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.


Don Clemens said...

I laughed out loud at your stupid joke, and then I had to explain my behavior to my wife. She knows me too well. Thanks for another fun read.
Rutherford haze! Jeez...

LeoFerrando said...

----raised the stakes ! Love this fine irony, thanks.

Thomas said...

OK, I'll admit it: Ruherford Haze made me laugh too. But I gotta stop encouraging this Hosemaster feller.

Unknown said...

This is extra enjoyable and educational. I ended up googling the 19th President and watching Vladimir Horowitz playing from YouTube.

All wine reviews from HoseMaster are truly appealing because they've cast the charms that allure over the bottles that were covered. The most recent piece on Limerick Lane Zins is also terrific. I guess since most of us, your readers, have not tasted the wines, we can't comment much on this piece. Great that HoseMaster tells people about good bottles from California. Californian Wine Ambassador & HoseMaster? Maybe there is correlation there.


Unknown said...

Steve H is writing comedy and you're doing wine reviews? The world has gone topsy-turvy.

I really enjoyed this as a review of the entire tasting, as opposed to a single wine review. Context is everything. I'm a big fan of Freemark Abbey, loved your description of "walkaround tastings", and really appreciate that you managed to make a dick joke and a joke about Rutherford B. Hayes.


Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Common Taters,
Don and Thomas, that's one of those jokes that just appears out of nowhere. It surprised me and made me laugh, so I hate it. But Rutherford haze makes as much sense as Rutherford dust, which is why it works. The stupider the pun, the more I like it.

Thanks, Leo, I try.

Susan Darling,
I count on the fact that you haven't tasted the wines. That's how I look smart. Which isn't easy.

A million smooches back, Darling of Mine

Man, you just driveby me every now and then. Loyalty among Common Taters is shitty. Thanks for the kind words. I resent those who write about big tastings as though there is no context. It's intellectually corrupt. With wine, context is supremely important. As are dick jokes.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bob Henry said...

"What I tasted over and over again was more akin to style than appellation. ... Almost every wine spoke to me of style more than place."

I has been often stated by selective observers of the wine scene that riper wines lead to less distinctive "terroir."


Another (excerpted):

"At last, it seems the big, extracted, over-ripe, over-oaked wines that got so much attention from top critics are now beginning to fall out of fashion. These wines have had any sense of place obliterated from them. ...

"Look at Bordeaux. In the 2010 vintage, some wines were being made at 15 or even 16% alcohol. This isn’t necessarily a crime on its own, although there aren’t many high alcohol reds that are at all interesting, but in Bordeaux, which has terroirs capable of finesse, balance, complexity and ageability, to make this sort of over-ripe big wine is morally questionable. There aren’t that many great terroirs in the world, and if you are lucky enough to be a custodian of one, then you are deranged if you lose that terroir, either through picking too late and using too much oak, or by allowing wine faults to drown out the quiet voice of the vineyard.

"Can we taste terroir? This is one objection to the emphasis on terroir, and I think it’s a legitimate one. Certain sites are capable of greatness, for sure. But when two winegrowers make wines from the same vineyard, can we recognize that vineyard blind, even when both wines are made very well in a manner sympathetic to terroir expression? This is tricky. I’d say, sometimes yes, sometimes no. Terroir is important, but the link between soils and wine flavour is a complex one."


Bob Henry said...

Shifting subjects, let me drop in this well-earned plug for an accomplished jazz pianist:


(The audiophile in me is irrepressible:



Thomas said...

This comment has been included by ther author.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

So you're excerpting Jamie Goode as though he is in some way authoritative? Here? On my blog? Don't be an idiot.

Aaron said...

Thanks for the humor, always enjoyable. And it's great you put up a few that you loved, and the fact that they all aren't $$$$. Just simply $$. Still, probably not something I'll buy yet. I've reserved my >$100 for vintage ports, and even so I rarely buy any. Even though some of those Cabs will probably age as long or longer, I've got to keep to a budget. At least, until I win the lotto.

The tip on the Chaix is great, I'm close to buying a bottle or two since it's (relatively) cheap, yet from what you say very good.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thanks for the kind words. The Chaix was terrific, and should age quite well. If you do drink it right away, try to give it several hours in a decanter before you drink it.

