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CALIFORNIA CABERNETS



Many people view "Cabernet Sauvignon" as a lovely meal-time beverage.  California's Napa Valley is, as it turns out, a wonderful place to cultivate, make and sell Cabernet.


During the 1950s and 1960s, when there was but a handful of wineries in the Napa Valley, people wondered if California could produce Cabernet Sauvignon wine worthy of comparison with the wines of France's Bordeaux region.  But this question may have been answered decades earlier.

One of California's first "fine" Cabernets was grown in San Mateo County by a fellow named Emmett Rixford.  He brought cuttings from Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux and planted the La Questa vineyard in Woodside, producing some wines which were said to challenge the best of Bordeaux in those days. 


Back through the 1950s and early 1960s, Merlot did not exist in California.  Wineries in Napa such as Inglenook, Beaulieu Vineyards, Charles Krug and Louis Martini were "the" hot brands and any restaurant worth its salt had to have BV's Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Inglenook's "Cask" Cabernet, Louis Martini's Special Selection and Charles Krug's Vintage Selection (Red Stripe, as it was known).

     

Most every wine sold its wines for similar prices.  If Louis Martini's Cabernet was $3.75, Christian Brothers might be $3.50, BV was perhaps $4 for the regular and $5.75 for the Private Reserve and Inglenook's were within the same price range.

Souverain was a small winery near St. Helena and it was owned and operated by former Hillsborough resident, Lee Stewart.   Mayacamas was a fledgling Cabernet maker in the western hills.  Freemark Abbey was a hot, new winery in the early 1970s as were Chappellet and Cuvaison.  Stag's Leap Wine Cellars was about to launch its first vintage (the 1972) and Chateau Montelena was brand new as the '70s began.  

 


Some fellow named Robert Mondavi left his family's winery (Charles Krug) and aided by financing from a Washington State brewery, he launched his brand with the 1966 vintage.
Mondavi's family owned a winery out in Lodi and he was working in Napa at the Sunny St. Helena winery...when he heard the Charles Krug facility was up for sale, he somehow convinced his conservative father to buy the place.  Disagreements with his family caused him to leave and, with help from beer brewing interests, he was able to set up the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville in time for the 1966 vintage.





The cult winemaker in that era was Joe Heitz, who made distinctive Napa Cabernet Sauvignons, especially one from "Martha's Vineyard."

His wines were difficult to find and the somewhat cantankerous Heitz told my father "I'd have time to make more wine if I didn't have to field phone calls all day long from people such as you!"  Years later, Mr. Heitz was a most gracious fellow when I'd see him.

We eventually were able to purchase Heitz' wines in the mid-1970s.  One of the finest wines we've ever tasted was a 1968 Heitz Napa Cabernet...it was one of those rare wines which was worthy of "the search."  And can you imagine?  Heitz had the nerve to ask $8 for his top bottling of Cabernet.  

In 2012 we opened my last bottle of 1968 Heitz Cellar "Napa" Cabernet Sauvignon.  It was in magnificent condition and absolutely perfect!  The wine had tremendous fruit and was silky smooth...a delightful remembrance of the past and the "early days" of California's current "Golden Age" of wine.

 

 


Freemark Abbey was a leading producer of Cabernets (and Chardonnays) in the early 1970s.  Their ring-leader was a fellow named Charles Carpy, who was a major proponent of preserving Napa for agricultural uses.

They hired a winemaker named Jerry Luper, who also had a hand in the first vintages at Al Brounstein's "Diamond Creek" winery.  

A Cabernet Sauvignon from the Bosché vineyard was the crown jewel in their line-up.  I can't imagine the wines they made in the early 1970s finding much of an appreciative audience in today's world of deep-colored, high alcohol, lavishly-oaked wines.  





The "dean" of Napa Valley winemakers was Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards in Rutherford.

This fellow had a remarkable influence on the California wine scene in the 1950s and beyond and his influence is still felt today.  Aside from making some stellar wines, he was instrumental in training other winemakers and offering consulting advice.   He was a true giant, despite being less than 5 feet tall!

We read, once upon a time, a quotation attributed to Mr. Tchelistcheff: "God created Cabernet Sauvignon, but the Devil created Pinot Noir."

 

 


One of the young upstarts was Warren Winiarski, who founded Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.  
We were just about the first customer of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.  Winiarski was from the Midwest and arrived in California, working with Lee Stewart at Souverain in the mid-1960s and then at Robert Mondavi's new establishment in its first years.  Around 1970 he planted Cabernet in the Stag's Leap district (after planting Cabernet on Howell Mountain years earlier!).  

