Archive for the ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’ Category

Name The Hess Collection
Wines Tasted
  • 2006 19 Block Cuvee
  • 2006 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2005 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2004 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2003 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2001 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 1998 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon
Location Napa, CA
Tasting Price

Tasting – $30 ($15 for wine club members)

  • 2006 19 Block Cuvee – 7 – a strange blend, very complex, with random scents and tastes that turn up depending on what you’re thinking, what you’re eating, and the time of day.
  • 2006 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon – 7 – young and definitely in need of time.  Not ready for drinking yet, but HUGE potential.
  • 2005 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon – 7.5 – still a little young, but lovely, thick, rich mouthfeel suggesting it will age wonderfully.
  • 2004 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon – 7.5 – pine needles, cocoa, and cherry flavors all make this a unique cabernet, and one that will lend itself especially well to certain foods.
  • 2003 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon – 9 – intoxicating nose, velvet mouthfeel, complex, intricate flavor blend.
  • 2001 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon – 8 – Worcestershire sauce and red meat on the nose; a Bordeaux-style cabernet flavor.
  • 1998 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon – 8 – amazingly bright for the age; could easily last another 5 years.

I like Cabernet Sauvignon.  I like the thick, rich mouth-feel you get from a good Cabernet, the complex variety of scents that waft from the huge bowl of a sexy, garnet colored glass.  Cabernet Sauvignon is a great example of a wine that builds, grows, and develops as a result of the ground, the weather, the wine maker, and the age.  Its like a child – infinite potential, infinite possibilities… something that can become amazing, change the world, or alternatively, something that stains your carpet, ruins your mood, and makes you sick to your stomach.  And the Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon from Mount Veeder are a defining example of how different a wine can be, even when you begin to control some of the variables – sending that child to a great school, making sure you get him involved in piano lessons and sports and volunteering at the hospital on weekends.  But I’m getting ahead of myself – this visit deserves some more background before we jump into the main course.

When we arrived at Hess, one of the first things I took notice of was I had no cell reception.  This might seem an odd thing to notice, but I’m nearly always connected somehow or another, so when I couldn’t send a foursquare update to let the world know where I was, it was striking.  Hess is near the top of a mountain, surrounded by trees, and opening up onto vineyards, thoughtfully done landscaping, and modern art.

The zinfandel vines on the Hess property.

This was a look at the Zinfandel vines off of the parking lot, near to the administrative buildings.  I really liked how the vines seemed to imitate the artistic feel you find when you enter the ‘campus’ area, where the first of the instances of modern art come into view.

A quiet walkway up to a nice spot for thinking. Its not hard to find a quiet spot to simply stop and think, and in the summertime or spring I could see myself simply taking a glass of wine, my Kindle, or my iPod, and whiling away the day.  Certainly, its not as rambunctious as a bocce ball court or a picnic area, but there’s something to be said for being understated… and encouraging thoughtfulness.


Needless to say I wandered around outside for a while, but it was a little chilly to spend a full afternoon exploring the grounds, so we went inside and decided to next look through the art.  They don’t actually allow photography inside, which is a shame, because there are some pieces that I would have loved to try capturing on film… especially the typewriter on fire.  The photo that they have on the Hess website doesn’t really do it justice.  As a warning to those who would come and simply explore the artwork – it definitely takes a modern/interpretative bend, and so please don’t come expecting pastoral oilpaintings of the Napa Valley.  Much of what we saw on display was extremely dark, depressed, and angry.  It was striking, particularly in the low, cloudy light of the day after the storms passed.

After spending some time wandering among the pieces, it was time for us to move on to the wine bar.  The wine bar at Hess has high ceilings, dark wood bars, and very friendly staff.  We were welcomed heartily by Tim, a wiry gentleman with glasses, white-gray hair, and an air of knowing what’s what about him.  He offered us to choose any four wines from the standard list, and we almost did just that, until I noticed a small leaflet offering a five-vinetage library tasting of Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon.  My companion likes Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon better than almost any other, choosing it over Rutherford cabs, Alexander Valley cabs, and Stag’s Leap cabs.  Needless to say, we had to try it, and Tim was only too happy to walk us through each.

He poured us six glasses, lining up each of the library Cabernet Sauvignon bottles behind the glassware.  The one without a bottle?  The current release.  Before we were able to take our first sip, he asked whether, during our last trip, we had tried the 19 block cuvee.  We thought that we had, but weren’t sure, as it had been months earlier.  “You have to try this first,” he whispered, pouring another glass, “You won’t be able to taste all the nuance after you’ve started the big Mt. Veeders…”

We sipped and tasted and took notes, and traded stories.  It was an exceptional time; we stayed for about an hour and a half, and took home two bottles with us.  If you’re headed to Hess, call ahead and find out if Tim’s going to be there.  He’s worth a trip in and of himself.

The Results!

2006 19 Block Cuvee – 19 Block Cuvee is a Cabernet Sauvignon blend sourced completely with grapes from Mt. Veeder.  in 2006, 69% cabernet sauvignon, 11% malbec, 10% syrah, 5% merlot, 2% cabernet franc, and 3% petit verdot blend together for 18 months in 50% new/
50% neutral French oak before being bottled and released upon the world in 2008.  One of the things that I thought was most striking about the 19 Block Cuvee was how many different scents, tastes, and nuances I got as I tasted it.  On the nose I got everything from crispy fish skin to hay-smoke to bacon; a real melange of savory smells that had my companion begging to have it made into a candle.  Once tasted, the most frequent flavors I got were smoked City ham and blackberry preserves.  However I’d get a twinge of basil here, a little bing cherry there, a whisper of currant on the finish.  This wine clearly would love just about any food you want to pair it with (and Hess proves it, serving it with day scallops in one of their signature wine-food pairings).  At $36/bottle, its a really good deal for a blended cabernet sauvignon from a fantastic location.

2006 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabarnet Sauvignon – The baby in the group came first in our journey into the library, and a baby it was.  The mouth-feel is extremely plush, and the flavors of plum, blackberry, and cedar are there, but they are still growing.  You can tell this is going to be a huge wine, but its still figuring itself out, and so it comes across as being unbalanced and out of whack.  The wine is made up of 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Malbec, 1% Merlot, 1% Petit Verdot, and much like the 19 Block Cuvee, it spends 18 months in 50% new/50% neutral French oak.  I liked this wine, but it didn’t have the depth or character that I want in a Cabernet Sauvignon.  At $48/bottle, it would absolutely be worth it to buy a bottle or two, lay it down for 5 or 10 years, and see how it develops.  But do not buy to drink now; its just not ready yet.

2005 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon –  How much difference a year makes…. the 2005 had that same velvety mouthfeel, and while it was still tasting a little young, the complexity of the wine and the impact of the age has started to really crystallize the blackberry and cherry flavors, as well as drawing out a smoky-coffee finish that will absolutely appeal to espresso drinkers.  At $55/bottle, its clearly approaching more expensive, but part of what you’re paying for here is not having to wait for the wine to be ready yourself.   2005 was a good year for cabernet in Napa, but if you’re looking for a good bet… you may want to look to our next taste, the 2004.

2004 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon – The complexity on the 2004 really begins to show itself, as does the differences in weather.  2005 was a big year for crops in Napa, which is one of the reasons that you’re still able to find good bottles relatively easily.  2004 was a much lower-yield year.  This may be attributed to the mild growing season that ultimately led to an exceptionally warm September.  Whatever the cause, the results are wines with balance as well as depth and intensity of flavor that can make for fantastic wine in the right hands.  In the 2004 Hess, this translated into a more delicate mouth-feel than in 2005 or 2006.  On the nose, you get mint-chocolate, like a York peppermint patty.  A sip will take you to Aspen, where you are sitting in a ski chalet among the pines, enjoying a mug of cocoa laced with cherry brandy.  At $60/bottle, this is something to be experienced, if you have the disposable income and some time.

2003 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon –  Stepping back, I will fully admit that the 2003 was my favorite of the day.  It is exactly the style of Cabernet Sauvignon that I tend to prefer – a wonderful perfumed nose that takes me back to France, and my trip with my Mom, rather than the sunny slopes of California.  The hint of pine needles still comes across, similar to what you get in the 2004, but instead of the dark chocolate, there is a dustiness, a cedar, and a warm-leather quality that swirls around in the deep, lingering flavor of black cherries, blackberries, and plum.  To me, this is a wine you can have on its own while you’re reading, its a wine you can share with a lover in front of the fire, and a wine you can serve with roasted venison chops to your in-laws.  It’s an everything wine.  At $65/bottle, its pricey but not compared to a 2003 Stag’s Leap, which goes for $115.  Really, it comes down to whether you like dusty, loamy cabernet with structure, fruit, and an amazing perfume.  If you do, then go out and buy this.  If not, take a pass… maybe hit up BV, which is entirely different.