I always wrestle with whether I should talk about wines I disliked. I don't because it seems as unfair to judge a wine poorly under those tasting circumstances as it seems nuts to give it a fixed score. So I try to talk about wines I liked the best, which implies, of course, that the other wines there didn't impress me as much. Though any wine that genuinely offended me in some way, I'd probably find a way to mention.

Unknown said...

Your first wife left you in the dust?? How many wives are in the Hosemaster past? ha ha.. You once threatened to cut Bob Henry off when he kept going on and on.. maybe you should.. most common taters are here for the laffs.. just sayin..

Bob Henry said...

Have I missed some friction in the garden of Goode and "Evil"?

When someone boasts a PhD in plant biology (as Jamie does), that gets my attention.

That bona fide supplants (no pun intended) the baseless opinions of countless opiners on the Intergnat.

Marcia Macomber said...

Shitty Common Tater here... As always, I'm late to the game. Does it count that I've had this tab open in my browser for at least 3 days before I had time to read it? (Never mind the bad browser management....)

Unsurprisingly, at least half the fun is reading the commentary from the online Algonquin Table after the post. Well done, everyone! Indeed the Rutherford Haze was a line The HoseMaster couldn't walk away from once it popped into his head. Ditto "raising the stakes"! For the HoseMaster they're like little puppies poking their heads at the bars on a shelter cage going, "Take me home! Take me home!" You just can't leave them behind with those sweet puppy faces! And you just can't NOT tell those jokes. (Like the double-negative?)

Can I ask for more explanation on your overcropping comment? (I usually sheepishly head for email to ask that type of a question directly.) But in reading all your subsequent notes in the post (which were very informative, as always), I didn't quite follow. Is that b/c, as you noted, you don't mention all the cabs you didn't like -- only the ones you did? Or are you debating overcropped vs. too young? Just curious.

As you said, we can barely afford to subscribe here let alone taste any of those wines!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Marcia Love,
Well, I've been here all along just waiting for you. I hope the Champagne is still cold, but I flat ran out of Cialis.

As you know, 2012 provided a wildly bountiful crop. A lot of reports said as much as 40% above average. That can certainly lead to a dilution of intensity and flavor in a wine. But wines these days are released so early in their development that I'm not always sure if a wine tastes a bit thin because it was overcropped, or if the wine simply hasn't had the chance to fill out in the bottle. Young Cabernets can often fool even an experienced taster. A year from now a wine I thought was a bit thin might be voluptuous and rich. It happens. And at a walkaround, crowded, Napa wine tasting, it's especially hard to be certain.

Now if you were able to sit with those wines for a few days, taste them after a lot of exposure to air, you'd have a much better idea of whether the wine was shallow, or just in need of more time. But that's a luxury we never have in these situations. Which is why I think assigning scores or ratings in that kind of situation is dishonest and self-aggrandizing. And I can do that without assigning scores.

Thomas said...

Wait a minute: 40% above average is a meaningless stat, unless you know what the average is. What if average is 2 tons an acre? A 40% rise takes it to 2.8 tons an acre. Still quality-oriented size.

Plus, average is so wide sweeping it says little about the particular.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

2012 was a vintage when the majority of vineyards, an overwhelming majority (there's another stat you can question), in my neighborhood reported larger than usual yields, far larger than usual. Of course it varies from vineyard to vineyard, just as the wines I tasted varied from vineyard to vineyard. Asking each winemaker what his yields were in '12 will just get more useless statistics, if not outright lies. But some of the wines, and damned expensive wines, certainly tasted dilute. Or was it youthful? Time will tell.

Aren't all stats meaningless? Well, 90% of them.

Marcia Macomber said...

Well, thank you. That is what I thought you were referencing, but I wanted to be sure. I completely agree on the walk around and time in the glass to open in the air. I don't have your tasting skills. But I almost always find wine changing in the glass in a short amount of time dramatically (but changing into what? as you noted). And some require significant decanting time. So I get your points.

2012 was our first year of 3 in a row of significant crop volume increase. Thomas' point is well taken about how significant the stat is. After 2011 being a difficult harvest for many here, it's not surprising the 2012 quality is still a bit unknown. Folks did drop fruit the month or so before harvest, but there was still so darn much of it.