Sobon Estate is one of the most reliable Zin producers in the state, and they don’t charge an arm and a leg for their good work. The mothership is Shenandoah Vineyards which Leon and Shirley Sobon founded in 1977. In 1989 the Sobon’s purchased the d’Agostini winery, and this time self-titled it Sobon Estate. The d’Agostini property came with 113 acres of vines, many of them very old. The best lots come from three sites: Cougar Hill, Rocky Top and Lubenko vineyard blocks. The Sobon’s converted to organic farming in 2002. And unlike others who claim to bring their wines up to “only a minimal” 35 ppm of SO2, can learn something from Sobon Estate winemaker Paul Sobon who only allows 15 to 20 ppm of free sulfur at bottling. Paul learned his craft at the Chablis leading producer William Fevre, and the legendary Australian Balgownie in the Yarra Valley – in addition to his time at UC Davis earning his enology degree.
“…the finish is really fascinating and pulls this wine a long way back in my estimation. “
Tasting Notes: 2012 Sobon Estate Zinfandel “Old Vines” Amador County
Day One: The wine’s muted nose of cooked-fruit, anise and a disjointed element that came off as slightly metallic didn’t show off the good-stuff that came later. I guess I should say right off : this is not a great wine. But that isn’t to say it is not worthy. Other than the nose, the wines greatest flaw is that it has an enormous hole right in the middle. While the wine has fruit, it really doesn’t have that core concentration of fruit it needs to cover the gap between the wines front end and the backend with its potent 14.5% alcohol. I know that’s a lot of negatives, but the finish is really fascinating and pulls this wine a long way back in my estimation. It suddenly surprises, with chalky minerality, briar-like stemminess that is wonderfully peppery. Add to that, it has slightly drying and spicy tannins give it a serious pause, making the back-end of this wine the star here. It’s lingering strawberry, black cherry fruit rounds out the finish. Great wine or not, at 10.99, this is a terrific value packed with unexpected nuance. Wines with this much ying and yang of rough and sublime are only mis-served by scoring them, so I will not.
Day Two: The mid-palate has filled out substantially, and I have found this wine responds well to a cool cellar temperature which makes the fruit pop. The downside is this buries the spicy finish which had shown so brilliantly yesterday. But at least now, with a bit of a chill, the alcohol doesn’t feel so warm and the palate is more complete with no hole in the middle.
Definitely, check our the Cougar Hill and Rock Top bottlings from this winery which are a big step up in quality from this basic bottling, yet can still be found under $15. The Rocky Top tends to be a bit dryer in fruit, while the Cougar Hill tends to be a bit more sweetly fruited, depending on the vintage. These are always two of the most solid, (and frugal) buys you are going to find in Zinfandel.
Costco Serves Up The Quintessential Deal In Pinot Noir
If there is one thing you can say about Costco, they don’t stock crap, and that extends to their private-label Kirkland brand wines. Costco doesn’t normally disclose which winery that produced the wine, but does the next best thing, they credit the winemaker. In this case it is Allison Crowe, the winemaker at Garnet Vineyards, and it is not a reach to infer that Garnet is the likely source for this delicious Kirkland Pinot Noir. The Garnet name started its life in 1983 as a second label for the Carneros Pinot Noir pioneer Saintsbury. It went to market as a lighter-styled, lower priced offering, which to my tastes was at best simple tart cherry-cranberry fruited wine, and at its worst was barely worth drinking; and it plodded along this way for 28 years. But 2011, the Garnet brand was sold to Silverado Winegrowers the firm which had been supplying the grapes to Saintsbury (for Garnet) all those years. So the grower becomes a producer, and what do you know? The quality goes up. No doubt once they owned the label, they put more care into the production than Saintsbury did (after all Garnet was no longer a second label, it was the label) and more care into the vineyards and the fruit themselves. At any rate, the quality seems better, even in this sold off, declassified wine. Their winemaker, Allison Crowe, first cut her teeth with the talented and passionate Dan Karlsen at Chalone Vineyards where she interned while an enology student at UC Davis. Later Allison worked at Byington in high above Los Gatos in the Santa Cruz Mountains, before moving down the Mountain to spend almost 5 years with working for Randall Graham at Bonny Doon.
