Napa Valley/ Sonoma/ Central Coast Wine Notes

Recently, we spent nine days and nights in beautiful California, starting in Napa and finishing in Los Angeles after driving all the way down the coast on Highway One. During the course of the trip, I tasted and consumed a great deal of vino.

In Napa, we stayed in the town of Yountville, which is a charmingly quaint yet still impressively upscale area of wine country. We visited 17 wineries over three days in Napa, and visited 3 more on our drive down the coast into the Santa Barbara area.

When it was all over, I had tasted over 100 California wines. What follows is my analysis on some of the best I had the opportunity to taste, in Olympic format.

Wineries visited: Silver Oak, Provenance, Franciscan, St. Clement, Flora Springs, Hall, Cakebread, Andretti, Burgess, Duckhorn, Rutherford Hill, Plumpjack, Pine Ridge, Chimney Rock, Darioush, Luna, Artesa, Domaine Alfred, Edna Valley, Hitching Post

2003 CABERNET SAUVIGNON: Overall, the 2003 cabs I tasted were better than I expected given my previous tasting experiences and the widespread press regarding the difficulty of the vintage. Certainly the 2001 and 2002 vintages are better as a whole, especially compated to the 2003 when tasted now. However, the some of the more (unfortunately) expensive 2003 cabs held up nicely against the earlier vintages.

BRONZE: Duckhorn Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, $75, 90 Points. Strong aromas of chocolate and black fruit. Deep, dark blackberry and black plum flavors with hints of blueberry followed by caramel and chocolate undertones. The finish is smooth and sweet with very little tannin and lingering black fruit and chocolate notes.

BRONZE (in a tie): Pine Ridge Oakville Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, $65, 90 Points. Primary aromas of dark raspberry, black cherry and cranberry, seemingly bright nose. In your face fruit profile with flavors of raspberry, black cherry, cranberry and cola with hints of oak and cinnamon. The strength of the wine comes forward in its finish. Forward fruits are followed by creamy vanilla, oak and rounded tannins, combining for a gripping, extended length.

SILVER: Hall Sacrashe Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 91 Points. Aromas of blackberry, black cherry and vanilla. Intense blackberry fruit with notes of black plum. Dark, creamy and smooth body solely dependent on its strong dark fruit character. Concentrated black fruits linger with hints of leather. Incredibly smooth and velvety with soft tannins and little trace of pepper or oak.

GOLD: Pine Ridge Stag’s Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, $75, 92 Points. Aromas of blackberry, black cherry, rasperry and cedar. The mouthfeel is bursting with fruit flavors of black cherry, blackberry and blueberry backed by nicely layered notes of cedar and chocolate. The fruit shines through the complex, long finish. Hints of chocolate, vanilla, tobacco and white pepper linger with strong, firm tannins. Very impressive and complex layering of flavors.

CABERNET SAUVIGNON, all other vintages: Now here is where one would expect Napa to shine. During my tasting expedition, I encountered cabs from 1993, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 and even babies of 2004 aside from the onslaught of the 2003s. And these, my friends, were the highlights of the trip.

COPPER: Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2002, Napa Valley, $100, 91 Points. Aside from being one of the more pleasant tasting experiences we encountered thanks to Joan in the tasting room, this cab really stole the show during my vertical tasting of the 2000, 2001 and 2002 reserves here. Jammy raspberry, cherry and blackberry aromas with light earthy hints of bell pepper. Intense fruit flavors of dark raspberry, black cherry, blueberry and hints of mint and cedar. Firm tannins, long length of black fruits and blueberry jam, lip-smacking finish.

BRONZE: Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 2001, Napa Valley, $100, 92 Points. Deep black cassis aromas with hints of chocolate and vanilla. Full, soft mouthfeel of blackberry, black cherry and vanilla leads into layers of dark chocolate and hints of clove. Long length of black fruit and chocolate, soft, rounded tannins provide structure, the slightest bit of spice lingers.

SILVER: Plumpjack St. Helena Cuvee 2004, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, $60, 93 Points. Aromas of blackberry and blueberry pie. Strong initial flavors of the same along with black plums and black cherry followed by dark chocolate syrup. Very rich, concentrated black fruit flavors. Long, strong, seemingly endless finish, the longest of any cabernet I tasted in Napa. Black fruit and rich chocolate syrup linger on and on, very little tannin or dryness even at such a young age allows fruit complexity to shine, soft and loaded with flavor. I can’t imagine what this will taste like in five years.