2001 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon – Sometimes, a wine is designed for a specific sort of food, a specific palate, a specific need.  The 2001, to me, is one of those wines.  When I breathed in the scent, I was immediately reminded of Worcestershire sauce, the jus that bleeds from a freshly carved piece of meat, black pepper, and age.  This was a wine to be consumed in a leather chair, with mahogany arms, a T-Bone steak, a baked potato the size of your head, laden with butter and chives, and followed by a well-stored cigar.  It is a Bordeaux-style, much like the 2003, but the finish is shorter.  It seems to me that a lovely, fatty cut of meat will draw that finish out wonderfully, and that the plum, currant, and black pepper will please any carnivore.  For $75/bottle, its not the one I’d choose to take home, but then, I’m not a huge fan of a thick hunk of meat. 🙂

1998 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet – This one was the surprise of the afternoon, not because of how much we liked it (we brought a bottle home, since it was my companion’s absolute favorite) but because of how much life still lives in this wine, how much brightness still lingers in the fruit.  Despite being around 12 years old, you could easily guess this as being a 2004 or 2005.  It is bright, full of cherries, blackberries, and yet still really delicate.  The acid you find in cabernet franc and petit verdot managed to hold on wonderfully, and those spicy blackpepper and floral aromas last and last. I’m not sure what I’d pair this wine with, except perhaps a strong, creamy cheese, but its wonderful and absolutely worth a taste if its available to you.  Moreover, Hess will sell you a bottle for $65 (same as the 2003!) and save you the need to be patient until 2018 for the 2006 to be ready to go.

Name Frank Family Vineyards
Wines Tasted
  • Champagne  Blanc de Noir
  • Champagne Blanc de Blanc
  • Champagne Rouge
  • 2007 Napa Valley Chardonnay
  • 2008 Reserve Chardonnay (Carneros)
  • 2007 Napa Valley Zinfandel
  • 2007 Reserve Zinfandel
  • 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2007 Reserve Sangiovese
Location Calistoga, CA
Tasting Price

Tasting – $10

  • NV Champagne Blanc de Blancs – 5 – A simple, acidic sparkling wine with strong citrus notes.
  • NV Champagne Blanc de Noir – 6 – A bit more berry fruit, still quite acidic and citrusy, but very drinkable.
  • NV Champage Rouge – 6 – Reminiscent of sparkling water flavored with cranberry-lime, this is a little sweet, a little acidic, and a great fit for a summer BBQ if you want something a little different.
  • 2007 Napa Valley Chardonnay – 2 – served warm, and as such, this had a mouthfeel like drinking someone else’s saliva.  Really unpleasant.
  • 2008 Reserve Chardonnay – 5 – very oaky; nutmeg, vanilla, hazelnuts, and marshmallow.
  • 2007 Napa Valley Zinfandel – 4 – unbalanced, with a strong acid push.  Blackcherry and licorice flavors.
  • 2007 Reserve Zinfandel – 5 – stewed figs and orange zest, with a cloying mouthfeel.
  • 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – 5 – cedar, black cherries, black pepper, and a heavy leather finish.
  • 2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvginon – 6 – plush, soft mouthfeel; blackberry, vanilla, and cedar flavors.
  • 2007 Reserve Sangiovese – 6 – ammonia nose, but strawberry, currant, and citrus taste.

I’ve been to Frank Family once before, probably 6-8 months ago, and had a fun time.  When I went, I didn’t bring anything home, and as great as the reputation is, I wondered this weekend why that was.  I hadn’t gotten into the practice of taking really good notes, nor had I been tasting as often, so I decided it was worth another shot… and I really wish I hadn’t gone down that road, because this visit totally spoiled the experience I had had months and months ago.

When we arrived, the front porch entrance into the winery was littered with small children eating sandwiches the size of their heads.  At the time, we thought it was bizarre, but not completely unheard of – parents are entitled to go wine tasting too, and the Frank Family group is typically very welcoming, so we figured it was just a group of wine club members trying to make the most of a rainy afternoon.  We entered, and the first thing that happened was a young man greeted us and asked for our tasting fee.  No real welcome, no explanation of what they were about… just a request for a credit card.  No matter… possible that it was a new tasting room staff person, and it was extremely busy, so I could see how if they didn’t get the cards right away, there would be the potential for people sneaking in without paying.

We walked up to the bar to the right of the entrance, where a man in a button down shirt and sweatpants and glasses was pouring champagne for another couple.  As we approached, they smiled and said (to him) that they were headed to the next bar-stop, and walked off.  And so did he… despite the fact that he saw us waiting there, he went off to talk to another tasting room person.  Ignoring us completely – no welcome, no mention of when he was going to come back, or if someone else would be helping us.  He just left.

At this point, I was beginning to get turned off to the whole experience, but I like champagne and I hadn’t had theirs before, so I stood my ground.  About 5 minutes later, another gentleman came to the champagne bar and said, surprised, “Oh, you haven’t had anything yet!  Well let me pour you some blanc de blancs.”  He made small talk with us, and another couple, pouring us the sparkling wines and in general, being relatively friendly.  Things seemed to be turning around!

After finishing our sparkling wine, however, we were directed to the back tasting room with Tim.  Oh Tim.  Tim, with the terrible teeth and the show-offy mannerisms.  Tim who thought it was a good idea to list off all the big names in the Napa Valley that he’d met in his years in the wine industry.  Tim who told one of the other guests that they needed to go back to their own bar, and then snickered about them to his tasting room guests for being ‘completely inappropriate’… when the misguided guests simply didn’t realize that each bar didn’t pour different things.  The wine wasn’t good – and you will read about that later on – but the service we were given throughout our stay was atrocious.

The guy who had originally left us waiting with no sparkling wine?  He came into the back tasting room and literally hid behind the sliding wooden door to ‘avoid XXXX’ – another guest.

I have always been told that the hospitality at Frank Family Vineyard is bar none, and the first time I went, I felt that was deserved – we enjoyed stories and good humor, and it was clear the staff were proud of their wine.  This time, I was treated to arrogance and snarkiness and a general sense of not being welcome.  And I will not be going back again.

The Results!

NV Chamagne Blanc de Blanc – A very simple sparkling wine, the color was that of straw, and there was next to no nose, which isn’t inherently a bad sign.  However, tasting it revealed lime, lemon, and acid – no depth, no yeastiness, no character in the fruit.  At $35/bottle, its not a bad option if you have it available to you, but its not widely distributed.  Moreover, with very little depth, it lends itself to mixing… and you can pay less if you want to mix your sparkling wine with juice.  My suggestion, if you’re looking for a similarly priced, available blanc de blanc, go with Gloria Ferrer.  You can get the 2005 vinetage for $28, and its got a lot more complexity.

NV Champagne Blanc de Noir – Happily, this sparkling wine has much more depth than its lighter cousin.  This sparkling has a hint of strawberry mixed into the citrus, and a bit of toastiness that will please champagne lovers.  At $35/bottle, I’d be much more apt to purchase this one, if I wanted to buy a FF sparkler… but again, I think you can do better for your money.  Gloria Ferrer makes a nice one, or even better, the Domaine Carneros at $33/bottle is delicious, light, bright, and biscuity.

NV Champagne Rouge – With Valentine’s Day coming up, you may be looking for something sparkling with a little more seasonal flair.  The FF Champagne Rouge is a fun choice (again at $35/bottle) with strawberry, orange zest, and that same citrus-thread that you taste in the blanc de blanc and blanc de noir.  The gentleman who poured this for us suggested it would be good with short ribs, or at a BBQ, and I could see that – it’d be a really fun option to pour for folks who typically prefer a white merlot.  Not nearly as sweet as that (so be forewarned), but it would make your guests feel special.  Or you could get the Beringer white merlot for $6 and spend the remaining $29 on Godiva….  Just saying…

2007 Napa Valley Chardonnay
This one I loathe to even review.  It was poured warm… not room temperature, but at body temperature.  The fact that I gave it a 2 is simply in recognition that it wasn’t corked.  It was miserably over-oaked, had no fruit left.  And it made my stomach turn with the mouthfeel.  Appropriately chilled, I’d imagine it would have been… manageable.  As tasted, I was barely able to avoid spitting out the first sip.  (For those curious, it’s $32.50 – go out and buy La Crema Sonoma Coast chardonnay for $20 and get some take-out to go with it)

2008 Reserve Chardonnay –  The FF reserve chardonnay was aged in all new oak barrels, and underwent 100% malolactic fermentation…. and surprisingly, given the standard chardonnay, the result was not over oaked.  While not to my personal taste, the reserve chardonnay had a nose of baked appled and flavors including nutmeg, a hint of coconut, hazelnuts, vanilla, and marshmallow.  For those who like their chardonnays with a little residual sugar, this would probably be a win.  At $55/bottle, its overpriced for what you’re getting, but if the flavors described are the sort you like, then have at it.  Its a decently made American-style chardonnay.

2007 Napa Valley Zinfandel – Heavy handed on the acid, which resulted in a bland, shadow of cherries after I finally stopped salivating.  The finish was reminiscent of black licorice and black pepper, which was a bizarre way to end a really boring wine.  At $36.75, I think you’re better off getting a Seghesio … the Sonoma Zin is $24 and absolutely fantastic.

