May 16, 2006
Oakville: An update

Once a year I get a chance to taste the wines perhaps most responsible for the Napa Valley's celebrity on the international wine scene. This year, that was yesterday, when the Taste of Oakville convened at the Robert Mondavi Winery.

Among the Napa Valley's several sub-appellations, Oakville boasts the largest concentration of labels responsible for the valley's cult-wine culture. These are the wines - cabernet sauvignon, most prominently - that command hundreds if not thousands of dollars on wine lists at many of the country's more prestigious restaurants. They include releases like Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Harlan Estate and Opus One, and many restaurateurs and retailers converge on the tasting to appraise current or pending releases.

But as in the past, I came away from the tasting asking myself what all the excitement is about. To be sure, there were wines of concentration, complexity and power, but in many instances it will take years if not decades for those characteristics to emerge and for the wines to be pleasantly drinkable, and even then, I fear, the reward may not justify the investment of either time or money.

I am continually stumped by the acclaim surrounding Screaming Eagle. Here's a winery that makes only about 500 cases of wine a year, and recently sold for between $30 million and $70 million according to speculation rampant through the valley (to be sure, whatever the price was it also included 55 acres of vines).

Screaming Eagle customarily sells for $300 a bottle upon release, and the last time I covered the Napa Valley Wine Auction, six years ago, a six-liter bottle of the winery's 1992 cabernet sauvignon sold for $500,000 to Lake Tahoe resident Chase Bailey, who reportedly has since moved to Paris. (A six-liter bottle, also called an imperial, holds the equivalent of eight regular-size bottles of wine.)

The 2003 Screaming Eagle at yesterday's tasting, which isn't to be released until October at a price yet to be determined, was a letdown - tight, hard and austere, with no complexity, an abrupt finish and a chalkiness that smoothered its fruit. Maybe the bottle was in shock and the wine eventually will come around, but it reinforced my earlier impressions that the character expected in a wine that has received so much acclaim simply wasn't there.

My favorite wine of the day also was rigid and short, but it had a tightly coiled fruitiness and earthy complexity that felt like it could at any time spring forth with exuberance and power, but don't count on it for about 10 years or so, said Naoko Dalla Valle, whose Dalla Valle Vineyards made the 2002 cabernet sauvignon, which sells for $100. It takes that long for all her wines to really start to strut their stuff, and she expressed regret that she hadn't brought along a 10-year-old vintage to make her point.

A few producers new to me were impressive for the generosity of the fruit in their wines and their overall balance and length, including the 2003 cabernet sauvignon of Stanton Vineyards, whose beckoning attributes included layers of chocolate and tobacco on a blackberry foundation ($65); the juicy 2003 cabernet sauvignon of Showket Vineyards, one of the few wines of the day ready to drink now, but also with the structure to age ($75); the refreshingly minty 2001 cabernet sauvignon of Paradigm, a stand-out among the wines for its insistent persistence ($53); and the fresh, spicy, muscular and voluminous 2003 cabernet sauvignon of Emilio's Terrace, the easiest wine to drink all day, though it isn't to be released until September (expect to pay around $50).

Most of the more gratifying wines, largely for their accessibility, elegance and depth, were from producers who have been working with Oakville fruit the longest, and seem to have adapted adroitly to vagaries of the yearly harvests: The 2003 Hoopes Ranch cabernet sauvignon of Cosentino Winery, a veritable glass of chocolate-dipped cherries ($65/$75); the popularly constructed (read plenty of oak) 2003 cabernet sauvignon of PlumpJack Winery, also ebullient with blackberry, cherry and mint flavors ($68); the 2002 Oakville cabernet sauvignon of Robert Mondavi Winery, an adventurous archaeological dig into the appellation, revealing strata of bright red fruit, chocolate, licorice and cedar on a supple frame ($50/$55); the 2001 cabernet sauvignon of Harlan Estate, at once chewy and silken, strapping without stepping on toes ($245); and the 2003 Oakville cabernet sauvignon of Venge Vineyards, whose abundant oak complemented rather than obscured the richness of its fruit and the alluring mineral component at its core ($100).

These are expensive wines, but high in demand. Much of their appeal may have more to do with the auction circuit than the dinner table. But a caution: If you think you might want to invest in them with the thought of actually drinking them 5 to 15 years down the road, consider sharing the cost of a bottle with a few other wine enthusiasts, then share the wine over dinner to see if you'd like to buy more.

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