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Cabernet Cult

Napa Valley's forgotten classics still make outstanding acquisitions

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It wasn't easy. He recalls walking into one of their favorite Northern California restaurants and announcing his plans. "They looked at us and said, ¿Oh, no, not another California winery.'"
Like Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, however, this one came from a special place. "To me, the valley floor means elegance," says Michael Weis, Groth's winemaker, as he sips from a glass of 1994 Groth Estate Cabernet. "There's a restrained elegance, a balance to the wines that come off this particular valley floor."
Such elegance wasn't always appreciated. When Dennis Groth made his first vintage in 1983, he was told by the California wine community that it wasn't big enough to be taken seriously. He had no name, no history other than his connection to a failed electronics firm, and no track record, and evidently the news of Winiarski's Paris success hadn't yet reached the U.S. retail level. Consumers understood, however, for Groth soon had its own small but devoted following.
Small meant that the Groths had to raise their children in a geodesic dome of a house that had come with the property. Dennis promised Judy that they'd live there a year or two at the most; 16 years later, they were finally secure enough to build their own house. By then, the price of a bottle of Groth had escalated to $42, and the reserve was marked at $125. Though the cult wines helped the prices get there, the Groths can't help harboring at least some resentment toward proprietors who have come into the business lately and have known nothing but financial success with wines that are, many of them, nothing extraordinary.
In the wine cellar of his new house, Groth pours a vertical tasting from four vintages. Wines such as the 1985 Groth Reserve taste as rich and beefy as the sirloin they're typically partnered with. There's a profundity to these wines, a leather-and-earth richness that mere fruit, no matter how thrilling on first sip, can't match. "Let's see them make good wines for 10 years," Groth says, just as others once said to him.
Not far away from the Groths, at Bistro Don Giovanni on Highway 29, there had been another tasting earlier in the day, another table groaning with bottles of dark, deep California Cabernet. Presiding was Gil Nickel of Far Niente, which has made one of the finest Cabernets in America for 15 years. But these weren't Far Niente wines.
Nickel has invented a 3,000-case winery called Nickel & Nickel that stands apart from his traditional California winery, but benefits from the association. The wines show the wisdom of the idea. At least three of the four 1997 Nickel & Nickel Cabernets (there's also a Merlot and a Zinfandel) taste like a hybrid of a wine like Harlan Estate and Far Niente, offering ready drinkability but also plenty of structure. Because each came from a single vineyard, they show the personality of a specific place.
Cult wines didn't just help pay for these small-batch, single-vineyard releases. "The whole craze for cult wines has done the missionary work for us," Nickel acknowledges. "We can fill a niche now instead of having to create one. Without them, we'd be plowing new ground."
Like the cults, these new Cabernets -- designated Stelling, Rock Cairn, John C. Sullenger and Carpenter after their vineyards -- are all made in small quantities. And they're expensive: as much as $95 a bottle for the Stelling, the best of the four. But that's less than half the $225 for a new release of Harlan Estate, and about the same as Far Niente.
Nickel made his money in the nursery business in Oklahoma. In 1979, he bought a disused winery in Oakville and retrofitted it with up-to-date equipment. He started making Chardonnay, and the Cabernet started to get attention with the formidable 1985 vintage. "We didn't know about cult wines when we started, though in hindsight we were one," he says. "Until we started growing a little larger, we had a cult following. It has been a challenge to keep riding the wave. I thought I got here too late in 1979, and now people act like I was a pioneer."
Today, Far Niente produces 35,000 to 40,000 cases a year of a wine modeled after Bordeaux's Haut Brion. It was one of the first wineries to seek not to produce a flawless wine but a consistent wine, in the Bordeaux style. Like Haut Brion, which tends to taste like a Haut Brion in all but the quirkiest vintages, Nickel wants his wines to taste like themselves. Tell him you picked out Far Niente in a blind tasting and you'll make his day.
By comparison, the Nickel & Nickel wines will be whatever the land makes them. "The last thing we want," Nickel says, "is Far Niente Jr."
"I need to make a wine that is special, that's not only a good wine but shows the characteristics unique to individual vineyard sites," says winemaker Darice Spinelli, who works only for Nickel & Nickel. "With Far Niente, they have the opportunity to fill in the holes with blending. With single-vineyard, we realize that there will be strengths and weaknesses. Each wine will reflect the characteristics of a given year."
Nickel ultimately hopes to create wines as profound as Far Niente with all the Nickel & Nickel releases, though he realizes that's a tall order for any cult wine, even his own. "But you have to have a long-term plan in the wine business, generally lasting beyond your lifetime; it's kind of like building the pyramids," he says. Toward that end, he has made his college-age son a partner, and already expanded the range of single vineyard sources for coming Nickel & Nickel releases.
For now, though, when he seeks a representation of what a complex, ever-evolving classic California Cabernet should taste like, he opens a bottle of his Far Niente. "We try to be the real thing here, in this modern world where everything tends to be phony," he says. He's referring at once to his business philosophy and his winery, but above all to his wine. And then he drinks it.
Bruce Schoenfeld is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.
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