I had the great pleasure to attend a blind tasting of 36 Napa Cabernets yesterday in D.C.. I consider myself very fortunate to be in a position to attend events like this even though I'm relatively new to the industry. I also consider myself very lucky to have tried some truly phenomenal wines over the past three years. Tasting 36 wines is not uncommon for any given day at my shop, tasting 36 cabs turns into a bit of a challenge, and tasting 36 high end Napa Cabs becomes borderline cruel and unusual.
As we neared the final dozen of the line-up yesterday I became increasingly frustrated with the variety and lack of individuality of the wines. I'm not a big California Cab drinker typically but I try not to be biased based on my own personal tastes. I'd really like to hear from anyone that has tasted older vintages of these wines, or sells them on their restaurant menu or who has any opinions on this particular formula and the breadth of style that can be achieved or how we have gotten here. They were wonderful wines without question but they provided, to me, so little character or depth or complexity beyond rich dark fruit, a lot of savory soy quality, obvious new oak, and an incredibly ripe, rich quality on the palette. I also know that none of these wines should be consumed at this age, some of them have yet to even be released. But I know plenty of customers both in retail and at restaurants who would drink them exactly as they are, and for the price, I would be disappointed with the lack of expression in drinking these.
Of the 12 - all were over 14.5% alcohol, 10 were 100% cabernet, 8 (that indicated oak usage) were over 20 months in oak, 6 of those indicated either new or 100% new, and 9 were from the Napa Valley AVA.
The final 12 wines were:
2012 Behrens Family 'Crowley Vineyard'
2013 Signorello 'Padrone'
2005 Axios (the only wine of the 36 older than 2012 which provided a much needed contract to the other wines as well as its 2012 example)
2014 Tuck Beckstoffer 'Mockingbird Red'
2015 Revana Estate
2012 The Mascot
2014 Vineyard 7&8 Estate
2014 Peter Michaels 'Les Pavots' (they did include a few signature Cabernets from outside of Napa)
2014 Lail 'J. Daniel Cuvee'
2013 Bond 'Quella' (one of the only wines that presented a more complex nose - cassis, graphite, tobacco and cigar box in addition to the usual dark fruits, vanilla and baking spice)
2013 Bond 'St. Eden'
2014 Harlan Estate
I'm not accusing these wines of anything or claiming that there is an undeserved hype around them, I simply don't see the appeal or understand how we can provide so many options, at such a high price tier, of wines made in a wildly similar fashion from grapes in the 99th percentile of quality. I'm really curious to hear thoughts from the community.
We're all in the business of selling wine. Pick your favorites, enrich yourself with the stories behind them and sell them. You don't buy wine professionally to drink or find value in relation to your own bank account, you buy wine to sell to people that you know will love it. I constantly find myself with my nose in a glass thinking about a guest that I know will buy it. It's not about me and my preferences.
I'm sorry if I didn't make my questioning clear. I'm certainly aware of what is entailed as a wine buyer and always think about how and who I can sell wine to. I was in no way concerned with whether or not I could buy the wines I was tasting, I would have no interest.
What I'm more interested in is whether or not people have had those wines as they've aged - do they continue to present a lot of similar qualities or as they progress do they develop more unique characteristics. Is that just the ubiquitous style now for high end Napa Cabernets, is that what your customers expect from high end wines, do professionals expect such little variation from Cabernets at that level?
It's not often that I get to taste several dozen wines in the same category and am always surprised by either the immense diversity of a single varietal or region or the lack thereof.
Trying 36 wines, i’d Imagine your taste buds would be donezo. I find it best not to make judgements on any tasting after trying so many different things. Try those wines on their own and also with food you’ll probably think a lot different.
I might be a little biased having lived and worked in Northern California my entire life. I actually work for one of the wineries you tasted. I have worked as a wine director, tasting room manager and sales rep. The wines you tasted were all on the young side. It takes time for most wines to develop, that being said out of the lineup you listed, I personally find a wide array of flavor, aromas, mouth fell, etc. You have to take into account even though Napa Valley is very small it is also very diverse with different soil compositions, elevations, and temperatures. You also have to factor in farming practices, organic, dry farming and clonal variations used. Also wine making techniques such as pump overs, punch downs, barrel regimen. I myself find big differences in wines from Napa. I have had the privilege of tasting older vintages of most of the wines you tasted. To me they do became even more nuanced as they age.
