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California's Great Reds

In Search of the Perfect California Cabernet
James Laube
Posted: June 1, 1993

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8. CLOS Du VAL RESERVE. Cabernet Sauvignon by its nature is an intense and aggressive wine, but the style at Clos Du Val is to harness the grape, polish its texture and render a wine of depth and finesse. The grapes grow in the Stag's Leap District of Napa Valley, and the winemaking team of Bernard Portet and Krimo Souilah produces a Reserve only in years when there are special lots of wine that are clearly superior to others. In the 1970s, the 1977, 1978 and 1979 were all wonderful wines, rich and flavorful. If you look at the current offerings, search for the 1985 or 1987 vintages. If you can't find them, the regular Stag's Leap District bottling should do well.

9. OPUS ONE. This is a Franco-American joint venture that unites two of wine's greatest winemaking families-the Robert Mondavi family and the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild's family, owners of the great Bordeaux estate, Château Mouton-Rothschild. The most current vintages, 1987 to 1989, are all good examples of what this winery has to offer. The wines sell for about $20. A reserve bottling is about $27. They formed a partnership in 1979, aiming to produce one wine, and it's an expensive operation down to the last detail (even the winery's chai barrel aging cellar). Opus One relies on Cabernet for its personality, even if the label doesn't say so, but the style is harmony and grace, richness and depth. The current vintage is 1989; the 1990 should be out later this year and is a superior vintage. The grapes come from the Oakville Vineyards that surround the winery. Expect to pay around $60 a bottle.

10. THE HESS COLLECTION. Owned by Swiss businessman Donald Hess, the Hess Collection has quickly made its mark with complex, rich and polished Cabernets grown in estate vineyards on Mount Veeder. If you want a contrast in winemaking styles and philosophies, open the corks on a bottle of Hess alongside a bottle of Mayacamas. The Hess is styled to drink earlier and shows more toasty oak and finesse, but it has the depth and concentration to improve with cellaring.

11. DUNN HOWELL MOUNTAIN. Massive but elegant describes these enormously ripe, rich and concentrated Cabernets grown on windy Howell Mountain. This appellation rises above Napa Valley and yields intense yet rustic Cabernets that some find overpowering. Yet many more appreciate that strength of personality and find Randy Dunn's Cabernets appealing. Dunn apprenticed as a winemaker at Caymus and began his venture in 1979. That wine is still young and vibrant. Through the 1980s only Caymus has shown more consistency in winemaking quality and style. Dunn's Cabernets are 100 percent Cabernet. Dense and chewy but packed with ripe currant, mineral and spice flavors. Dunn bottles two Cabernets, and both are excellent. One reads Howell Mountain, the other says Napa Valley.

With a list of these wines in hand, you can't miss. Granted, some of the older vintages are only available at auctions or in the cellars of private collectors. But all the current vintages can be found in the market, and if you memorize this list, you can pick them up when a new vintage is released.

By the way, I don't miss long-boarding, and I'm just as happy things turned out this way. When I moved from San Diego, I gave my "log" to my next-door neighbor, a real hot-dog surfer. He had always marveled at its size and could never believe they ever made surfboards that big. But then, I taught him everything he knew about wine. My guess is that he's still searching for the perfect wave; but then, I'm still in quest of perfect Cabernets.

James Laube is a senior editor of The Wine Spectator and is the author of California's Great Cabernets.


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