2007  Reserve Zinfandel – Much more complex than the standard, and much like the reserve chardonnay, this wasn’t to my taste but I could clearly see the finesse that the winemaker displayed.  The flavors were of fig, cassis, and orange zest, with a very thick, syrupy mouthfeel.  This Zinfandel would lend itself to chocolate or a really zesty pasta sauce, and folks who like ruby port are likely to really enjoy it.  For $49.50, again, I’d rather take a Seghesio (this time, and at this price point, the Rockpile would be a clear winner…), but I prefer my zinfandels to be more on the peppery side and less on the jammy side.

2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – The NV Cab Sauv was one of the first FF wines (still) that I began to enjoy (for what it was), despite the company I was surrounded by.  The nose was herbs and blackberry, while the flavors were cedar, black cherries, black pepper, and a heavy leather finish.  For people who smoke cigars or really enjoy more tannic cabs, I think this would be a win.  My companion mentioned that he felt the mouthfeel was a little grainy, but I think that had more to do with how tight the structure was.  If you lay this one down for a few more years, and you like the aforementioned characteristics in your cabs, then I think you’ll be really happy with this.  At $45/bottle, its not completely unreasonable for a Napa Cab, either.  All of that said… I gave it a 5.  And that’s because I think its much too heavy, old, and crotchety – it makes me think of a tatty old couch that’s been stored in mothballs up in an attic.

2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon – A little more oak hid many of the flaws that you got in the Napa Valley cab, and the grapes coming from Rutherford didn’t hurt either.  The Reserve Cabernet, in keeping with our trend of reserves being much more well-made, had plum and blackberry on the nose, and a lovely, soft, plush mouthfeel, like crushed velvet.  The flavors were simple, thanks to the additional new oak, which meant blackberry, vanilla, and a cedar finish.  I liked this, but it was $85, and that’s just nonsense.  You want a really exceptional cabernet sauvignon?  Go to Charles Krug, ask for Angie, and she’ll take good care of you.

2007 Reserve Sangiovese – This wasn’t actually on the pour list, but Tim had opened it up for someone else, and he decided to finish the bottle on the group that my companion and I were standing with.  As a result, we got to try it – which is wonderful, seeing as Sangiovese is one of my very favorite varietals.  And yet… on the nose, what did I find?  Ammonia/cat pee.  Bummer.  I took a sip, and was pleasantly surprised to find strawberries and currants… and a tilt toward the acid.  Of the wines we drank, this was by far the best for $49.50/bottle, but there’s absolutely no way that I would pay that for this wine.  I’d go with the Seghesio Venom (cost varies by year, but it’ll go for between $50 – 70) or… and yes, I’ll say it… the Tamas Estates Riserva Sangiovese.
Name Wente Vineyards
Wines Tasted
  • 2007 Nth Degree Chardonnay
  • 2008 Nth Degree Chardonnay
  • 2007 Small Lot GSM
  • 2007 Nth Degree Syrah
  • 2006 Small Lot Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
  • 2007 Small Lot Duetto
  • 2007 Charles Wetmore Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2006 Nth Degree Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2007 Nth Degree Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2008 Livermore Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (barrel tasting)
Location Livermore
Tasting Price

Legacy Flight (not tasted) – Complimentary

Harvest Flight (not tasted) – $5

Winemaker Flight – $10

  • 2007 Nth Degree Chardonnay – 7 – sweet cream butter, golden delicious apples.  Mild and pleasant for a lover of oaked-chardonnay.
  • 2008 Nth Degree Chardonnay – 5 – cloying and young, with bright acid and a green finish.  Needs time in the bottle.
  • 2007 Small Lot GSM – 8 – blackberry, black pepper, with moderate finish.
  • 2007 Nth Degree Syrah – 7 – smooth, supple mouthfeel and rich blackfruit.
  • 2006 Small Lot Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley) – 7 – cocoa powder and bing dried cherries on the nose, but a little tannic on the palate.
  • 2007 Small Lot Duetto – 6 – a strange mix of yeastiness and plum; seems to be suffering a bit of split personality disorder.
  • 2007 Charles Wetmore Cabernet Sauvignon – 8 – really young and bright, but with a bit more time in the bottle, this will be an exceptional deal
  • 2006 Nth Degree Cabernet Sauvignon – 7 – soft, plush mouthfeel revealing strawberry, plum and vanilla flavors.
  • 2007 Nth Degree Cabernet Sauvignon – no rating – young, but beautiful.  Cherries, strawberries, cocoa, and a hint of cedar.  Will be amazing in 5-10 years.
  • 2008 Livermore Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (barrel tasting) – no rating – needs a lot of time and blending.  Very bright, with lime and berry on the front palate, and next to no finish.  Not surprising, given the age.  Needs a retasting.

This weekend was the annual wine club member appreciation and barrel tasting weekend at Wente.  Club members were able to visit any of the Wente family of wines (Wente, Tamas, Murrietta’s Well) and taste for free.  Additionally, each of the locations was not only serving their standards, but also thiefing from the barrel to showcase some up and comers.  A couple of close friends of mine live in the East Bay, so we invited them to come out and do some tasting with us, as much for the wine as for the company.

The Wente Estate Vineyards wine tasting room is newly remodeled and easily the most beautiful tasting room in Livermore Valley (at least, that I’ve been to).

The new tasting room.  This is the merch side, as opposed to the tasting side.

Service at the Winery can be fantastic, and can be iffy.  We were really fortunate that we got Jennifer today, who was extremely accommodating of our digressing into wedding conversation (the couple we were with is getting hitched in June) but who was also very knowledgeable about the wines at Wente.  She is the first one who has been able to tell us exactly where in the Napa Valley the Small Lot Cabernet Sauvignon came from.  Which was awesome!  She was also really sweet about giving us good explanations of the wines themselves, and regularly asked our thoughts.  It was very friendly, very familial.  We all appreciated her.

Jennifer, our hostess

I caught her talking/explaining about the Contraste (which I refuse to review, because its not ‘really’ a Wente, and I don’t like it.  So there. 🙂 )

One of the really pleasant parts of Jennifer’s taking us through the Wente wines was that we were able to go back and forth between tasting flights.  For the most part, we stuck to the Winemaker flight, which is the top shelf flight at Wente, but there were a few small lot wines that we wanted to try for comparison’s sake.  She also very kindly opened the aforementioned Contraste for us, which isn’t traditionally open in the wine room at all.

Overall, we had a wonderful time at the Wente Vineyard wine room, and it reminded me why we joined the wine club in the first place.  If you’re in the Livermore Valley and looking for a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, definitely give it a shot.

The Results!

2007 Nth Degree Chardonnay – This is the prior year’s issue of Chardonnay, and now that its spent a year in bottle, I think its showing really nicely.  It retails for $40/bottle, which is a little high for my liking, but setting that aside… The color is a golden-yellow and very clear.  On the nose, I got pear, golden delicious applies, and sweet cream butter which overall wasn’t nearly as cloying or sweet as what perhaps you might first assume.  The first sip revealed more of the sweet cream butter and apples, but with a hint of spice that lent it the balance it needed.  The mouthfeel was supple and coated the tongue.  As a fan of unoaked chardonnay, its challenging for me to really appreciate oak as much as some folks do, but I think that Karl Wente showed amazing restraint on this one.  7/10

2007 Nth Degree Chardonnay

2008 Nth Degree Chardonnay – Completely different from its older sister, this Nth Degree Chardonnay was lighter in color, with a bouquet of brown sugar and lemon meringue that made me pull pack at first sniff.  It reminded me of an overly sweet candle that one might have in their bathroom to mask strong odor.  The first sip tasted of green apples with a lovely acid, but the finish was grassy and everyone in the group found it a little harsh.  Its sharper than the 2007, but despite the strange aftertaste, the mouth feel was still soft and creamy.  I think this would probably pair nicely with goat cheese, as is, but rather than try to fit a food to it now, I think we’ll be better off holding it for a year or two, so it can develop flavors like the 2007.  At $40/bottle, I think it warrants a 5/10 now, but I fully expect that it will improve.

