Monday, April 21, 2008

California Futures Tasting at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel

Eric Baugher (left) Sean McBride (right) holding bottles of 2006 and 2007 Monte Bello.

I traveled down to Wasihngton D.C. April 12 for the Twenty-third California Futures Tasting at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, featuring wines from 48 producers’ 2006 vintage, plus a number of additional samples. I don’t usually go to tastings like this, especially if they’re outside of New York City, because they’re too expensive, but I made an exception for this event to get a chance to catch up a little with Eric Baugher, winemaker at Ridge, who was pouring the 2005, 2006, and 2007 Monte Bellos. I also got a chance to meet some other interesting characters. David Ramey was pouring his own wines, which were excellet, and the man himself was very nice, seemingly easy going. He was one of the stars at the tasting. It was also a pleasure to meet Kathryn Hall, Jennifer Freebairn (Director of Sales and Marketing at Paul Hobbs) and Nicolas Morlet (Peter Michael winemaker).

Overall, it was a good event – good food, good wines, good glasses, lots of water easily accessible, blah blah blah – and I had a very good time (if not too good), but I expected more white wine available. Many of the best 2006 California whites are not yet released, or only being released as I write this, and it would have been a good chance to sample some of the wines currently on the market. Of course, this event was about purchasing wine “futures,” and many of the wineries at the event only have reds for sale, but that said, a couple wineries included their current 2006 white release, most notably Nicolas Morlet, winemaker at Peter Michael, who, upon request, poured the 2006 Cuvee Indigene.

One last note before my thoughts on the wines ... I managed to sneak into the winemaker's party after the tasting, which had always been a fantasy of mine, and guess what they were drinking ... French wines! What is happening with California winemakers always drinking French wines behind the scenes?

Tasting notes for the best wines of the night:

Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello 2005 *** 2006 *** 2007 *** (all $80). These wines are, of course, exceptional. Saturated colors, and expressive on the nose. The 2007 is clearly the youngest, with flamboyant fruit notes. The 2006 shows a little more restraint, and the oak is starting to show, giving off a little cedar with a slightly drier finish. One 2006-taster noticed “banana,” and I had to agree once she pointed it out. There was some slight vanilla-esque toasty new oak apparent in the wine that conjured up pina colada, and made me think of two of Eric’s other wines, the 2005 Lytton East and the 2005 Geyserville Zinfandels. While Eric wasn’t totally thrilled about hearing any of this, I found the vanilla-banana notes very pleasing. The 2005 was even more subdued than either the 2006 or 2007. I could easily discern the evolution of these wines. The 2005 showed much more cedar, evergreen, and depth, and was, for me, very typical of the vineyard and winery style.

Diamond Creek’s three vineyard-designate 2006 Cabernet Sauvignons: Gavely Meadow *** Red Rock Terrace *** and Volcanic Hill *** (all $145). These were all exceptional wines. Dusky purple in color, showing predominantly sweet red fruits, with awesome balance and acidity, and expressing complex aromatic notes like fancy French perfume, dried herbs, cocoa, raspberry leaf, and finishing with sweet, fine tannin. Awesome. The only problem here was the line to taste these wines.

Ramey’s 2006 Pedregal Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon *** ($125) might have been the best wine of the night. A purple and dark ruby color, with a sweet fresh bouquet and good zing. It’s simply drinking perfectly right now, without any noticeable edges, and, in a word: delicious. Also, the 2006 Larkmead Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ** was very good, but showed a little too much spice.

Peter Michael 2005 “Les Pavots” ** was a touch zesty, with fresh spice and dark berries, black cherries, and chocolate. It was the most Sonoma-esque of all Les Pavots I have ever tried. It may need a little time to cellar? The 2006 “Lex Pavots” *** was better, with less zing, but delicious and pure dark berry notes. While my taste buds were probably shot by this point, the 2006 Cuvee Indigene *** was fabulous – and an extraordinary way to end an evening drinking full bodied red wines.

Paul Hobbs 2006 Beckstoffer To-Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon ** ($195) was probably the most expensive wine of the night. Rich, elegant, and very fruity, the wine showed too much Napa spice for me to be truly wowed, but this will probably outlive many other wines, and once the pepper and spice fades, it may be truly extraordinary.

Other wines worth mentioning (listed alphabetically)
Andrew Will 2006 Sorella ($53); Axios 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon * (retail $100) and 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon * ($95); Barnett 2006 Spring Mtn. Cabernet Sauvignon * ($60) and 2006 Rattlesnake Cabernet Sauvignon * ($100); Blue Rock 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) and 2006 Syrah ($29) and 2006 Best Barrel ($75); Culler “La Palette” ($39); Delectus 2006 Cuvee Julia * ($125) and 2005 Cuvee Julia * ($125) and 2005 Merlot; Dunn 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon * ($55); Fisher 2006 Coach Insignia * ($60) and 2006 Wedding Vineyard * ($100); Girard 2006 Artistry * ($33) and 2006 Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon ** ($60); Kathryn Hall 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon * ($60); Jack Larkin 2006 Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon * ($70) and 2006 Merlot *.

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