Warren had been affiliated, too, with a winery called Ivancie...located in Colorado!  Gerald Ivancie was a dentist in real life, but fancied the idea of making wine on a commercial scale in Colorado...and Mr. Winiarski offered consulting services and advice, if we recall correctly.

In the early days, I think the Stag's Leap Cabernet was $3.75 a bottle.  We called to place an order and whomever answered the phone informed us that the price had escalated to $4.25. We still ordered a couple of cases, even at that lofty price.  I quipped "I hope Warren will give me a ride in his new Mercedes" since the price of the wine had been raised.
About a half hour later our phone rang at the shop and it was Warren Winiarski, wanting to know how I knew he'd purchased a new car!

The Winiarski family sold the winery in 2007 to a partnership of Italy's Piero Antinori and Washington State's Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

 

 

 

Another new label in the 1970s was that of the Wagner family.  Old Charlie Wagner and his son Chuck were grape growers in Rutherford and they launched their brand with the 1972 vintage.  That was a wet year and though it was not a highly-regarded vintage, both Caymus and Winiarski's Stag's Leap Wine Cellars offered us really nice wines from that vintage.

The Wagners had a fellow named Randy Dunn was their winemaker in the 1970s and Dunn, of course, remains a producer of "old school" Cabernets under his own banner.

Caymus made all sorts of wines in that era...Oeil de Perdrix was a pink wine made of Pinot Noir (yes, they grew Pinot in Rutherford!).  Caymus also made Zinfandel and, once upon a time, Merlot.  They bottled a sweet Riesling they purchased on the bulk market, as well!

Also making some top Cabernet in the 1970s was the Conn Creek winery.  Villa Mount Eden, with Nils Venge as their winemaker, made exceptional 1978 and 1979 vintages...

The Franciscan winery opened in the early 1970s and after a change (or two) of ownership, one of its winemakers, Justin Meyer, went on to found Silver Oak.

 

 


Sonoma was home to some good wineries, too, but its history was more of producing good quality wines at reasonable prices.  


Savvy wine buyers knew Pedroncelli in Sonoma's Geyserville area to be a source of good wines along with Parducci, farther north in Mendocino's Ukiah.

 

 

 

Sonoma's Alexander Valley gained a measure of notoriety when a fellow named Tom Jordan started his winemaking enterprise.  The 1976 vintage was released at an unheard of price: $6.75 (if memory serves).  








The Santa Clara valley was home to several notable wineries.  Martin Ray, of course.  Ridge Vineyards established itself in the 1970s as a top source of great Cabernet (they made an Eisele Vineyard Cabernet from the famous Napa vineyard in the 1971 vintage).  Mario Gemello made some stellar wines in the 1960 vintage and through the early 1970s.


The late Mario Gemello in 2003, or so.

 




Well, today wineries such as Heitz offer entry level Cabernet for $40 and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars costs $55.  It took them 30 years to get to the fifty dollar level.  And yet, these days, the market is full of brands vying for shelf and wine-list space which cost $100 or more for Cabernets with little history and no track record.

We've seen the advent of "cult wines" over the past couple of decades.  Names such as Bryant, Colgin, Harlan and Bond fetch hundreds of dollars.  Seeing this trend, many people have started wine brands in hopes of catching lightning in a bottle.

A sales rep brought in a perfectly standard bottle of Napa Cabernet, asking $75 a bottle.  I pegged it as being "worth" $20.  "What makes this worth $75?" I asked.  The fellow showed me a map of famous vineyards and since all the neighbor's wines cost big bucks, their wine had to cost a similar small fortune.

When I asked another gentleman "Precisely what brand of crack are they smoking at your winery to think this young vines, simple Cabernet could possibly warrant your asking nearly $200 for a bottle?" he told me "That's a good price for a cult Cabernet!"
Too much Kool-Aid, in my curmudgeonly view.


wpe3.gif (5104 bytes)Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, Cabernet wines were somewhere in the range of 12 to 13% alcohol.
Many wines were aged three to five years before being released.

Today, in search of greater acclaim from various wine critics, winemakers pick grapes at ever higher levels of sugar and ripeness.  You won't find many California Cabernets with less than 14% alcohol these days.