2008 Nth Degree Chardonnay

2007 Small Lot GSM – This is a house favorite for us, so I knew walking in the door that I was going to be a happy camper.  Like any wine, it shows differently each time its poured, based upon the amount of time its been breathing, the temperature that its being served at, and how its been stored.  When I stuck my nose in the glass, I smelled a strong scent of blackberry.  The color was a plummy red, and there was a small amount of sediment that created a bit of cloudiness.  Black pepper, blackberries, and plums were on the front of the palate, with a nice acidic finish that smacked of freshly squeezed lime juice.  The mouthfeel, thanks to that hit of acid, was quite bright, but what I missed this go around (which I’ve tasted before) was a nice, lingering finish.  At $45/bottle, its a little steep for a blend, and that’s bringing down the rating a bit.  8/10

2007 Small Lot GSM

2007 Nth Degree Syrah – I wish I could have gotten a picture of my friend tasting this one – her eyes started to tear and she was completely bowled over by the power of this wine.  It was especially funny, because the remaining three of us all commented on how smooth, supple, and soft this syrah is, especially when you consider the traditional profile of a syrah – big, gamey, and wild.  The nose on this syrah reminded me of dried strawberries and black fruit – not at all gamey.  The color was as expected; royal purple-red and inky, with a hint of clouding.  The taste was pretty much as advertised – blackberry, black pepper, and a hint of acid.  Overall, very well rounded.  It does suffer by the price however – at $45/bottle, its a little steep again.  7/10

2007 Nth Degree Syrah

2006 Small Lot Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley) – The Small Lot Caberenet Sauvignon out of Napa Valley comes from land just north of the Stag’s Leap area, which means that you’re looking at something a bit bigger, a bit more robust, and with some of the cocoa and syrupy-fruit that you wouldn’t get traditionally from Livermore.  As a result, it wasn’t a shock to smell the chocolate powder and dried cherries.  The flavor was a bit tannic, again, not surprising for the region, with a sour cherry flavor in the front of the mouth that transitioned to more of a sweet/bing cherry flavor on the finish.  All told, the tannins were a little out of balance for my tastes; it reminded me of the drying quality I tend not to like in a big merlot.  The color was lovely – a heady burgundy clouded slightly with sediment.  Normally $50, I’m giving it a 7 because I think there are better cabernets for the value.  If this was $40/bottle, it would have hit an 8.

2006 Small Lot Cabernet Sauvignon - Napa Valley

2007 Small Lot Duetto – The premise of the small lot Duetto is to combine cabernet sauvignon from the estate vineyard in Livermore with grapes from 6 acres in the Napa Valley (which we tasted above).  If you read the tasting notes from Wente, they tell you that the Livermore cab exhibits aromas of strawberry, cinnamon, black cherry a hint of clove and vanilla cream. Flavors of cherry cola, vanilla and chocolate create a smooth mouthfeel and a well integrated finish.  Napa, on the other hand, is described as having aromas of blackberry, tobacco, black licorice and leather.  Flavors of dark berry and chocolate meld with hints of herbaceousness, vanilla and toasted oak, creating a smooth mouthfeel and a long-lasting finish.  So what happens when you mix cherry cola and herbaceousness?  Dark berries with vanilla?  Your wine has multiple personality disorder, that’s what happens.  The nose, to me, was yeasty (in the same way I find champagnes to be yeasty) but at the same time I smelled plums.  The color was probably the most seductive part of it – a beautiful, thick burgundy.  The taste was of black cherry, vanilla, and white pepper at the first taste, but then that same yeastiness came back.  While soft and decently balanced, strange notes would crop up and disappear.  At $45, it wouldn’t be my choice from the Wente portfolio.  6/10

2007 Small Lot Duetto (50% Napa Cab, 50% Livermore Cab)

2007 Charles Wetmore Cabernet Sauvignon – The flagship, widely available Wente option – you can order a glass at the Applebees in Fresno, buy it at Cranburry Wine & Liquor in Norwalk, and loads of places in between.  It recently got a double-gold medal in the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition, and for all this, you pay merely $25/bottle.  In the 2007 Charles Wetmore, Karl Wente swapped out some of the cabernet for petit sirah, so the new blend includes 6% petite sirah, 15% petit verdot, and 79% cabernet sauvignon.  Its still very young, and while most of the flagship wines are ready to drink, I might wait a little bit on this one.  The nose was bright with cherries and limes, and the color was a clear, ruby-red.  First taste was of strawberries, cherries, and a hint of basil.  The mouthfeel is where the youth really showed; it has decent balance, but its quite sharp.  A little more time in the bottle will mellow that right out.  8/10

2007 Charles Wetmore Cabernet Sauvignon

2006 Nth Degree Cabernet Sauvignon – A favorite of mine, and the 2006 was pouring beautifully today – over the past couple of tastings, I’ve preferred the 2007, but not today.  The nose was reminiscent of brownie batter and strawberries; the color was of brick – that slight brown tinge that comes from age just barely kissing the wine.  The flavors were strawberry and plum, finishing with vanilla.  Best of all was the mouthfeel, which was velvety smooth and soft.  This was a wine you could sip, on its own, happily and not need anything at all to balance or compliment or affect it in any way.  At $60/bottle, there’s no getting around that its pricey, and certainly, there are other cabs that I would probably take first, over this one even at the same price point (the Williamson DCV, for example).  But this is a really well-crafted cabernet, and absolutely worth trying if you’re given the opportunity. 7/10

2006 Nth Degree Cabernet Sauvignon

2007 Nth Degree Cabernet Sauvignon – This was tasting really young today, although I will tell you, a great deal may be attributable to the fact that it was served much too cold.  This was one of the two options poured in the barrel room at Wente Vineyard, and when we got our glasses, it was flat-out cold.  I had one of my friends actually palm mine for 5 minutes to try and bring it up to temperature and once it did, I started to get some of the cherries and cocoa.  The notes I share at the top – strawberries, cherries, cocoa and a hint of cedar; that’s from memory.  Today?  I got little to nothing.  I don’t feel like it was a good enough representation of what I know it has been.  As such, no rating.  Hopefully next time, I’ll get a good read and will have more to share.

2007 Nth Degree Cabernet Sauvignon Along with the notes sheet Barrel room, point of view (1)

2008 Livermore Cabernet Sauvignon (Barrel Tasting) – So this was the sneak peak – according to the servers in the barrel room, the 2008 Livermore Cab is going to be the primary wine blended into the 2008 Nth Degree Cab.  Not surprisingly, straight from the barrel is a bit of a singular note, and its going to need time and blending.  The flavors are very bright, with lime and berry on the front palate, and next to no finish.  Not surprising, given the age.  It’s going to need a retaste.  No rating.
Name Charles Krug
Wines Tasted
  • 2008 Sauvignon Blanc – Napa Valley
  • 2007 Chardonnay – Carneros
  • 2007 Pinot Noir – Carneros – Napa Valley
  • 2007 Zinfandel – St. Helena – Napa Valley
  • 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon – Yountville – Napa Valley
Location St. Helena
Tasting Price $10 for standard tasting (listed above); $20 for reserve tasting
  • 2008 Sauvignon Blanc – Napa Valley – 8 – nice balance of acid and minerality.  Peach and lemon flavors – very refreshing.
  • 2007 Chardonnay – Carneros – 7 – oakier than my preference, but clearly a delicate touch.  Creamy mouthfeel reminiscent of lemon cream pie.
  • 2007 Pinot Noir – Carneros – Napa Valley – 7 – sour cherries and cinnamon, but very little lasting power.
  • 2007 Zinfandel – St. Helena – Napa Valley – 6 – red cherries and prunes.  Sweet, jammy style of Zin.
  • 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon – Yountville – Napa Valley – 8 – very dry Cabernet; strong tannins with flavors of coffee and currant.

I’ve been on hiatus for a while; there are a number of reasons, but now that I’ve gotten my blog moved and my busy-season is nearing to a close, I am hopeful that I will be able to be a little more active.

It’s been raining cats and dogs in California, but yesterday there was a pause in the action and so we decided to take a trip up to Napa and pick up our club shipment from Charles Krug.

It was a nice, relaxing drive up to St. Helena, and although it rained a bit, it was fairly dry by the time we got to Charles Krug.  The tasting room, for the most part, was empty, which didn’t surprise us based upon the run of poor weather.  We walked in at the same time as a group of four older folks, and the tasting room crew were extremely friendly and welcoming.  We stopped at the front, near the register, to pick up our shipment and said hi to Angie.  Buddy Love, the tasting room cat, came and welcomed us as well, despite not being ‘allowed’ near the register.  It was all very friendly.  The overall feel of the tasting room is a combination of modern, well-appointed design and Napa casual.

After getting our box, we followed Angie down to the tasting room bar, where we were invited to try anything on the list.  That’s always been the mentality at Charles Krug – even when we weren’t wine club members, we were treated like royalty, and that’s one of the most appealing parts of the whole experience.  The tasting room team clearly loves the wine that they are pouring, and they want to share that love with everyone that walks into the door.

As we tasted, we also had a chance to chat about music, turning 30, and any other topic that came to mind.  Never once did I feel like we were taking too much of their time, nor was there a point when I felt like we weren’t getting the attention we were looking for.  Not unlike the wines they pour, the experience as a whole is perfectly balanced.

