for the cuvées, and those that aren’t used for Litholgy are sold off or used elsewhere in the group.

“There is no fixed policy about pure varietals versus blends,” says winemaker Matt Sands. “It varies. We want the best wine. Some years a blend improves the wine, sometimes that’s not true.” The Cabernet Sauvignon cuvées are usually pure varietals or very close to it. Going along the Lithology range of single-vineyard wines from 2018, the tannins become increasingly fine, and the fruit impressions become correspondingly more precise. Las Piedras shows sweet, very concentrated black fruit, Dr Crane is a touch more aromatic and has the greatest sense of tension in the series at present, and some spicy impressions on To Kalon make it more approachable than Dr. Crane right now. If these have fine tannins, the Alejandro Bulgheroni Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is über-fine, with more reserve resulting from greater tannic presence. The compromise is that the Estate blend has greater breadth and potential longevity, but less sense of precisely delineated fruits than the single-vineyard wines.

House style is that intense black fruit aromatics are only just beginning to develop after three years, usually pointing more towards black cherries than blackcurrants as they develop, and the texture takes on chocolaty overtones as it opens out in the glass. The wines age in barriques with more two thirds new oak, and all have alcohol over 15%; however, neither oak nor alcohol is obtrusive. The Cabernet Franc from Dr. Crane makes a slightly fresher impression than the Cabernet Sauvignon, in much the same style. Michel Rolland consults.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting Notes on the 2018 Vintage at Alejandro Bulgheroni

Lithology Beckstoffer Las Piedras 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon
Nose is quite reserved, almost musty. Palate shows sweet, very concentrated black fruits, with very fine tannins but slightly tart on the finish. Great sense of fruit delineation. Touch of mint comes out at end offsetting that slightly musty note of very ripe Cabernet. 14.9%   92 Drink 2024-2036

Lithology Beckstoffer Dr. Crane 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon
More sense of fruit and asperity to the nose before the palate shows as softer than Las Piedras. A touch more aromatic in the direction of blackcurrants, then moving to intense black cherries on the palate. This has the greatest sense of tension in the 2018 range at the moment. 15.3%   92 Drink 2024-2036

Lithology Beckstoffer To Kalon 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon
Some spicy impressions to the nose makes this more approachable than Dr. Crane. Greater sense of density behind the fruits. Very fine tannins show on the finish. 15.3%   92 Drink 2024-2036

Alejandro Bulgheroni Estate 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon
Fruits are blacker and more aromatic than the single vineyard wines in the Lithology series. Very fine tannic structure gives more sense of dryness on finish (and potential longevity). The tannic structure flattens the profile in the glass, 15.3%   93 Drink 2026-2040

Lithology Beckstoffer Dr. Crane 2018 Cabernet Franc

Nose and palate seem a little fresher than Cabernet Sauvignon, the aromatics are less obviously towards blackcurrants, and there’s a faint touch of tobacco to offset the jammy fruits on the finish. Palate has a fine texture and some chocolaty notes develop in glass. 15.3%   91 Drink 2024-2034

Napa Diary Day 4: Restrained Cabernet Sauvignon at Spottswoode

Driving along Madrona Avenue in downtown St. Helena through suburban housing, you wonder where the Spottswoode winery can be, and then suddenly you come out into 35 acres of vineyards stretching from the edge of the town up to the mountains. Jack and Mary Novak purchased the property in 1972, when Jack was a practicing physician. They replanted the property with current varieties, but were refused a permit to make wine because the neighborhood was residential. They later purchased a winery across the road (in 1990) that allowed the wine to be made in the vicinity.

The Spottswoode winery looks like a residence in St. Helena

The style of the Cabernet has a freshness almost reminiscent of Bordeaux. The palate shows a restrained style dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. Aron describes his style: “I’ve always felt the biggest challenge for us is to tame the heat–St. Helena and Calistoga are the hottest places in Napa. We don’t want to ripen wine on the monolithic side of super-ripe or to go to the monolithic side of under-ripe wine. The idea is to retain a fresh edge in which aromatics are part of the wine and not over-ripe.”

Tasting back through a vertical, the sense of freshness becomes less obvious and the palate moves to a more textured impression, at its smoothest showing a velvety structure. Alcohol is usually at or just under 14%. The high-alcohol vintages of 2016 and (to a lesser extent) 2015 show a chocolaty density. “I think this is the California style,” Aron says. “You would probably see this effect in any 5 year vertical.” The wines are intended to be immediately accessible–” in the American market consumers like everything to be drinkable on release,” Aron says–but age for several years; Aron sees them as really ‘smoothing out’ at 8-10 years.