While people may have been more patient in the 1950s and 1960s, today it's a world of instant gratification and wine drinking has changed.
Many people used to enjoy wine as a meal-time beverage and as an accompaniment to food.  In today's world, many consumers drink wine on its own, nearly as a cocktail beverage.
This explains, to some degree, the change in winemaking and wine styles.


The winemaking has changed with respect to Cabernet.  Years ago it was normal to make Cabernet Sauvignon without blending any other varieties.  Today, many producers add Merlot to "soften" their Cabernets.  There are other winemakers who blend in other Bordeaux varieties, such as Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. 

One winemaker, years ago, told me his best wine was 100% Cabernet.  "I blend Merlot into our regular wine, but mainly to give the marketing people something to talk about." he said.

Looking back to the wines made in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s in Napa, we find most were aged in large wooden tanks.  The notion of adding oak chips to flavor the wine was certainly foreign to winemakers of that era.  Wines were often aged in redwood tanks or relatively neutral cooperage for a few years and then a few more years in bottle before the wine reached the market.

Today many people give their wines 12-18 months in smaller cooperage (it matures faster in 60 gallon barrels than in a 2,000 gallon vat).  Many replace a percentage of barrels each year in order to insure a certain amount of oak is showing in the wines' bouquet and flavor.   And the wines are pushed into the market after 2 or 3 years, whereas into the 1960s and 1970s, most Cabernets arrived in shops when they were about 5 years old!

While many winemakers produce big, deeply-colored, aggressively tannic wines, there is not guarantee that a wine of such style will "age well."  The wine must have an appropriate amount of fruit (grape character) to go along with the tannin.  Even more important is the level of acidity in the wine.  Low acid/high tannin wines, in our experience, often do not age particularly gracefully. 

wpe6A.jpg (9520 bytes)We have had the pleasure of opening old bottles of California Cabernets which we are fairly certain we not outrageously tannic when the wines were young.  I am thinking of bottles of Louis Martini Cabernets from the mid-to-late 1940s which, at 50 years of age, were still vibrant in color and fresh in "fruit."  I also recall a Simi Cabernet of elderly stature (probably from the mid 1960s or so) which we shared with a group of visiting Alto Adige (Italian) food and wine fanciers: the wine was fruity, berryish and thoroughly delicious despite never having been hugely tannic or excessively oaky.  

The late Mario Gemello also made exceptional Santa Clara County Cabernet Sauvignon.   His 1960 is legendary!  And still fabulous (the bottle in the photo above was opened, and consumed with enthusiasm, in January 2001...we had one in August of 2010 alongside 1966 Lafite and 1967 Latour...the Gemello was the best of the three).  That wine was aged in wood for nearly a decade!!!

Yes, winemaking has changed.

Our shop caters more to people who "drink" wine as opposed to those who "collect" wine.  We do, of course, have many deluxe bottles in the shop.  But we appreciate having good quality and sensible pricing.  These days there's a lot of "Fool's Gold" in the wine market.  

If you've got lots of cash, buy what you like.  If you're looking for value, come see us.

 

Cabernet Best Buys



WELLINGTON
 Sonoma CABERNET SAUVIGNON  (list $20) SALE $13.49
Sonoma County Cabernet from Peter Wellington is a good, old-fashioned California red wine.  It's not the gobs 'fruit style of Cabernet and it's not intended to be appreciated by wine critics who measure wine according to how big, massive and astringent it is. 

This wine is meant for the dinner table and it's a fine accompaniment for food.  Steaks, roasted meats, grilled meats...

It is not intended to be paired with chocolate...it's dry red "table wine."  

We think this is one of the best values in North Coast Cabernet in California.  It is drinkable now and may be kept for several more years.  




 


HART'S DESIRE 2010 "CLARET" $19.99
John Hart married a woman named Desiree, so he pretty much had no choice in naming the winery!

He's been making a delightful "Claret" for us over the past few years and the just-arrived 2010 is exceptional.  It's a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.  All Alexander Valley fruit.   The wine has a nice touch of wood (the proverbial "kiss" of oak) and the tannin level is such that drinking it now is a pleasure.

It's a medium-full bodied red.  Not huge, over-the-top, but balanced and refined.  And sensibly-priced.





 



ALEXANDER VALLEY VINEYARDS
2011 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon $18.99
The Wetzel family has been farming in Sonoma's Alexander Valley for more than 40 years.  We bought our first wines from them with the 1975 vintage!

Though many of their neighbors ask serious money for a bottle of Cabernet, the Wetzel's still sell wine for a price which allows one to drink well, even if you didn't part with a fifty-dollar bill.  In fact, you'll get change and a bottle of wine for a twenty-one dollar bill!
 
