On a cold day in San Francisco, I was lucky enough to attend an intimate lunch at One Market. The occasion was a vertical tasting of Château Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. The table was occupied by some of the top sommeliers in the city. Mark Bright of Michael Minna, Andrew Mosblech of A16 and Jonathon Tennenbaum of Harris Restaurant. You ask what I was doing there? Who knows. Maybe they needed to bring down the wine IQ at the table. Our host was owner/winemaker Bo Barrett. He is a straight-forward, speak from the heart style of person, a refreshing personality in this politically correct world we live in, and his knowledge of the Napa valley and winemaking is second to none Bo’s family has owned the winery (an estate going back to the late 19th century), since the mid 1960s. The wines were first made by the Barretts in 1972, and of course were put on the map when in 1976, the 1973 Chardonnay was voted top wine in a tasting in Paris. The Cabernet Sauvignon has been one of the top Cabernets from Napa Valley since the eighties and they continue to be among the very best, as I can safely attest, based on the following wines enjoyed during lunch: 2004 Napa Chardonnay – This is always one of the best Chardonnays made in California, along with Stony Hill and Mayacamas. The wine has great balance and a strong lemon character. The tropical fruit comes forward on the finish. No oak to speak of and zero malolactic fermentation. Drink/Hold. 1998 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – This wine was the most open of the five. From a much vilified vintage, this wine showed great balance with cassis, smoke and chocolate. The tannins are soft, and this wine will be great another five years. This is not your typical warm-vintage California Cabernet. Drink. 1999 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – This was my favorite wine of the tasting. Bright fruit, great structure and a tight, long finish. This wine took a little time to open up but when it did, it was close to perfect. This is a wine that will show greatness for another decade. Drink/ Hold. 2000 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – This was one I could never really warm up to. The wine showed good ripeness and balance with mineral and red fruit. The tannins were not quite soft enough for me but it did show itself much better with food. Drink/Hold 2001 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – 2001 is a great vintage in my book overall, and this wine helped me to continue to believe. This wine showed beautiful balance and acidity with ripe fruit, earthiness and soft tannins. It never completely opened up but still was very enjoyable. This one should drink for another 15-20 years. Make this the last one of the five to open up. Hold. 2002 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – This wine was the biggest and most powerful. Black fruits definitely come forward in this wine. Very rich and supple with good structure. This wine opened up eventually and showed a bright nose and a very lush, long finish. One could decant this now and be very happy but I think in 2-3 years this wine will show itself to be outstanding. Hold. Thanks to everyone at the lunch. It was a very good time. —Mike Jordan
2002 Blason “Venc” Friuli Isonzo Bianco ($14.99) Venc is the Friulian name for a branch of a willow used to hand-tie the grape vines. The Venc bianco is a blend of pinot bianco, tocai friulano and 5% sauvignon blanc, tank fermented and aged “sur lie” with some of the pinot bianco being barrel-fermented. This is one of those wonderful wines that work well as a cocktail white or with food. Love the floral aromatics on this baby and the palate of pear, hazelnut and a dash of vanilla. 2002 Blason “Vencjar” ($19.99) Bordeaux from Italy? Even better, Vencjar is a blend of cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot in equal parts. This is a big full-bodied red with soft tannins. Very user friendly with dark red fruit blended with walnut, leather, spice and a long richly textured finish. 2003 Baricci Rosso di Montalcino ($18.99) Great value is the first thing I think with regard to this wine 100% sangiovese. This is one of those Rossos that is a little more rustic. Lots of terroir from the “Montosoli.” Sweet earth mingles with rich and ripe fruit. It will take about an hour to let this vino to open up, and then watch how quickly this bottle empties. I’m thinking baked rigatoni with this. 2000 Baricci “Colombaio di Montosoli” Brunello di Montalcino ($36.99) Like its little sister up above this also has the classic “Montosoli” nose with lots of spice, cinnamon, cardamom and anise with a touch of leather, and brings that to the palate as well. This will need at least a couple hours of decanting and will drink over the next couple of years. Your next Sunday night dinner featuring a pork roast or even corn beef. Happy St. Paddy’s day. —Mike Parres
By the time this missive reaches you Mike Parres and I will have been sloshing through Italy for a couple of weeks. We will have tasted more than 170 of the new 2001 Brunello di Montalcino—the sacrifices we make for you! If you haven’t heard before, this 2001 is The Vintage of the Millennium! Sure, it is only the second year of the millennium, true. All the levity aside, this will be a truly great vintage. This 2001 vintage will be a hybrid of the 1997 vintage’s ripeness, proclaimed by many to be the best, and the balance, length and focus of 1999, proclaimed by most Italian wine insiders as the classic vintage. A freeze hit Tuscany Easter Sunday, 2001, after a balmy early spring. Many vines had budded out, and the initial prognosis looked bad. But nature’s pruning actually made the wines more concentrated. A long growing season (without any global warming, month-long heat spells) allowed the wines to be balanced, showing incredible length and aromatic—sangiovese’s classic characteristics. For me 2001 is the single best vintage I have tasted. I loved many of the 1997s, but there were many overripe wines. I loved almost all of the ’99s, yet my palate leans toward the more balanced, and I balk at super ripe fruit without acidic balance. The 2001 vintage has everything: concentration, size, color (harder in sangiovese), classic aromatics, balance, length, aging ability and immediate appeal. You will see amongst the critics a more universal acclaim. Daniel Thomases who writes for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and whose palate generally leans toward the more classic style, wrote about “many flabby and characterless 1997s produced in Montalcino.” He will most assuredly give the 2001 wines high praise. James Suckling who writes for the Wine Spectator and whose palate leans toward the riper has already said this about the 2001 vintage: “They are rich and powerful yet show wonderful balance and length. They are a combination of the structured and tannic 1999s and the refined and fresh 1997s.” He has also thrown out a couple of handfuls of 95+ point scores to whip up the initial press frenzy. The Wine Enthusiast will be doing a big issue on this vintage as well, so be forewarned. The scores will be flying high! I don’t give scores but try and write about character and style. In the upcoming weeks I will be tasting almost the entire DOC. I will be writing my vintage report that will be available to you. I think it is important for most everyone to understand that while scores offer you some insight to the writer’s preference, it may not be yours. Best to talk with someone who knows! The initial offerings are just coming out now as I write this (February 3, incurring the ire of our crack newsletter staff by being a day late!), and we will have our first offering available in the middle of March. Anyone who is interested in receiving the first offerings and the vintage report that Mike and I will prepare please send an email to email@example.com, and I will get you our first offering. —Greg St.Clair
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