Palazzo for the People (Master’s Blend 2016)

Scott Palazzo is not your ordinary Napa vintner.  His boundless enthusiasm for his wines and the Napa Valley in general are not uncommon among winery owners, but his demeanor seems perhaps a bit more ‘Hollywood’ than ‘wine country’.

But, while the guy can definitely ‘talk the talk’, he also walks the walk.  His numbers speak for themselves.  Take for example his Wine Advocate reviews.  For 25 wines over the course of a decade (2003-2013), Palazzo never received a score below 91 and there were a number of ‘95s’, ‘96s’, and even some ‘98s’ sprinkled in the mix.

We have worked with Scott a few times over the years because his wines are quite good.  But being wine merchant types as we are, the ‘relationship’ has always been subject to price concerns.  While we appreciate the best of breed from Napa as much as the next guys, we are a little conservative when it comes to offering that $80-and-up category for sale.  It is a common problem for us with ‘the Valley’ these days.

We could go off (and have) on the present state of affairs in Napa Valley as it seems most wineries are only willing to do as much as they need to do to promote their own ‘direct to consumer’ sales.  But what is relevant in this case is that we are starting to see a few Napa-ites starting to take stock of serving a broader market with a wine or two that isn’t just some unembellished effort that just bears the winery’s name.

Not long ago we profiled a new effort from Conn Valley that really delivered quality for a much more modest fare than their usual ‘reserve level’ offerings.  Most important, the wine showcased the style of the house and gave the luxury feel of the winery’s top cuvees for substantially less of an outlay.  So many wineries are putting out uninspired bottlings for the ‘little people’ that are little more than token offerings.  They rarely reflect the house style.    The Conn Valley is a notable diversion from that format.

So is this new effort from Palazzo (the second of the series we are told).  Unlike a lot of ‘value’ (by Napa standards) wines, this tastes and stylistically presents a legitimate Palazzo experience.  The style of all of Palazzo’s wines have the plush elegance and balance of Bordeaux as their reference point.  It is Napa with an eye to Saint Julien.  The Palazzo Left Bank Red Cuvée Master Blend Series 2016, while the name is too long, represents more the rich Napa texture and presence with a Bordeaux elegance rather than, say, the pedal-to-the-medal trophy style typical of most vintners here.

The ‘Left Bank’ is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 25% each Cabernet Franc and Merlot.  It sees 20 months in oak, 50% new.  The result is a pleasing, layered effort with lush black-cherry and blackberry fruit on the nose and palate, along with hints of chocolate, coffee and cassis. Because some of the components come from top Carneros sites, there’s a cool, fresh underpinning of ‘savory’ to play against the lusher, sweeter  Cabernet core.  It’s about complex aromatics and harmony and it performs like wines costing a lot more while accurately conveying the style of the house, which is exactly the point!

 

‘BARGAIN’ CABERNET FROM ANDERSON’S CONN VALLEY NAPA VALLEY

They say necessity is the mother of invention.  This would seem to be a fine example of that saying.  No one has time to read the whole story of Anderson’s Conn Valley Vineyards.  Their website claims four generations have been here though the label only started with the 1987 vintage and their website states “Since 1983 we have been family owned and operated by the Anderson’s.” (this is a direct cut and paste showing the incorrect use of the possessive for all you English nigglers out there).   They got a lot of attention pretty soon in their history, rattling off a series of 92+ scores in successive vintages in Wine Advocate (and a Wine Spectator cover with their incredibel 1988) and the label was generating some buzz ahead of the emergence of a number of now iconic ‘trophy styled wines’ shortly thereafter.

Conn Valley is a little different from the heart of Napa.  Located roughly ten minutes up the hill east of St. Helena, sort of on the back side south of Howell Mountain, this 40 acre estate sits in a sort of elevated cleft known as Conn Valley.  It has a completely different and more serene vibe than the Valley below and this all-by-itself property has cave cellars, a sort of throwback facility, and what one might call its own ‘zen’.  We visited the Andersons there many years ago, met Todd and his father, and got a real feel for the wines.  We sold the many renditions from Conn Valley for many years but, as has happened so often in this part of the world, prices started to creep up beyond the point where they were slam dunks.