Here's a line up of their Cabernets with the various labels they've used since the start...
 


The 2011 Cabernet is much like its predecessor, a wine with lots of dark fruit notes and a whiff of wood.  We find a mildly leathery tone here, which may become more pronounced with cellaring.  I find it to be quite good and one of the few bargains in California Cabernet.  The 2011 is nice now and it will age well, given another 5-8 years of cellaring.







MARIO PERELLI MINETTI
2010 Sonoma CABERNET (reg $24) SALE $19.99

The late Uncle Mario lived a few blocks from the shop and he was an amazing character.  His family ran the California wine business shortly after Prohibition and he was a lawyer in real life.  But wine was in his blood and he always liked the business.  He'd been making wine (or hired winemakers to produce, vinify and bottle, some wine for him.  Then he'd go store to store and restaurant to restaurant, offering them a rather good quality wine at a down-to-earth price.  
 
Uncle Mario was an old-timer and he was embarrassed if he had to raise the price of his wine by even 50-cents a bottle.  He was always amazed when some brand new winery would release its first wine, unknown and relatively un-tested and yet they'd be brazen enough to ask $50, $100, or $200 for a single bottle.

"Who buys those wines?" he wondered.

Mario's wine, though, came from good Napa Valley vineyards.  It never had a lot of wood showing.  "I want to taste the grapes," he'd say.

Mario lived to be well past one hundred years of age and he did pretty well up until the last year, or so.  He'd credit the wine as having bestowed upon him some measure of youth and vitality.

For years the wine came from Napa Valley fruit.  Mario's grandson, conscious of keeping the wine associated with the words "good value," told us he didn't think he'd be able to keep the price at a reasonable level if he made wine from Napa fruit.  One day Andrew brought in a couple of samples of Cabernets and asked us to offer an opinion on the wines.  We had a decided preference and the best wine was, surprisingly, from Sonoma County grapes!  

We suggested it would be better to offer the best wine possible, rather than stick to keeping the words "Napa Valley" on the label.  We're sure Uncle Mario would be a bit sad, on one hand, that his wine is not a Napa Cabernet this vintage.  On the other hand, we're sure Uncle Mario would be pleased with the 2010 from Sonoma and delighted it's still a bargain!

 

SUMMERS
2010 Napa CABERNET "Calistoga Cuvee"  SALE  $26.99
Napa Cabernet at a reasonable price is not easy to find.  Most Napa wineries ask $50 for their entry level bottling.

Summers is a small estate in Calistoga and they actually have more respect for a $50 bill than most vintners.  As a result, you can almost buy two bottles of their Calistoga Cuvee Cabernet with a fifty.  


This vintner has been a bit of a fixture here at the shop for the past 6 or 7 years.  People appreciate paying a fair price and getting an honestly made bottle of wine.  

Jim and Beth Summers bought a vineyard in Knights Valley, north of Calistoga, in 1987.  Merlot and Muscat.  They began to make their own wine with the 1992 vintage.  In 1996 they acquired a parcel near Chateau Montelena on Tubbs Lane.  That's when things got out of hand...

We've routinely had their entry level Cabernet in the shop, along with Merlot and their dynamite bottling of Charbono.  

The Calistoga Cuvee comes from several vineyard sites near the winery, including their own Andriana's Vineyard.  The wine and was matured in French oak (50% new wood, too!).  The fruit takes center stage, showing dark berries and a bit of cassis.  There's a touch of wood in the back and the tannin level is such that the wine is very drinkable right now, unless you're a fan of White Zinfandel or sweet, fruity Muscat wines...


 




MCMANIS

Our friend Jeff Runquist makes wine for the McManis family just south of Lodi out in the Central Valley.   We're typically allergic to wines from this part of the planet, but Jeff uses a good 'recipe' and manages to make something even fussy palates might enjoy.

The wine shows lots of sweet oak fragrances and it's intended for immediate drinking, not cellaring.  Some consumers will see the 2009 vintage date on the bottle and figure this is too young.  In fact, it will not age especially well and it's vinified with the idea people are going to buy it and drink it within about half an hour's time.  It sells for small money and is aimed at wine drinkers, not "wine collectors."

Currently in stock:  McMANIS 2010 CABERNET  SALE $9.99
 

 

 
Other suggestions: 

Consider some marvelous Spanish wines:     Pago Florentino at $21.99.  Rioja can be had for $12-$25...there are also some really good reds from the southwest part of France...Madiran wines give these California Cabernets a run for the money and they're $19.99.