The white ages 50% in stainless steel, 45% in barriques including 15-20% new oak, and 5% in other containers. It had 1-5% Semillon until 2010, when the source of the Sémillon was lost, but Sémillon has been reintroduced at 3% from 2019. It has a fresh but not overly crisp style, poised between perfume and herbaceousness.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

A 5-year vertical tasting of Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon

2018 
Opens with sense of tart asperity and black fruits behind. Fresh impression follows to palate. You might call this old-style in a European context. Tannins only evident by some dryness on finish. Needs time not so much to resolve tannins as to let flavor variety develop. Softens a bit as it opens up in glass. 14.0%    90 Drink 2023-2033

2017 
A little softer and rounder on nose than 2018. Soft and black on palate but characteristic house freshness still shows in almost Bordeaux-like fashion. Acidity moves towards piquancy on finish to contrast with chocolaty texture developing in the glass. 13.7%   90 Drink 2022-2030

2016 
A little deeper on the nose, rounder and blacker than 2017. Softer than 2017 with greater sense of chocolate giving velvety texture. Nice sense of black fruits beginning to emerge, following through to long finish. Perhaps the  higher alcohol contributes to the greater sense of viscosity. 14.4%   92 Drink -2031

2015 
Not quite as superficially soft as 2016, texture not quite so evident, house freshness more evident, but good sense of density underneath. Fruits are a little brambly. 14.4%   91 Drink -2031

2014 
The most reserved of recent vintages with faint nose just beginning to emerge. Light sense of structure, black fruits a bit in the background, just beginning to come out. Developing slowly and showing structure more clearly on finish than other vintages. Uncertain when this will come round. 14.2%   90 Drink -2038

Napa Diary Day 3: The Unusual Zinfandels of Robert Biale

Situated in the middle of the valley just north of Napa, the Biale Winery is surrounded by vineyards of what is now an unusual variety in Napa Valley: Zinfandel. Sitting on the terrace that is the tasting room in the summer, I asked Bob Biale,  Why did you focus on Zinfandel in this location? “Because my dad loved the grape and kept it in the ground. It’s only recently–since the 1970s–that Cabernet has been the grape. The valley was full of Zin and Petite Syrah before the Judgment of Paris (tasting in 1976). We make about 15 Zinfandels, mostly from Napa Valley. As it turns out, Oak Knoll (the AVA just north of the town of Napa) is perfect for Zinfandel.” Biale is probably the preeminent winery specializing in Zinfandel in Napa.

The tasting room is a terrace in the middle of the vineyard

Zinfandel comes from wide-ranging sources here, with about ten single-vineyard cuvées, some a little unusual. There are about 300 cases of each single-vineyard wine. Most of the cuvées contain some other varieties (often from old field blends): only Limerick Lane and Stagecoach are 100% Zinfandel.

Grapes are sourced 20% from estate vineyards and 80% from long-term contracts with growers where the vineyards are farmed to Biale’s specifications. About 65% of the Zinfandel grapes come from Napa, mostly around Oak Knoll. There are also vineyards in Coombsville (south of Napa) and in Carneros (on the Sonoma side).  “If things are really warming up, Zinfandel may not be viable up Napa Valley. The profile for the (Zinfandel from Coombsville and Carneros) is cool-climate: brighter but surprisingly rich. If we need to, we may plant more there.”

Zinfandel is famous for uneven ripening of the bunches, often producing contrasting notes of jammy fruits and piquancy. Biale avoids this. “We remove 100% of the ‘wings’ from the bunches. The problem is that when you wait for the wings to ripen, the rest becomes over-ripe. The wings are dramatically under-ripe, even with them removed, the main cluster does not ripen as evenly as a Bordeaux variety, but we get more evenness this way. ” Alcohol usually ends up over 14%.

“We use open-top fermenters to let some alcohol blow off, punch-down for gentler extraction, and use all Burgundy barrels. We treat our Zin somewhat like Pinot, the Zins all have about the same new oak, only about 25%. Petite Syrah is bigger so it gets more new oak, 30-35%.”

‘Elegance’ is not a word that often appears in my tasting notes about Zinfandel, but the house style at Biale shows a purity of fruits, and, yes, elegance. The reference wine for the winery is Black Chicken, which comes from estate fruit, mostly around the winery and elsewhere in Oak Knoll. Quite a bit comes from old plantings of field blends, including a fair bit of Abouriou, a low acid variety that takes off the edge. “I give the original growers credit for this,” Bob says. “This is our flagship wine, it’s strikingly Oak Knoll in its nature.”

