The New Name Game

Small quantities, huge demand-meet the latest set of cult Cabernets.

All wine lovers want to be ‘insiders’ when it comes to the world of wine. we all want to know which wines are the best; what the movers and shakers in the business are doing, making and drinking. We also want to be drinking the best and wines that no one else has tried.

This is one of the allures of the “cult” wines. Not only are they made of “unobtainium,” but you actually have to hear about them first. Th at can be from publications, blogs or simple word of mouth.

Cult wines are not new; they have existed as long as wine production became commercial. Cult Cabernets from California are fairly recent having sprung up into existence in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Names such as Harlan Estate, Grace Family, Dalla Valle, Araujo and Colgin are just of few and perhaps the best of the first generation of Cult Cabernets. But now these names are quite famous. Even if wine lovers have never tasted the wines, they have certainly heard the names and more than likely seen the bottles featured in the press.

So what is the next generation of cult Cabernets? Ah, now that is a question for the insider. Here are some of the newest generation of cult Cabernets from California that define cult status today. Th ey are all made in miniscule quantities (around 200-300 cases for the world); receive some of the highest accolades and are made with a maniacal approach towards quality and the demand for their wines is cultish.

Checkerboard Vineyards is located in the Diamond Mountain district on the Eastern edge of Napa Valley. Th is hillside estate spans from 600 to 1,800 feet in elevation with four ‘meadows’ each having its own distinct soil structures and exposures-giving a complex palate of grapes from which each estate crafts their distinct wines. Th e proprietors Dennis O’Neil and Stephen Martin hired Martha McClellan (of Sloan fame) as the lucky winemaker to bring their vision of their wine to fruition. Th ey make only two wines here, both being Bordeaux blends. Th e 2008 Kings Row is marked by a hugely intense nose led by black fruit compote, sweet and well placed vanilla as well as a hint of savory herbs and minerals. It comes right up to the fence of being jammy without crossing it. It is tightly wound on the palate with significant structure and a great deal of depth. What sets this wine apart from others is the many dimensions it exhibits. It is not only fruit but also many different herbs; the complexity is beguiling. Kings Row is designed to be a more approachable wine in its youth, something you can drink earlier (although this is a relative term as I believe Kings Row will easily improve with several years aging) while you hold onto its sibling Checkerboard. Th e 2009 Checkerboard is indeed heartier, more extracted and elevated in intensity. It soars with black and blue fruit in the nose and rolls like a Range Rover over the palate, masculine yet luxurious. Th is bottle will coast into the next decade still in ascent.

Dana Estate is a completely different program. Owned by Hi Sang Lee who bought the estate in 2005, together with winemaking phenom Philippe Melka and Cameron Vawter this estate has quickly risen to cult status. They work with three unique vineyards: Helms Vineyard in the Rutherford Bench, Lotus Vineyard at 1,200-foot elevation in the Vaca Mountains and Hershey Vineyard on Howell Mountain to create three very different expressions. Their fourth wine is a compilation of the three vineyard sites and a fabulously complex wine. The 2010 ONDA is opulent to say the least. It reeks of blackberry pie with crust and all. In fact it has a wild edge to it, something akin to wild strawberries but macerated with spices. It sits on your palate like an A1 Abrams tank. My bet is that it will age longer than a dozen years and show no sign of stopping.

The Vineyardist is back on Diamond Mountain at between 800-1,300 feet. Bought in 2000 by Dirk Fulton and his wife Becky Kukkola this estate has a rich history of vineyard planting back to the 1870s up to Prohibition. So fanatical are Fulton and Kukkola that they not only hired one of Napa’s elite winemakers in Mark Herold but they also did not release any of their first five vintages because they were not up to their standards.

The wine here is 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and it is a stunner. The 2010 vintage is as tight as a drum but it is still full of sound. Rock star nose of the deepest and perfectly ripe fruit laced with sweet vanilla and Spanish cedar aromas. It stains the mouth with a deeply penetrating intensity of flavor. This wine embodies the nobility of Cabernet and the richness that it gains from this Napa Valley hillside.

I count myself fortunate to have been able to taste these wines. With such limited production, and now that you know about them, I don’t know when I will see them again.

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