They made their bones on a series of ‘reserve level’ bottlings called Eloge, Reserve, Signature and Right Bank built from Bordeaux varietals.  It should also be mentioned that they have had some occasional enthusiastic kudos for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but their reputation was based on wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, and Merlot.  The style has always been of a luxury bent with broad, creamy fruit well-seasoned with top flight oak.  It seemed to be the perfect recipe for the market, and it had a pretty good run.

No one can say for sure what happened but production started to outpace sales.  One could suggest a gradual slowdown in the super-premium market and their signature wines ran from $80 to $150, though they got reviews commensurate with that level of pricing.  Maybe it was the move from just making a wine called Cabernet to making a number of different bottlings (until this wine, the last review we saw for something called simply Cabernet was 1995) that confused consumers.  Maybe it was the label, which they changed to something else rather distinctive (but also difficult to read) not long ago.

Maybe it was Todd Anderson’s focus on his super-super-premium Ghost Horse project that took away from the attention devoted to Conn Valley.  There are many conjectures, and the story can get pretty complicated.  But the bottom line is that the winery decided it needed to produce a wine that got the attention of a whole new set of buyers and was within the price range of a larger audience.

To that end, the 2016 Anderson’s Conn Valley Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was born (or ‘reborn’ depending on how you interpret the history).  The blend is 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 1% Petit Verdot & 5% Cabernet Franc, the Cabernet Franc the only part to come from another site (Reinke Family Vineyards, a hillside vineyard in west Carneros…the wine still qualifies as estate bottled under the law).

They really nailed this one.  This has a lot in common with their ‘reserve’ level wines (except the price)…creamy fruit, notes of chocolate, spice and vanilla, along with pretty ripe, melty tannins for a wine so young.   The winery’s story is this, “A new product for us is this first ever ‘non-reserve’ Cabernet. It is a fruit forward, friendly, easy to drink style of Cabernet produced from the barrels that don’t quite make the cut for the Reserve and Eloge bottlings. What you may enjoy though is knowing that this is an estate grown, estate bottled Conn Valley Cabernet for HALF what you’d normally have to pay…”

It certainly tastes like it had the luxury treatment and showed surprising presence and polish on both occasions that we tried it.  This definitely has a ‘wow’ quality to it, and the kind of plush refinement you simply don’t see for under $40.  If you are a fan of Cabernet, it would be hard not to like it.

We don’t think the media has seen this one yet as this just hit the market.   No doubt it will be tasted among the other, much more exotic (and more expensive) Conn Valley wines and probably not get its due with respect to numbers.  It’s our version of the ‘theory of relatively’ where, if there are ‘upper cuvees’, most writers will focus on those and work backward.  As to timing, you are definitely ahead of the game as the wine was literally just released.

Are we going to tell you it’s as good as their $150 reserve bottling?  We know human nature far too well to promise that.  Are we going to tell you that if you drop this in among what is out there for $35-60 it will likely steal the show? Absolutely!  It is one of the sexiest Cabernets we have had for this kind of fare but it’s all estate fruit from a place that has been making top notch reds for a long time.  They created this wine to make an impression.  That it does!

 

 

KEENAN CABERNET SAUVIGNON RESERVE SPRING MTN 2014

In a ‘brave new world’ that seems overly focused on the new producer and the breakout category, it seems sometimes it’s a disadvantage to have any kind of history.  Talk about some entity that is making orange wine or early harvest Mourvedre and there seems to be a waiting cadre of folks willing to give them a look.  Talk about a proven Napa Valley label that has been around for more than three decades and you are likely to get blank stares.  But just because someone has been around a while doesn’t mean they are no longer relevant.

The history of Keenan Winery started over 40 years ago. Certain that mountain side vineyards in Napa Valley could produce world-class wines, in 1974 Robert Keenan purchased 180 acres in the Spring Mountain District at an elevation of 1700 feet. Located on the eastern slope of the Mayacamas mountain range, Spring Mountain District gained recognition as an American Vineyard Appellation (AVA) in 1993. The low vigor soils unique to the region were known to create a stressful environment for vine growth, setting up perfect conditions to encourage vineyards planted on the steep, rocky, mountainsides to produce wines of great concentration, structure, and pure varietal flavors.