First Grade is the exception to the general house style of drinkability on release. Made since 2016, it’s based on a selection of barrels from estate vineyards around the  winery plus Aldo’s Vineyard and Stagecoach, and sees 50% new oak for 16 months. It’s about 78% Zinfandel and 15% Petite Syrah, with the rest from various varieties in the field blend. A much bigger wine, it’s intended to be ready after five years. Only about 120 cases are produced from just 4 barrels.

Cuvées from the famous Stagecoach Vineyard in Napa’s Atlas Peak (where Zinfandel is a tiny part of the vineyard, which is otherwise devoted to Bordeaux varieties) and Monte Rosso in Sonoma (where the vines are some of the oldest in California) are perhaps the most elegant. You might say that Stagecoach and Monte Rosso epitomize the difference between Napa and Sonoma, with a touch of  austerity for Stagecoach playing against a rounder impression for Monte Rosso. They convey that sense of top-flight wines of any variety that they will only deepen and intensify as they age.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

2018 Zinfandel Tasting at Robert Biale

Black Chicken, Napa Valley
Faintly piquant impression, dry and fresh on palate, with surprisingly good acidity, although a faint burn from alcohol at the end. The acidity is all natural, we don’t acidify back,” Bob says. Faintly nutty on the palate, quite a bright style for Zinfandel, generally trending towards elegance rather than power. 14.8%    89 Drink -2025

Aldo’s Vineyard, Oak Knoll
This comes from a field blend planted in 1937. Some spicy notes to the nose, good flavor variety showing on palate. “This will go 10 years, easy,” Bob says. Palate is smooth and velvety, tannins scarcely evident, good freshness. The velvety texture–they call it pillow-soft at the winery–is typical of the vineyard. 14.8%    90 Drink -2030

First Grade,  Napa Valley

Faintly spicy but quite restrained on the nose, tight and relatively closed on the palate, and there’s actually a some sense of bitterness from the tannins on the finish. Although the tannins are not gripping or dry, they need to resolve to let the fruits come out. This should mature to quite an elegant style but it’s going to take time. 14.8%    92 Drink 2025-2035

Valsecchi, Carneros
“This is the southernmost of our Zins,” Bob says, “from less than 1 acre on the Sonoma side of Carneros, making only 1-3 barrels.” Slightly spicy nose. You can see the relatively cool climate character in the crispness of the refreshingly tart palate. Flavor variety is just beginning to develop. The winery describes the fairly tight style as ‘more Burgundian.’ 14.5%   89 Drink -2026

Stagecoach Vineyard, Napa Valley
Nose inclines more to red fruits than black with some red cherries. Quite elegant, almost translucent impression to palate. Light tannins give structural support in the background. There’s a very faint touch of heat at the end.    93 Drink -2030

Monte Rosso, Moon Mountain District

More reserved on the nose than Stagecoah but a rounder, slightly more viscous impression on palate. Great sense of purity of fruits comes through, with structure more in the background than Stagecoach.The texture is very fine and conveys a taut sense of precision. 14.8%  93 Drink -2032

Napa Diary Day 2: Diamond Creek under Roederer

Diamond Creek is such a personal creation and idiosyncratic operation that it’s hard to image without Al Brounstein or his family, but with no third generation to take over, it was sold to Roederer in 2020. No one had planted vineyards this far north in the mountains when Al purchased forested land on Diamond Mountain to create a vineyard in 1968. Vineyards were planted with Bordeaux varieties smuggled across the border (fortunately on St. George rootstock, against conventional wisdom, so they have survived phylloxera and there are many original gnarled old vines on the property).

Way up Diamond Creek road, well into the mountain, the estate has four  individual vineyards, all with roughly the same blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc; Petit Verdot comes from a separate plot nearby. All replanting is based on propagation of vines from the original selection. There are no plans to change or expand production. The vineyard management and winemaking team at Diamond Creek stayed on, although winemaker Phil Steinschriber later retired and Graham Wehmeier came from Futo to take over.  The main change in the immediate future is a ten-year plan for some replanting.

The view from the winery looks down Red Rock Terrace and up to Volcanic Hill.

The contemporary winery sits at a high point looking over Red Rock Terrace, immediately below and facing to the north, with Volcanic Hill opposite, with the slope facing full south. Gravelly Meadow is to one side, and Lake is a very small vineyard to the other side. Next to Lake is the plot of Petit Verdot that is used for all the wines. Lake is the coolest site of all, and makes a wine only in some vintages; after that, Gravelly Meadow is the coolest, and Volcanic Hill is distinctly warmer. Indeed, going round the property, the extra warmth hits you as you go up Volcanic Hill. Soils are distinct, ferrous for red rock, gravel for Gravelly Meadow, and volcanic ash for Volcanic Hill. Harvest starts at Volcanic Hill in September, and ends several weeks later in Lake. Production is small, around 500 cases each, except for only 100 cases of Lake when it is made. The wines age for 21 months in all new French oak. The blends are all similar, with 76-78% Cabernet Sauvignon, and then Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot in decreasing amounts.

