A rare wine tasting

Times Staff Writer

The buzz was out in the building: The Times tasting panel was about to weigh in on California's cult Cabernets. This was an exercise not in ranking the wines, like Parker or Tanzer, but in trying to understand -- for readers who may never have the chance to pop the cork on one of these fabled bottles -- what these wines are.

We had assembled 19 of California's most sought-after Cabernets at a cost from $55 to as high as $235 per bottle for a grand total of $2,741. All to be tasted -- and spat -- in the course of a couple of hours by the Times panel, which included food editor Leslie Brenner, deputy features editor Michalene Busico, columnist Russ Parsons, deputy food editor Betty Baboujon, staff writer Corie Brown, guest taster Scott Torrence (wine specialist at Christie's) and myself.

None of the wines in the tasting are available for sale at the respective wineries. They're sold out -- mostly to mailing-list subscribers and restaurants -- even before the wines are released. We had to beg to purchase a bottle from each winery to taste. In the case of one wine, Screaming Eagle, we would have had to pay $1,200 for a single bottle, which is why that famous label was not in the tasting. But plenty of others were.

The 19 Cabernets were tasted in several flights, vintage by vintage, and tasted blind. Brown, who had procured the bottles and decided on the order of the tasting, poured each wine into a decanter and then back into the bottle to give it a little air. With very young wines, this can help them to "breathe" and open up, showing more of what they eventually will become with age.

The idea of tasting these wines, which are inevitably more talked about than actually experienced, was a seductive one. Sometimes even the people who can afford them never drink them: Having a cache of these cult wines in the cellar can often seem more about boasting rights, like the marble imported from Italy for the floor or the vintage Bentley in the garage, than real appreciation. Or, if not that, commodities to sell or trade for something else.

Bliss versus tedium

Going in, everyone on the panel seemed excited to try these wines. But tasting through 19 California Cabernets, even the most famous and sought-after, is not exactly an exercise in hedonistic pleasure. In general, they are highly extracted, concentrated wines with high alcohol and massive tannins. Palate fatigue sets in early.

In the first flight, seven 2002s, many of us were surprised at how similar the wines seemed, and, in some cases, how ordinary. Not one of them had us groaning with pleasure, scheming to raid the piggy bank to secure another bottle, somewhere, somehow.

What gives? For one thing, they're very young. For another, Cabernets can be closed down at this stage, or very tight and unyielding in terms of aromas and flavors. The alcohol was showing. The 2001s (9 of them) were, on the whole, less alike and so more interesting, but a couple were outright flawed.

The trouble with tasting so many wines at once is that the subtler ones got shouldered out by the muscle-bound blockbusters. Any of these wines might shine by themselves, but put them in a group, and each has less impact. To further complicate matters, it was hard to get a fix on some of the wines because they changed so much in the glass over time.

As we struggled into the third flight -- one 2000 and two 1999s -- it was not a pretty sight. Everyone's teeth were stained a deep purple, which is understandable when you're tasting Cabernets this young. No one looked ecstatic sampling these fabled wines and a panelist or two looked distinctly miserable.

I kept wishing for some roast beef, or some cheese, anything to mitigate the cumulative effects of the tannin and to put these wines in the setting for which they were presumably made.

We did find some intriguing wines, mostly those that didn't bludgeon the palate with alcohol or overripe fruit, but displayed some subtlety, some haunting taste of earth or mint or mushroom that gave them definition and would make them welcome dining companions.

In the end, though, these were mostly wines we could happily live without. But then, we can live without that Bentley too.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

California's legendary Cabernets, uncorked

The wines, which were tasted blind, are listed in the order in which they were sampled. Prices given are mailing-list prices; resale prices are often much higher.

2002 VINTAGE

2002 Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon, Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard. A tremendously concentrated wine with black currant, blackberry and chocolate aromas and a thick, plush texture. On the palate, plum and chocolate flavors, chewy tannins. A bit overly alcoholic, with low acid and a long, hot finish. $185.