Tasting Notes: 2012 Kirkland Carneros Pinot Noir
This is classic Carneros Pinot Noir, with its nose of black cherries,, scorched caramel, a momentary green note that turns briary, wisps of eucalyptus and creamy vanilla. In the background threatens the aroma of cooked beets, like a day with a chance of rain. In the mouth, it is rich with deep, sweet black cherries, cooked strawberries, and plenty of deeper dark bass notes of black plum coming from a surprisingly concentrated core of fruit. The palate is smooth, round and quite weighty, with soft acids and few tannins. The young sweet fruit tapers nicely, though, giving the wine a moment’s leanness, as is tries in vain to grasp at an intellectually stimulating, and lingering finish, with some minerally notes of wet stones and gravel. But ultimately it misses that gold ring of complexity. But who’s complaining? At $10.99 it is a superior deal in Pinot Noir, comparing easily to wines that retail for$20 at retail. I highly recommend it. 88 points.
Bottom line: If the wine they sell-off to Costco is this good, this relatively new wine company has good things in store with it’s higher level production wines that draw largely on several estate vineyards, most notably the highly-regarded “Rodgers Creek” in the Petaluma Gap and Stanly Ranch vineyard in Carneros.
Costco does a lot of things right, and their wine departments, despite their limited selections, have some superb selections at very low prices. Costco, if you hadn’t noticed, has gone headlong into the private label game. They have been purchasing, from what I can tell, from some first-rate producers. They may not be getting these wineries top shelf ‘lots’, but undeniably, the quality is quite high. This Napa Cabernet is a perfect example of the relatively high-end wine they can put on the shelf for a fraction of the cost the actual wineries that made the wine.
2010 Kirkland Signature, Cabernet Sauvignon Mountain Cuvee, Napa Valley
Right off the bat, I get a nose full of green herbs and a touch of Bell Pepper. This is buttressed by lots black Cassis fruit, fennel bulb some toasty oak. The wine is rich, with a full mouth feel, bright acid, firm but round tannins. There is plenty of dense fruit on the mid-palate, full of black plum, blackberries, and some bordeaux-like Cassis notes. There is a significant palate impression here, with typical mountain Cabernet structure of both higher acid and ripe tannin, coupled with green pyrazine bell pepper notes that add interest, and an old school way. A solid wine for those who don’t mind some leafy-green under-ripeness (88 points.) But this will not be good at all for those who are intolerant (and those folks are legion) of bell pepper in their Cabernet (80 points.) $19
“It is likely that this a ‘lot’ that Girard sold off to Costco because its marked bell pepper notes did not fit into their house style.”
This Kirkland Signature Cabernet was made by Girard Winemaking team of Marco DiGiulllo and Glenn Hugo. DiGiullo was the first winemaker at Lakoya, in Jess Jackson’s portfolio, and has made some pretty remarkable wines over the years. It is likely that this a lot that Girard sold off to Costco because its marked bell pepper notes did not fit into their house style. The cool 2010 vintage is likely a contributor to the under-ripe flavors found in this wine. Clearly solid winemaking here, this just is not going to be in everyone’s wheelhouse.
Post Script. Looking around the internet, some people are really loving this wine. I don’t think the overall quality validates some of their extreme enthusiasm.
Around twenty years ago, winemakers from Paso realized that the Napa Valley had a reputation for Cabernet, Sonoma had Pinot and Zin, and Paso didn’t really have a reputation for anything. They decided they were going to make themselves known for The Paso Rhone Blend. This blend of Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache was going to catapult the region to fame. To varying degrees this has been successful despite the lack of favor of Syrah in the market place, but along came a brand that really muddied the definition of “Red Blend”. That was The Prisoner. There were other’s, like Marietta’s venerable Old Vine Red, but it was The Prisoner, with its cult-like status, that really opened up what a Red Blend category.
Then along came Apothic, an enormously successful, ridiculously large production, red blend from Gallo. It has made a massive mark on the industry, because it sells for under ten bucks and it is available everywhere. It is a baby The Prisoner, for the masses. From Apothic’s huge success, the copycats have sprouted like weeds. They are made from anything and everything, as long as they big, thick, juicy, and faintly sweet.
“Now there is a flood wines, built to a recipe, that are remarkably uniform in style and flavor.”
