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Notes from the Karen Culler Wines Tasting at Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant

The Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant in San Francisco’s Ferry Building consistently offers interesting and enjoyable wine tasting events. While there’s a natural, and laudable, emphasis on local wineries, plenty of the events are focused on imports as well. Either the winemaker or winery owner is present at each of the events to go from table to table greeting people and talking about the wines. You should definitely try to attend some of these tastings, if you haven’t done so already.

Last night’s tasting was focused on wines made by Karen Culler. Ms. Culler’s first winemaking experiences were as a child, destemming grapes for her father and grandfather who were home winemakers in Ohio. She went on to get a degree in Botany and Agronomy from Ohio State University and then, after spending a year working at Columbia Winery in Washington, headed to U.C. Davis where she earned a Master’s Degree in Viticulture and Enology. After getting her Master’s, she went to work at Robert Mondavi Winery for two years and then moved to Vichon Winery which was also owned by Mondavi. During her tenth year at Vichon, their line of Napa Valley wines was discontinued. So, in 1997, Karen Culler set off on her own, founding Culler Wines.

Today, Karen Culler makes just under 1,000 cases of wine for her own labels, Culler Wines and Casaeda, and serves as winemaker for several other Napa Valley labels including Ladera, Wolf Family, Renteria and Rivera. Yesterday’s tasting included five wines, though I managed to sneak a taste of a sixth. Ms. Culler was on hand to talk about the wines, wineries and vineyards, as were Jane and Doug Wolf of Wolf Family Vineyards and that company’s general manager, Melinda Kearney. All of the wines were very good. My tasting notes are below.


2006 Culler La Palette Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, $50
Almost opaque ruby, leaning to purple with a narrow pale rim and colorless legs, this wine has an inviting nose of black currant, brown spice and wood. The body is medium plus as are the slightly powdery tannins which kick in at mid palate. Excellent Cabernet Sauvignon flavors of black currant, black cherry, dark chocolate, cedar and spice carry through the generous finish along with the tannins and some warming alcohol. 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot, all from Alexander Ranch. Decant to drink now or hold through 2016. Highly Recommended.

2006 Culler Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Napa Valley, $65
Bright and nearly opaque ruby with a thin pale rim and colorless legs. The medium plus nose entices with aromas of dusty black currant, dark chocolate powder and herb. The palate is rich and almost creamy with talc-like tannins and bold flavors of black currant, briary blackberry, dark chocolate, dried leaves and mint. The tannins are prominent but well balanced by the fruit and acidity. The finish is long. A structured wine that will age well but is delicious now. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Ladera Vineyard. Aged 20 months in 50% new French oak. Just 65 cases were made. Drink now through 2020. Very Highly Recommended.

2007 Casaeda Syrah Sonoma, $20
This is another bright, nearly opaque ruby purple wine with a thin pale rim, but it’s legs are heavily pigmented. The nose announces “Syrah” with notes of black pepper, plum, prune, game and leather. The palate is chewy and structured yet smooth and brimming with black pepper, spicy blackberry, chocolate and espresso. There’s enough acidity to complement braised or seared meat but also a very long finish which you might like to savor on it’s own. 78% Sonoma Coast Syrah and 22% Howell Mountain Malbec. A remarkable deal at just $20. 234 cases were made. Drink now through 2015. Highly Recommended.

2007 Wolf Family Cabernet Sauvignon Phaedrus Napa Valley, $40
Bright ruby and fully opaque with a narrow pale rim and colorless legs. The nose is medium plus with focused black currant and currant leaf. The palate exhibits a deft balance of the medium plus tannins and alcohol with prominent, winning flavors of black currant, cocoa powder, black cherry and coffee. A blend of Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. 524 cases produced. Drink now through 2015. Highly Recommended.

2006 Wolf Family Cabernet Franc Napa Valley, $60
Bright, opaque ruby with a thin pale rim and colorless legs. Alluring black currant on the nose with more cassis and dark cherry with coffee on the palate. Beautifully textured with lightly chewy tannins, mouthwatering acidity and a long finish. 95% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon from the estate vineyard that lies in St. Helena between Dean & DeLuca and the hills. 122 cases made. Drink now through 2020. Very Highly Recommended.

2009 Culler Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley, $NA
Clear and bright, light lemon in color, this is not one of those Sauvignon Blancs that is trying to offer Chardonnay body, but neither is it in your face with tart, aggressive fruit. It is medium minus in body and does lean toward high acidity but remains soft and pretty on the palate. Gentle aromas and flavors of stone fruit with a light touch of vanilla. Drink now through 2011. Recommended.

Disclosures: I paid for my tasting samples, except for the Sauvignon Blanc which was poured for me by the distributor who had opened it for some trade folks with whom I shared my table. These wines were not tasted blind.

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