The Results!
2008 Sauvignon Blanc – Napa Valley – A lovely, summer-style wine; no oak touched this sauvignon blanc, and I was happy that way.  As with any wine served relatively-chilled, there isn’t much of a nose.  The color is golden with a slight green tint, and first taste revealed a truly delicious acid balance, perfect for picnicking.  Forward flavors were peach and lemon, with a finish closer to pink grapefruit.  At $18, its a little pricey for a Sauvignon Blanc, but for a wine club member, its a fantastic deal at $14.40, so on the whole, I’d give it an 8.  Don’t age it – drink it when you get it, and serve with shrimp cocktail, cold chicken salad, or fresh strawberries.
2007 Chardonnay – Carneros – After spending 7 months in a blend of 22% new French oak/78% neutral French oak, and undergoing 17% malolactic fermentation, this one was a challenge for me.  On the one hand, I liked the light touch that led to a creamy, soft mouthfeel finishing crispy like a granny smith apple.  On the other hand, I tend to prefer my chardonnay in extremes – either buttery and creamy or crisp and bright.  I think that chardonnay lovers will really enjoy the balance in this wine, and I appreciate what the winemaker is going for. However, my preference is unoaked chardonnay, and while I like lemon-chiffon pie, I’d rather have the sauvignon blanc.  At $20/bottle, I give this 7/10.
2007 Pinot Noir – Carneros – Napa Valley – I’ve gotten finicky about my pinot noir, and given the choice, I’d take one crafted in the Anderson Valley as opposed to Carneros or Monterey or Russian River.  The nose on this pinot was really pleasant – cinnamon and black cherry, and the mouthfeel quite soft, which was pleasant.  However, when I tasted it, the sour cherries and spice fled after only mere moments on my tongue.  I was bummed out, since the tasting notes suggest this should have a lingering finish and I missed that entirely.  At $25, however, its a very good deal on pinot noir (which tends to be a little price inflated) so I’d give this a 7/10.
2007 Zinfandel – St. Helena – Napa Valley – Woo boy.  After the delicate, fleeting pinot, this Zinfandel was nearly overwhelming.  On the nose, I got licorice and prunes – especially prunes – which was distracting.  I don’t care much for the flavor of prune, period.  If you do, then this wine will probably be really pleasing; when I tasted it, the flavors matched the nose, with red cherries contributing to an extended finish.  I like a little more peppery zin – this is what I would call a traditionally jammy-style.  For $25 a bottle, its a decent deal, and if the description I just provided falls in your preferences, then I’d totally go for it.  To me, its not the Zin I’m after – 6/10.
2006 Cabernet Sauvignon – Yountville – Napa Valley – The flagship cabernet sauvignon for Charles Krug.  They make 50,204 cases of this stuff, so it’s relatively easy to find and does very well in competition/blind tasting.  This is a very dry wine with strong tannins, similar to what you might find at BV.  The flavors are robust – coffee, clove, and currant nearly assaulted my palate on my first sip.  As I tasted again, it was softer, a bit more vanilla smoothness.  At $27 a bottle, this is a great value for the money, because you’re getting big cab at a smaller price point (wine club price of $21.70 is even more awesome).  However, I’d lay it down a couple more years to let some of those tanning mellow, and then it’l
l be a knock-your-socks off wine.  8/10

All credit for the below goes to Jason Chiu, an amazing research analyst and fellow wine-geek from San Jose. If you’re looking for the answers to his little game, go ahead and leave a comment. He reads Libre Penseur regularly, and I’m sure would be happy to share the homeruns!

This the game that I ordinarily play in Napa, to show that I am tasting for serious and not just venturing up to wine country every weekend to take advantage of all the complimentary tastings. The rules of the game are simple, the winery brings out an older vintage reserve wine and you as the player have
three guesses to identify the year and varietal. You must do so without help from the fellow visitors in the tasting room and the respective hosts. Although this game appears to be a huge loss leader for the wineries, I have purchased half of the wines I tasted as part of the game. Let’s play along.

The first Guess the Year wine of the afternoon was at Beaulieu Vineyard. As with many of the large commercial wineries, their library goes far back and no game is a walk in the park. As my regulars know, their flagship wine is the Georges de Latour, which is a Cabernet Sauvignon (at least 75%) produced with fine Rutherford fruit.

The first pour is a beautiful opaque ruby with a tight bouquet and a concentrated profile. While this wine is not a big historic vintage (think the 1994 that we tasted on Friday evening), it has the dense flavours and firm tannins that make it an ideal candidate for aging. A first taste shows a giant
raspberry note but without much black fruit. Despite the last feature, I guessed 2001.

Strike one. I had to regroup a bit and think clearly, to avoid being beaten at the game twice running at BV. As with the 1994 tapestry reserve three weeks ago, the hostess claimed that I would never get
this one. After a quick pause to briefly consider the tapestry curveball again, I rejected that hypothesis on the grounds that there was not nearly enough cabernet franc or petit verdot influence. But
that didn’t help my second guess – 1996 – much, as that vintage likely showed more earthiness than the current sample.

I identified the year on my third and final guess. Can you?

The second Guess the Year pour comes at Beaulieu’s affiliate Provenance. Thomas Rinaldi of 1990s Duckhorn Merlot fame accepted the job at Hewitt / Provenance to produce single vineyard cabernet. While the hosts mentioned that Tom has only been at the winery for nine years, this is my first time at this winery. Although I experienced their fine 2005 Beckstoffer To Kalon cabernet, there was no history
like at BV.

Joseph returned from the library with a decanter full of a dark strong cabernet. From the nose in the decanter, I could immediately tell that the wine had strong tannins derived from extended oak aging. The wine also presented itself in the high-octane newer style preferred by Robert Parker Jr. and James Laube. The nose showed a much better balance between the alcohol and cherry, currant and cassis bouquet. But it was a decidedly soft wine with the characteristic Rutherford dust. First guess was 2003.

Swing and a miss. By the time I had reasoned through the first guess, I started to attract a small crowd. A baby boomer couple who had been tasting the cabernets in the corner had perked up to see the stir the game had created. So did two young ladies who came up to Napa from Southern California to celebrate a birthday. The immediate reaction on their faces meant this wine was much different than they tasted up to the point, but I knew that just by the rules of the game. Back to the game, I concentrated on the Rutherford dust and big powerful tannin. That was enough to guess the year, can you?

Name Chateau Montelena Winery
Wines Tasted
  • 2007 Riesling, Potter Valley
  • 2007 Chardonnay, Napa Valley
  • 2006 Zinfandel, Montelena Estate
  • 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Montelena Estate
Location Calistoga, CA
Tasting Price $20
  • 2007 Riesling, Potter Valley – 7 – Light and crisp with floral and mineral character
  • 2007 Chardonnay, Napa Valley – 9 – Beautiful nose, velvet mouthfeel, and citrus and stones
  • 2006 Zinfandel, Montelena Estate – 6 – Spicy scent with cranberry and tobacco flavors
  • 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – 7 – Deep, smooth, and mellow tasting of cinnamon and cedar
  • 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Montelena Estate – 8 – Definitely a wow wine, but the price is above the wow.

Recently, Bottle Shock was released to DVD, which I’m sure turned up the focus on Chateau Montelena. However, to wine connoisseurs (not me), this place has been a look-to wine maker, thanks to their big win in Paris in 1976, and again in 2006. The quality of the wines at Chateau Montelena has been consistently high, which was what ultimately drew me to their tasting room.

When we arrived at the winery, we were surprised by how beautiful it is. A friend of mine went up a couple weeks before I did, and took a lovely picture of the grounds so it will give you a sense:

The tasting room itself is very well appointed. When you enter, its a combination of modern technology (e.g. a touch screen monitor that gives you an overview of the place in the corner) and older charm (e.g. the warm wooden bar where the wine is poured). The day that we went, it was hopping and we were directed to the second tasting room, which is in the back with some memorabilia along the way. They still have a bottle of the Chardonnay that made them famous on the wall, and yes, its still clear.

The problem that I had with this winery and its tasting experience was that the individual who poured for us was so completely wrapped up in selling another couple down the bar on the Chateau Montelena futures club, that he ignored me and my companion, as well as another couple who was tasting as well. We had empty glasses, regularly, and we waited easily 10 minutes between pours. Moreover, when we asked questions about the wine, the attitude we received was tangible. And at the end? We got the hard sell too.

This is not a winery I’d visit again. While the wines were lovely, the people simply were not the sort of folks I’d want to spend my free time with.

