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Deep into 2004 Napa Cab and Deeper into David Byrne Radio (part 1)

August 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Classic Napa.

Digging through a case of predominantly dry red half-bottles, I pull a Ruston Cabernet Sauvignon Napa 2004 and a Flying Horse Cabernet Sauvignon Napa 2004. I have been a regular buyer and proponent of Ruston Family wines ever since stumbling across their Bordeaux-style flagship blend, La Maestra, from ’01 and ’02, releases I am still hoarding in multiple formats (which are aging quite nicely). Since they have only been making this wine for a little over a decade, it has been (and continues to be) especially interesting to follow its aging progress.

Serious juice, nice presentation.

I’m listening to David Byrne’s current playlist as streaming from his website. Byrne’s selections usually involve obscure, often instrumental, and more often than not, vocals in tongues other than English. But today, I seem to have caught dear David in the midst of a melancholy rock block of Nico. When I ducked in, it was “Valley of the Kings” playing, which makes thick textural chaos of its slow tempo, and features Nico’s signature haunting, accented, charmingly dour vocals that are now inseparable from the image of Margot Tenenbaum. Then came “Afraid” and “Chelsea Girls”, which I had little time to digest before being interrupted by a voice that could only be Lou Reed, in his post-Velvets solo years.

In general, Ruston produces small batch primarily Cabernet-based wines that tend to drink above their actual price point(s) and this Ruston Cabernet Sauvignon Napa 2004 is no different. This blend of 66% Rutherford fruit, 34% Oakville boast blackberry brandy, dry raspberry, cassis, damp fall earth, tobacco, and crushed nuts. There’s a fair amount of alcohol on the nose, but the palate is much more nuanced and refined. Tannin still looms large, but it is integrating well, and this wine has the structure to age well for a decade more. There is now a textural roundness that is so exemplary of good Rutherford Cab, once it has truly begun to settle into itself. Ruston Cabernet Sauvignon Napa 2004 ($40) is a solid value per quality and is an ideal wine to accompany a properly seasoned steak.

Venge, Not Vengeance

June 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Why would one alter this label?!

Okay, I’ll admit it. I first became intrigued with Venge wines because of the cool name and the attractive labels. It turns out they’re more benevolent than the family name may imply and more importantly, they make really nice (red) wine. Venge’s cultish top cabernet has seen significant increase in popularity as well as in release price, while their other bottles, such as their tasty merlot and the remarkable Scout’s Honor Zin-based blend and Penny Lane Sangiovese, have remained modestly priced, per quality. While the labels have been modernized, this 1999 Venge Sangiovese Penny Lane Vineyard wears the older label, pictured here, and has aged quite nicely.

This single vineyard Oakville Sangiovese is not shy, containing over 14% alcohol, and bearing a deep, dark ruby hue, right up to the rim. With notes of raspberry liqueur, coffee, and juicy red cherry, it’s a fistful of raw sweetness away from qualifying as a dessert wine. Don’t believe me? Open one with a rich cheese plate and thank me later. At over a decade in the bottle, the only age it currently shows is with it’s mouthfeel, and a pleasurable front palate dryness. Venge Sangiovese Penny Lane Vineyard 1999 is a full bodied encompassing mouthful, with enough spice to hold up to the middle eastern fare with which it was paired on this occasion.

Abbreviated Notes on a Past Private Tasting in Boston

April 14, 2011 Leave a comment

A few weeks back I was invited to a private tasting in Boston, held by a group of three friends (thanks Noah, Steve & Tad!) who take turns hosting themed wine nights for each other and their guests. The premise of the tasting I attended was Cultish Cabs and the line up looked like this:

The Cultish Cabs and their invited guests.

Since it’s not the clearest picture on this blog, here’s what we tasted (left to right): Whispering Dove Cabernet Oakville 2002, Whispering Dove Cabernet Stag’s Leap 2003, Agharta Syrah (Pax Mahle) 2004, Lail J Daniel Cuvee 1999, Dunn Cabernet Napa 1994, Staglin Family Estate Cabernet 1994, Staglin Family Estate Cabernet 2003, Scarecrow 2006, Chateau d’Yquem 1996, Sine Qua Non Mr K The Nobleman 2002. What follows is more of an experiential tale than a set of proper tasting notes as I spent more time enjoying than note taking while amongst these friends.

Classic Napa Cab at it's finest.