Bordeaux is another great place to start exploring.  We have reasonably price, delicious Bordeaux wines from $11.99 to $25.  

 

 

 

Deluxe CABERNETS

ACKERMAN FAMILY
The Ackermans were married in Napa back in 1989 and they got a taste for the Valley.

A few years later, looking to purchase a horse, Bob Ackerman ended up buying a ranch, the ranch house and, oh yes, the horse that was for sale at that ranch.

There were vines on the property when they purchased it and the fruit was sold to other wineries.  The Ackermans eventually replanted the entire site, using drought-resistant root-stock, a new trellising system and organic farming.
 
They currently have about 11 acres of Cabernet on the property, which is situated in the Coombsville area of Napa.  

We tasted several vintages of this small production winery (they typically produce 300-400 cases of wine each vintage, selling most of their grapes).  

The 2006 struck our fancy, as it's a sturdy, muscular Cabernet and made for adults.  The wine has something many California Cabernets lack these days:  tannin!

It is not a smooth, supple, soft little red for the faint of heart.  It's a big, robust, fairly astringent Cabernet which demands a big steak, rack of lamb or prime rib to accompany it.  

We suspect this will age well for another decade, or two.  
 
Currently in stock:  2006 ACKERMAN Napa CABERNET  Sale $89.99
 

 


 
 
ALTAMURA VINEYARDS & WINERY
altamura.gif (22028 bytes)This family enterprise started out in the mid-1980s with a lonely little stone building on the Silverado Trail.  Chardonnay was an early release, but given their penchant for aging wines in oak, reds have been the highlights here.   


Frank Altamura used to work at Caymus and so he's partial to oak.  In abundance.  The winery makes Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon.  The vineyards are in the southeastern part of Napa Valley in an area, appropriately, called "Wooden Valley."  Production remains small and the wines have a good following thanks to nice fruit and balance in the wines.  The current and recent vintages show less strong oak and more Cabernet.

 

The 2009 is very good...really "classic" Napa Cabernet aromas.  The wood seems a bit more pronounced than in the 2008, for example.  We like the dark fruit notes and the cedary tones from the barrels.  This is delicious right now, especially with grilled meats and it will do well with another 5 to 15 years of cellaring.
Currently offered:   2009 Napa Cabernet SALE $79.99


Bob Gorman's photo of Altamura's vineyards.


Bob's photo inside the Altamura Winery...





 



BEAULIEU VINEYARD
BVCab.gif (19198 bytes)Located in Rutherford, in the heart of "Cabernet Country," the BV winery has made an impressive comeback in recent years.  I'll bet, however, they'd claim they never left.  Yet for those looking for serious quality Napa Valley Cabernets, this winery went into the doldrums from about 1975 or so until the 1994 vintage.
Two historical figures play prominent roles here:  the founder, a Frenchman named Georges de Latour and a Russian gentleman named Andre Tchelistcheff. 

Georges de Latour was from the Perigord region in France and came to California in the 1880s in search of gold.  He lost what money he had attempting to find gold in the Sierra Foothills.  He had a background in chemistry, however, and traveled from winery to winery buying sediment and the tartrates which precipitated out during the aging process.  This he made into cream of tartar which was destined for baking powder.   His business was headquartered in Sonoma near the Dry Creek Valley.  In 1899 he purchased a property located immediately north of the very prestigious (at that time) Inglenook winery in Rutherford.  He returned to his native France for vine cuttings and opened a small winery. 

In 1915 he bought the stone cellars of the Seneca Ewer winery across the road and that remains the main home of BV. 

Prohibition didn't shut down the winery, as de Latour was a producer of altar wines for the Catholic Church.  When Repeal finally came along, de Latour had stocks of well-aged wines and was ready to supply a thirsty market. 
Claude Rains portrayed Georges de Latour in a movie called "This Earth is Mine," based on a book written by Alice Tisdale Hobart.  I understand the situations were changed somewhat to avoid legal wranglings.

De Latour and his son-in-law, the Marquis de Pins, visited the Institute National Agronomique in Paris in search of an enologist to replace the retiring Professor Leon Bonnet.  They met a research enologist named Andre Tchelistcheff who accepted their offer of a position in the Napa Valley. 
Tchelistcheff felt Cabernet Sauvignon had the greatest potential and wanted to concentrate on making a wine to challenge the best of Bordeaux.  But the owners of BV felt they had to have a complete "line" of wines and made everything including Napa "Burgundy," "Chablis", "Muscat de Frontignan" and other fortified dessert wines. 