2002 Grace Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. A well-made, nicely balanced wine with fine tannins and decent acidity. Somewhat reticent red berry and vanilla aromas gave way to bright red-fruit flavors and a lackluster, medium-length finish. Still, the wine has a measure of finesse. $190.

2002 Gemstone Napa Valley Red Wine. Soft aromas; the wine was a bit closed. Though quite extracted, with ripe tannins, the flavors were less developed and the finish short. $95.

2002 Diamond Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Volcanic Hill. A "more interesting" wine with warm and lovely raspberry, black currant, rose petal, chocolate and mint aromas, a touch of earthy tobacco. On the palate: fine, plush tannins, good balance and a long finish. $175.

2002 Revana Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Little agreement on the panel about this wine. One taster liked its bright cherry aromas, another found a "weird cooked-chocolate nose." It reminded one panelist of a new Bordeaux, two others found it respectively "one-dimensional" and "nondescript." Finish was medium-long. $90.

2002 Hundred Acre Cabernet Sauvignon, Kayli Morgan Vineyard. An extremely extracted wine with a bit of mint on the nose. Quite alcoholic, with chewy tannins; a massive wine without finesse. $175.

2002 Caymus Vineyards Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon. Well-balanced, if a little sweet and not particularly distinguished, with herbal, menthol aromas and greenish fruit flavors. Not as extracted as most of the other wines. $136.

2001 VINTAGE

2001 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon (half-bottle). Lovely red fruit and prune aromas. Well balanced, with nice acid, evolved fruit flavors and soft tannins. Several panelists found it overly alcoholic. $75 for the half-bottle.

2001 Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon. An intense wine with pure blackberry, cassis, chocolate and tobacco aromas. Regarding the palate, disagreement reigned. Two panelists found it to be "clean," another pronounced it "unpleasantly sweet." One taster called it "fine and long," another disliked its "weird finish." $150.

2001 Araujo Estate Wines Cabernet Sauvignon, Eisele Vineyard. A fairly extracted, slightly syrupy, well-balanced, but not particularly complex wine with smoky, roasted aromas, clean fruit and a long finish. $185.

2001 Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain. An unpleasant wine with bad shellfish and metallic aromas; less dense than expected from the saturated purple color. $70.

2001 Pride Mountain Vineyards Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Attractive aromas with hints of oak and chocolate give way to a lush wine with personality and zip and a soft, long finish. Sweet and round, yet lively, with sturdy tannins, but not much complexity. $115.

2001 Schrader Beckstoffer Cabernet Sauvignon, Original Tokalon Vineyard. A dense, purple wine with mint, eucalyptus and cherry aromas, cloying "cherry pie" flavors, too much alcohol and an unpleasant finish. $75.

2001 Paradigm Cabernet Sauvignon. A softer, less-extracted wine than most of the others, with roasted cherry aromas and good acidity, but not much going on in the mid-palate. $55.

2001 Dalla Valle Vineyards Maya Napa Valley Red Table Wine. A brute of a wine, big and somewhat hot, with chocolate mint aromas, serious tannins and well-integrated black cherry fruit. Probably needs six or seven years in the bottle. $200.

2001 Colgin Cabernet Sauvignon, Tychson Hill Vineyard. A complex, earthy wine with coffee flavors, fine tannins and arresting black cherry and blackberry aromas. Not a food wine. $200.

2000 VINTAGE

2000 Harlan Estate Napa Valley Red Wine. The panel's overall favorite, this intense, dense and earthy wine had very attractive bright plum aromas with hints of tobacco pouch, a touch of elegance and a tremendously long finish. $235.

1999 VINTAGE

1999 Heitz Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Martha's Vineyard. A richly colored, well-made wine with minty, faintly rubbery aromas. On the palate, delicious, very ripe fruit, fine, ripe tannins, good acidity and a dry finish. $125.

1999 Bryant Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. An inviting, powerfully concentrated wine with chocolate notes, some very ripe, almost cooked-fruit character, massive tannins, a pleasant funkiness, some herbal complexity and a long finish. $210.

-- Leslie Brenner

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