The trained wine taster learns to look at individual structural components in a wine such as the acidity, tannins, body, alcohol, and flavor intensity levels, dissecting the wine with surgeon-like precision to assess each individual part.
In the end, it is the overall balance of these components that helps separate a great wine from a good wine. For more than nine years, some of the Napa Valley’s finest winemakers have gathered each month at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone for the St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel to assess the region’s fine wines. Flights of wines are tasted blind, ranked and discussed by these veteran tasters.
Would a group of discerning wine enthusiasts, tasting some of these same wines blind, rank them any differently from tasting panelists?
The match was on. Taking place at the St. Francis Yacht Club, the event was organized by Peter Stoneberg, a member of the club’s wine buying committee, with the Napa Valley Vintners providing wines that were poured at the Tasting Panel’s previous two sessions (in December and in January) on cabernet sauvignon. A packed audience of the Yacht Club’s wine members joined in the early evening tasting event, held Feb. 2.
What were these wine enthusiasts looking for in a wine? What made a wine their favorite of a flight? Answers to that question included comments such as “not a bitter taste at the end”; “looking for bright fruit, not grippy”; and “not just oak but fruit too.” Interestingly, these answers reveal that balance is at the heart of their decisions as well.
Of course, the curious will want to know: did that lead both groups to rate the wines the same? The following wines placed first in their flights at the Tasting Panel’s cabernet sauvignon sessions at the CIA:
PureCru Napa Valley 2012 MC Signature ($50)
A powerhouse team led by Mitch Cosentino that is micro-handling fruit for master blends. This wine is 84 percent cab, but merlot’s richness and cabernet franc’s aromatics are deemed critical to the overall finesse and structure of the wine. Concentrated red fruits share the stage with a complex mix of spices.
Castello di Amorosa 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon ($55)
The Tasting Panel has time and time again chosen wines made by Brooks Painter as top picks in their blind tastings. No other winery has so consistently received raves. Everything is generous about this 2013 cabernet sauvignon, but it is beautifully integrated and balanced. Sturdy tannins are balanced by vibrant fruits flavors that are layered with aromas of fresh forest and sweet spice.
Groth Vineyards & Winery 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville ($60)
Recent vintages are being made in a richer, more concentrated style, and this wine is no exception. With the same viticulturalist, vineyards and just two winemakers over the decades, a taste of Groth cabernet vintages almost becomes an inside look at Napa Valley’s growing seasons. Deep, captivating aromas follow with a silky smooth palate leading to firm tannins on the finish.
Rombauer Vineyards 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon ($55)
Iconic for its toasty, buttery chardonnay style, Rombauer is also standing out for its cabernet sauvignon. Ritchie Allen is director of Viticulture and Winemaking, working with Associate Winemaker Luke Clayton and Assistant Winemaker Andrew Holloway. Blacks fruits mingle with dark spices in this big, juicy cabernet.
Saunter Wines 2014 Swagger Cabernet Sauvignon ($55)
Winemaker Thomas Brown cut his teeth at Turley Estates as assistant winemaker to Ehren Jordan and now makes wine at Saunter and a few other estates. Saunter’s motto is to slow down and let each moment ripen to its fullest. A bottle of this cab, a porch swing, and wine glass should aid in that philosophy quite nicely. Sweet oak spices dominate this richly textured wine.
Top wines for St. Francis Yacht Club wine members include:
Davies Vineyard 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain District ($100)
Diamond Mountain, the Schrams, and the Davies have an incredible lineage. In 1862, Jacob Schram chose this area to plant grapes, and was vocal among vintners for using better grapes than the Mission grape that was popular at the time. The Davies, when they purchased the Schram property in 1965, continued that drive for quality and produce what many consider the best U.S. sparkling wine: Schramsberg. Proprietor Hugh Davies now brings top reds like this one to the forefront. The 2013 Diamond Mountain cab has dark fruit mingling with generous sweet spices.
Ideology Cellars 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll ($58)
Ideology Cellars began when Bob and Joni Williamson purchased the Koves-Newlan Estate in Oak Knoll, and it has led them on a path to accolades from top wine magazines. A balanced sip of deep rich fruit, lively acidity, and a complex weave of integrated spice flavors.
Patland Estate Vineyards 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon ($110)
Patland Estate is dotted with several Tuscan villas, soaring cypress trees, flowering bushes, and olive trees; a place that was earlier called Terra Del Cuore (“land of the heart” in Italian). Adding to the visual beauty are Henry and Olga Patland’s wines, made by winemaker Jay Buoncristiani. A silky cab with plenty of oak spice.
Charthia Cellars 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon ($85)
Charles and Cynthia Keller blended wines — and names — when they first created Charthia Cellars, choosing the universal symbol for metamorphosis, the butterfly, for their label. Their 2013 cab has concentrated red fruits with a spicy finish.
While the first-place wines were different in each of the tastings, two of the Yacht Club favorites — Patland Estate Vineyards and Charthia Cellars — came in second place at the Tasting Panel session at the CIA. With the scores for first and second-place wines often being very close, there is some symmetry in the results. Other first-place wins of the Tasting Panel, however, came in at various rankings at the Yacht Club event, including fifth and sixth places. Putting this into perspective, there were generally no more than seven wines to a flight.
So while no hard conclusions can be made, one Yacht Club member summed up the evening perfectly by saying, “There were no bad wines here tonight.”
Catherine Bugue, the Star’s tasting panel columnist, loves writing about — and drinking — wine. You can contact Catherine at email@example.com. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program, visit napavintners.com/programs and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.