The first BV "Georges de Latour Private Reserve" Cabernet Sauvignon was from the 1936 vintage. 

I have a very old copy of Leon Adams "The Wines of America" in which he writes of the initial Private Reserve:
"It was the 1936 vintage and was priced at a dollar and a half.  (At this writing, the ten year old Private Reserve brings fourteen dollars a bottle in the few stores that have any in stock.  The three year old can be bought at the Beaulieu tasting room in Rutherford for $5.25 but there is a limit of two bottles per buyer."

I think I still may have a bottle or two of that $5.25 Private Reserve with our ancient orange price sticker on it!

The winery was sold by the Marquise de Pins in 1969 to the large Heublein company. Tchelistcheff remained as winemaker, though he retired in 1973 or 1974.  His protégé, Dick Peterson made the 1974 vintage and left shortly thereafter to be the head honcho at the new "The Monterey Vineyard" in Monterey County, California. 

The winery, in our view, went into a tailspin through the late 1970s and all through the 1980s.  It seems, to our taste-buds, the winemaking was being hampered by the bean counters as less-than-stellar fruit and barrels were being used to make, not surprisingly, less-than-stellar wines. 

We were shocked when a BV Private Reserve 1994 won a blind-tasting here.  We were delighted, however, to see the return of "an old friend."   This, to us, marks a renaissance at BV.

The shackles have been removed, it would seem, and BV can, once again, take its place as a source of excellent quality wines.  BV Reserve Cabernets have won blind-tastings here with their 1995 and 1996 vintages. 
The winery is also making tiny amounts of special bottlings of Cabernets and other experimental varieties.  We hope the string of successes continues!

BV makes a modest quality "Coastal" Cabernet which has yet to attract our attention.  Their regular bottling of Napa Cabernet is called "Rutherford," though some in Napa are amused that the wine is NOT made exclusively from Rutherford-grown fruit.  Actually, the word isn't really "amused."  They're not at all happy about this. 
BV Private Reserves have been entirely Cabernet Sauvignon.  

The major change effected by their director of winemaking, Joel Aiken, is BV's Reserves are no longer exclusively matured in American oak.  The latest Reserves have been matured in French oak to the tune of 73%.  The balance is American wood, with 80% of the cooperage, in some fashion, being new oak. 

Another wrinkle in the BV fabric has been the introduction of a Bordeaux-styled blend.  You could call it a "Meritage" wine, but that would cost a premium, so BV came up with their own proprietary name, "Tapestry."  
This wine has been BV's "Bordeaux-styled" blend.  They've worked to market the wine at the $50 price level, a bit ambitious, in our view.  We had to discontinue the wine because, frankly, it's not worthy of its price tag...it's a good $30 wine with a $50+ price tag.






The 2008 Private Reserve is their "current" release.  Nicely oaked, fairly deep and worth its sale price.


 
 
 



My Letter From Andre.
Currently in stock:  

2008 BV Private Reserve SALE $99.99







BEHRENS & HITCHCOCK
This small enterprise has gathered a lot of steam over the past few years, combining the resources of Les Behrens and Bob Hitchcock.  

Behrens was in the restaurant biz and put together an impressive wine list to go with Mrs. Behrens' cuisine.  
Bob Hitchcock used to work counting beans.  I suppose he still counts them as part of his contribution to the B&H endeavor.  

We've been fans since their early days when they were true "garagistes."  Now they have a winery atop Spring Mountain, complete with a cave (so they remain "an underground" winery).  

The wines, so far, have been wonderful.  Behrens, thanks to his restaurant background, seems to strive for balance and "drinkability" in their wines.  Wines we've tasted don't have the maximum tannin nor are they hugely oaked.

The 2004 Herrick-Moulds Cabernet comes from two vineyard sites, one on Howell Mountain and the other from the Oak Knoll District.  It's one of the typical "gobs o'fruit" Cabernets with nice cedary oak and dark cherry notes.  It's certainly drinkable now and a few more years in bottle are certainly okay...
 