The original acreage Robert acquired included the crumbling Peter Conradi Winery, founded in the late 19th Century and one of the first pioneering properties established on Spring Mountain. By the time Robert Keenan  arrived in 1974, none of the estate’s original vineyards were producing. Robert cleared the estate of tree stumps and rocks, extended the original vineyard acreage and replanted the property to Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. He built a new winery using the existing stone walls from the old Conradi building, and celebrated Keenan Winery’s first harvest there in 1977.

Robert’s son Michael took the reins in 1998 with a vision of moving the property up the quality ladder.  While those early Keenan wines were respected, many of them were ferociously tannic.  A slow deliberate process of trial and error, including the replanting of clones and the incorporation of a solar-powered system and sustainable farming (Keenan is now recognized as a ‘green’ winery) has helped the winery take the steps necessary to elevate their game and make some of the best wines in the winery’s history.

It has been interesting to watch the winery get more critical recognition as a result of this multitude of changes under the watchful, and arguably rather intense eye of Michael.  It has been clear every year when we do the tasting with him that the wines are more intense, better balanced and more refined within the context of ample, burly mountain reds.  Better grapes, better wine and every aspect is carefully watched in the process.  The result has been a Keenan lineup that is playing at a high level but has remained true to their vision of Spring Mountain as an identifiable and important terroir of the Napa Valley.

The last lineup we were presented was arguably the best yet, but the star of the show was the Robert Keenan Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Spring Mountain 2014.  This is serious ‘mountain’ Cabernet with all of the power, depth and flavor intensity that the description implies.  Lots of dark cassis and other blue fruits highlighted with notes of chocolate and the requisite chewy, but thoroughly ripe tannins, this is impressive from front to back.

We can roll out the requisite press.  There’s a Vinous 93 with comments, “… an impeccably balanced wine that brings together firm mountain structure with ripe, unctuous fruit. Dark cherry, plum compote, spice, licorice and menthol are some of the many notes that give the Reserve its mid-palate density and sweetness. The firm tannins need time to soften, but this is impressive juice. “

There’s an even more emphatic Wine Advocate 95, offering “The (2014 Cabernet)… is the deepest, richest wine of the entire portfolio, with an opaque purple color and a super-pure nose of crème de cassis and blueberries. The wine is rich, full-bodied, nicely textured, and very long in the finish, with ripe tannins. It can be drunk now or cellared for another 15 or more years.”

High praise, to be sure.  But we can’t help but think that if the wine had a little more of a ‘trophy’ style that obliterates terroir for the sake of hedonism, with overt, lavish oak, and carried the name of one of the current media darlings, it would have garnered a couple more points and approached ‘legend’ status.  To Michael’s credit, this is as fine an expression of this vineyard, in a pure, honest style, that we have tasted from Keenan.

But we also think this effort is better even than the reviews chronicle and we’d think to ourselves that it seems to us that sometimes the ‘old guard’ has to do more to get the same recognition.  One of the Cabs of the vintage for us thus far and, given the cost of Napa reserve Cabs these day, attractively priced as well.

THE PERFECT CABERNET?

It has been our mission to fight the high cost of ‘North Coast Cabernet’ because the ones with that nebulous title are rarely very exciting, and the ones that say Napa Valley on them are typically too expensive.  One of our solutions to this issue is to put successful and well priced options from ‘other places’ in front of you for you consideration.  We have stated that Chile and Argentina have really been finding their mojo over the last few years and this effort from one of the pioneers of the modern era in Chile definitely scored a gooooaaaaaal with this one.

The star of this story, Lapostolle, has now had nearly a quarter century to perfect their craft, and they are certainly working on a high plane right now.  If you don’t know the story, it’s a classic tale of French people going to the New World to try and make magic.   Lapostolle Wines was founded by Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle and her husband Cyril de Bournet in 1994. Alexandra is a member of the renowned family that has been dedicated for several generations to the production of high-quality spirits and wines (like Grand Marnier).   After visiting Chile, Alexandra and Cyril not only fell in love with the Colchagua Valley, they also detected the enormous potential of the country to produce premium wines.