Personally Derrick I think that although Michael makes a good point about palate fatigue, the most salient part of your post is your self-identification as being new to the industry. It can take a long time to suss out the nuances of wines, particularly wines that are young and made in a relatively similar style.
I suggest though that if you were to taste these wines with someone guiding you through them you would be able to notice some differences. I agree it's not easy, and not all of us are lucky like Ronald and get to live in Napa or nearby and taste their great wines with regularity.
Aside from the Axios, which I have tasted in the last year, and had a lighter quality which I don't associate with hedonistic and some red fruit and red earth characteristics which were very pleasant, I have not had these particular vintages. But I have had other vintages of some of these wines. Some of the differences I would point out, perhaps making totally unfair comparisons because of not knowing how these particular vintages show (but knowing a bit about the wines' styles across vintages):
Mockingbird Red has more pronounced grip than J. Daniel. Revana has more variation (pleasant) on the palate than the seamless Les Pavots.
Take hear, though, Derrick. I used to have as similar bias (and probably still hold biases about how to understand some parts of the world of wine): namely, that "all these wines are the same."
The easiest way to see the differences is let go of that belief. Even if you can't tell because your palate is fatigued, try them the next day. Even if this style is not to your liking, I think you will be able to detect more nuances.
Hello. If I may weigh in for a moment... First of all, not all Napa Cabernets are made the same. The styles range from relatively low in alcohol and earthy to super ripe and flashy. The ones you list all pretty much fall into the second category. And while someone used to detecting differences between such wines might have a better grasp of nuance, I'll be the first to admit that that particular style can be hard to "see through."
But you also asked about aging. I beat the drum for this all the time, but I personally believe that Cabernet Sauvignon that WANTS to and should be allowed to age, no matter how it is styled, for at least a little bit. Even the bigger, richer wines that are seemingly not intended for aging, tend to do better after a few surplus years in bottle. It seems that, for flashy Napa Cab, between 7 and 10 years of age is the moment in which the volume turns down, the baby fats melts some, and the oak finally integrates. In such a state, I find it far easier to assess a wine's character. And sometimes that character is lacking, but many times I find myself surprised by what lie's beneath. Of course, as you said, most people are content to just pop and pour the latest vintage... but if you yourself are really interested in learning more about a given site or house, even modest bottle age can be illuminating.
Just my two cents!
Thanks Kelli! I'm happy (more like grateful) to hear someone bring this up. I think of Cabernet as being similar in this way to Nebbiolo, Mourvedre and a few other varieties where the youthful character of the wine is only a tiny subset of what the wine will offer with even a few years' patience. This is especially true with Napa Cabs, even the riper styled ones.
I regularly advise at a few years' rest for our top wines, including some of our more modest offerings. While I often hear glowing reports about new releases (and am happy to hear it), my experience with having guests taste vintages that were released two or three years earlier has been exclusively positive, even from our warmer region.
I appreciate and believe strongly that everyone should be allowed their own individual tastes and don't suggest that everyone would enjoy cellaring their wines for ten or twenty years (although there is value to that for some), but holding a Cab or Cab blend a couple of years after release makes the wine much more than just a sum of its parts as the interplay of its fruit, barrel elements and structure evolve, as the intense varietal character like tannins and primary fruit evolve allowing more of a wine's individual personality to show through.
I've jokingly called this as the Lasagna effect, much like a lasagna or chili taste better a few days after it's made to help make it clear to folks who might not otherwise appreciate the value of holding off a bit ;-).
I can very much imagine how much those wines would have been to assess had they all been several years older. I really appreciate the feedback and thoughts on the urge for cabs to age so to speak and I really hope I have a chance to try some of these wines in the future as they've relaxed and come into their own a bit.
I've never heard anyone use a lasagne analogy but I love the image! I will absolutely be using that going forward when I'm selling wines in our shop that really merit some time laid down.