A couple of years ago, Los Angeles Times writer Corie Brown apparently wrote an article about how California winemakers went about intentionally making “cult Cabernets”. I vaguely remember the article being passed on to me a while back – interestingly, it’s no longer on the Times’ website – in fact it seems the entire series of articles from that date (June 22, 2005) exploring the myths of the cult wine, have been simply removed from the archives. They weren’t flattering to winemakers, by a long shot, and I’m here wondering if some political pressure came into play…? Luckily, Blog au Vin had archived the “12 steps to making a Cult Cabernet” – I do hope these are the accurate originals:
1. Build your own high-tech winery, using no pumps, only gravity.
2. Burrow into the side of a hillside to create caves.
3. Hire Heidi Peterson Barrett or Phillip Melka as winemaker.
4. Claim extraordinary characteristics for your soils.
5. Plant vines so close together that they “struggle.”
6. Harvest only perfect grapes and sort twice to make sure.
7. Harvest as late as your nerves will allow.
8. Ferment your wine in micro lots.
9. Sell less than 1,000 cases of wine per vintage.
10. Charge more than $100 a bottle for the first vintage.
11. Offer the wines for sale only through mailing lists and at ritzy restaurants.
12. Pretend you’ve never marketed your wine.
Buenos Aires – I received an e-mailed invitation to a California Dreamin’ wine tasting. We don’t get to drink, or taste, many wines from outside of Argentina here, given the draconian import policies and taxes, so it often just comes down to one of us pulling out a bottle of something from the cellar for us to share, or a visitor bringing something as a gift. An invitation to drop in at the semi-secret OchoSieteOcho, where I’d just been a week or two before for a book party, and taste through a dozen “cult cabernets”, sounded like too much fun to pass up. The invitation didn’t make it clear that this was a sit-down tasting, i.e., one wine served at a time, with discussion – so a couple of friends and I made dinner plans, with the intent to drop in for 35-40 minutes, taste our way through the wines that were laid out, and head out to eat… we almost left after discovering it was a more formal tasting, but the hosts are friends, and after all, it was an opportunity to taste things we might otherwise never get to… we decided to stick it out and see. The tasting was called for 8:00, with people (including us) wandering in still anywhere from half to a full hour later… not having realized the format… and once underway, with Allison Steltzner of Steltzner Vineyards and Sam Sharp of Fountainhead Cellars leading (and they’d carted the wine down as extra baggage on their vacation… kudos and thanks to them for not only doing so, but then taking a night out from their week long relaxation to do this), it became clear that at roughly 15 minutes spent on each wine, it was going to be well past our dinnertime before we got out of there…
In the end, we stuck it out through 10 of the 12, simply too hungry to sit through another half hour for the last two wines. I’m going to say upfront that I didn’t come away with a positive impression of most of the wines… now, the question is, why? Is it that these “cult” style wines are so over the top, over done that they’re simply not something I enjoy, or is it that over the last nearly three years, I’ve gotten used to a very different style of wine, and these were simply a shock to the system? Unfortunately, I think it’s the former, I still manage to taste enough non-Argentine wine to “keep my hat in the ring” so to speak. Prices are in US$, in California, retail.
- Steltzner Vineyards Malbec 2005 – Okay, completely non-Cabernet, but Allison wanted to share her family’s Malbec with us – perhaps to gauge the local reaction? Stag’s Leap District, 97% Malbec, 3% Petite Verdot, 16 months in French oak, 10% of which was new, the balance 1-3 year old barrels, 13.8% alcohol, 375 cases made, $38. On the nose, classic red plum and violet aromas. On the palate really alot of residual sugar, and a strong flavor of saltwater taffy, which was just plain odd, moderate acidity and length, very little tannin. Okay at best, and while in California terms, $38 doesn’t seem outrageous, when you look at the numbers of Argentine Malbecs that are of equal or better quality, and probably at 1/2 to 2/3 that price…
- Ramian Estate Bordeaux Blend 2004 – Mount Veeder, 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 5% Malbec, 5% Petite Verdot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 20 months in French oak, 50% of it new, 14.9% alcohol, 400 cases made, $50. On the nose, nothing but toasted oak and alcohol. On the palate, dominated by alcohol and black pepper, then backed up by very sweet fruit – like figs in syrup, a touch of blackcurrant, and very low acidity, to the point of being “flabby”. I can’t say it impressed me favorably.