To that end they have been producing a number of different wines that showcase the region, none more interesting than their efforts with Bordeaux varietals, some of it brought here from Bordeaux in the 19th Century (pre-phylloxera).  They were one of the ‘true believers’ in Chile and when their super-premium Clos Apalta 1997, one of the first of its kind, there were plenty of nay-sayers.  But the wine has now established unquestioned credibility (the 2013 was a 97 from James Suckling, the 2014 a ‘100’, for example).  All the while the winery has benefited not only from the means and knowledge of its ownership, but an association with wine guru Michel Rolland.

The Lapostolle Cabernet Sauvignon Cuvee Alexandre Apalta 2013 definitely shows a ‘trickle down’ effect.  It is plush and polished like something twice the price, with a sexy core of black fruits and notes of cocoa and graphite.  The Lapostolle Cabernet Sauvignon Cuvee Alex Alexandre 2013 comes from the same Apalta vineyard as the ‘big dog’.  The process here is very natural with minimal intervention. The grapes are 100% hand harvested in small cases of 14 kilos, there is strict fruit selection by state-of-the-art optical sorting and 15% hand de-stemming of the grapes. Gentle extraction methods and a judicious use of oak are key to making a wine that is ample, pure, and supple.

Having tasted several vintages of Lapostolle, we can honestly say that this is one of the best.  Apparently we weren’t the only fans.  James Suckling had this to say, “Deep and dense yet agile and fine. Full body, blueberry and black currant character, and a seamless silky finish. Gorgeous pure cabernet sauvignon. Biodynamically grown grapes. Drink or hold….94 ponts.”  Note his comment on ‘purity’ alongside ours.  In a world where reds are tasting ever more formulaic, this tastes like a really good, balanced Cabernet.

The best part is that, with all of the laborious handling, this delightful, plush, engaging Cabernet, with an extra bonus of being five years old, can be had for under $20!  A delicious, honest, varietally true red at a great price, with a little bottle age and an impressive review, is this the ‘perfect Cabernet’ for ‘current applications’ or what?!

 

MAYACAMAS-HISTORY RETOOLED

Anyone that has been a part of the California wine scene has heard the name Mayacamas.  Purchased by Robert Travers in 1968, it was a visible member of the first wave of boutique California wineries.   Under Travers, the winery gained international fame, particularly for its Cabernet and its legendary longevity.  Arguably this was the first important ‘mountain Cabernet’ as Napa Valley moved to make its mark on the wine world.  There were some distinct aspects to the winery, not the least of which was Travers own dry wit as a part of his winery missives.

While Mayacamas was still generally considered ‘top drawer’,  the luxurious ‘trophy style’ became the style that dominated the review boards.  As the preferred style leaned more towards pandering fruit and lots of creamy oak, Travers always stuck to his guns and the more ‘traditional’ style of Mayacamas Cabs rendered the label considerably less topical.  The respect was always there, just not the buzz any more.

While very ‘mountain’ and very honest in their presentation, the wines were also often a bit chewy and perhaps a tad rustic.   Eventually Bob got to the point where it was time to retire, and the property was purchased by a partnership of former Screaming Eagle owner Charles Banks and retail entrepreneur Jay Schottenstein in 2013.  The timing of Banks’ well publicized legal problems took him out of the game relatively quickly, leaving the winery under Schottenheim’s supervision.

The winery now points to 2013 as the beginning of a new era, and the 2013 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon clearly demonstrates that there is a new sheriff in town.  Bringing in husband and wife team of former Screaming Eagle winemaker Andy Erickson and Annie Favia has had an immediate impact and we dare say this is the most impressive effort from Mayacamas we have ever tasted.  This is not your father’s Mayacamas.  This one has structure, yes, but a purity and tenderness we can’t recall from these Cabernets in the past.  Rich but also refined with a fleshy wrap of red and black fruits flecked with wild herbs, graphite, and cocoa coating the fine tannins.

