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Cabernet Touchstones
Ten California Cabernets to Excite your Favorite Sommelier

by Karen Moneymaker
December 13, 2018

Sommeliers in New York and Los Angeles tend to talk about most anything but cabernet. Get them on the subject, however, and you’ll find they all have favorite bottles, touchstones that inform their perception of what great California cabernet should be. Recently, I interviewed sommeliers and wine directors in these two major markets for wine, asking them about how California cabernet finds a place on their lists, what wines their guests were requesting, and what wines they were excited to open for their guests. Some mentioned older bottles, describing shifts in style since the 1970s, and considering how climate change and fashion may have played a part in those shifts. Many mentioned contemporary bottles, wines that reference a specific person and place—the definition of great wine anywhere in the world. Here are the ten wines mentioned most often by the sommeliers I interviewed, sometimes cited just in passing, but all receiving some extended and enthusiastic commentary from people whose tastes are often focused on Old World classics.

Corison

After making wines for Chappellet through the 1980s, Cathy Corison founded her own winery in 1987, focused on benchland cabernet sauvignon from western Rutherford and St. Helena. She has strengthened her hand with two prime estate vineyards, including Kronos, behind her winery (a 1971 planting she purchased in 1995) and Sunbasket, just to the north, where she grows cool-fruited cabernet that belies the heat of the Napa Valley.

Sam Rethmeier Sam Rethmeier
Chris Cannon, who manages an eclectic list at the Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in Morristown, New Jersey, described Corison as a counterpoint to the blockbuster cabernets from California. “Compared to some of the wines from Napa,” he says, “Corison’s tend to be very mineral driven and very long in the finish, very fresh in the mouth. The alcohol levels are more well-balanced than some of these big, heavy wines from Napa.”

Sam Rethmeier’s list at LA’s Rèpublique is dominated by French selections, but he feeds the demand for Napa Valley cabernet with wines like Corison. “Cathy [Corison] is a trailblazer,” he says. “I admire her tenacity to stick with her vision of her wines. I met her at a tasting here this summer, and I asked her if she ever felt the need to change the style of her wine just for the sake of surviving, and she said, ‘I almost bankrupted myself twice, sticking to what I believed in.’ I mean, those wines are breathtaking.”

Diamond Creek

Al and Boots Brounstein moved from LA to Diamond Mountain in 1967, propagating cuttings Al sourced from two first-growth vineyards in Bordeaux, separating three parcels by their distinctly different soils—white volcanic tuff; rocky, red volcanic soils and deep alluvial gravel—then bottled each parcel separately. An early partisan for terroir-expression in Napa Valley cabernet, Brounstein developed a following for his wines at Diamond Creek that is still loyal today.

Jeff Porter Jeff Porter
Christine Wright, at NYC’s Hearth, counts herself a loyalist. “The reason I get excited about these wines is that they are single-vineyard, cool-climate wines made in tiny amounts. The Diamond Creek Lake Vineyard, for example, has been made only 16 times since the winery was created in 1968, because the microclimate is so cool that the grapes there don’t often ripen well enough to warrant bottling. When they do, though, they create a wine with exceptional elegance, aromatics and acidity that can age, basically, forever. The 1992, which is the vintage I have on my list, is so surprisingly fresh, even after twenty-six years in bottle. Stunning.”

Jeff Porter, who lived in Napa Valley before joining the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group in NYC, has an enduring admiration for this small estate. “What I love about Diamond Creek is that the wines express cabernet sauvignon from Napa in the right way: The wines are rich and full of classic Napa fruit but the wine is not over the top or overripe. They strike the balance between the opulence that can be achieved in Napa with some restraint that allows the finer points of the wines’ growing region to show through.”

Dunn

Prior to establishing Dunn Vineyards in 1979, Randy Dunn put in time at Caymus and Pahlmeyer in Napa Valley. When he decided to start his own winery, he headed up Howell Mountain, purchasing a small vineyard surrounded by fir trees. Today, he farms 42 acres, all planted to cabernet sauvignon.

Jason Wagner Jason Wagner
Jason Wagner, who came to NYC’s Union Square Cafe from an anything-goes, Loire-focused list at Fung Tu on the Lower East Side, takes a more American perspective at the new location for Danny Meyer’s original, very American restaurant. He and other New York wine directors pointed to the savory style of Dunn cabernet as a touchstone.

“Dunn is an example of the old-school style,” Wagner said, as opposed to what he called the “puffed-up peacock” style. “Sure, the wines get over 14 percent [alcohol] pretty often, but they are made with great structure and balance, and that makes them great many decades after bottling. I think it’s worth mentioning that Randy Dunn, himself, is a pretty important figure in the modern history of cabernet in Napa. He made the wines at Caymus, Livingston, Pahlmeyer, and you can still experience his touch when you open old bottles of those wines.”

