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.
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.
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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
To this day, you hear it repeated over and over by people in the wine industry. Critter wines like Yellow Tail, killed the high-end Australian market. The idea that low-priced wines, (with cartoon-like labels or not) killed a previously robust market segment, has been laziness on the industry’s part. The success of lower-end wine brings new drinkers into the market, not the other way around.
Some have suggested that wine drinkers simply tired of Australia’s over-ripe, over-extracted wines, and stopped buying them. I fervently believe however, that there are two factors that worked in conjunction, to kill the Australian wine market in the United States. First, it was actually the Aussie winemakers who tired of making uber-ripe, extracted wines, (not the wine drinkers), and began to scale back on the ripeness, in order to make long-lived, “classic” wines. The second reason, and this is the stake in the heart, is the long-held Australian tradition of using high levels of tartaric acid additions. These additions increase titratable acidity (T/A) and lower the pH, in order to preserve the wine. To explain the relationship of these two factors, I should start from the beginning.
Acidification in the new world has been accepted as necessary for the past century, because the grapes in our warmer climates tend to lose so much more acidity as they ripen, compared to wines from the classic regions of Europe. By adding acid, the thought is the wine becomes more stable, and less susceptible to spoilage. Australian winemakers have used acidification, not only to stabilize the wines, but to preserve their wines for as many decades as possible.
“But then, Australian winemakers killed the goose that laid the golden eggs.”
In the late eighties through the late nineties, the rage among Australian winemakers was to push the ripeness and concentration to exaggerated proportions. With Barossa leading the charge, these wines were immense, sweetly fruited, densely concentrated, and very, very ripe. They had a overt sweetness on the palate from their high alcohol and fruit, that overshadowed the tartness from the high levels of tartaric acid being added to the vats. It was a matter of balance. These wines had enough Gras (fat) as the French say, to pull off the wine’s high acid. These were the wines that became wildly popular in the United States. These huge wines were the entire, explosive, upper-end, Australian market.
But then, Australian winemakers killed the goose golden eggs. Australian winemakers became self-critical of this style of wines, calling the excessive ripeness, a fad. They wanted to create great wine; and They knew these super-ripe monsters were not, and would never be, great wines for the ages. Starting around the 2000 vintage, the winemakers there, began scaling back the ripeness, looking for more elegant, complex flavors. What they did not scale back was how much tartaric they were adding to their fermentation tanks. As the levels of sweet fruit receded the acidity beneath it was revealed. The result were tight, tough, tart, and seemingly fruitless wines. And without ever realizing why, the American public slowly stopped buying high-end Australian wines.
“This is the story of two ships passing in the night. The American palate, and the Australian winemaker.”
Conversely, for the past twenty years in California, winemakers have sought to minimize their intervention in winemaking, and have greatly reduced the amount of tartaric acid to the fermentation vats, and some have completely eliminated acid additions altogether. The net result is California wines have gotten softer, and more lush. With this shift toward softer wines (particularly in reds), the American palate has become acclimated to wines with softer, more natural acidity. This is the story of two ships passing in the night. The American palate, and the Australian winemaker. Why has Chilean wine stopped its exponential growth? Pretty much the same story.
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In Australia, especially among the older generation, how long a wine lives seems to be a source of pride. I have had more old Australian wines in the past 10 years, than old wines from California. All of them have been flown in for dinners where the winemakers were the guest speakers. At a recent dinner featuring Chester Osborn, and his father D’Arry, we tasted two wines from the sixties, and a wine from the mid-seventies. Another dinner with Chester close to ten years ago, wines from the sixties and seventies were poured also. At a sales meeting, the winemaker from Wynn’s showed a wine from the sixties, two from the seventies, and one from the eighties. Stuart Blackwell, the winery manager, and guiding light from St. Hallett winery came into my store on a ‘ride-with’ / sales call. Uniformly, the St. Hallett reds were very tart, and unpleasant to drink. At the top end of the range, the Blackwell Shiraz, there was almost enough stuffing to pull-off the wines searingly high acid, but I feared that it would close up very hard in the next year, if not sooner. I asked, knowing the answer, if they were acidifying the wines. “Yes, of course,” he replied. “Otherwise they won’t last.” These wines were his legacy.