In the last one to two years, I have been almost overwhelmed by the presentations of these Red Wines. At first they were mostly less expensive copies of The Prisoner, with varying degrees of character. Now there is a flood wines, built to a recipe, that are remarkably uniform in style and flavor. To attain that thick almost sticky richness, undoubtedly they have to use a good dose of grape concentrate to boost concentration, giving the wines their similar flavor profile. They are all tasty, some bordering on delicious, but as a retail buyer, it begs these questions: Do you buy them, and if you do buy them, how many do you really need? Finally, how do you sell them? Do you put them with the Paso Reds that have regional, and varietal definition, and undermine their years of effort to forge an identity?
We have found, almost no-one comes in saying “I want a red blend.” If you make a whole section of Red Blends (say, ten wines that taste almost identical), they won’t get shopped, since most people are still conditioned to buy by varietal. In our case, we have reluctantly put most of them in the Zin or Syrah section depending if they seem to have any hint of either of those in the mix, or, (the shame of it) in the Cab section. We had been told there was Cab in The Count by Boisset’s Buena Vista Winery, and because we positioned it in the Cab section, it has become one of our best-selling “Cab blends.” Yes it is dis-indigenous, but people really like it, and they would have never found it in a “Red Blend.”section. As for how many of these Reds my store needs, I’m holding the line at around 6 or 7, out of 1600 SKUs, about as many as I carry of Sancerre.
As a wine buyer, and a wine seller, I do not feel it is not my job to be an arbiter of good taste. It is my job to only select wines that represent the spectrum of tastes of my customer base. Do I think they will like it? Is it the right price? Because of this philosophy, I carry The Prisoner, and I carry Apothic, despite the underlying feeling that these are formulaic and somewhat contrived wines. They have their place in my store because my customers buy them. On the other hand, I also carry the flag of exploration, having a selection of Natural wines, and wonderful wine from some of the more obscure regions across France and Italy for those who are more adventurous. Can I interest you in a lovely Mondeuse from Savoie?
This was disappointing news. In his new, powerful, position of writing for The Wine Advocate, Antonio Galloni was our greatest hope of allowing a diverse spectrum of winemaking styles to flurish in California. California Cabernets, in particular, had been pushed into a very narrow definition of style of what could be considered great Cabernet. It was a definition that had been shaped over twenty-five years, by a singular, authoritative, voice. Robert Parker’s.
“Galloni had a vastly different palate than Parker.”
Two years ago, when Galloni was given the assignment of reviewing California wine for the world’s most powerful and influential wine publication, we began to see a momentous shift in the editorial stance there. Galloni had a vastly different palate than Parker, and it show in his very first reviews. With these more diverse reviews, we saw the possibility that winemakers could escape from the pressures to make the uniformly fruit driven, immensely concentrated, and almost monolithic style that has come to characterize Cabernet here. The question was, would Robert Parker continue to allow such a diversion from the style that was essentially synonymous with his publication? I was incredulous that it would be allowed to continue.
But Galloni was not relieved of his duties. He was not muzzled. And for a time, it appeared that the arc of California winemaking might forever be altered for the better. Now, winemakers that desired to make more refined, detailed California wines, would be financially encouraged to do so. There were already dozens of winemakers out on the fringes , making wine in niche styles, that could really benefit from these changes in thinking.
“There was no doubt now, California was poised to create the most brilliant wines in its history.”
Galloni‘s second major review of California Cabs was published in late 2012, with many stars of yesteryear among the list of high scoring wines. Imagine, if you will, that the Freemark Abbey Napa Cabernet got 92 points from any publication -other than the Enthusiast. It happened in the Wine Advocate! It was thrilling that so many wines were rewarded for showing honest complexity on leaner frames, while many of Parker’s former favorites struggled to stay above 90 points. Galloni simply did not seem to be impressed by their bombastic, viscous fruit, if once you got past the all the flash, they were ultimately simple wines. There was no doubt now, California was poised to create the most brilliant wines in its history.
And then, just like that, he is gone. The Wine Advocate put him in the position, and I suppose, The Wine Advocate could take it away. But before making accusations, let’s go back.