Tasting the 2018s soon after release, Red Rock shows as most forward and approachable, with Gravelly Meadow close behind. Both show black fruit aromatics with a fine tannic structure, typically elegant for Red Rock, and touch more textured and earthy for Gravelly Meadow. Volcanic Hill is more reserved, with less obvious, but potentially more complex aromatics, and the typically taut tannic structure more evidence against the fruits. It seems likely to be longest lived. All the wines have been running at alcohol levels around 14.5% for the past decade, up from an average of 14.1% in the previous decade. Occasionally Al produced a blend across the vineyards by selecting special barrels–the last vintage was 2013, with 70% Volcanic Hill, 25% Red Rock Terrace, and 5% Gravelly Meadow–and as of the 2019 vintage, the Three Vineyard Blend will become a regular feature (priced at the same level as the single-vineyard wines).

“Al thought Volcanic Hill would be the longest lived wine, but actually they all age equally well. But Volcanic always comes around last, there is no doubt about that,” said his stepson, Phil Ross, on a previousd visit. Tasting older vintages, I could not say I have a favorite: in some vintages I prefer Volcanic Hill, and in others Gravelly Meadow.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting Notes on 2018 Vintage

Red Rock Terrace
Deep black fruits on nose point towards blackcurrents. Sweet ripe fruits on palate show faint hints of alcohol coming through the richness. Tannins are fine but the wine is still a little tight, although showing some forward black fruit aromatics. The style seems more modern than it has in previous years; at least this is the easiest and most overtly aromatic of the trio. 14.5%    92 Drink 2023-2040

Gravelly Meadow
Even a little darker and more purple in hue than Red Rock. Nose a fraction more intense with more obvious blackcurrant aromatics. There’s a greater sense of structure, although the tannins are very fine, showing just a touch of asperity against the ripeness of the fruits. It’s a little riper and richer than Red Rock, with the black fruit aromatics just beginning to come out. 14.5%    93 Drink 2023-2040

Volcanic Hill
Dark inky appearance, a little more intense than the others. This shows the smoothest palate of the trio and is the most reserved, with black fruit aromatics waiting to come out, and less evident than the others at first, although after a while they emerge to show greater complexity. The sense of reserve will turn into elegance as the wine develops and this certainly has the greatest potential in this vintage.    94 Drink 2024-2045

Napa Diary Day 1: Cabernet Purity at Corison

“Diurnal variation is the magic of Napa, that’s why it’s such a special place,” says Cathy Corison as we start tasting in the Kronos vineyard behind the winery. It was just beginning to warm up at mid-morning, with temperatures having dropped into the fifties overnight and being forecast to reach the nineties in the afternoon. A massive hand-carved travertine table has just been installed at the entrance to the vineyard, and we sat there looking over the fifty-year old vines towards the Mayacamas Mountains.

My first visit for July in Napa, I was catching up on the evolution at Corison. Starting with a wine appreciation course in college (when she thought she was going to become a marine biologist), which was based on French wine, Cathy’s reference point has been European. She’s known for making wines that favor elegance over power with moderate alcohol.

The tasting table at the entrance to Kronos has a view over to the Mayacamas Mountains

“I pick weeks before most,” she says. ” I care what the sugar level is. If we get too ripe, we lose the red and blue part of the spectrum, we are left only with black. I believe table wine should be 12.5% and if I could get ripeness at that level I would.” Alcohol levels are in the low 13%s in cool vintages, up to 14% in warmer vintages. Kronos, where the vines are oldest, usually is a bit lower than the other cuvées.

The other cuvées of Cabernet Sauvignon are the Napa Valley (a blend from three vineyards) and Sunbasket, a single vineyard from which Cathy had been making wine for 20 years when she was able to buy it in 2015. Its first vintage as a single vineyard designate was 2014. “When I bought Sunbasket, I hadn’t blended the 2014, so I made a single-vineyard designate, I had decided I would not make a single-vineyard designate wine unless I owned the vineyard.”

All the wines are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. “I am a Cabernet chauvinist, at least on the bench here. I believe Cabernet Sauvignon can do everything other varieties can do here.” New oak is similar at around 50% for all three cuvées. “I couldn’t make the wine in this style without oak, but I don’t want you to be able to taste it.”