The 97 point review from Antonio Galloni is a good jumping off point for the new Mayacamas with comments like, “The flavors are dark, bold and incisive, with potent tannins and a real feeling of gravitas to back things up. Black cherry, game, smoke, gravel and licorice add to an impression of brooding intensity. In many ways, the 2013 reminds me of some of the great wines of the 1970s in its dark, imposing personality.”

As to the quality, we agree wholeheartedly.  This Cabernet knocked us out.  But we differ on the comparisons to those ‘70s Cabs because this one is far more cohesive and harmonious and, given this particular winery’s history, much more engaging in its youth.  If you’ve got the fare, this is something special.

 

THREE GOOD AMERICAN ‘VALUE’ REDS

Not words you are likely to hear strung together very often from us .  First, our definition of value is perhaps a lot different than the majority of the marketplace.  First, a value doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘cheap’, it merely has to deliver far above its purchase price.  For the sake of argument today, however, this trio all sell for under $20.

Second, it has to taste like actual wine, as opposed to some of the current mass market items that taste formulaic as if someone put some juice, wood essence and sugar in a blender to approximate a desired flavor that isn’t necessarily wine-like.  Worse are the ones that are manipulated to the point of utter soullessness so as not to offend anyone.  Sadly, most of what is out there in the ‘value’ category falls into one of those categories.

Our struggle is to find fun things to drink that have character, some varietal identity where a varietal is stated, and possibly even notes of place.   In other words, things that taste like they were made from grapes instead of in the laboratory.  In America, such wines represent a fraction of what is available because most of the ‘price point’ bottlings are controlled to some extent by corporate-type entities or those trying to compete with them.

We seek the small, the talented, the maybe even a little bit quirky and are thrilled when we find something we are excited enough to talk about.  Can’t remember the last time we had three such American wines at the same time.  Usually we have to ‘outsource’ for quality in this price range

Lola Pinot Noir North Coast 2016

Though they have been around since 2008, this is only our second encounter with LOLA.  Winemaker/owner Seth Cripe got bit by the wine bug at 17 while working as a busboy near his home in Anna Maria Island, Florida.  You’ve heard the story before many times about the person who works at various wine locales around the world to learn  ropes and then finds his niche.  Seth’s niche turned out to be making wine from important  appellations, but selling them at reasonable prices.  What a concept.  The LOLA Pinot Noir tastes like, um, Pinot Noir.  Good Pinot Noir and we aren’t trying to be wiseacres because you know so many of them out there only bear a vague resemblance to the real deal after they have been manipulated in the cellar and pumped up with some other varietal.

The winery is located in Napa, but the juice for the Lola Pinot Noir North Coast 2016 comes from Pinot-legit places like Mendocino, Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast AVAs.  Tender, fruit driven core, red fruits that lean a little blue, a touch of spice and violet, it is a surprisingly engaging quaff.  Since LOLA costs about the same as a mass-marketed Pinot whose name is five letters starting with ‘M’ and ending in ‘I’, we can’t imagine why anyone would buy that when they could buy this!  The only reason we can fathom is that people don’t know about LOLA yet.  The whole winery produces 12,000 cases total of several varietals, and there are hundreds of thousands of cases of our mass-market Pinot.   Clearly LOLA is still kind of an insiders’ find, but now you know.

We’ll leave here with the words of Jeb Dunnuck, who apparently also found this Pinot rather charming,

“…An excellent value …It saw a touch of whole cluster and 6 months in used barrels. It offers a sweetly fruited, pretty, elegant, classic Pinot Noir style (which isn’t a given at this price point) to go with notes of cherries, toast and spice. Drink it over the coming 3-5 years…90 points.”

Ryan Patrick Redhead Red Columbia Valley 2016

 Washington is still something of a sleeping giant when it comes to making value reds.  But we have certainly had our eyes opened by the likes of Alder Ridge and Powers, and little blends from folks like Bookwalter.  Behold our newest surprise, the Ryan Patrick Redhead Red Columbia Valley 2016.  An unpretentious blend of 56% Cabernet, 22% Merlot, 17% Syrah, 5% Petit Verdot, it has the size and polish to excel as a casual quaff, but if you pay a little attention you can also see that there is some serious fruit in here in top-flight grapes sourced from the Wahluke Slope.