As they produce but a few hundred cases of the various bottlings, wines from this property tend not to hang around for very long.  Cellar treatment is minimal, fining and filtering being handling the B&H crew is allergic to.  
Currently available: 
2000 Napa Cabernet $59.99
2000 King of the Gypsies  $99.99

2000 Petite Verdot  $49.99
2000 Kennefick Cuvee Magnums  $139.99
2002 Dr. Crane Cabernet $64.99
2002 Les Chats du Monde $64.99  (last bottles)
2003 Les Chats du Monde $64.99
2004 Herrick-Moulds Cabernet Sale $59.99





BERINGER

This winery was founded by the German-born Beringer brothers, who came to the U.S. in the 1870s from Mainz.  Jacob and Frederick built the "Rhine House" and had a cave or two excavated for wine production.  Jacob went to work for Charles Krug across the street until their own digs were dug and ready for wine-making.

 


The family ran the place until about 1970 when it sold the winery and tremendous acreage to a Swiss firm called Nestlé.  Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Beringer was probably most famed for a rather modest red wine called "Barenblut" (Bear's Blood!) which was a curious blend of Grignolino and Pinot Noir.  Bears must have thin blood!  The winery also put out a fortified wine of Malvasia Bianca for which they were rather well-regarded... 

Nestlé set about improving the winery and hired a guy named Robert Pecota as a 'big wig' along with a fellow named Myron Nightingale as its winemaker.  They made all sorts of wines, from Grey Riesling to Fumé Blanc to Cabernet Sauvignon.  A second label was created called "Los Hermanos," the nickname given the Beringer brothers by their Spanish neighbor, Señor Tiburcio Parrott.    The Los Hermanos label featured jug wines and single-serving bottles which came complete with plastic cup!  

The winery plodded along for many years, never really competing seriously in the realm of connoisseur wines until about the early 1980s.  We recall being stunned to taste a 1984 Reserve Cabernet that was seriously better than the ordinary plonk Beringer had been known for making.  The winery continued on an upward spiral with winemaker Ed Sbragia at the helm.  

The Nestlé folks, with a seller's market easily in view, surprised many industry folks by divesting itself of the Beringer winery and its various brands (Chateau Souverain was the Sonoma "sister" and "Napa Ridge" was a secondary label).  Today Beringer is part of the vast "Beringer Blass" empire and Ed Sbragia remains in some capacity, over-seeing the wine production.

This property makes a range of wines, from marginal "plonk" to deluxe, top-drawer Cabernets.  

Owning substantial property in neighboring Sonoma County, Beringer's standard bottling of Cabernet wears the Knights Valley designation. 

It's been a number of years since we've had a current vintage of Beringer's Reserve Cabernet in the shop.  The basic wines are perfectly standard and the Reserves are wines which seem to have fallen by the wayside.  As the winery is apparently run by the accounting and marketing gangs, the focus seems to be on cheaper wines and more mass-marketing efforts.

As a result, the brand is one more geared to be found in large chain stores which may, or may not, feature wine.

Currently in stock:  Sold Out




BUEHLER VINEYARDS

The Buehler family had resided in Hillsborough a few decades ago and John Senior bought a little get-away place up in the Napa Valley.  

John Junior took a liking to the Napa Valley lifestyle, such as it was in the 1970s...
(Napa was far more 'rural' then than it is today...not as many wineries in those days and people were making and selling "wine," while today many think they're art dealers or trophy vendors.)

Buehler made some nice wines, but they mostly sold fruit to other vintners.  At one point they hired a young fledgling winemaker named Heidi Peterson to make the Buehler wines.  

Heidi's daddy was a guy named Richard Peterson, the right hand man to BV's famed Andre Tchelistcheff.  She was Buehler's winemaker until 1988, or so.  The winery had become well-known for good, solid wines and they sold them at reasonable prices.

Over the years they've built this little enterprise into a nice family business and today John Junior's kids are involved, too.   The whole place is close to Lake Hennessey, a bit south of Howell Mountain...six miles of winding roads east of St. Helena.

We were early fans of their wines...but in recent years have found various critics and wine writers to be enthusiastic for various Buehler wines, while we found them to be "well made" but perhaps a bit lacking.

In July of 2011 we bought a bottle of Buehler's "Estate" Cabernet and included it in a blind-tasting of 2008 vintage Cabernets.  Buehler has received some good reviews for their entry-level bottling, so we splurged on the more deluxe wine.  Well, what do you know?  We had the Buehler as our first place ranked wine and it came in second behind a $57 bottle from another old-timer, Bruce Neyers!