Enfield Wine Company

John Lockwood was working at Failla when he started Enfield in 2010, going full time in 2013. His cabernet from Jesus & Patricia’s Vineyard in Fort Ross–Seaview, on the far Sonoma coast, has caught the attention of a number of the sommeliers interviewed here. He includes 30 percent whole clusters in the cofermentation of cabernet sauvignon (80 percent of the blend) with merlot, franc and petit verdot, bringing in a wine at 13.7 percent alcohol in the 2013 vintage.

Raj Vaidja Raj Vaidja
While Chris Cannon, at Jockey Hollow, zeroed in on Napa Valley classics like Mayacamas and Corison in our conversation about California cabernet, he’s also jazzed about wines from some unexpected regions. “There are producers now who make really interesting cabernets, like Enfield,” he said. “Fort Ross–Seaview is not a typical cabernet area. The Enfield cabernet has this very dark cassis fruit, but it’s a much more elegant, feminine style of California cab. There are tannins and acidity, but they’re very nicely integrated into the wine. The alcohol is not overwhelming and it has a kind of coastal influence.”

Raj Vaidja, at NYC’s Daniel, was one of several others who mentioned the wine. “Enfield surprises by challenging the idea of California cabs as being rich and heavy,” he said. “It’s bright and super light on its feet. It behaves more like cabernet franc: it’s definitely ripe, but it’s very fresh, very herbaceous.”

Heitz Martha’s Vineyard
Joe Heitz made the fi rst single-vineyard cabernet in Napa Valley when he teamed up with Tom and Martha May and featured their vineyard on the label of his 1966 bottling. The collaboration between the Heitz and May families continued into the next generation, and Gaylon Lawrence, Jr., who recently acquired Heitz Cellars, hopes to continue producing the Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet.

Michaël Engelmann, who has built the wine list at NYC’s The Modern from 1,000 to 3,000 selections over his four-year tenure, lists about 100 California cabernets at any one time. He recently sold a bottle of the 1974 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard. “I really did love introducing that wine to our guest,” he told me. “It’s one of the true iconic wines that really lives up to its reputation. It’s so good. I would avoid saying it’s European in style, but I would definitely say it’s lighter, more red fruit than black, earthier, with more moderate alcohol [than many Napa Valley cabernets]. I was fortunate to have had this wine three or four times, and it’s everything that makes a great wine—from the nose to the palate to the texture to the length. The impression it gives is elegant and really intense at the same time. It’s a special moment.”

David Rosoff, at Hippo and Triple Beam in LA’s Highland Park neighborhood, mentioned the same wine. “If you asked me what one bottle of wine I would want to drink right now, and I gave you five or six wines, the 1974 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard would be one of them,” he said. “That’s what I cut my teeth on twenty-five years ago. I have a fond memory for California cabernet from smelling and tasting and feeling this wine back then.”

Matthiasson

Steve Matthiasson consults on viticulture at any number of legendary sites in Napa Valley. He and his wife, Jill, also grow wines at their home vineyard in Oak Knoll, including cabernet sauvignon. It’s the coolest of the sites he works with for his cabernet—sourced from five other growers, from Coombsville north to Rutherford—a red-fruited wine that clocked in at 13.1 percent alcohol in 2015.

Jenny Lakin Jenny Lakin
Jenny Lakin, at NYC’s Ferris, where the menu is eclectic and seasonal, keeps Matthiasson on her list because she finds it works well with chef Greg Proechel’s food. “I love sticking my nose in the glass of Matthiasson cab,” she says. “There’re all of these luscious fruit qualities, and you can smell the sun in these wines, but at the same time there is an herbaceous element, a twiggy, woody tannin. It’s lovely, and none of that is overwhelming to the palate, which is really important when you’re trying to weave cabernet into the landscape of a meal that spans as many styles of food as our menu does.”

Mayacamas

Bob Travers developed the legend of this property, originally planted in 1889 high up in the western mountains of Napa Valley, at elevations reaching 2,400 feet. His austere style of cabernet needed a decade or more to open, and his early wines are still some of the most sought-after by some collectors.

Chris Cannon Chris Cannon
Those cabernets appeal to sommeliers like Ferris’s Lakin, who likes to pour older wines from Napa Valley: “Mayacamas from the seventies, for example. So much of the story of Napa cab and Napa winemaking is rooted in that decade. Any one of these great, classic cab producers from that decade is worth splurging on,” she says.

Chris Cannon, at Jockey Hollow, finds the recent vintages still deliver. “There are definitely some producers that are trying to make a more linear, properly structured style of cabernet in California. Mayacamas still makes terroir-based wines, with no concern for market tastes. The tannins and acidity are real, pronounced and they balance the fruit in a way that keeps the wine resonant, refreshing and able to marry with food in a way that improves both. My voyage with wine began with Italy, where such wines are valued and respected above all others.”