The winery prides itself on its flexibility.  In their own words, “Many wineries use static recipes for their wines. Instead, the (Partick Ryan) winemaking team, headed by Kendall Mix, does daily fermentations with different yeast or temperatures to achieve a specific effect.  Batch-tinkering approaches have resulted in varietals and blends that have justifiably become famous for how they out-perform their price point. Ryan Patrick is known for its Naked Chardonnay, Redhead Red and Rock Island Red labels, and for its Reserve wines.

Only 15% of this charming, juicy, not-so-‘little’ red from Ryan Patrick saw any oak.  The focus here is on generous berry, black cherry, and cassis flavors.  At under $10 this is quite the bargain and the wine’s weight is more akin to a riper Bordeaux than something jammy from, say, Paso Robles.  As such it is more versatile with food and doesn’t get tiresome in the glass.

 Ultraviolet Cabernet Sauvignon California 2016

Samantha Sheehan had the good fortune to taste a lot of the world’s great wines at a fairly young age.  She knows what exceptional wine is supposed to taste like.  To satisfy her own artistic needs, she founded Poe Winery with the intent of showcasing specific California vineyard terroirs made in a transparent, minimalist way.  There’s also apparently a little whimsy as Poe also produces a nouveau Pinot, Vermouths and, of course, a Rose.  Apparently the winery is involved in a charitable endeavor or two, but there is still an awareness that not everybody can plunk down serious money for wine.

To that end, Sheehan has been making a wine called Ultraviolet Cabernet since 2010 in a price range that can appeal to a much broader audience.  Why ‘ultraviolet’?  Apparently it is a nod to ‘fruit ripened in the California sun’.  The wine also bears the banner “Bottled in the Napa Valley” with the wine’s appellation not immediately evident.  On the back label it says California Cabernet in a way that doesn’t really give the impression that it is an appellation reference.

What is evident is that, while this fruit may not be all from Napa, it also doesn’t taste like it is sporting the kind of Central California ‘filler’ that most ‘value’ Cabs seem to feel they need to have for cost reasons.  If it isn’t all North Coast fruit, it certainly tastes like it is.  What is particularly relevant here, besides the supple (particularly for a young Cabernet) cassis fruit component, is the texture.  There’s a suppleness to the midpalate you don’t typically see in wines of this price range, with rounder edges and laid back tannins.

It isn’t big or jammy.  It is a crowd pleaser certainly with enough volume and fruit that tastes like it is supposed to taste, genuine and rather elegant.  The stats are interesting in that the wine is 95% Cabernet and 5% Franc, and it sees 50% new French oak but the wood is definitely integrated.  The point is that it definitely shows a certain breeding and delivers a lot for it’s more than modest fare.

 

 

RIDGE CABERNET SAUVIGNON ESTATE 2014-Montebello Heritage, Lower Fare

One of our long time tenets has been to explore ‘other offerings’ from iconic wineries.  If you haven’t heard our reasoning it’s pretty simple.  ‘Iconic’ wines are wines that have achieved a certain status because of continued excellence over a period of time, and our thought (which has proven true time and again) is that the folks who make great wines answer to a higher standard than the rest.  A value wine for them has to still fill a certain criteria no matter what.

Over the years we have told this story a number of times, usually with the subject being something from a top Bordeaux chateau like Lafite or Pavie, a Chave or a Lodovico, or something of that ilk.  We openly admit that our usual forte is the Old World because California has eschewed the value handle it seems, almost bristling at the suggestion that anything of theirs be offered at a price that is less that whatever they divined to sell it for.  But even here, the theory can work.  It’s just a matter of finding the example.

So who is our icon?  Well, it would be difficult for any California aficionado would deny that Ridge Montebello is among the state’s most storied Cabernet series.  AS folks who have tasted these them since the late 80s, we would have the temerity to suggest that Montebello has actually gotten better over time and the current releases are among the best ever.  The problem is that the wine is becoming even more scarce and, these days, sells in the $200 range.