- Renteria Wines Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 – Stags Leap District, specifically Baldacci Vineyards, all French oak, 14.5% alcohol, 130 cases made, $56. A blast of licorice and honey on the nose, the palate has plenty of black fruit, but also very high alcohol, once again noticeable residual sugar, and moderate acidity, with a white peppery finish. Okay…at best.
- Steltzner Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 – Stags Leap District, all French oak, 14.9% alcohol, 500 cases made, $75. When a member of the family has carted down all these wines and given up her time for us to taste them, you just cross your fingers that you’re going to really like her wine in particular. On the nose, all I could think of was if oak could be made into marmalade, this was it. On the palate, high alcohol, white pepper, enough residual sugar to get that marmalade effect, and moderate acidity. I’ll stick with orange marmalade…
- Griffin Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 – since 2005 called Malk Family Vineyards, this is once again, aged in French oak (actually, we were informed that all the wines from the evening were aged in only French oak), 15.2% alcohol, 150 cases made, we were told $65-70 retail, but a quick internet search shows that this sells for $90-100. On the nose, Hall’s wild cherry cough drops, giving way to red licorice twists on the palate, with high alcohol, noticeable residual sugar, and volatile acidity on the finish. I suppose if I had a cold and wanted a teaspoon of the stuff…
- Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 – Okay, I remember, years ago, when I was the wine director for Felidia Ristorante, that John and Doug Shafer used to come into town once a year to wine and dine those of us in high end restaurants and give us the chance to taste their better wines. Limited production yes, but not so limited that we couldn’t snap up a half dozen or more cases of the now famed Hillside Select – and at that time, while I can’t quote you an exact price, I know the stuff wasn’t that pricey – but it’s become really famous, been given high points by various members of the press, etc. – Stag’s Leap District, 3,000 cases made, so not a truly small production, $175 retail these days… and, apparently, the wine sells out via retail subscription on the day of release… think about that, it’s $6.3 million in sales on one day! – On the nose, mixed red and black fruit, oak, and a strong aroma of wet clay. On the palate, one of the few that had real complexity, with black fruit, cocoa, that sensation of clay, and decent acidity – the first wine to have decent acidity of the night – surprisingly, with all the upfront and midpalate stuff going on, the finish was a bit on the short side. Still, a good wine, perfectly drinkable, just insanely overpriced.
- Fountainhead Cellars Morsoli Borges Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 – Rutherford district, 29 months in 50% new French oak, 14.5% alcohol, $45. On the nose, strawberry candy, continuing onto the palate where it’s joined by a nice dose of oak. Fairly good acidity, residual sugar, very short finish. Okay, and once again, with one of the owners present, I wanted to like it a whole lot more.
- Elyse Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 – from the same Morisoli Vineyard as the Fountainhead, in Rutherford, this was, to be honest, the only wine of the evening that I think I would have been happy drinking, $65. On the nose, black and blueberries, toasted oak. On the palate, noticeable but not overbearing alcohol, good acidity, plenty of fruit, and good length, pretty elegant overall.
- Staglin Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 – While the Staglins are not close friends, they are friends, and I was looking forward to this wine – it’s always been a favorite of mine in the “big boy” category of California Cabs. Yet, it’s been a trio or more of years since I’ve had a bottle, and the last few vintages have been made and bottled under the supervision of the ubiquitous Michel Rolland, who seems to figure out how to take any wine, from any grape, and any terroir, and turn it into a bottle of something that tastes just the same as any of his other wines – and unfortunately, this is no exception. It could just as easily have been labeled “big international style red wine” as anything else.14.6% alcohol, 2,500 cases made, $125. Black fruit, tons of oak, and a hint of grilled meat on the nose, black fruit, cocoa, high alcohol, and low acidity. Decent, but for the price…
- Arns Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 – simply Napa Valley appellation, from a vineyard “near to” Howell Mountain… just to give it some cult caché, 600 cases made, $75. On the nose, alcohol and red fruit, on the palate, so much residual sugar and so little acid that it defines the terms “flabby” and “fat” in regard to wine.
The two wines we didn’t stay and taste – Mi Sueño Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 and Carter Cabernet Sauvignon 2004.
Overall impressions – way too much alcohol, way too much residual sugar, way too little acidity, way too pricey.