The Results!
2007 Riesling, Potter Valley – This is one of the most lovely riselings we’ve tasted, but sadly, that proves to me that I am not made for Riseling. The bouquet is probably my favorite part – fresh rain, stones, and a hint of a light, white-flower perfume intoxicated me when I swirled the wine in my glass. It had a light, crisp mouthfeel that reminded me of fresh peaches and limestone. At $22, its a good deal, too, if you’re a fan of dry Reisling, and you can buy it online. I, myself, will stick with vinogier.
2007 Chardonnay, Napa Valley – This was, without a doubt, my favorite wine that we tasted during our tasting. The color is beautiful, like straw blowing in the wind on a summer day in Kansas, and the scent is exceptional – orange blossoms, apricots, and sunlight. Chateau Montelena does not subject this Chardonnay to malolactic fermentation and its lightly aged in 10% new french oak, which means that the flavors in the grapes really shine, but the mouthfeel is like velvet. At first sip, I noted lemons, apricots, mango, and macademia nuts at the start, which washed over my tongue and left a kiss of vanilla ice cream. At $50, its easily comparable with the ZD Reserve Chardonnay, and my only regret of this visit was that I didn’t bring a bottle home. Happily, its also available online.
2006 Montelena Estate Zinfandel – I’ve commented before that I can go different directions with Zinfandel. I love the big peppery ones that finish with forest berries, and don’t care much for the sweet, syrupy black forest cake versions. The Montelena zin, as it turns out, follows the vein I prefer. When I first smelled it, the nose was spicy and a bit savory, which led to flavors that started with black pepper melting into tobacco and cranberries. The mouthfeel was a bit sharp, thanks to the young tannins that haven’t quite mellowed. To me, it was more a Christmas wine and less a BBQ wine, and that’s ok! At $30 a bottle, its a bit pricey for zinfandel (especially in California), but worth a taste if you run into it.
2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – When this was poured for us, the bartender explained to us that this is their easy-to-find, high-end steak house wine. He then proceeded to name drop the different ‘high-end steak houses’ that served it. I found it offsetting to be introduced to a wine in this way, and its sort of a shame that it went the way it did, because it was actually very nice. A quarter of the grapes are grown on the Chateau Montelena Estate, which is what is otherwise used for their estate wine (running 3x the price), and its blended with cabernet franc and merlot, then ages a year in 25% new French oak. When I smelled it, I got forest berries, cinnamon and cedar; fairly predictable for a cab. The flavor was mellow and smooth – not as velvety as the Chardonnay previously, but still very soft – and made me think of blackberries sprinkled with cinnamon and cloves. At $45, its a decent deal for a very nice 2005 cab., but nothing that blew me away.
2005 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – The bartender was much more proud of this one. First explaining that the estate Cab needs another 5 to 25 years before it will really come into its own, he poured our glasses and as we focused on the wine, began to try to sell us on the futures club. At $135, its a steep price tag, so the futures club is a good idea for people who love it – you pay half price per bottle but buy it at the release year. First smell revealed cocoa powder, violets, and thick, syrupy cherries. When I tasted it, I admit, I was wowed. The flavors began light, with raspberries and strawberries that faded into ripe cherries, cloves, and spice. The mouthfeel was much closer to the chardonnay at the beginning – it tasted almost thick across the tongue. The acid / tannin balance is beautifully balanced, and it lingers in the mouth for ages. Do I think its worth the $135 pricetag? No, I really don’t. Its delicious, but not that delicious. Still, for cab fans, its absolutely worth a taste.
Name 2006 Shafer One Point Five
Origin Stag’s Leap District, Napa, CA
Vintage 2006
Purchase Location Wine Bar, San Francisco, CA
Purchase Price $30 for a glass ($65 retail on
Rating 7 – Delicious dusty Cab, but for the price of the taste it was a bit expensive

Every week, we try to have date night. Date night sometimes means dinner and a movie, or Rock Band and pizza, or a trip to a local wine bar for a taste or two and a cheese plate. Recently, we took date night to Wine Bar, which is downtown in the Embarcadero Center (2), and appears to be regularly frequented with folks just getting off work. They run tasting specials for $5/glass during happy hour, and have a decent list of things to try. The front entry is nondescript (it just says ‘Wine’) but the interior is modern and fun, with a small ‘store’ on the far right where people can buy what they tried, a long bar where singles can sit for a drink and mingle, as well as plush seats and tall standing tables for groups.

We tasted the Shafer One Point Five with a two-cheese plate ($15), and chose a Manchego and Pierre Robert (a triple cream brie-style cheese) to compliment it, along with my date’s choice.

The Smell
You’d almost guess this Cabernet was from Rutherford, as the nose is heavy with dusty books, leather, smoke and savory herbs.

The Look
Understanding the light in the wine bar is not good, it is possible that your mileage may vary in terms of the look of this wine. That said, I found it to be dense and inky, with subtle ruby notes when the light caught it just right.

The Taste – Without Food
My first sip revealed a very balanced, long-finishing cabernet sauvignon. The initial flavor was of blackberries, black raspberries, and black plums, followed closely by notes of tobacco and leather. It starts out a hair tannic, but smooths out quickly, and finishes with an acid that carries the flavors well after you’ve swallowed.

The Taste – With Food
With salami, this wine really shone. The saltiness of the meat drew out the smoky notes of the wine in a way that both highlighted the food and the wine at the same time. With the manchego, it seemed that the wine played second fiddle; this might be because of the naturally grassy, salty bite that Manchego tends to give and its desire to be the center of every party. With the brie, the cabernet’s mellower side came out, and I was much more aware of the sweet, juicy plum note than I had been before.

At $30, for a taste, this was way overpriced, but definitely worth trying because at $65 for a bottle and more than a $100 in a restaurant, I was able to see what I thought without the full investment. Wine Bar gives generous pours (6 ounces) so I didn’t feel like I was being ripped off, and truly, its a very nice cabernet if you prefer the dusty variety – absolutely worth trying, if that’s the case, in fact. For me, as a person who prefers a fruit bomb the likes of the Hess or the Williamson DCV, its not worth the sticker.

Name Frank Family Vineyards
Wines Tasted
  • 2007 Chardonnay, Napa Valley
  • 2006 Lewis Vineyard Chardonnay, Carneros
  • 2007 Reserve Chardonnay, Carneros
  • 2007 Reserve Sangiovese
  • 2006 Zinfandel, Napa Valley
  • 2007 Reserve Pinot Noir, Carneros
  • 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • 2007 Reserve Zinfandel
  • 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford
Location Frank Family Vineyards, Napa, CA
Tasting Price $10
  • 2007 Chardonnay – 6 – Well-blanaced, creamy Chardonnay, but a little overpriced
  • 2006 Lewis Vineyard Chardonnay – 8 – Beautiful single-vineyard Chardonnay but not widely available
  • 2007 Reserve Chardonnay, Carneros – 6 – Fruity, acidic Chardonnay, but overpriced
  • 2007 Reserve Sangiovese – 3 – Hot on the nose and tannic
  • 2006 Zinfandel, Napa Valley – 5 – Big jammy Zin that needs some time
  • 2007 Reserve Pinot Noir, Carneros – 8 – Delicate little nibble of strawberry jam on toast
  • 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – 7 – An old man’s cab, heavy and intense
  • 2007 Reserve Zinfandel – 6 – A peppery chocolate bar in wine form
  • 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford – 8 – Soft, plush, and spicy but expensive

Frank Family Vineyards is a little off the beaten path in Napa; you can’t just drive up Silverado Trail and be there, but its absolutely worth it. The winery is housed in a historic landmark – Larkmead winery – and its a beautifully crafted stone building. The tasting room is not actually in this structure, but off to the back, in a cheery yellow house with a big front porch.

Walkup to the Frank Family Tasting Room

When we arrived, we were greeted by a very friendly gentleman with blonde hair and blue eyes who actually knew where we were from (our town is so close to San Francisco that we typically just refer to it as ‘San Francisco’ when asked). He welcomed us, talked us through how the wine tasting worked, and was happy to answer any questions we had. He was responsible only for whites, however, and after going through that list, we moved on to the red room, which was staffed by an equally amiable guy with gray hair. This guy was a bit less knowledgeable, but far more amusing – everything was “stupid good” and “stupider-good”, and he was happy to pour whatever we asked of him.

All told, a very friendly group and absolutely worth the hike out.

