Thursday, July 23, 2015
"A Day in the Dust" 2015
I have no idea what “Rutherford dust” is. It was André Tchelistcheff who coined the expression, (though there are some who say Tchelistcheff borrowed the phrase from Maynard Amerine—I don’t think it matters) and perhaps back in his day it was easy to understand the concept, maybe even taste it in the wines. Though the last time I tasted dust it was because my first wife was leaving me in it. I don’t have any trouble discerning the salinity and minerality of Cru Chablis. I have often experienced the tar and roses character of older Barolo, the bacony edge to Côte-Rôtie, but somehow I’ve never been able to isolate the dust in Rutherford Cabernet. I suppose this is a failure on my part.
I was eager to attend “A Day in the Dust,” the annual tasting of Cabernet Sauvignon from the Rutherford appellation of Napa Valley. In the midst of our drought, though, the name seemed a bit cavalier. Every day these days is a day in the dust. It’s dustier around here than the news features on Wine-Searcher. The tasting was held at Francis Ford Coppola’s restored Inglenook Estate. He’s done for Inglenook what he did for Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”—raised the stakes.
One of the legendary Cabernet Sauvignons in Napa Valley history is the 1941 Inglenook Estate Cabernet. Imagine, a wine still undergoing ML as the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Like the USS Arizona, that’s hard to fathom. I was lucky enough to taste the ’41 Inglenook in 1991 on the occasion of my friend Paul Smith’s 50th birthday. (Paul is proprietor of Woodland Hills Wine Company, one of the absolute best wine retailers around.) Paul had purchased a pristine 6-pack of the ’41 at auction. I just happened to be around when he opened one of the bottles, and it’s one of the most memorable wines of my wine life. At 50, it was still very much alive (as was Paul). I won’t pretend I remember the specifics of how it tasted, I’d be making it up, but what I do recall is just how vibrant and beautiful it was, how it stunned everyone with its longevity and quality. In 1991, as today, there were legions of experts who proclaimed that California Cabernets could not age as well as their Bordeaux counterparts. Not one of them was there when we opened the ’41 Inglenook. I suspect it’s still got something to say. Assigning it a perfect score would seem as stupid as giving Vladimir Horowitz 100 points for his last piano recital. Just shut up and enjoy it.
This year, the wines being served at the historic Inglenook Estate for “A Day in the Dust” were from the wonderful 2012 vintage. Tasting them in July 2015 seemed a bit premature, which is like saying, “I swear, Baby, that’s never happened to me before.” I suspect most of the wines hadn’t been in bottle for very long, but a tasting like this is a good way to gain some insight into the quality and consistency of the vintage, at least in one of Napa Valley’s best districts for Cabernet. I counted 29 producers present, and it was an interesting cross-section of the appellation. There were some notable absences, I would have expected Caymus and Staglin to be present but neither was, yet it was a nice turnout of both the usual suspects, and a few with which I was only vaguely familiar.
Of course, André Tchelistcheff wasn’t referring to a particular character or flavor in Cabernet Sauvignon from Rutherford when he was referring to its dust, but to the soil, and probably the ubiquitous dust that farming grapes creates. I can imagine a visitor to Beaulieu in August saying, “Man, it’s really hazy and dusty outside,” and Tchelistcheff replying, “It takes Rutherford dust to grow great Cabernet.” Of course, the irony is Tchelistcheff could have said, “It takes Rutherford haze to grow great Cabernet,” and everyone now would be thinking they should be tasting our 19th President in their BV Private Reserve. (That joke is so stupid, I’m damned proud of it.)
“A Day in the Dust” is a walk-around tasting, though there was an earlier tasting for more important people than I conducted by Fred Dame MS. Speaking of dust. A walk-around tasting is a difficult environment in which to taste wine. You’re always trying to elbow your way to a table to taste, there’s always some bonehead thinking he has the winemaker entranced with his brilliant wine analysis when he really only has him entrapped, you’re glancing around the room looking for the nearest spit bucket, and all the while trying to focus on the wine’s aromas and then its taste. It’s hard to concentrate. Add to that the nature of young Cabernet, how much it will change, fill out, integrate, gain intensity over the next couple of years in bottle, changes that can make a fool of any wine writer who isn’t one to begin with, and, well, it’s humbling. Or should be. So please take my remarks with a trainload of salt.
After the tasting, driving home, I was trying to capture some common thread that all the Cabernets I tasted possessed. This seemed like a hopeless task. What I tasted over and over again was more akin to style than appellation. Also, it seemed to me that quite a few of the wines seemed overcropped (certainly plausible in 2012), but that could simply be youthful callowness. Most of the wines I tasted had been made by very experienced Napa Valley winemakers, people who put their stamp on wines stylistically. Almost every wine spoke to me of style more than place. Like listening to 29 jazz pianists play “Misty.” There’s a melody in there somewhere, but everyone’s screwing around with it in their own way. I actually like that, want that to be the case. A wine shouldn’t scream “Rutherford” any more than a person should scream “Cop.” Those are always the worst ones.
