There have been days when we have tasted rich, juicy California cabernet sauvignon and yearned for the time when it was more like Bordeaux – balanced, honest, tannic and absent of the high extraction and alcohol levels that have been a trend for far too long.
Many California winemakers have yielded to consumer palates that favor sweeter wines that are so jammy they could be spread on toast. You can’t blame them. They charge a lot of money for these wines, get great reviews from renowned wine writers and then sell out. Why shouldn’t producers make wines consumers are willing to pay stratospheric prices for?
To make cabernet sauvignon as they did in the 1980s, it helps to have been around since then. You would have to be someone like, say, Joel Aiken.
Three years after Aiken started at Beaulieu Vineyards in 1982, he became BV’s youngest winemaker. He stayed there for 28 years, learning from the great Russian émigré Andre Tchelistcheff and Michel Roland. He was there when BV’s private reserve – Georges de Latour – was just beginning to hit full stride and American oak was favored over French. He was there to experiment with clones that made BV’s Carneros pinot noir so interesting. Those were great times for BV and for the Rutherford Bench.
We’ve enjoyed the BV Georges de Latour since the 1982 vintage. Using grapes from the best properties in the Rutherford region, it was bold, classic, loaded with tannin and ready for decades of aging. It was hard to enjoy on release but there was a prize for those who patiently waited.
Aiken retired in 2009, but not for long. He consulted for several wineries and then took a plum assignment consulting for Derek Benham at Scattered Peaks in Napa Valley.
“I didn’t want to do this unless it was going to be high end and I could get involved in choosing the vineyards,” he said. “I’ve been around a while and know a lot of good vineyards. I was a kid in the playground.”
Where did he go for grapes? Back to Rutherford, an area that supplied grapes for BV’s private reserve since 1936. Aiken made an incredibly complex wine from the Morisoli Vineyard on the Rutherford Bench. And, just north of Pritchard Hill and south of Howell Mountain, he found Napa Valley’s Sage Ridge Vineyard, which Judy Jordan owns and uses for her fabulous Geodesy label.
“We weren’t going for a soft, approachable wine,” he said. “We wanted to make wines with intensity and power.”
The three reds we tasted from Scattered Peaks reminded us of that old style we so miss.
The 2018 Sage Ridge Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($125) is from an unusual clone that does well in a mountain location. This wine has a softer mouthfeel with cherry notes and moderate alcohol.
The 2018 Scattered Peaks Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($150), on the other hand, is a monster. Firm tannins make it a wine to age. It has black cherry, cassis and currants with a dash of that “Rutherford Dust” that makes this region so unique.
More reasonably priced is the 2019 Scattered Peaks Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($40), probably the best cabernet sauvignon at this price that we have tasted in a long time. Like the cabernets of old, it has good structure with layers of red and black fruit and hints of cocoa, tobacco and black currants. Like the two single-vineyard wines, it needs to be decanted for at least two hours.
Aiken said more and more winemakers, including himself, are dialing back the extraction and alcohol in search of a leaner style of red wine. We can only hope to see this style return.
He said he has privately tested a lot of these popular cult wines and their alcohol level is 16-plus percent despite the 14.5 percent being listed on their labels. He thinks these wines may have richness but they will “fall apart” as they age.
“There is a middle ground we seek between old school and uber-rich,” he said.
Scattered Peaks also makes a fume blanc from grapes grown in Pope Valley. The 2020 version is a steal at $20. With light oak aging, it has a nice toast character with pure lime and lemon notes, a touch of melon, tangerine and nuttiness.
The name Scattered Peaks refers to a surfing condition when waves approach a shore and split. Benham surfs and skis. But it also refers to the snowy peaks around the world where he has skied and the scattered vineyards of Napa Valley.
Tavour is a consortium of more than 600 independent breweries across the United States. From its app you can choose the beers you’d like to try or you can join a subscription service. No minimums or commitment. It’s very simple and gives you access to a number of craft beers that you have heard about or tasted on some journey.
We tasted a stout from Levante Brewing Co, a double hazy DIPA from Fair State Brewing, a double IPA from Bearded Iris Brewery and more.
If you like wine and your spouse likes beer, this is a perfect compromise.
Ramon Bilbao Albarino 2020 ($16). From the Rias Baixas region of Northern Spain, this juicy albarino with balanced acidity shows off granny smith apple flavors and pear aromas. It’s a perfect aperitif or it will do well with seafood.
Lohr Fog’s Reach Arroyo Seco Pinot Noir 2019 ($35). Always luscious and fruit forward, this reasonably priced pinot noir from Monterey County has bright red cherry fruit flavors with a slight hint of spice.
Copain Wines DuPratt Chardonnay 2018 ($55). This well-respected winery draws grapes from Anderson Valley to make two distinct chardonnays – Les Voisins and this DuPratt. We liked this one in particular because of its special qualities that come from grapes grown on a small vineyard atop a ridge at 1,550 feet. It bares good acidity and austere character that make it a good match with food. The 2018 Les Voisins ($36) is equally notable. It has more opulent pear and apple notes.
Banshee Pinot Noir Sonoma County 2019 ($28). A very consumer friendly pinot noir presenting deep rich and ripe black cherry fruit with a hint of cinnamon. Some new French oak aging. Very well balanced.