The vines at Kronos are among the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley. The story behind the vineyard is that Cathy was determined to find gravelly terroir for her Cabernet Sauvignon, and this turned up in the form of a neglected vineyard. It was thought that it would have to be replanted because the rootstock was AxR1, which was succumbing to phylloxera, but 6 of the 8 acres turned out to be clone 2 Cabernet Sauvignon on St. George rootstock. “The combination gives scraggly cluster of tiny berries and doesn’t bear very well, only about 1.25 tons/acre.” These are now wonderfully venerable vines. A 2 ha plot in front of the winery was in fact on AxR1 and now been replanted on St. George. (Cathy hasn’t decided yet which cuvée these grapes will go into.) The Kronos vineyard is infected with leaf roll virus–it turns an attractive red in the Fall–which is anathema to viticultural experts, but Cathy says this slows development, as well as reducing yields, and contributes to the concentration and lowers sugar levels at harvest.

Tasting the range from 2018 (Napa Valley has been released, Sunbasket and Kronos are bottled but not released yet), leaves a strong impression that the focus is on elegance and purity of fruits. The Napa Valley has the most direct fruits, conveying a great sense of purity, with silky tannins in the background. Sunbasket adds a more direct sense of tannic texture to the palate. (There is also a Cabernet Franc from a few rows at Sunbasket, which shows a more reserved style than the Cabernet Sauvignon). The tannins in Kronos are so velvety that it actually seems more approachable at this point than Sunbasket, but the greater sense of density deepens the palate and promises the greatest longevity. The star of the show here is the purity of Cabernet Sauvignon.

For my reality check, to see how the wine pairs with food as opposed to a tasting, I had a Kronos 2004 with dinner. It still felt like a baby, age showing in even greater finesse on the palate, with the silkiness of the tannins contributing to an enhanced sense of the purity of Cabernet fruits, giving a translucent impression to the palate.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting Notes for Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 at Corison

Napa Valley
Nose offers a delicious faintly piquant impression, relatively aromatic, then ripeness is nicely offset by freshness on the palate. Tannins are already quite silky. The aromatics carry through to the palate, which offers subtle hints of the oak aging. This really could be enjoyed almost immediately, but should become increasingly elegant over the next few years. 91 Drink 2022-2030

Sunbasket 2018 
Nose shows a touch more asperity than the Napa, not as soft or intense as Kronos. The sleek silky house style comes through, tannins are a touch more obvious on the finish, so this needs a little more time than the Napa bottling. It will probably continue to show a slightly more robust style as it develops.   92 Drink 2024-2035

Kronos Vineyard
The most intense of the range but relatively approachable because tannins are so velvety. The elegant house style with that sense of delineation to the fruits comes through the intensity. Very faint sense of piquancy in background keeps the palate criso. Youthful structure shows directly only a faint dryness onb the finish.    94 Drink 2024-2044

Kronos 2004

Still quite dark, maroon with some purple hues. Black fruit aromatics show hints of blackcurrants. Showcases absolute purity of Cabernet on palate, with pronounced cassis. Intense aromatics on opening integrate as the wine opens in the glass.Age shows in the extra smoothness on the palate, with very fine silky tannins, and no rasp to the finish; there’s no tertiary development yet. The palate flattens as it opens, bringing a feel of more European restraint. 13.8%   94 Drink -2035

Can High Alcohol Wines be Balanced?

You sniff a glass of wine: it has a bouquet of aromas characteristic of its variety, promising an interesting palate. The palate is full of the anticipated flavors, rich and perhaps a touch exuberant, but not yet multi-dimensional as this is a recently released young wine. This is a beautifully crafted wine, representing its region and grape variety, but then a sense of warmth hits you on the finish, sometimes running into an impression of overt heat. The wine would be perfect if only it had a percent or so less alcohol. I have had this experience many times on this visit to Napa.

When asked about alcohol levels, a small minority of winemakers in Napa say it’s a concern, but most say this is what the climate gives you, and the wine is balanced, so there is no problem. Well, my response is yes and no. Generally the wine is balanced, and at a tasting you may not always notice the high alcohol, although it may express itself more forcefully in the course of drinking a bottle with a meal. But even when alcohol is not obvious, I believe the reason is that the balance that is necessary to hide it involves more extraction. It’s the combination of high alcohol and extract that makes the wine fatiguing rather than the alcohol alone—after all, fino Sherry is 15% alcohol and can be delicate and elegant. Indeed, some wines are getting into fortified territory. My companion, the Anima Figure, who is less tolerant of high alcohol than I am, commented on a Chardonnay at dinner, “This winemaker should be working in a distillery,” because the sense of raw spirits entirely hid the fruits.tokalon10

Napa Valley viewed from the To-Kalon vineyard.