Mount Eden

Paul Masson founded Mount Eden in the 1940s, a vineyard at the end of a two-mile-long dirt road, 2,000 feet above the Pacific in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s a bit off the beaten path, which makes it feel a little like an insider’s secret. Winemaker Jeffrey Patterson, along with his wife, Ellie, have been at the helm since 1981.

Matthew Kaner Matthew Kaner
Matt Kaner, of LA’s Bar Covell, Augustine, Dead or Alive Bar and Good Measure, cited Mount Eden for its ability to age. His four lists tap into a deep cellar of vintage wines, with selections dating back to 1911.

“Mount Eden, with some age, out-duels the most famous Napa estates,” he says, “and lives up to second- and first-growth Bordeaux. There’s a leather component that stays with the wine through its twenties and thirties while also being preserved by a perfect vein of acidity. In its youth, there’s fruit, without being stewed or confectionary.”

David Rosoff, at Hippo and Triple Beam, doesn’t sell much cabernet on his eclectic, Italian-focused lists. In fact, the only bottle he had was Mount Eden, and that’s now sold out. But after eight years at Osteria Mozza and other haunts of the Bastianich & Batali Restaurant Group, he has a lot to say on the subject, particularly on the cabernet from Mount Eden.

“Mount Eden is reminiscent of old California,” Rosoff asserts, “and, ironically, it’s not in Napa Valley.” He admits he might have listed it out of a “stubborn commitment to a classic name,” and respects the Pattersons for making wine the way that he remembers Napa Valley Cabernet being made. “I’m not a climate-change or geology expert,” he says, “but I would surmise that a combination of climate change, farming and wine making has changed the wines we see coming out of California. I mean, if you look at how those wines were made in the seventies, they were not cutting back the canopy to expose the fruit and they weren’t planting with tight spacing and they were probably using tractors and they might’ve been using upright redwood fermenters and they were doing everything, quote unquote, wrong. They were probably pulling in crops that would be considered overcropping now, but maybe the plant was in balance. Now everybody wants to stress the hell out of the plant.”

Ridge Monte Bello

Originally planted in 1886 on a high limestone ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Monte Bello was replanted in the 1940s. Paul Draper joined the Ridge team in 1969 and his precise work in both the vineyards and the cellar have earned Monte Bello a place among the great cabernets of the world.

{iimage_16}Christine Wright at NYC’s Hearth describes the Monte Bello wines as “just stunning”: “They age well and they are really intricate in their textures and flavors. Being from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, which is one of the highest-elevation and coolest climates in all of California, gives the wine a finesse and grace that I don’t always find in California cabernet.”

Raj Vaidja, who lists a lot of world-class wines with world-class prices at NYC’s Daniel, notes that Ridge Monte Bello has gotten more expensive in the last few years. “It feels like they finally caught up with the value of what they really are and how good they are,” he says. “I’m constantly searching private sellers for mature bottles of Ridge, Mayacamas, Diamond Creek, Charles Krug, Inglenook. The older vintages of Monte Bello are definitely in the same quality stratosphere as wines like Colgin and Harlan.”

Philip Togni

Philip and Birgitta Togni have been farming Bordeaux varieties on Spring Mountain since 1981, their ten-acre vineyard still containing remnant vines from the 19th century. They released their first cabernet in 1983, before beginning to play with high-elevation blends, incorporating merlot, franc and petit verdot. Togni’s wines have the attention of sommeliers for their slow evolution and restraint.

Philip Dunn Philip Dunn
At 71 Above, in downtown LA, Catherine Morel lists 100 cabernets among the 500 selections on her list. “Philip Togni’s wines are incredible,” she told me. “These wines hold up over time and are so worth the money. I don’t think they’re approachable in their youth—they do need time, but they’re structured and elegant. And I think they’re very true to what the vineyard is, versus trying to make a style.”

Phillip Dunn, at Spago Beverly Hills, also sells a lot of California cabernet—500 selections of a total of 3,500 wines on the list. And he says he likes selling “people wines” and cites Philip Togni’s cabernets. “They show you a different example of California. It’s Spring Mountain fruit; there’s certainly an element of minerality and earth that comes through from that site; they get good concentration but not overripeness. Mountain vineyards are going to be more concentrated, but these wines are still made in a restrained style, more like what you would see from wines of the late eighties and early nineties, before the ripe styles really came about.”

Joe DeLissio, at Brooklyn’s River Café, was an early adopter of Napa Valley cabernets when he started there in the late 1970s. But when he got to open a lot of bottles of highly allocated wines after his cellar was flooded by Hurricane Sandy, he found that a lot of the riper styles were not aging well, and stopped buying them. But he still is intrigued by wines like Togni’s. “I do find there is some undeniable difference between mountain vineyards and valley vineyards,” he said. “I give an edge to the mountain fruit and it probably comes down to yields and the caretakers behind them. Like Philip Togni: What is he—eighty-five years old? [actually, he’s past 90]—and he’s still in his vineyard. There’s an intimacy between real wine people and their vineyards.”


This feature appears in the print edition of the December 2018.
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