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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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 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.