Balance is surely a compromise, and the problem, I think, is that achieving phenolic ripeness is regarded as the ne plus ultra, so all other aspects of balance are pushed into the background. Okay, in the old days balance used to be regarded as basically getting enough sugar to achieve 12% or 12.5% alcohol; next a slightly more sophisticated approach was to look at sugar/acid ratios: it was assumed that if the ratio was about right the wine would be good. Those wines would be regarded as seriously unripe by the criterion of phenolic ripeness (although that is not so new: in ancient Rome, Pliny recommended tasting the seeds to judge when grapes were ready for harvest).

But does making phenolic ripeness the single criterion for harvest achieve balance? What if phenolic ripeness is achieved at punishing alcohol levels—Pinot Noir at 15% or more, Cabernet Sauvignon at 15.5% and up, Zinfandel well into the 16%s. Doesn’t “balance” imply making some compromise between sugar, acid, and phenolic ripeness, in which the first two count for something, if perhaps not as much as the last? Is it heretical to ask whether the wine might actually be better if the grapes were picked at slightly lower ripeness, but with better balanced sugar and acidity?

I question whether it’s a true balance if grapes are picked solely for ripeness and then acidity is added, alcohol is adjusted, or water is added to get to more acceptable parameters. (I have not found a single winemaker in Napa who denies needing to use watering back at some point: adding water when the sugar level is too high is now legal, but it seems a dubious means for achieving balance.) Part of the problem is that the current generation of winemakers is not really conscious of the great change in alcohol levels. “This vintage is quite moderate, alcohol is only 14.5%,” one winemaker said, “sometimes we have been pushed up over 15%.” Another said, “As long as I’ve been making wines, I have never seen alcohol below 14%.”

When 14.5% alcohol can be regarded as moderate, we are in big trouble. Even if I enjoy it at a tasting, it is too fatiguing to share a bottle over a meal. My own rebellion against this is not to purchase any wine for my cellar which is over 14% alcohol, and to look at the label before opening a bottle at a restaurant: if it’s over 14% I send it back and make another choice. I recognize that a one man consumer rebellion won’t get very far but you have to start somewhere.

The mantra in Napa Valley is that the Cabernets can be enjoyed more or less on release but will also age well. How soon you can drink them depends largely on your tolerance for tannin in young wine; for my palate most of these wines really need four or five years before the tannins calm down enough to let fruit flavor variety show, but more to the point is that alcohol is likely to become more evident as the tannins and fruits lighten up. With lower alcohol, many of these wines would have great potential for classic longevity; but with alcohol around 15%, I suspect they are Cheshire Cat wines: the grin of the alcohol may be all that is left.

What can be done about this? Part of the problem is that the current combinations of rootstocks and cultivars are generating higher sugar levels in the grapes. One change came when AxR1, widely planted in Napa, had to be replaced because of its sensitivity to phylloxera: the rootstocks that replaced it give higher growth rates. Another is that the ENTAV clones introduced over the past decade or so were selected thirty years ago in a cooler period specifically in order to ripen sooner to avoid past problems with insufficient accumulation of sugar. We need new clones and rootstocks designed for the era of global warming. But that takes time: right now winemakers need to start regarding balance as something where reasonable alcohol and acidity are part of the equation as well as phenolic ripeness, and not ancillary factors that you either live with or adjust artificially when they get completely out of control.

Judgment of Paris Wines: Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap

It seems ironic that on the day of the referendum in Britain, the Judgment of Paris tasting should be revisited in London. To celebrate the famous tasting of 1976—it doesn’t seem like 40 years ago—Chateau Montelena (which won the Chardonnay tasting with its 1973) and Stag’s Leap Winery (which won the red tasting) presented current and older vintages in London.

Today’s Chardonnay from Montelena comes from the Oak Knoll vineyard near the winery, but current winemaker, Matt Crafton revealed that the winning 1973 “was not at all a terroir wine. It came from grapes that were purchased to fit Montelena’s stylistic objectives, sources were all over the place.” Half of the grapes came from Russian River in Sonoma Valley, some came from Calistoga (the hot end of Napa valley), and a small proportion from Oak Knoll. What price terroir if this could beat Meursaults and Puligny Montrachets?