GOLD: St. Clement Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, Napa Valley, $70, 95 Points. The big daddy of them all in this price range year after year in my book. Complex aromas of blackberry, black cherry, dark chocolate and leather with hints of coriander/orange peel spice. A mouthfull of black fruit including blackberry, cherry, mocha chocolate and tar with hints of blueberry, orange peel and caramel hiding gracefully behind. Intense black fruits continue on in the long finish with caramel and violet adding complexity, dry but layered finish.

PINOT NOIR: I didn’t get to taste as much pinot noir as I would have liked as my palate was pretty shot by the time we reached Santa Barbara. However, I’m pretty confident I wouldn’t have tasted anything better than my gold medal winner anyway, at least its this price range.

BRONZE: Hitching Post Highlander 2004, Santa Barbara County, $40, 89 Points. Subtle aromas of black cherry, mineral and ink. Incredibly elegant mouthfeel, full-bodied with notes of black cherry, blackberry and black licorice. Hints of leather and chocolate lay behind this deep pinot’s flavor profile. Minerally layers linger in the soft, smooth finish.

SILVER: Artesa Reserve Pinot Noir 2004, Carneros, $50, 91 Points. Initial aromas of smokey tobacco, notes of strawberry and red cherry follow. Elegant, delicate flavors of red cherry, strawberry and raspberry backed by mineral, smoke and earth. Layers of blueberry and white pepper spice become evident in the long finish.

GOLD: Domaine Alfred Estate Chamisal Vineyards Pinot Noir, Edna Valley, $35, 92 Points. Deep, dark blackberry aromas with hints of black cherry, leather and chocolate. Dark and complex body with an explosion of flavors including blackberry, mocha and caramel with hints of black cherry, spice and chocolate. Full, velvety mouthfeel with light leathery notes, impressively layered. Long, complex length with black fruit, coffee and chocolate lingering on and on. Soft finish with light spice elements.

SYRAH: Cabernet is king in California, but mark my words, syrah is going to give it a run for its money in the next ten years. These are some of the best examples why.

BRONZE: Hitching Post Purisima Mountian Vineyard Syrah 2004, Santa Barbara County, $30, 88 Points. Aromas of blueberry, blackberry, black pepper and leather. Dark, leathery flavors with strong notes of blackberry and blueberry. Notes of leathery beef and black pepper provide a nice backbone. Full and deep, black pepper and black fruit notes linger with moderate dryness. The length is dominated by bluer fruit and hints of tobacco.

SILVER: Tor Durell Vineyard Clone 1 Syrah 2003, Sonoma County, $50, 91 Points. Aromas of violet and blackberry with hints of leather, chocolate and pepper spice. Flavors of perfume, earth and minerally blackberry, blueberry and violet followed by an explosion of black pepper. Full, velvety mouthfeel with hints of leather and tar. Long, spicy finish full of black fruit and black pepper.

GOLD: Darioush Signature Shiraz 2003, Napa Valley, $60, 94 Points. One of the few wines I tasted that literally stopped me in my tracks. Aromas of blackberry, licorice, tar, leather and chocolate. Velvety, extremely dark body. A tremendous mouthfull of flavors including blackberry, blueberry and black licorice with hints of leather and a burst of black pepper laying behind. Smooth, silky and peppery finish with spice and black licorice lingering for what seems like a full minute.

MERITAGE: I did not taste any merlots that scored in the 90s, therefore they will not be receiving an Olympic-style rundown. Instead, I will take a moment to recognize some outstanding meritage blends that I tasted, all of which contain some merlot.

BRONZE: Flora Springs Trilogy 2002, Napa Valley, 50% Cabnernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, $50, 91 Points. Aromas of black cherry, raspberry and a touch of tobacco. Flavors of black cherry, dark raspberry, blueberry, plum and tobacco. Soft, smooth moutfeel, a bit lighter than I remember the 2001 being but still full of flavor. Lightly dry finish with long length of fruit.

SILVER: Darioush Red 2003, Napa Valley, 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Syrah, $38, 92 Points. Aromas of baked plum, cherries and perfume. Black cherry flavors with notes of wild raspberry and hints of blackberry, black licorice, pepper spice and perfume. The syrah really shows in this one. Full-bodied and deep finish with notes of licorice, chocolate and intense pepper spice. Long length, complex layering of flavors.

GOLD: St. Clement Orropas 2003, Napa Valley, 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, $50, 93 Points. Aromas of cassis, vanilla and hints of chocolate. Flavors of blackberry, black plum and black cherry with loads of dark chocolate and coffee lingering in the background. Hints of caramel, vanilla and coconut add complexity. Very soft finish with impressive length and with chocolate lingering behind the fruit.