That’s what makes this story particularly important.  A few years back we started to see a wine called Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Estate.  So what is it?  Well, in this case, think of Ridge Montebello’s answer to Carruades de Lafite, Les Forts de Latour, or Pavillon Rouge de Chateau Margaux.   In other words this is Ridge Cabernet from the younger vines and deselected lots of the ‘big dog’.  There was a lot of experimentation that lead to this decision, with earlier versions that were simply labeled Ridge ‘Santa Cruz Mountains’ until we started to see this nomenclature in 2008.

We liked the 2012 version of this wine quite a bit (it was also a Wine Advocate 92 and 94 Galloni), but think the new version, while perhaps a little less outgoing out of the gate than the 2012, is possibly even a touch more polished and complete.  Once again we were not alone and this Cab already has a few reviews including a 92 from former Wine Advocate scribe Jeb Dunnuck who has recently started his own service, and Antonio Galloni’s 93.

Galloni posts a rather rave review, stating “…bold, incisive flavors. Even with all of its intensity, the 2014 has a certain silkiness in its tannins that makes it approachable today. Of course, the 2014 will be even better in another few years, but opening a bottle on the early side is not a crime. The 2014 spent 27 months in French oak. Readers who are looking for a more affordable alternative to Ridge’s iconic Monte Bello should consider the 2014 Estate. Look for the Estate to be a real overachiever in 2014 as well as one of the best – possibly the best – California Cabernets in its price range.

 That’s kind of what we’re on about here.  This is a brilliant effort made up of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, and 5% Cabernet Franc, and 100% Montebello fruit! More importantly, it’s a very classy, sophisticated Cabernet essentially hidden in plain sight in the shadow of its famous sibling.  This is not a place most folks think to look for an elite Cabernet but beside performance, horse sense tells you that you can’t buy much in Napa at this level for $60-70.  So in its own way, the Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Estate 2014, at a quarter the price of the Montebello, is a legit value for folks looking for serious Cabernet.  It’s also proof that the more affordable efforts from big time players theory works in California sometimes as well.

 

 

PURLIEU CABERNET 2014-SERIOUS DIRT YIELDS SERIOUS JUICE

This is a curious example of the ‘new math’, and certainly an anomaly in today’s Napa.  In world where legitimate $40-50 Cabernets are asking $150, this guy is offering a wine sourced from an iconic list of Napa vineyards, made by one of Napa’s ‘rock star’ winemakers, for less than $100.  This isn’t our first go-around with Purlieu Cabernets.  We’ve sold a couple of prior vintages just because we thought they were seriously good and offered value in a rarefied world of elite Napa Cabernets that seems to be philosophically averse to it.

The list of vineyards in the Purlieu Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2014 is sick…Missouri Hopper, Beckstoffer To-Kalon, the Pritchard Hill vineyard next to Ovid (Martinez) and Teucer.  These make $150-300+ single vineyard wines for Purlieu and others.  Put them together and it’s…less?  The fruit in this wine is gorgeous…black cherry, plum, and blackcurrant with flecks of vanilla, toast, and dark chocolate (around 82% cocoa if you want specifics, chocolate geeks).    In line with the 2014 vintage, the wine is pretty seamless front-to-back, and the texture of plush and palate caressing.

The winemaker here is one Julien Fayard, one of Napa’s rising superstars with a resume that sounds like some one made it up.  He has worked as the director of winemaking for Phillipe Melka’s all-star team that took care of wineries like Hundred Acre, Vineyard 29, Lail, and Gemstone.

Robert Parker’s notes are pretty enthusiastic about the wine, “The real knock-out is the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa… this is a superb example of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Inky purple in color, with beautiful blackberry and cassis fruit, a touch of creosote, charcoal and some subtle background oak, the wine hits the palate with authority, serious extract and richness, but enough acidity to frame up its boisterous and exuberant parts. It is a big, rich, concentrated, mouth-filling Cabernet Sauvignon with relatively sweet tannin. It should drink well for 15-20 years, possibly longer…94 points”

We would’t be at all surprised if this sexy, layered Cabernet could kick some serious tail in a scrum of high-digit Napa stalwarts, yet at this price it’s actually a deal based on performance in our minds. Robert Parker went out of his way to say the wine ‘wasn’t a bargain’ at under $100.  Since ‘print’ has no nuance, we aren’t sure about the context of that comment, but we politely (though firmly) disagree.  We aren’t the type of folks that tell people to spend this kind of money lightly and are very measured in our praise. This one delivers.  It’s is also as crowd pleasing a high end Cabernet as we have had in a while.  It will only get better.  Not everyone can play at this level price-wise.  But if you can, this is a star.

