The view from the Carnelian Room’s exclusive, 52nd-floor Wine Room set the mood for last night’s high-end California Cabernet tasting. As the smoky pastel haze settled on the Bay Bridge, the 65 members of the elite Vintners Club took their seats and got to sniffing, swirling, sipping and ultimately judging.
There wasn’t much discussion during this portion of the evening. It reminded me of the Judgment of Paris reenactment at Copia, May of 2006. Save for a clicking glass or two, you could’ve heard a pin drop in that room, and it was the same here.
We were tasting blind 12 (A-L) of the finest Cabernet wines made in California, if not the world. This is a serious wine club, with serious members and a 36-year history. This was their 1,466th tasting. Wine importers, top winemakers, serious collectors. I had the pleasure of sitting next to Treasurer Lalita Waterman, who I learned shares a similar palate to me. To my left, Domaine Chandon’s winemaker James Kress. Across the table was a lovely Danville couple, the Silvas, who have an impress 1,000-plus bottle cellar.
I loved the Vintners Club’s extended Wine Wheel, modified to include nutty aromas (walnut, hazelnut and almond). They’d opened the bottles around 1:30 p.m., Lalita told me, and poured the wines around 4:45 p.m. The tasting began promptly at 6 p.m.
I mention this because many of the wines, we all concluded, were a bit off and no one could figure out quite what it was. Clarity was minimal, I thought, and the nose on many of the wines was tight, closed. What’s more, a few were imbalanced and flawed, according to Kress’ copious notes. Unusual, considering most of us were very familiar with these wines, the likes of Shafer, Ridge and Corison, albeit older vintages. Most were 2004 vintages, ranged in price from $65 to $217, and command five-year waiting lists.
My favorite wine: I voted the Caymus Vineyards Special Selection Napa Valley as my #1. So did Lalita. It was silky and full and gorgeous; it stood up to its Napa Valley roots with big dark fruits, chewy tannins and even some green and black olives in the back of the nose. I thought it was true to varietal, something a lot of the thinner bodied, jammy wines did not command.
Before Lalita announced the results of the blind tasting, Paul Draper, Ridge’s legendary winemaker and a Vintners Club member, spoke about his traditional training and the terroir of his Santa Cruz appellation that produces the Judgment winner, Monte Bello. He’s a great man. A class act and a star, so what I’m about to tell you probably didn’t phase him much. The Ridge Monte Bello finished last in the blind tasting. I ranked it 4th.
The group’s #1 was Rocca Family Vineyard’s Yountville Napa Valley, the second most affordable wine, at $65, in the tasting. I ranked it 6th. Shafer’s Hillside Select, the cult wine of cult wines and one I still dream about after tasting it during Premiere Napa Valley earlier this year, came in 3rd. I voted it 8th. There you have it.
What does all this mean? Vintage vintage. Aging aging. I think we should go back and taste these wines next year. 2001 continues to go down as my favorite year for Cabernet, but now that I think about it, I felt that way in 2004. What is extremely interesting is how these wines will play out to the French, who will taste many of them as a group for the first time in Bordeaux on October 19. The Danville couple I mentioned is going. The Vintners Club has deep ties to Bordeaux, and when the chateau owners and winemakers from Margaux, Mouton Rothschild and Lafite-Rothschild among others expressed interest in a blind tasting of Cali cabs, the Tiburon-based club was happy to organize.
Until then, here are the 12 wines along with group ranking and price. Cheers.
1st Place: Rocca ($65)
2nd Place: Garguilo Money Road Ranch ($70)
3rd Place: Shafer Hillside Select ($217)
4th Place: Ramey Pedregal Vineyard ($152)
5th Place: Kendall-Jackson Stature ($103)
6th Place: Caymus Special Selection ($147)
7th Place: Flora Springs Out-of-Sight Vineyard ($92)
8th Place: Williamson Wines Atlas Peak ($62)
9th Place: Chappelet Pritchard Hill Estate Vineyard ($135)
10th Place: Corison Kronos Vineyard ($135)
11th Place: Dominus Estate Yountville ($132)
12th Place: Ridge Monte Bello ($217)