The Results!
2007 Chardonnay, Napa Valley – The 2007 Napa Valley Chardonnay goes through 75% malolactic fermentation, and is done in French Oak, 50% of it new. As you would expect, therefore, its a very creamy, supple chardonnay. My sense of smell may have been off, because the tasting notes on the website do not support me at all, but I got red apples on the bouquet. The flavor was toasty caramel and cream, and was very well balanced. At $32.50, its a bit on the steep side for what you’re getting, and its only available at the winery, at fine restaurants, or online, so its a pain in the neck to get your hands on. For the price, I think you’re probably better off with the La Crema Russian River Valley Chardonnay, which is $30 and has similar notes. 2007 Chardonnay, Napa Valley
2006 Lewis Vineyard Chardonnay, Carneros – This was one of my favorites at Frank Family. It spent 13 months in once-used French oak and underwent 100% malolactic acid fermentation, which means its a very ‘Californian’ chardonnay – the scent is of roasted pears, and the flavors come out as brown sugar, butter, roasted cashews, apples and a hint of pear on the finish. Its a very lightly colored wine, reminiscent of young-green hay, and the mouthfeel is decadent. Unfortunately, this little jewel is only available at the winery, and is almost gone, so its a big tease. As such, I can’t in good conscience give it a higher score.. its just too hard to get. 2006 Lewis Vineyard Chardonnay, Carneros
2007 Reserve Chardonnay, Carneros – Similarly treated as the Lewis Vineyard, the reserve chardonnay is done in 100% new french oak, and undergoes 100% malolactic fermentation creating a creamy, buttery chardonnay that Californians love. The nose is bright and fruity, with hints of lime, apple, and pear, and the mouthfeel is smooth and balanced. The taste, then is no surprise; the bouquet does not hide anything, and you get apple, lemon, lime and pear across the palate. This is a perfectly nice chardonnay, but there’s nothing special about it, and at $55, I’d like to have something special. So, given the choice, I’d once again take the ZD first. 2007 Reserve Chardonnay
2007 Reserve Sangiovese – Really not a fan of this one. There was no bouquet to speak of, except for that hot, alcoholic fragrance that you also get out of gasoline. The flavors were better than I’d expected based on the nose, but it was so tannic on the start that it took me a while to identify the black fruit as it finished. If you want a good sangiovese, this is not the one to go looking for. Totally a skip for me. 2007 Reserve Sangiovese
2006 Zinfandel – I have a particular preference for peppery, jammy zinfandels. I like them balanced, and I like them to have a decent punch with a softer, more mellow finish. And that is not what this zinfandel was. The fragrance was certainly jammy, albeit a little acidic. However the mouthfeel was much more mouthpuckering than I’d prefer, with notes of whole peppercorns, blackberry jam, cherries, and cloves that did not mellow out at all. For people who want a zin with a mouthfeel like a merlot, this would be a win, and certainly, I think the craftsmanship is there. But for those who are more interested in a balanced acid-tannin profile, this is a pass. 2006 Zinfandel
2007 Reserve Pinot Noir, Napa Valley – This was another one of my favorites at Frank Family; they treat their pinot with a delicate hand that I really appreciate. When I took the first sniff, I was overcome by an image of a slice of thick, homemade toast spread thick with strawberry jam that, when I mentioned to my cohort on the trip, shared across immediately. When I tasted, I continued experience the toasted bread and a hint of smoke, along with strawberries and cherries, that lingered for a lovely, long finish. At $55, its a little expensive, and like all Frank Family wines, its a challenge to get. But its a beautiful bottle, and if you find yourself with the chance to buy one (and you enjoy a delicate pinot noir), I’d recommend giving it a try. 2007 Reserve Pinot Noir
2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Some cabernet sauvignons reveal themselves with beautiful fresh fruit and spice. Some cabernet sauvignons are made in a more old-world style, tasting of raisins, currants, and clove. And some cabernets are like this one – with a nose of leather, cedar, dust and cocoa, that make you think of the old guy in his study, a glass in one hand and a tome in the other, glasses perched precariously on the tip of his nose. Its all about preferences, and this one is very well made, with great complexity. The flavors of chocolate, coffee, and cherries were a perfect compliment to the bouquet, and I wasn’t at all disappointed. However, its just not as good as some other cabs I’ve had at this price point, in spite of the interesting images it invoked. 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
2007 Reserve Zinfandel – If the first zinfandel we tried was heavy handed in its use of tannin, the reserve suffered by none of the same mistakes. A bouquet of toast, smoke, and blueberries made me think of Oregon in the summertime, complete with a roaring fire at the end of a long day of camping. The flavors supported this vision, starting with chocolate, then revealing blueberries, then more chocolate with a hint of pepper and cinnamon. Truly, this was a really enjoyable zinfandel (if still not in the style I traditionally prefer). That said, I struggle to pay $45 for a zinfandel, so its a little expensive for me personally, and again, hard to find. 2007 Reserve Zinfandel
2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford – And so we reach my final favorite of the tasting. The 2005 reserve cabernet sauvignon from Rutherford is by allocation only, which means you have to be on the mailing list and respond to when its released in order to get it at home. The bouquet was rich and heady; black forest cake in a glass, with a cocoa-dust finish that is typical of Rutherford. The mouthfeel was supple and well-balanced, with a lingering finish, and the flavors presented as Mexican hot-chocolate, cinnamon, and brandy soaked cherries. Truly, this was a delicious and well made cabernet sauvignon, and I would have loved to buy a bottle, however the steep price tag meant it was not meant to be. Given another chance, I’m not sure I’d make the same choice – I really liked this cab., and its perfect for a special occasion. Missed this picture. Sorry folks… must have been too distracted with the yumminess to snap the shot.
Name Turnbull Wine Cellars
Wines Tasted
  • 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley
  • 2007 Old Bull Red, Oakville
  • 2006 Merlot, Napa Valley
  • 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville
Location Turnbull Wine Cellars, Napa, CA
Tasting Price $10
  • 2007 Sauvignon Blanc – 6 – Nice, light, tropical fruit and well-priced
  • 2007 Old Bull Red – 7 – Very accessible, pleasant red blend, also well-priced
  • 2006 Merlot – 6 – Well balanced merlot, no surprises, but a bit over priced
  • 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon – 6 – Plush, spicy cab, but predictable

Turnbull is a low-key winery, with a relatively large campus. The founder, William Turnbull, was an architect, and he did a really beautiful job of putting together the structures to feel welcoming and relaxed, while still creating a lovely aesthetic that seems effortless.

We got to Turnbull just as they were closing, so we weren’t able to taste in their reserve room, but its beautiful – there is photography on pure white walls, and a limestone-style bar that is minimalist, but still inviting. I believe the photography is a rotating art-showcase, but not getting a chance to spend any time there, its hard to know for sure.

The normal tasting room stays open a bit later, so we went there, and it felt like a gift shop, which was an odd contrast to all the work they clearly put into the rest of the place. The host was awkward; he clearly wanted to make conversation (and we tried to accommodate him) but he struggled to find things to say. He also didn’t seem to know much about their wines, which was a little off-setting.

Little Touches at Turnbull

Because we got there late, we also didn’t benefit by any extras… our tastes were straight from the menu, and nothing more. I don’t see that as a fault of Turnbull, but its a recognition that, should you do a visit, you may get more being there a bit earlier in the day.

The Results!
2007 Sauvignon Blanc – Bright, with a fragrance reminicent of lemon-lime soda and freshly cut grass, this was naturally a great fit for the heat and sun of the day. The flavors did not let me down, either; they were bright and tropical, the most noticeable taste being pineapple, but supported with hints of lime and coconut. At $18 a bottle, if you’re a fan of sauvignon blanc and see this in the store, it would be a win for fish on the grill or cold shrimp salad. 2007 Sauvignon Blanc
2007 Old Bull Red Wine Blend – Turnbull refers to this as its cult classic; its a blend of Merlot (44%), Tempranillo (18%), Sangiovese (16%), Cabernet Sauvignon (9%), Cabernet Franc (5%), Barbera (6%), and Syrah (2%). The scent reminded me of strawberries soaked in balsamic vinegar and currants, and when I tasted it, I was really impressed by the balance of acid and tannin. It was a big, fruity monster – raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries on the front palate, with a soft vegetal note, reminiscent of cucumber, on the back. I was pleasantly surprised with this wine, and while there are a number of blends that I’d probably pick up first (Artiste has me spoiled), this is a good deal at $20 a bottle, particularly if you like Italian-style blends. 2007 Old Bull Red
2006 Merlot – If you’ve read any of my merlot reviews, you know I’m tough on them. So it should carry some weight to know that, if served this, I wouldn’t be unhappy, nor would I complain behind my hand about my host having bad taste. 😉 The 2006 Turnbull Merlot has a brown sugar and red fruit fragrance that belies black cherries and cinnamon on the palate. It starts tannic, but finishes with nice acid that makes it accessible to merlot drinkers and non-merlot drinkers alike. 2006 Merlot
2005 Cabernet Sauvignon – This is a bizarre cabernet sauvignon. I’d like to say I really liked it – I feel like I should like it. But it didn’t wow me, despite my hopes inflated by the awards that it had won. The fragrance was of currants and limes, and that acid note was disconcerting to me. The mouthfeel was lush, like velvet, with plum, cassis, and clove flavors that try to seduce your mouth. But it didn’t linger the way I wanted, and perhaps I was spoiled at BV (review to come), but it just didn’t have the punch I was hoping for from a 100% cabernet sauvignon. I think it was just a hair overoaked for my tastes; if you prefer oaky cabernet sauvignon, then this is probably a win for you, particularly at $45 with a 90 point rating by Wine Spectator. But if you like your cabernets with a bit more complexity and to be a little dynamic, then this is probably a pass. 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon
Name Cakebread Cellars
Wines Tasted
  • 2001 Pinot Noir, Carneros
  • 2005 Merlot, Napa Valley
  • 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • 2004 Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • 2006 Reserve Chardonnay, Carneros
  • 2006 Pinot Noir, Carneros
  • 2004 Dancing Bear, Howell Mountain (Napa Valley)
Location Cakebread Cellars, Napa, CA
Tasting Price $10 (Reds Only Tasting)
  • 2001 Pinot Noir – 8 – Lovely example of an older Pinot Noir, however hard to find and a bit overpriced.
  • 2005 Merlot – 5 – A little imbalanced, with strong acid on the nose and heavy, overwhelming tannins
  • 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon – 7 – Beautiful, accessible cab., but overpriced
  • 2004 Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon – 7 – Old world style cab, with great acid, but overpriced
  • 2006 Reserve Chardonnay – 7 – Well-done, expected Chardonnay with mellow fruit and lingering finish
  • 2006 Pinot Noir – 5 – Very tannic, especially for a pinot noir. Needs to lay down.
  • 2004 Dancing Bear – 8 – Delicious, cocoa and cherries small-batch cabernet sauvignon, but a bit overpriced.