* * *
From The Wine Advocate’s humble beginnings, Robert Parker’s message was clear. He challenged winemakers around the world to increase their quality, by pointedly writing that specific wineries needed a “wake up call“. He never shied away from confrontation, and insisted they clean up their winemaking, reduce their yields, and stop doing whatever lazy, careless, or penny-pinching things they were doing. I don’t think it was his intention for them to make wine his way, he simply wanted winemakers to care. He tirelessly fought this crusade, making fierce enemies along the way. He called winemakers out on shoddy practices, and forced them to pay attention to the details. His words resonated across the wine world; and not just with the winemakers whom he challenged, but also with his ever-growing, subscription-paying public, who enforced his words with the power of their wallets. The readership followed his every word, not only because he was beyond reproach in his candor and honesty, but because they could identify with the reliably accessible, big, rich, sweetly fruited wines he favored.
“Imagine, if you will, that the Freemark Abbey Napa Cabernet would get 92 points from any publication -other than the Enthusiast… It happened in the Wine Advocate!”
As the years rolled by, Robert Parker’s legions of fans bought what he recommended, and winemakers financially felt the enormous power of his pen. They discovered being a favorite of Robert Parker brought financial success, so winemakers sought to make wine to please him.
Traditionalists were alarmed. Wines everywhere were becoming homogenized and uniform, and nowhere was this more true than among California’s premier Cabernets from Napa Valley. So when Robert Parker, who was positioning himself to retire, named his Italian specialist, Antonio Galloni, to write his the reviews of California wine, there was a great deal of surprise. I can’t help but think Parker was very aware of the impact of his choice.
But the winds were changing. In late 2012, Robert Parker announced the sale of The Wine Advocate for $15 million. The new ownership, a group of Singapore businessmen, named The Advocate’s Asia Correspondent, Lisa Perrotti-Brown, as the publication’s new Editor. Antonio Galloni, whom many had considered to be Robert Parker’s heir apparent, had been passed over. He resigned, with plans to start his own website. Did he quit, or was he pushed out?
I am certain that the wine industry will embrace him as a valid spokesperson, and critic. Another voice is welcome, even though he will no longer have the high pulpit of The Wine Advocate to preach from.
Antonio Galloni, born in Caracas, Venezuela, was the son of an Italian wine importer. American educated, he began writing about the wines of Piemonte, in a blog he namedThe Piedmont Report. He has already launched his new website, antoniogalloni.com, and will report on Italian, California and Burgundy wine, in short media-driven format. It’s hard to imagine he will ever have the reach he had two weeks ago when he worked for The Wine Advocate.
Part II: Winemaker Chris Howell, Cain Winery, and the Taboo Subject of Brett
Cain Winery sits 1800 feet above St. Helena on the valley floor, way up on Spring Mountain Road. A sign with an arrow and the words Cain Winery, marks the longest single-lane, curvy, road/driveway imaginable. The winery is so far out there, that after two miles down this twisting, blind-cornerd driveway, the there is a county sign that reads, road ends. Yet you still are not there yet. Go farther; you will find Cain. There is an intense sense of quiet and isolation on the estate, and one can only imagine that has had some profound influence on the unique philosophies that guide the Winemaker and GM, Chris Howell in his quest for the true expression of this piece of land.
I have found a commonality to the wines from this section of the mountain. Two of Cain’s most immediate neighbors, Guilliams and Keenan, have very similar profile of making classically styled Napa wine, and all have unusually fine, silky tannins. I cannot say with certainty that these fine tannins are the result of terroir speaking, but I tend to believe that they are. While I talked to Chris, (read part 1) we tasted the three wines being made at Cain. The winery’s flagship, Cain Five, is made entirely from estate fruit. The Cain Cuvee, which is part estate fruit, and part valley fruit, shared distinct commonality. The Cain Concept, is made from puchased Napa Valley fruit, was decidedly different in characterand structure, although the winemaking is the same.
“both showed character rarely matched in California Cabernet”
Midway through the tasting, I introduced my feeling that the wines had improved from those Chris had made in the late eighties. Soon after I told him I thought they were cleaner and more enjoyable, and he admitted there had been a lot of brett in the winery, Chris decided to show me an older example of Cain Five. He produced a bottle of Cain Five from 1999 vintage, perhaps to show that the change has been minimal, or maybe he wanted to put the matter to rest. I don’t know, but I was excited to try it. This wine certainly had more brett than the 2007 we were tasting, but not nearly as much as I seemed to remember in the wines, and the nose was remarkable. It was captivating.