The question in my mind going through the 2001 and 2009 vintages of Montelena’s Chardonnay, three Cabernet Sauvignons from 2013 to 2005, and five vintages of Stag’s Leap SLV vineyard from 2013 to 1983, was whether their origins would be any more obvious in a blind tasting today than they were at the 1976 tasting in Paris. It has always seemed to me that the importance of the Judgment of Paris isn’t at all who “won,” but rather that the French judges were completely unable to distinguish whether the wines were Cabernet-based blends from Bordeaux compared with varietal Cabernet Sauvignon from California, or Chardonnays from Napa compared with Burgundy. That speaks to the success of the winemakers of the time in emulating French style.

SLVToday wines are richer all round, California has found its own style, and often enough the winemakers of Europe are trying to emulate New World richness. I think it’s fair to say that both Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Winery have relatively restrained styles for California: there is not much New World exuberance here. The Montelena Chardonnays remind me a bit of Meursault, but show more body and alcohol. I’m not sure I really see enough interesting development with age–but then with premox cutting off the lifespan of white Burgundy, I don’t very often see it there either. The Cabernets seem to get leaner as they age.

The Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon tasted in Paris in 1976 was the forerunner of today’s single vineyard bottlings. The two famous vineyards are adjacent but different in character. “Fay’s vineyard is softer and more perfumed, more elegant,” says current winemaker Marcus Notaro, “SLV is a bigger wine.” In another era, I might have said that Fay is more feminine and SLV more masculine. Spanning thirty years, the SLV vintages at this week’s tasting showed a common stylistic thread, with slightly spicy, slightly herbal overtones to the fruits. I would say they’re as much in the European tradition as in the New World mold, except that alcohol is higher and there’s a sense of warmth, for me showing as almost exotic fruit flavors, which suggests they don’t come from France. Would I confidently distinguish Fay Vineyard and SLV in a blind tasting with, say, Margaux and Pauillac? I’m not so sure.

Have Mondavi and Opus One Lost their Way?

It may be unfair to link Mondavi and Opus One together at this point, since although Opus One started as a joint operation between Robert Mondavi and Philippe de Rothschild, they went separate ways after Constellation purchased Mondavi, but I was struck at a dinner with wines from both producers by the similarity in their development. Current vintages of Mondavi’s Fumé Blanc and Reserve Chardonnay were followed by three vintages of Opus One, and it would be fait to say that power is triumphing over elegance all along the line.

In the early years of Napa Valley’s development, Mondavi was a benchmark for Cabernet Sauvignon (the 1974 Reserve was a defining wine for the vintage), the Chardonnay was one of the more French-oriented, and the Fumé Blanc was a master stroke that tamed Sauvignon Blanc with subtle oak impressions. But today the 2012 Fumé Blanc gives an impression of sharp acidity with indistinct fruit impressions, while the 2013 Reserve Chardonnay gives an impression of raw oak in front of fruits. In fact, you might say that the Fumé Blanc is too much Sauvignon and not enough Fumé, while the Chardonnay is too much oak and not enough fruit.

I can’t trace the change in character of the whites historically, but a change in the reds goes back to the early 2000s. There was a long-running difference of opinion between Mondavi and the Wine Spectator over style. The Spectator’s lead critic on California, James Laube, commented in July 2001, “At a time when California’s best winemakers are aiming for ripe, richer, more expressive wines, Mondavi appears headed in the opposite direction… [Winemaker] Tim Mondavi and I have different taste preferences… He has never concealed his distaste for big, ultra rich plush or tannic red wines. I know he can make rich, compelling wines, yet he prefers structured wines with elegance and finesse.” Tim Mondavi replied, “I am concerned… that there appears to be a current trend toward aggressively over-ripe, high in alcohol, over oaked wines that are designed to stand out at a huge tasting rather than fulfill the more appropriate purpose of enhancing a meal.” There you have the whole debate about style in Napa in a nutshell. Yet after this was all said and done, the style at Mondavi changed in the direction of greater richness.

I’ve always found Opus One easy to underrate in the early years, when it tends to be somewhat dumb, and to retain a touch of austerity, but in vertical tastings I’ve found it to age well. Tasted at the winery five years ago, the 2005 was showing beautifully, the 1995 showed the elegance of a decade’s extra aging, and the first vintage (1979) was still vibrant. My impression at the dinner this week was different. The 2005 shows powerful primary fruits, with not much evidence of development, and a touch of oxidation, showing in the form of raisons on the finish. If it hadn’t seemed the most complete wine of that vertical at the winery, I would say that it must have been brutal when it was young. As this is an unexpected turn of events, I wondered whether perhaps the bottle might be out of condition, whether perhaps the oxidative impressions were due to poor storage, but I think this question was answered by the 2009, which showed a similar, but less evident, impression of oxidation. Again this is a turn-up for the book, as the last time I had the 2009 was at the winery just after it had been bottled: tannins were subsumed by dense, black, and aromatic fruits, and my impression was that the fruit concentration offered great potential for development. But today, aside from taming the tannins with time, I really don’t see much development in flavor variety, and I suspect this is going in the same direction as the 2005. The 2012 is certainly a very big wine, yet identifiably Cabernet-based, with that sense of restraint and hints of tobacco, but I’m concerned that the massive fruits may turn in the same oxidative direction as the earlier vintages. How long, Oh Lord, how long, will it be before the wines develop interesting flavor variety?