This particular evening, it was decided that there would be an initial blind tasting, for fun, and after all guests made there guesses, decanters were properly labeled, so everyone would have accurate palate reference. The ’06 Scarecrow and the ’94 Dunn were both the crowd favorites and were the two wines that nearly everyone guessed correctly during blind tasting. As far as I’m concerned, Dunn Cabernet is the classic long lived Napa Cab in the same way that Chateau Haut Brion is the classic Bordeaux. As of this year, Dunn’s ’86 and ’87 Napa Cabs are still drinking quite well, with little sign of their age. This particular ’94 Dunn Napa, while showing beautifully, still has a number of years to improve in bottle, and many left to live. The 2006 Scarecrow, being such a big wine from a recent good vintage (sandwiched in between 2 great vintages), was supple, round, and encompassing. After significant breathing time, it was damn near seamless. There was a waft on the nose and considerable weight on the finish that our host insisted tasted of “vanilla cake”. While I experienced no crumbs, the vanilla (rich rather than sweet) character was undeniable and quite stunning. And while I know the price of this wine is relatively high (bordering on absurd), it’s a truly beautiful product, inside and out.

Nice juice, not just a clever name.

When I was first invited to this tasting, our fearless host expressed his desire to locate a bottle of Screaming Eagle for around $1200, which is next to impossible, making the cost of said Scarecrow seem quite reasonable. To most mortals, Screaming Eagle isn’t a real wine, but a legendary endpoint of what the highest end of the market will bear (or would bear before the Chinese started paying $1500 a pop for Lafite too young to drink, and then started drinking it). For pennies on those dollars, I brought the two bottles of Whispering Dove which I snapped up with great curiosity back when they were released for around $30/btl.

While every wine opened on this particular evening was well worthy of it’s company, the ’02 Whispering Dove Oakville not only had the most mysterious pedigree of the bunch, but was also 3rd on just about everyone’s blind tasting preference list, and was, by one less experienced taster, mistaken for Scarecrow. To the best of my knowledge, this wine was only produced in 3 vintages from ’01 to ’03, and was very likely different grapes (and likely winemakers) in each release. Rumors that Whispering Dove was in fact declassified Screaming Eagle juice were quickly dispelled, but that didn’t change the marketing boost it got from the false notion. Nor does it change the fact that the 2002 Whispering Dove was most certainly vinified by someone who knew how to handle reserve quality Oakville fruit. And I will likely give my remaining stash another 3 or 4 years before tasting again.

Though new labels don't wear his name, Pax Mahle still makes remarkable syrah-based wine.

And then there was the obviously out of place ’04 Agharta Syrah, which while cultish, contains no cabernet, and was not part of the blind tasting. Bolstering said cultishness, prior to it’s debut, it was given a 98 point rating by some guy named Bob and before that it was vinified, oaked, aged (58 months!), and bottled (unfined & unfiltered) by a winemaker named Pax. And while Pax himself has said that the just released ’05 is “twice the wine” as is this monsterous and complex ’04 Agharta, he’s almost out of running room on the 100 point scale. I’ve tasted it on 3 occasions and giving notes would require the transcription of a short novel I haven’t yet written. It’s deeply complex stuff that changes dramatically over many hours of breathing and is an experience in itself rather that something to drink with any nameable specific food stuff. Structurally the experience of this debut Agharta is similar to Sean Thackrey’s Orion in that the sheer number of flavors per breathing time makes these wines infinitely faceted (and fascinating) gems. Looking forward to following the evolution of these bottles over the next decade or two.

Like Agharta, the depth of SQN Mr K wines crush the feeble descriptives of the written word.

And I don’t mean to disparage Chateau d’Yquem. There’s a reason it has the reputation it does. Yquem has been producing some of the words finest sweet white for centuries. By the time Jacques Sauvage was granted feudal tenure over Yquem in 1593 special growing techniques and late harvesting were already in practice and the estates finest vintages live for over a century. Very few estates, winemaking or otherwise enjoy such a rich history, which certainly comes with a hefty per bottle tariff, here in the future. For my dollar, if I’m going to spend way too much money on a half-bottle of sweet white, it’s more often going to be a 6 puttonyos tokaji, essencia, or something on which the Austrian genius, Alois Kracher, once had his hands.

Speaking of which, our final wine of the evening was Sine Qua Non Mr K The Nobleman 2002. The Mr K series was a partnership of Sine Qua Non proprietor Manfred Krankl and the aforementioned Kracher, which ended abruptly upon Kracher’s untimely passing. Kracher’s family continues to produce the eponymous wines that made him famous. While the SQN Mr K The Nobleman 2002 (Chardonnay) is one of the lighter, thinner wines ever produced under this label, it is still a beautiful, balanced, nuanced, (almost) unreasonably honeyed joy to sip. The ’02 Nobleman is only “lesser” in the way that a mediocre Radiohead record is still worlds better than all of the crap on the radio. This golden wine is a treat on it’s own, but pairs well with a range of cheeses and non-chocoalte desserts, and with residual sugar at this level, the remaining wines may outlive many of us.

Few partnerships have ever created such beauty.

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