The vineyard has been replanted section by section since 1995, so the 1999 Cain Five will have been made from fruit off the old, phylloxera- infested plantings, whereas the 2007 would be mostly from the new, high-density plantings that are now trained low to the ground to speed physiological ripening, and utilizes vertical shoot trellising. Additionally, pruning methods have been improved. All of these things affect fruit quality. That said, both Cain Fives were truly beautiful wines, showing so much depth, impeccable balance, and both showed character rarely matched in California Cabernet.
Chris was very generous, and allowed us to take all the wines to dinner that night, at Bar Terre in St Helena, where we tried the wines with multiple courses, often with superb results. versatility with food is something I don’t expect from California Cabernet-based wines, due to their typical extremes in terms of weight and concentration, so the fact that Cain Five could, certainly surprised me.
I have rated these wines, something I rarely do, and usually don’t feel don’t feel is appropriate. In this case, because California Cabernet has a fairly uniform style, and I feel scores have more relevance, and may convey the quality I feel these wines possess.
Cain Cuvee NV8
This Merlot based (48%), dual-vintage blend, is drawn primarily from the lush, but brooding 2008 vintage, with the addition of the brighter wine from 2007. The Cain Cuvee is an impressively svelte wine, designed to drink young. Blended from a combination fruit from the estate, and purchased benchland fruit, it carries with it more fresh fruit character than Cain’s higher end bottlings, yet maintains the wineries trademark of class and perfect balance. Bordeaux-like is the goal, and Winemaker Chris Howell has great success here, giving the wine understated poise, yet detailed, persistent fruit. The nose, with its fresh cranberry and blackberry fruit, has an almost raw, carbonic element to it, when compared to the other wines, although I doubt this was the case. Chris’ practice of picking a bit early, is particularly evident with this wine, with its yin and yang of deeper, ripe notes, and slightly under-ripe fruit, and a hint of briar and dusty road. Lean and long, this has just enough sinew to bind it all together, with its smooth tannins. This is a wine, that will age effortlessly for 15 to 20 years, due to its impeccable balance. It is the very end of the vintage, and there should be some on retailers shelves, but the distributor, Henry wine group is shipping the NV9. 91 points
2008 Cain Concept, “The Benchlands”
Cain “Concept”, which the winery has subtitled as ‘The Benchlands” because it is maded from all purchased fruit from the valley. The fruit for the “Concept” sourced from several top-flight vineyards, including Beckstoffer Georges III and To-Kalon. If any wine is intended to be a Cabernet, this is it. A soft, broad nose of berries, dust, perfume, blueberries, fresh herbs, and California olives. Typical Cain, with rich soft fruit, some classic, old school,(but not assertive) California Bell Pepper, earthy, berry fruit, dusty tannins, touch of peppercorn, and a creamy texture.. Really lovely, so perfectly balanced. Andre Tchelistcheff would be proud. This wine will improve with a few years in the cellar. 92 points.
2007 Cain Five, Estate, Spring Mountain
All estate fruit, primarily of Cabernet from near the top of Spring Mountain at 1400 ft. Blackberry fruit, coupled with brown sugar, cream, toast, cocoa nibs, and fennel, but this is so integrated, that it’s difficult to separate the aromas. The mouth is more so this way, with mocha and the burnt sugar of toffee taking a more of the center stage. Texture is of black velvet, with a dusky, notes of wet earth, and musk to it, with complex notes from the brett wrapping up the impressive package. Balance is again paramount, with Chris’ fine tannins coming into play. The vineyard was replanted close to the ground, giving better ripeness to the tannins. An easy twenty year wine, but this shows exceptionally well now, and may or may not, improve with age. 95 points
1999 Cain Five, Estate, Spring Mountain
The aroma was so intoxicating, with its undefined floral, herbal, woodsy, and fruit aromas, it almost required no tasting. The palate is very broad and rich, with the earthy loam coming to the forefront, which was somewhat exacerbated by the wine’s cool temperature. The wine wass sweet, and herbal tones in the mouth, with the tannins gripping a bit more after it had been open a while. As it aired, the loam, herbs, and mocha, and spices have overcome much of the blackberry and raspberry fruit. The earthy-musty quality of brett is more evident in this bottling, along with some green notes, molasses, allspice, and clove began to stand outeven more over time, some of which can be contributed to the aged quality which is expected of a 13-year-old wine. The wine is immensely complex, and quite fabulous, particularly with the braised lamb (at Terra in St. Helena). With a black cod, notes of cranberry fruit tended to stand out (an even older Cain Five would have been even better with this dish). This wine is capable of aging another fifteen years, easily. 95 points
Recently I had the opportunity to visit Cain Winery, and taste their wines with its longtime winemaker, Chris Howell. Chris has been at Cain for the past twenty three years, starting there as a consultant in 1990. In the past, I had dismissed these wines, as having muddied flavors, and rustic tannins, particularly from their flagship wine, Cain Five. But over the last few years, the wines here definitely improved. Today, these wines really impress me for their elegance, beautiful complexity, and silky, fine tannins. I wanted to find out what had changed there.