CHARDONNAY: While most of my tasting centered around reds, I was lucky enough to run into some great chardonnay as well.

BRONZE: Flora Springs Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2005, Napa Valley, $25, 87 Points. The 2004 vintage received rave reviews but was, alas, sold out, so I opted to give the new vintage a try. Light butterscotch aromas with notes of peach and pear. Initial flavors of oak and butterscotch. Creamy mouthfeel with tropical citrus notes of pineapple, mango and pear with spicy clove undertones. Incredibly spicy finish for a chardonnay. Tropical citrus and butterscotchy oak linger in the the finish nicely complementing one another. A touch of tartness is the only real flaw.

SILVER: Domaine Alfred Estate Chamisal Vineyards Chardonnay 2004, Edna Valley, $28, 88 Points. Intense aromas of lemon, pear and green appple with hints of oak. Strong citrus flavors of pear, green apple and hints of apricot. Impressive layers of oak linger nicely without overpowering the fruit. The finish is sweet and citrusy with oak elements adding complexity and only the slighest hint of lingering tartness.

GOLD: Plumpjack Reserve Chardonnay 2005, Napa Valley, $50, 88 Points. Aromas of pear and cinnamon apples with hints of buttery oak and lemon zest. Intensely concentrated citrus flavors of pear, lemon and red apple with hints of cinnamon and custard. Crisp, clean finish with a long lenght of citrus fruit, very light oak overall, a bit more would make this wine even more extraordinary.

SAUVIGNON BLANC: I am enjoying this varietal more and more as I taste it more frequently. Innovative winemakers have gotten away from the characteristic lawn-water and sour grapefruit flavors and are creating sauvignon blancs with more and more citrus elements, especially of the tropical nature.

BRONZE: St. Clement Bale Lane Sauvignon Blanc 2005, Napa Valley, $20, 85 Points. Aromas of lemongrass, hay and pear. Flavors are dominated by a nice pear citrus presence, hints of banana, orange and light grass linger behind. Extremely transparent body, strong acidity. Grassy, acidic finish with hints of coconut and citrus.

SILVER: Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc 2005, Napa Valley, $25, 87 Points. Tropical aromas with very little grassiness, atypical but not entirely unpleasant. Well-established flavors of pear, honey dew melon and kiwi with hints of grapefruit and lime behind. Spicy and tropical overall with very little grass, no tartness, and long length of citrus.

GOLD: Provenance Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc 2005, $20, 87 Points. Strong pineapple aromas lead into notes of pear and lemongrass. Initially grassy flavors evolve into tropical citrus notes of pineapple and lemon with hints of kiwi. Clean finish without any tartness allows the tropical citrus fruit to shine, impressively soft.

HONORABLE MENTION FOR BEING THE BEST WHITE I TASTED: Darioush Viognier 2005, Napa Valley, $35, 89 Points. Aromas of honey and lemon with hints of apricot. Strong citrus flavors of apricot, orange marmalade and lemon with honey notes behind, nice spice elements as well. Smooth, crisp finish with a long fruity length, spice lingers with hints of butterscotch and toffee, light sweetness.

So there you have it, my complete rundown of the best of the 100 plus wines I had the pleasure of tasting during my stay in California. Before I depart, here are a few important trends I noticed during my tastings:

– Winemakers are becoming increasingly more experimental in their bordeaux-style meritage blends, primarily in regard to the proportion of merlot being used. And it is still tasting great! Several wines of this style I tasted, including Rutherford Hill-owned Terlato Vineyards Angel’s Peak 2003 (89 Points, 60% Merlot), Chimney Rock Elevage 2003 (89 Points, 65% Merlot) and Artesa Elements Blend 2002 (87 Points, 75% Merlot) all used Merlot as the primary grape in their meritage blends with great results.

– The similarities in climate are leading other innovative winemakers to grow Italian grapes with more frequency, a trend I expect to increase in the future. A trip to Luna Vineyards presents a wide range of Italian grapes, the Sangiovese 2003 (87 Points) and Sangiovese Reserve 2003 (89 Points) being the best examples. At Artesa, I tasted the fabulous Estate Tempranillo 2003 (88 Points). Even Rutherford Hill produced a quaffable 2003 Sangiovese (86 Points).

-To restate, the better vineyards were able to produce Cabernets in 2003 that for the most part exceeded my expectations. Asdie from the reserve versions already mentioned, Duckhorn (89 Points), Pine Ridge (89 Points), Hall (88 Points) and Chimney Rock (88 Points) all produced entry level cabs that gave me a lot of hope for the future of the 2003 vintage.

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