California Wine Continues To Shine- Tasting Recap

I spent a couple of nights last weekend tasting as many California red wines as I could. In all, I tasted close to 70, and came away as impressed as ever and with the feeling that the 2004 and 2005 vintages may be something truly special, especially in Napa. What’s even more exciting than the solid versions of Cabernet Sauvignon that continue to come from the region is the innovation across the rest of the state and in the Pacific Northwest, which is experimenting with varietals such as Syrah and Zinfandel, often blending them with the Cabernet Sauvignon. Here is a quick rundown of my Top 10 Cabernet Sauvignons and my Top 10 “Innovative” California Reds that I tasted last week.


  1. Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Stag’s Leap District 2005, 93 Points, $50: Perfumey and deep aromas with blackberry and licorice notes above subtle oak and chocolate nuances. Soft, elegant mouthfeel with rich, perfumey dark fruit notes of blackberry and licorice and undertones of carmelly chocolate, cedar and mint. Finishes with impeccable balance and round tannins. Black fruit and mocha linger long.
  2. Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa Valley 2004, 94 Points, $125: Aroma dominated by dark, almost jammy blackberry and a hint of green earth. Lots of mint leads into incredibly well-concentrated black currant fruit. Velvety texture as black plum, black cherry and blackberry provide uninhibited blasts of rich fruit. Round tannins hold together the intensity of these flavors through the long length.
  3. Seavey Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2004, 93 Points, $80: Complex combination of green earth, black fruit, chocolate, caramel and hints of orange peel on the nose. Muscular, well-structured mouth full of blackberry, black cherry and burnt caramel malt with undertones of hazelnut and chocolate. Firm tannins on the gracefully never-ending finish.
  4. Bennett Lane Cabernet Sauvignon Primus Reserve Napa Valley 2004, 92 Points, $95: Concentrated black fruit aromas with huge notes of oak. Body defines elegance as well-concentrated black fruit, black tea and peppery spice combine with impressive balance. Round tannins and fruit carry through the long length. Well finessed.
  5. Bennett Lane Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2004, 92 Points, $50: Classic balance of black currant and oak on the nose. Elegant but bursting, focused fruit flavors of blackberry, black cherry above subtle oak and cedar. Round tannins hold it all together, a real mouth full, very long length.
  6. Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville Napa Valley 2004, 92 Points, $115: Black currant, oak and chocolate show inviting aromas. Full-bodied black cherry and blackberry lead into hits of oak, chocolate and a hint of green earth. Well-balanced, terrific example of the style, fruit shines through the long length.
  7. Staglin Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Salus Napa Valley 2004, 92 Points, $90: Lots of baked plum and dark raspberry jam on the nose. Minty, cedary body of red currant fruit and black cherry with a huge blast of vanilla bean through the long length. Vanilla lingers, delicious.
  8. Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Special Selection Napa Valley 2005, 92 Points, $150: Heavily perfumed with tar and chocolate nuances above aromas of black currant fruit. Heavy fruit concentration of blackberry with undertones of leather, chocolate and sagey spice. Long length.
  9. Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2005, 91 Points, $80: Dark blackberry aromas with a hint of oak. Initial blast of oak lead into layers of black currant fruit intertwined with more oak and hints of chocolate. Tannins grip the long length, oak is somewhat in front of the fruit here but the finish provides the classic Darioush blast.
  10. O’Shaughnessy Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Napa Valley 2004, 91 Points, $70: Soft aromas of black fruit, caramel and vanilla bean. Plush, silky body of lightly perfumed blackberry and licorice above subtle oak. Round tannins, well-balanced finish, relies on heavy fruit.


  1. K Syrah Morrison Lane Walla Walla Valley 2005, 92 Points, $40 (100% Syrah): Toasty aromas with vanilla bean and leather above subtle black fruit. Beautiful chocolate/mocha notes along with tar, leather and tons of pepper spice. Leather and mocha linger, black fruits -blackberry, black licorice- are present but understated. A rich, full-bodied syrah with all the elements.
  2. Orin Swift The Prisoner Napa Valley 2006, 92 Points, $35 (51% Zinfandel, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Syrah, 6% Petite Sirah): Complex aromas of blackberry, baked plum, spice and honey. Delicious body of caramel, blackberry and chocolate covered cherries with a well-intertwined spiciness. Chocolate lingers with well-balanced vanilla bean nuanaces and medium dryness. Innovative and delicious with great combination of ripe fruit and spice.
  3. Owen Roe Syrah Ex Umbris Columbia Valley 2006, 91 Points, $25 (100% Syrah): Aromas of leather, pepper spice and red currant. Well-concentrated flavors of smoky beef and red licorice above subtle black fruit and undertones of peppery spice. Fruit creeps in later and spice lingers with hints of leather and smoke. Very elegantly balanced, lots going on, great value.
  4. Ojai Syrah Santa Rita Hills Melville 2003, 91 Points, $42 (100% Syrah): Elegant aromas of leather with hints of tar, black fruit and earth. Initial mouthfeel of smoked beef and leather lead into black licorice and wild berry along with notes of pepper spice and earthy mineral. Elegant and subtle, long length.
  5. Stags Leap Petite Sirah 2004, 91 Points, $35 (100% Petite Sirah): Inky, minerally black fruit aromas with traces of cedar and mint. Violety fruit body of blueberry and black licorice with a minerally backbone and hints of tar, leather and peppery spice. Velvety and smooth with a long finish of fruit.
  6. Pax Syrah Cuvee Christine North Coast 2006, 90 Points, $65 (100% Syrah): Jammy black fruit aromas with minerally undertones and hints of tar. Heavy tar, leather and beef flavors lead into black licorice, blackberry and peppery spice. Elegant integration of earthy syrah characteristics and fruit character, great example of a style to strive for.
  7. Ojai Syrah Santa Barbara County 2005, 90 Points, $30 (100% Syrah): Inky, minerally nose with perfumey blue fruit notes. Leathery body with violety blueberry and blackberry with strong earthy mineral backbone and subtle pepper spice. Minerality combines nicely with the fruit in the earthy, well-water finish.
  8. Ridge Zinfandel Lytton Springs Dry Creek Valley 2005, 90 Points, $30 (100% Zinfandel): Aromas of plummy fruit and raisin. Flavors of perfumed red plum and cherry with undertones of port-like raisin, extremely well-balanced fruit flavors that never cloy. Long length, hints of cedary spice in the finish.
  9. L’Aventure Optimus Paso Robles 2004, 90 Points, $40 (51% Syrah, 44% Cabernet Sauvignon): Perfumey, almost floral blue fruit aromas with hints of earth. Initial flavors of green earth evolve into complex blackberry, licorice and blueberry with strong undertones of leather, smoked meat and a hint of peppery spice. Long length, a lot going on.
  10. Villa Creek High Road Paso Robles 2005, 89 Points, $55 (40% Grenache, 40% Syrah, 20% Mourvedre): Violet, floral and mineral on the nose, hints of blue fruit as well. Tons of delicious, juicy fruit up front- blackberry, licorice and wild berry- along with hints of leather and pepper spice, a real mouthful. All fruit throughout, could benefit from more complexity, but fruit is so explosive that this remains a great example.
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