“This is where the story really begins. This is where he drops the bomb.”
Of course, I began by telling him that I think he is making the best wines I’ve ever had from the winery. I ask him what he feels he is doing differently, from, fifteen years ago, when the wines weren’t nearly as clean and polished. He answered by saying “Not much has really changed in my winemaking. Small things mostly.” That, and the vineyard had been replanted, with the rows being planted closer together, and the vines are trained low to the ground with vertical shoot trellising, “which allows us to pick earlier than anyone else; without over-ripeness.”
He hesitated. And then began again, this time in earnest, explaining that for the most part he had cleaned up the cellar of brettanomyces. Brettanomyces, often referred to as Brett, is a bacteria that infects wine, gets embedded in barrels, and is easily transferred from barrel to barrel, and tank to tank. A whole cellar can quickly be infected through careless cellar practices, and even if the wine is sterile filtered, the aromas and flavors of brett remain behind. Brett tends to obscure the fruit in wine, and give wine muddy, musty, re-fried bean aromas and flavors. The English, who have learned to appreciate Brett, used to describe it as giving a wine Barnyard aromas. The French, being more direct, simply described Brett as Merde (shit). Wineries have spent hundreds of thousands, and some big wineries have spent millions of dollars, trying to eliminate it.
This is where the story really begins. This is where he drops the bomb. In the future he said he wants to increase the amount of Brett from what is currently is in the wines. Chris feels that Brett, in small parts-per-million, adds tremendous complexity and cohesion to a wine. These are statements that are unthinkable to most winemakers, and I have to say, it’s not what I wanted to hear having recently become a big fan of the winery.
To this he added a note of caution: before he would open his cellar to brett, he wants to better understand it, and to have better control of it. “You can’t add a little, and expect it not to propagate,” he added. He admits that there is not a lot known about Brett, if for no other reason that researchers don’t tend to study what most seek to eradicate, and can do so already.
“Today’s winemakers have a sole focus on making a perfect wine, by selecting perfectly ripe bunches, and from that, the most perfectly ripe berries.”
Chris expounded on a feeling I’ve increasingly had over the past few years: Today’s winemakers have sole focus on making a perfect wine, by selecting perfectly ripe bunches, and from that, the most perfectly ripe berries. Wines, as a result, are becoming much less interesting, and ultimately beginning to tasting all the same. He wants his wines to be a holistic entity, reflecting the vineyard, and the vintage; carrying with it, a much wider array of flavors, like more red fruits, earth, and some herbal components. there should be elements that make the unique and of a particular place, rather than the current quest for the perfectly ripe and ultimately homogeneous fruit character. He says he is using fewer new oak barrels, rather than running the risk of over-oaking his wines. His ideal of perfection, is to create a wine of great character, with great texture, and he thinks brett can be a tool to get there.
Chris is very cerebral, and is constantly evaluating, probing, and fine tuning the winemaking at Cain. This is a common thread I’ve found among many of the very best winemakers. . But deliberate introduction of brett, this was a lot to swallow. I, for one, will certainly be tuned into Chris’ work in the future. He is definitely not a trend follower and is certainly is blazing his own trail here. Maybe he will be the one who can learn to use, and tame Brettanomyces. The results will be intriguing to watch and I’m rooting for his continued success.