The Buehler 2009 Estate (not their entry-level Napa bottling that most places offer) has bright, ripe fruit aromas and it's nicely oaked, showing a beautifully woodsy, cedary bouquet.  Medium-full bodied with a nice balance of fruit and tannin...It's certainly enjoyable now and it ought to continue to develop for a few more years before hitting its plateau.  This was a most pleasant and total surprise!

We're offering this at a special price, too, so stop by and grab a bottle to put on tonight's diner table...or you'll be hearing Ben Stein droning on and on:  "Buehler?  Buehler??"

Currently in stock:  2009 BUEHLER Napa Valley "Estate" CABERNET SAUVIGNON  (List $36)  Sold Out

 

 






BURGESS CELLARS
2009 Burgess Cabernet  Sale $34.99
This modest winery is located in an old stone cellar on the road towards Angwin and Pope Valley in the eastern hills of the Napa Valley.  It was the original Souverain winery when Souverain was a small, artisan producer back in the 1960s.  Lee Stewart sold the Souverain name to Pillsbury (I don't think they made that much dough in the wine biz) and the facility was acquired by former airline pilot Tom Burgess.   Bill Sorensen was the winemaker for Burgess' first vintage and he's still at the winemaking helm today!

They've made good wines over the years,  but have never really managed to capture the attention of wine critics or wine geeks.  They don't sing and dance and so marketing has not been a major strength.  Further, Burgess is not one of those wineries which ask astronomical prices so customers "will know they're getting a good bottle of wine."  

Over the years, we've found their wines to be good, solid Cabernets.  Every so often, we've had one of their "library" releases as the winery holds back a portion of each vintage for additional aging.

It has been a few years since I've bought a bottle and, on a lark, I purchased a bottle of Burgess' 2004 Napa Cabernet in early 2009.

Wow!  What a pleasant surprise!

The wine comes from their Howell Mountain area vineyards, but the elevation is actually below that of the "official" Howell Mountain appellation, so it's "merely" Napa Valley on the label.  

We are delighted to report the 2005 was quite good, as was the 2006 and so is the newest release, the 2007.  It's "old fashioned" Napa Cabernet and I don't suspect they're picking grapes that are over-mature, nor are they adding "Mega Purple," a grape concentrate that's quite popular in Napa these days.  

Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec all play a role in the 2009 Burgess Cabernet Sauvignon.  It was matured in French oak and the wine shows a beautiful balance of wood and fruit.  The tannins are rather soft here and the wine is, we think, remarkably good.   This can be served immediately and we suspect the 2009 will cellar nicely for another 5-10 years.  

Given what some vintners ask for a bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet, this is a gem!  It's a real pleasure to get to know, once again, some "old friends."









CAKEBREAD CELLARS

2007  Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon SALE
$72.99

For years the Cabernets from this property have been merely big and burly.   We've seen a definite (in our opinion: improvement) refinement in the wines in the last vintages and today they're making wines even fussy folks such as ourselves even consider to drink!  

I just don't like paying so much for them...but a lot of people find the wines to be priced fairly and pop for a bottle.  


The 2006 is a fairly-full bodied wine, typical of Cakebread's work.  Oak is not a major component, though about two-third of the barrels are new.  French oak only.  A tiny bit of Malbec and Cab Franc are used and about 16% Merlot makes its way into the blend.  The vineyards range from the cool Carneros in southern Napa up to the warm climes of Calistoga in the northern part of the valley.  
The wine shows a bit more complexity than you'd find in a Cakebread Cabernet of a decade ago, or so.  Part of this is simply greater experience on the part of the winemaker.  Another factor is their use of a wider variety of clones, grape varieties and vineyard sources.

The 2007 is young now, but a few more years in bottle will repay your being patient.

 

 

 
 
COVENANT
The Covenant label is a small production of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from a tiny patch at the Larkmead Vineyard just a bit north of St. Helena.

The brand is owned by former Wine Spectator correspondent, Jeff Morgan and wine mogul Leslie Rudd.  

The 2007 vintage is currently available and it's a big, deep, full-throttle wine that's 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.  It's matured in a fair bit of new oak, so you'll find a nicely woodsy character here as well.
 
It's quite drinkable in its youth and probably can be cellared for 5-10 years.
 
The Covenant brand, by the way, is certified as "Kosher," though it is not a "Mevushal" (boiled or pasteurized) wine.  Morgan and Rudd feel that heating the wine to the boiling point would be detrimental to the quality and character and they're right.
 
Currently in stock:  COVENANT 2007 Napa CABERNET SAUVIGNON (list $90)   SALE $79.99


 

 


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