2012 is a terrific vintage. Now this statement depends on your perspective. Some will find them too voluptuous. Is this possible? Can anything be too voluptuous? I didn’t note many flabby wines, most were grand examples of California Cabernet at its down and dirtiest, busting out of its clothing, youthful and exuberant and ripe, and unafraid to flaunt it. The best ones gave me a boner (I swear, wine writing needs more use of the word "boner"). Did my heart good. I didn’t find them to be too much, as some naysayers will, but, rather, inimitably Napa Valley Cabernet. Some yearn for the “good old days” when California Cabernets were picked at 23 Brix°. Not me. I like balance, and to my palate, the best wines at “A Day in the Dust” had impeccable balance. It was a nice window to the vintage, and people like to throw Brix° at windows.
I’d like to briefly mention my favorite wines at the tasting. I’m certain that in six months, tasting them all again, maybe with Dusty Dame MS, my favorites would be different. That’s the nature of tasting young wines in such an odd and crowded event. But it’s all we got.
I found myself drawn to two very different Cabernets. First, there was the luscious and juicy Hunnicutt 2012 Beckstoffer Georges III Vineyard. Made by Kirk Venge, its forward and seductive and ripe fruit reminded me of the old Groth Reserve Cabernets his father Nils made back in the ’80’s and ’90’s. I think the ’12 Hunnicutt will age better than those Groth wines, it has a nicely integrated layer of chalky tannin, and a lovely and lingering finish. Its all blackberry and cassis, a wine Parker would label “hedonistic.” I just wanted to gulp it. And, no, it wasn’t sweet with residual sugar. So Laube will hate it.
I was also crazy about a wine that is stylistically worlds apart from the Hunnicutt—the stately and beautiful Freemark Abbey 2012 Cabernet Bosché. Oh, boy, this is classic Rutherford Cabernet by anyone’s definition. Tasting it was like running into an old friend. I hope folks don’t ignore this wine because the glory days of Freemark Abbey are long behind us. A lot of cult wines have come and gone since then. This is polished, restrained, elegant wine, but one that is bursting with fun—Charlize Theron in Dior. Ted Edwards certainly knows his way around Bosché Vineyard fruit, and, handed a great vintage, he knew what to do with it. I doubt it will be cheap (the ’11 Cabernet Bosché is $100, and Jackson Family Estates isn't shy about raising prices, so we’ll see), but you can be dead certain that it will become a classic. Maybe not ’41 Inglenook classic, but classic. Very different style than the Hunnicutt. I can’t say I prefer one style over the other, any more than I like the Marx Brothers more than the Smothers Brothers. I don’t have to choose, I’d rather embrace them both. Though the Freemark Abbey and the Marx Brothers will live longer.
I was also very impressed by the two wines Flora Springs offered. I nearly passed them by. My recent experiences with Flora Springs haven’t been especially memorable. Yet the Flora Springs 2012 Rutherford Hillside Reserve was beautiful. It’s what you expect from great Napa Valley Cabernet. Pure, elevated, intense aromas and flavors of blackberries, cassis, expensive oak (that should integrate more with some bottle age) and its cocoa component, and a very sweet fruit finish. Another very elegant Cabernet, one I’d love to spend a few days with to watch it develop. Another wine I’d think would be long-lived and a cellar treasure. The Flora Springs 2012 Trilogy was also terrific. Very different, it was far more open-knit, more accessible and flashy. A wine a sommelier likes because it’s drinking well already, and folks are going to want to taste the 2012’s. I prefer the Hillside Reserve, but the Trilogy is beautiful, and shows a steady hand from the winemaker. I’d happily slug it down.
I don’t want to bore you much longer. I also very much liked the Frank Family 2012 Patriarch, but it’s $225, and no one who reads my crappy blog can afford $225 for wine. They can barely afford to subscribe. It was a gift to get to taste it though. It was quite good.
Finally, a plug for what was, I think, about the cheapest Cabernet in the room, the Chaix 2012. It’s $60, and worth every dime of that. My first note about it reads, “Cab all the way.” Which is how I should have driven home, but actually meant that the wine smelled like textbook Rutherford Cabernet. I love restraint in wine. In fact, I think that almost every great wine has restraint. The Chaix has that. Made by Sam Baxter, the Chaix is seamless. Maybe not the best wine in the room (way too hard to tell at this point, and what do I know?), it was filled with character and quality. Black fruits, loamy, even a kind of stony character, the wine had so much personality and life, I was jealous. I need more of both.