 

Double Down on this aged cab!

If you have ever driven on Alamo Pintado Road between Solvang and Los Olivos, you pass right by Blackjack Ranch Vineyards. If the name strikes you as a little curious, proprietor Roger Wisted essentially made his bones by inventing a game called ‘California Aces’, a variation on traditional Blackjack that essentially made it possible for gaming interests to circumvent an 1873 law banning the game of Blackjack in California.

In any case, many of the large retailers in Southern California knew Roger as a consumer with a penchant for big time Bordeaux some two decades ago. Surely, we weren’t the only ones surprised when we heard about Roger going into the winery business. But the surprise was less because he did it and more that he chose the Solvang area to feature a winery whose reputation was based on Bordeaux varietals. From a historical perspective at the time, this was rather outside the box in an area best known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Roger made a bet and he won. The winery has stood the test of time and has spent nearly two decades as one of Robert Parker’s favorite wineries, including over 40 wines that have scored 90+. That’s some serious consistency considering his first vintage was in the mid-90’s!

This is a very personal, ‘hands on’ operation with respect to running the place. Roger is not some absentee owner running his winery from a mansion or boardroom in another part of the country. He is invested. One can also make the point that there is a definite ‘house style’. “Blackjack reds are demur, elegant, and restrained’ said no one, ever. The reds here are dark, extracted and packed with dense, weighty fruit, somewhat the antithesis of the typical profiles of the region. The old Ravenswood motto of ‘no wimpy wines’ definitely applies here.

The winery has changed horses from a distribution standpoint a few times, which may have resulted in the wines being less visible than they might otherwise have been. But when they do turn up again, as they did a few weeks ago, their distinctive stylings are unmistakable.

A selection of reds that was presented to us recently were true to form…dark, mouth filling, and substantial. But, one really jumped out. As we have tasted Blackjack over the years, we’ve occasionally wondered how they might age. We got the opportunity to find out with the Blackjack Harmonie 2005. The answer, at least in this case, was ‘very well’. Harmonie is the flagship red, in this vintage made from 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 15% Cabernet Franc that was aged in 100% sexy, new Taransaud French oak, arguably the Prada of the genre.

The Cabernet itself was harvested via five separate passes through the vineyard to select only the fruit that was optimally ripe. The Cab Franc came from a parcel on the steep Suicide Hill, adding aromatic highlights and complexity. The resulting wine, now over a decade old, is in a beautiful groove with blackcurrant, mocha, fresh tobacco, and a pleasing tinge of sweet herb. All those great Bordeaux that Roger had experienced over the years certainly helped create the blueprint for this little gem.

Interestingly, Wine Advocate’s Jeb Dunnuck tasted this wine as recently as 2015 and wrote, “I had never tasted the wines, but Robert Parker loved the older releases and I was thrilled to be able to taste them this go around. I came away more than impressed. These are concentrated, rich, and full-throttle beauties that deliver tons of fruit and texture while remaining balanced and thrillingly drinkable.

Of the 2005 Harmonie, he offered, “… classic cassis, lead pencil shavings, bay leaf and tobacco notes in a full-bodied, ripe, layered, yet elegant style on the palate…a beautiful Bordeaux blend that’s still fresh and lively. Feel free to drink this beauty anytime over the coming decade…92 points”

Tons of fruit, texture, balanced, with time in the bottle and at an appealing price? For Cabernet drinkers that’s the holy grail. And who wouldn’t enjoy popping the cork on something that’s ‘thrillingly drinkable’?

Originally $70 at the winery, Roger has an aggressive library program (his love of older Bordeaux certainly the inspiration) and has allowed us to secure a reasonable quantity of this wine at a terrific price. Only $39.98 for a recently-tasted 92-point Cabernet with bottle age from a terrific vintage.

How often does that happen?

Blackjack Ranch Harmonie Proprietary Red Wine 2005