I wonder how much alcohol has to do with these impressions? The first vintage of Opus One had 12.9% alcohol, the level stayed under 13% through the 1980s, under 14% through the 1990s, and now alternates between 14.0 and 14.5 according to the labels. Although alcohol isn’t obtrusive on the palate–in the current parlance that winemakers use to explain or apologize for high alcohol, it is balanced—it’s the very high extract and fruit concentration that achieve the sense of equilibrium. This makes it hard for the wine not to over-power a meal. I know that there’s a school of thought that alcohol levels aren’t relevant or interesting, and that no one really cares, but I do: not just because the wine is too heady, but because I don’t like the corollary that there’s simply too much flavor . Or more precisely, too much quantity of flavor and not enough variety. There comes a point where levels of extraction are so high that varietal typicity disappears and everything is just fruit, fruit, fruit. My plea to Napa winemakers is to back off: you don’t have to extract absolutely everything you can from the grapes. It might be a better compromise to harvest under 14% alcohol than to go that last step to super-ripeness.

The Reality of Appellations in Napa

In Napa for the Barrel Auction this weekend, I spent Friday afternoon at a series of tasting events organized by the producers of several AVAs. My objective was to determine whether I could see any specificity to Cabernet Sauvignon produced in the  top three appellations of the valley floor: Rutherford, Oakville, and Stags Leap.

The Rutherford Dust group of producers takes its name from the supposed quality of Rutherford: a dusty note in the wines. Whether this is real or is a marketing ploy has been long debated. “The tannins of wines from Rutherford give the sensation you get by running your hand backwards along velvet,” was a description by one producer. Things started out well at the Rutherford Dust group tasting. The first three wines, Alpha Omega 2009, Faust 2009, and Grgich 2008 all showed a similar quality to their tannins. I would not describe it as dusty, more as a sort of slightly sharp tang to the tannins on the finish, but it was a distinctive tannic grip. Then inevitably came some wines to spoil the pattern, Hall Excellenz 2005 (massive tannins), Flora Springs Trilogy (tight and elegant), and then Rubicon Estate 2008 (firm and furry). But with the exception of Peju 2008 and 2001, whose wines were distinctly more aromatic than the others, there was a commonality, with firm tannins giving the wines a classic impression across several vintages.

Things also started well in Oakville, where the first few wines all seems to fit a pattern where taut black fruits were supported by fine grained tannins that reinforced the impression of elegance. Nickel and Nickel’s Branding Iron and Sullenger Vineyard 2008s, Ghost Block Estate 2009, Kelleher 2007, Far Niente 2009 all supported a view that Oakville plays St. Julien to Rutherford’s version of Pauillac. Bond St. Eden 2006 was much more reserved, but generally conformed to the elegant style.But then Harbison 2009, Plumpjack Estate 2009, and Paradigm 2008 all displayed a much softer style, with more overt, opulent black fruit aromatics extending from blackcurrants to cassis.

In Stags Leap District I got much less impression of consistency. Several wines were very soft, forward, and approachable, with soft black fruits on the palate, supported by nuts and vanillin on the finish, with tannins noticeable only as a soft, furry presence in the background. Clif Lede Poetry 2009 and 2004, Stags Leap SLV 2008 and 1997, Pine Ridge 2008 were nice enough wines if you would like something to drink in the immediate term, but I was left wondering how it represents Cabernet typicity as opposed to Merlot or Syrah to make wines that are so fruit-forward and lacking in tannic structure. Shafer One Point Five 2009 showed Shafer’s usual ripe, aromatic style, while Clos du Val 2007 and 1997 showed a more traditional approach, with good acidity supporting firm fruits and the tannins showing a structure halfway between the Rutherford grip and Oakville precision.

Where am I left? There may be a typicity that distinguishes the tannins of Rutherford and Oakville if you let it express itself; I reserve judgment about Stags Leap. In any of these appellations, however, you can make soft, forward, fruity, wines with lots of nutty vanillin to bump up the appeal, using appropriate winemaking techniques. Caveat terroir.