Cakebread is a smaller vineyard in Napa, and requires a reservation in order to participate in tastings as well as tours. The winery itself is tucked back, away from Silverado Trail, and its easy to blow right by when you’re trying to find it, but once you do, its quite an experience. We called the day before going, and only one tasting option was available – the ‘reds-only’ tasting, which is new at Cakebread (and I think why there was availability so soon to when we were going).

When we arrived, we were met by a ‘concierge’ at the drive, who checked to make sure that we had a reservation. There is very limited parking at Cakebread, so between its cult-like popularity of the Rutherford cabernets and Carneros chardonnays, and that small space, they have to be really regimented about letting people back. However, he checked the list, smiled, and pointed us back to the parking area behind a large brown barn.

We walked to the reception area, which is in the same barn mentioned, and they gave us plastic placards representing our ‘red wine’ experience, then sent us to the cashier where we paid, were given glasses, and were escorted by another concierge to the red wine tasting room. It seemed a little bizarre to me, given the ‘country-style’ surroundings (barn, barrels, and tanks) but it was also very nice, and everyone we spoke to was quite friendly.

The Parking Sign

The tasting room itself was very tastefully done. Wall-mounted wine racks in stained oak lined the walls to give it an almost library feel, and the bar itself was done in that same, lovely wood. Our hostess was fairly knowledgeable, pointing us to the various locations of the vineyards supplying the grapes for the wine we were drinking and sharing stories about the more ‘interesting’ ones. They even had a small chardonnay bottle, about the size of an old-time milk bottle, full of the soil from the Carneros vineyard to show what the consistency was like.

The Results!
2001 Pinot Noir, Carneros – Often, its hard to get a winery to pour an older Pinot Noir. I think that there are a number of reasons for this – the cost of opening, the fact that high-quality pinots are typically smaller production, the change in flavors which can surprise a pinot enthusiast – but Cakebread was happy to show off their 2001 Pinot, and with good reason. At first smell, I was happily surprised by the scent of freshly cooked bacon and soy sauce. The color showed the wine’s age; it was garnet in the center, but nearer to the edges showed a tinge of brick-brown, and surprisingly it had retained its clarity beautifully. First taste revealed it to be more tannic than what I’d expect for a pinot noir, but that quickly gave way to brown sugar, roasted plums, and raspberries. The wine is done in all in French oak, leveraging a mix of old/new (the hostess didn’t know the proportions), for 14 months which lended to the smooth mouthfeel and complexity. It was very nice, and I would have liked to take some home, but at $40, I think I could do better with a La Crema or Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards, so I didn’t. And its based on that realization that I believe its a bit overpriced. A nice option to try, but you can do better. 2001 Pinot Noir, Carneros
2005 Merlot, Napa Valley – I’m first to admit that I’m not very fond of Merlot. At its best, I think it pairs beautifully with rich chocolate desserts, but more often than not I would be hard pressed to choose one that I’d choose to drink by itself. All that said, I think I’m in a good place to say what is not a good Merlot, because any good wine, in my mind, makes itself at least accessible enough to the taster to know that it was done well. This Merlot did not do that. I was intrigued by the scent, which was acidic and reminded me of tomatoes on the vine. However when I took a sip, I was assaulted by a level of tannins that was comparable to oversteeped black tea. Once my tongue got past the tannins, I tasted plums and blackberries; the fruit was reasonable, and not watered down. All that said, those tannins burned themselves in my mind, and so unless you love black tea, I’d say give this one a pass. No picture – missed this one. Guess I was still trying to shake off the tannins and return feeling to my tongue. 🙂
2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – We enjoyed this cabernet sauvignon, as it was pretty representative of what a well made cab should be. The fragrance was blueberries, bramble and dark chocolate, which was a nice start, and the color was deep ruby. Tasting revealed a great balance, which was fantastic after the Merlot – it was a hint more tannic than acidic, such that you started off feeling the strength of the wine, and it left you drooling for more. Plum, blackberry, and a wash of vanilla at the finish; it was very satisfying. Unfortunately, at $50 a bottle, I come back to the same issue I had with the ZD cabernet sauvignon; you can get a comparable bottle from Hess for much less. And so, I think its a bit overpriced, despite being quite lovely. 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
2004 Vine Hill Ranch, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – If the previous cabernet sauvignon was the easy, accessible cab for Americans, this is the ticket for Europeans. Made in a style much closer to that of Bordeaux, the nose on this was raisins, currants, and figs. The color is also a bit deeper than the 2003 cab, which may be partially as a result of using a single vineyard (where the 2003 was a blend of lots), or because Cakebread uses extended exposure to the skins after fermentation, and that period is longer for this wine versus the 2003. Whatever the reason, its a beautifully deep ruby and is very pleasing to the eye. When I tasted it, I found it to have a great acid, with plum, red fruit, and a hint of vanilla washing over the tongue. Interestingly, I also found that the grapes themselves, the flavor of red-black grape, came through very clearly. Much like the 2003, I will tell you that this is a beautiful cab, and knowing that its single vineyard, 22 months in French oak, 63% new, its easy to see the care that goes into this wine. That said, its $105 per bottle, and that’s a hard price tag to swallow, which leads me to say that its a bit overpriced. 2004 Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
2006 Reserve Chardonnay, Carneros – I know, I know… I know what you’re thinking… we were on a reds only wine tasting, and got the Reserve Chardonnay? Well, a group of folks that were in the tasting room with us were doing the combination tour, and it so happened that the 2006 Reserve Chardonnay was open in the red room, but not in the other room. As a result? We got a bonus. And really, I’m not surprised, because Cakebread is well known for their chardonnay; its regularly available on fine dining restaurant menus, and people want to give it a shot. So what did I think? Well, I think its a well done chardonnay, but it didn’t knock my socks off in a way that I was hoping. The scent was on the tropical side of chardonnay, with notes of lemon curd and a bit of papaya. The color was reminiscent of well-baked hay and very clear. The taste was what I expected, knowing that Cakebread uses all French oak, 35% of it new, and 14% of it undergoing a secondary malolactic fermentation – creme brulee, apples, and lime. The mouthfeel is lovely and smooth, and just what you’d want in a chardonnay. At $55, I’d choose the ZD Reserve (2007 is $55 as well) because I think its a bit more dynamic. But its all about personal preference at this point, and this is a lovely Chardonnay by any estimation. 2006 Reserve Chardonnay, Carneros
2006 Pinot Noir, Carneros – I love pinot noir. Its easily in my top five types of wine, and as a result, I drink a lot of it. The downside to this is that I’m becoming more and more specific about what I want in a pinot noir, which is hard because pinots can reveal themselves so differently dependent on how they are treated. Full disclosure – I drank this with someone else, and they loved this pinot noir, and simply thought it needed more age to really reveal itself as delightful. However, for me, it was much too tannic to be worth considering as a purchase… I know it will mellow out, but who knows how much? The bouquet was fruit-forward, rather like walking in a berry patch, and there were notes of raspberry, cinnamon, and clove upon tasting. And if you look at the picture to the right, you can see it next to the 2001, which shows you how clear and pretty it is. If you like your pinots spicy, rather than delicate, and are patient, this could be a big win for you, but at $50, I’d rather have the 2007 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir from La Crema, which is the same price and could either be drunk tomorrow or laid down for five years. 2006 Pinot Noir, Carneros
2004 Dancing Bear Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain (Napa Valley) – To me, this was the big win at Cakebread, and it comes with a story, to boot. The reason that Cakebread calls this wine Dancing Bear is twofold; the location (Dancing Bear Ranch) and the black bears that mosey on in and eat the grapes. The hostess joked that the bears do the thinning, and whatever is left is what Cakebread will use to make the wine, and while she’s half kidding, it does mean that there is very little fruit, and what’s left is very intense. Dancing Bear is also a blend; 80% cabernet sauvignon, 10% merlot, and 10% cabernet franc, which contributes to the wonderful complexity of the wine. They age it in 22 months in French oak barrels, 45% new, that provides finesse that I felt the other Cakebread wines seemed to lack. The scent was blackberry cobbler with toasted struesel topping and the flavors were of cherries that had been cooked and reduced in sugar and dutch-pressed cocoa. Its a very well balanced wine; the acid-tannin balance was by far the most well done of any wines we tasted that day. If it hadn’t cost $100, I probably would have brought this home, but given the choice I’d take the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon CMH by Williamson Wines instead, which is has a hair less finesse, and save $25. 2004 Dancing Bear Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain